The Republican Party has a problem—no one doubts that. “Trump isn’t the cause of the problem,” said John Kass in the Sunday Tribune. “He’s merely a symptom.” Some of us might think Kass was selling Donald Trump short. Germany had all sorts of problems after World War I that Hitler wasn’t the cause of. But history doesn’t remember Hitler as a symptom. As Donald Trump hopes to, he came to power as the solution.
Hitler also came to power with a manifesto, a political party, uniformed shock troops, and an overpowering sense of grievance and destiny. He was catnip to every German lout who just wanted to hit somebody hard. Trump lacks the paraphernalia and obsessiveness, but he talks the talk. “Is this what Germany looked like in 1933?” wondered MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough the other day, watching Trump’s tide continue to rise. He’s not the only one asking.
I once watched louts triumph on a much smaller stage than Germany or America. Uruguayans liked to call their little country the “Switzerland of South America,” but hard times and a guerrilla movement prompted a left-wing candidate to run for president in 1971 on a platform of more socialism while various opponents demanded less. I happened to be there for the election. A right-wing rancher named Juan Bordaberry wound up on top, and young thugs who sensed their hour had come raced their cars through the streets of Montevideo, horns honking, fists waving, faces that jutted from open windows screaming about the ass they intended to kick.
“Consider that Trump is displaying these flashes of bullying authoritarianism while he is still courting us,” wrote the neoconservative historian Robert Kagan, in a Washington Post essay reprinted Monday in the Tribune. “Imagine when he no longer needs to court anyone, when he has amassed a large enough popular following to win the White House.” Kagan pleaded with Republicans, especially the party leaders, to make it clear right now they won’t vote for Trump for president “under any circumstances.”
If too many Republicans do, what will America wind up with? Not a Hitler, certainly. But maybe a lower-caliber tough guy like Putin, whom Trump has spoken well of, or Mussolini, whom he’s quoted. Or maybe he’ll simply turn out to be as incompetent as Bordaberry. Knowing nothing about governing, Bordaberry ceded Uruguay to the army, and it couldn’t call itself a democracy again until the mid-1980s.
With Scarborough’s question in mind, I opened William Shirer’s Berlin Diary to see what Shirer had to say about Germany in the 30s. Shirer arrived in Berlin as a correspondent in early 1934 and remained through 1940. I’m not going to belabor parallels. But Shirer’s account raised questions in my mind, and I’ll share them.
For instance, covering the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg, Shirer reflected that Hitler “is restoring pageantry and colour and mysticism to the drab lives of twentieth-century Germans.” Is there a sizable American voting bloc discontented with its blighted lives? I think we know the answer to that one. Hitler made his appearance to the strains of the Badenweiler March, and once all the Nazi dignitaries took their positions onstage, “an immense symphony orchestra played Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.”
Music is a key trapping of megalomania. Like no Republican ahead of him, Trump knows what to do with rock ‘n’ roll.
Here’s Shirer musing: “The goose-step has always seemed to me to be an outlandish exhibition of the human being in his most undignified and stupid state, but I felt for the first time this morning what an inner chord it strikes in the strange soul of the German people.” When I watch Trump and his supporting cast—Cruz, Rubio—scream at each other about penis sizes, the spectacle seems just as outlandish and stupid. But what am I missing? Penis size strikes an inner chord in some of us. Will Trump win votes nobody thinks he can possibly win if he swells up and boasts of his cojones?
In 1940, World War II begun, Shirer prepares to take his leave of Berlin. He muses about Hitler. “The men around him are all loyal, all afraid, and none of them are his friends. He has no friends . . . ” Does Trump? Does Trump even have loyalists? He’s winging it by his lonesome with next to no organization, which is one reason some people in and out of the Republican Party think that if he’s elected they can co-opt him, or at least sidle into positions of serious influence.
So Trump is no Hitler. However . . .
“The fat, bemedalled Reichsmarschall enjoys a popularity among the masses second only to Hitler’s—but for opposite reasons. Where Hitler is distant, legendary, nebulous, an enigma as a human being, Göring is a salty, earthy, lusty man of flesh and blood. The Germans like him because they understand him. He has the faults and virtues of the average man, and the people admire him for both. . . . They display no envy, no resentment of the fantastic, medieval—and very expensive—personal life he leads. It is the sort of life they would lead themselves, perhaps, if they had a chance.”
Göring was Hitler’s number two. Is Trump himself a number two? He’s perfect number two material—loud, charismatic, and too full of himself to comprehend it if he’s someone else’s front man. “No one is more shocked at how far, how fast, Trump has come than Trump,” Maureen Dowd wrote in Sunday’s New York Times. Is Trump astonished at how far he’s come because all this began when someone else took his measure and started pushing his buttons?
If this were a movie the twist at the end would reveal that behind Trump is someone unimaginably rich, powerful, and reclusive. When Trump’s served his purpose he’ll disappear.
Just like everyone now hopes.