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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

Déjà Vu All Over Again?

Updated: Nov 20, 2022



I started writing the reflections that I post here as a follow-up to my book, which chronicles, in part, my attempt to understand the political and social circumstances at play in Germany during the Nazi era, and how so many Germans, including members of my family, became entranced with the demagogue Adolf Hitler. In past posts, I’ve commented on some of the parallels between the rise of Hitler and the unlikely emergence of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the sense of disaffection among a sizeable segment of the population that both leaders exploited on their respective paths to power.


Ever since the surreal “insurrection” of January 6, I’ve spent hours writing, trying to bring some semblance of coherence to the muddle of thoughts and reactions swirling around in my mind in response to the theater of the absurd that has been playing out in the United States since Donald Trump entered the political scene, and, especially, since the election of November 2020. I’ve finally given up on my efforts to parse the multi-faceted dysfunction that seems to pervade American culture except to say it is deeply ingrained and won’t be healed any time soon. Instead, I thought I’d just share some observations around the whole drama, particularly some of the eerie similarities between the Trump ascendancy and Nazi Germany.


What Came Before: Right-wing populism in Germany arose in the late 1920s and early 1930s as more and more Germans became dissatisfied with the Weimar liberal democracy, considered to be one of the most progressive in the world at the time. Correspondingly, the growth of nativist and populist sentiment in the United States followed the relatively progressive Obama era. The factors leading to these rightward swings were not identical, but there were definite similarities. Economic woes certainly contributed, and 1930s Germans and 2000s Americans alike suffered a diminishment of national pride. Hitler and Trump both campaigned on similar themes: making their country great again, economic prosperity and evicting the liberal elites from power. Painting their opponents on the left as dangerous communists was also a tactic employed by both campaigns.


The Militias: The American white supremacist hate groups—Proud Boys, Boogaloo Boys and others—bear close resemblance to the Nazis’ brown-shirted SA stormtroopers, Hitler’s paramilitary street army. On the left, the Antifa movement might be compared to the German Communist Party’s civilian army, the Red Front Brigade. Street clashes between the German groups took place on a regular basis, and the SA also carried out ongoing assaults and harassment of Jews, culminating in the 1938 Kristallnacht—“night of broken glass”— where synagogues throughout Germany were vandalized and destroyed. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently compared the January 6th storming of the US capitol building to the Nazis’ Kristallnacht rampage.


The Big Lie: In his personal manifesto, Mein Kampf, Hitler presented his theory of the big lie: “In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility,” he wrote, “because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie […] It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”


I get the creepy feeling that Donald Trump could well have used these words of Adolf Hitler as the inspiration for his desperate attempt to overturn the legitimate election results of November 2020. His audacious, colossal lie that there had been massive voter fraud was believed, and is still believed, by significant numbers of supporters in, dare I say, “the primitive simplicity of their minds.”


The Nazis went on to construct and promote their own big lies, of course, mainly around the idea of racial superiority and an international Jewish conspiracy responsible for most of Germany’s ills.


Attacking the Media: In another strategy that might have come straight from the Nazi playbook, Trump and his enablers set out to discredit media outlets that criticized him or called him on his lies. Negative media reports were labeled “fake news,” and mainstream outlets were attacked as “the enemy of the people.” The Nazis used the identical tactic on their route to power, calling their critics in the media the Lügenpresse, or lying press. Of course, once they’d amended the German constitution to give themselves absolute power, the Nazis took control of all German media.


The Cult of Personality: Right from the beginning, Donald Trump’s similarities to Adolf Hitler jumped out at me. The self-important, bombastic style, the inexplicable charisma that seemed to entrance his supporters, the role of champion of the downtrodden that, like Hitler, he played to the hilt—watching Trump on the news often gave me a strange sense of déjà vu.


Another similarity: in both cases, a cult coalesced around the oversized personalities of the two individuals. The fervour and adulation of adherents at a Trump rally is reminiscent of a 1930s Nuremberg Nazi Party convention, with believers whipped into a frenzy by the words of their god-like leader. Cultists are guided by faith and belief, rather than fact or reason; the cult leader’s directives or pronouncements are never questioned or challenged. Jim Jones told his followers to drink the Kool-Aid, and they drank. Donald Trump told his followers he won the election by a landslide, and that became their truth—a “truth” that triggered their outrage, drew them to the protest in Washington and gave them justification to “take back” the Capitol in an ill-conceived and hapless “uprising.”


Intimidation: There have been multiple stories of US lawmakers facing intimidation and death threats from extremists in the pro-Trump camp: the still-significant believers in the big lie of a rigged election. During the January 6th storming of the capitol building, rioters were chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” and other members feared for their lives. Just recently, I read a report of members of congress wanting extra security in their home states because they felt themselves to be potential targets for extremists.


Again, the tactic of intimidating their enemies was a key element in the Nazis’ achievement of power in 1933 and may well have contributed to the passage of the “Enabling Act,” the constitutional amendment that handed the Nazis a de facto dictatorship.


Magical Thinking: The wild and weird “QAnon” conspiracy theory had hundreds of thousands of followers believing that Donald Trump was secretly planning a day of reckoning, on which he would expose a sinister underground cabal of satanic pedophiles in the Democratic Party. When the moment came, Trump would declare martial law, the military would rise up and imprison Democrat leaders en masse, with Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden being sent to Guantanamo Bay. This Armageddon-like event was dubbed “The Storm,” and was to happen on January 20—the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration. What is even more unbelievable than this daft prophesy is the fact that, according to a recent NPR/Ipsos poll, 17% of Americans believe that a group of Satan-worshipping, child-enslaving elites is trying to control the world. That works out to around 50 million adults. Wow.


In the last days of the Second World War in Europe, months after German military leaders knew there was no hope of winning, many Germans (including my grandmother, apparently) clung to a similar illusory theory that was floating around via the rumour mill: Hitler had a secret weapon that he was holding in reserve until the last minute, when he would unleash it and turn the tide of the war. Nonsense in both cases, of course, but a demonstration of how easily irrationality can take hold.


*****


What’s encouraging is that for now, at least, the US constitution has withstood the attempt by Trump and his followers to invalidate the outcome of the election. Dozens of court challenges, outright harassment of election officials and an actual violent attack on the American seat of democracy all failed in the end. So, while there were many parallels with Nazi Germany, the outcome was different: the courts, the police and the military took their guidance from the constitution and upheld the laws of the land.

If anything positive can be gleaned from Trump’s presidency, it might be this: he allowed the acrimony, the despair, the racism and xenophobia that have been festering under the surface of America’s skin for some time to erupt, like boils, for all to see. Under his watch, the Proud Boys and other white supremacists openly flaunted their bigotry; the Confederate flag was defiantly waved at counter protests to BLM rallies, and was even carried into the Capitol during the January 6th rampage; social media was, and still is, rife with racist venom. The white nationalist groups weren’t created by Trump, they’ve been there all along. However, the president’s tacit approval galvanized them and gave them leave to crawl out of their dark-web hidey-holes and spew their hate in the light of day.


What brings me to the point of despair is just the massive scale of dysfunction—personal, political and familial—eating away at the social fabric of the United States in the 21st century. The fact that, in 2020, after four years of living with a crude, dishonest, bigoted narcissist as their president, 74 million Americans cast their vote for him once again, speaks of a deep pathology: an epidemic of fear, anger, pain and trauma for which there is no vaccine on the horizon.


In his inaugural address, Joe Biden acknowledged the “rise in political extremism, white supremacy, (and) domestic terrorism” as enemies to “confront and defeat.” Much of his rhetoric was couched in the language of war—exhorting his constituents to “fight the common foes” of anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. “The battle is eternal,” he declared, “victory is never assured.” Somehow, it reminded me of Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs.” I suspect a “war” on racism, anger, and hatred will meet with about as much success as the war on drugs did.


Of course, racists and extremists must be prevented from harming others. Of course, all the other initiatives—sensitivity training, anti-racism programs in schools—are valuable, but the rage that has gripped such a large segment of American society will not subside without a paradigm shift in culture. If only enough Americans could overcome their irrational fear of “socialism,” entrenched after decades of capitalist indoctrination, there might come a time when a government with a true commitment to economic, environmental, racial and social justice would find the support of a majority in America. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear the Biden/Harris administration, while certainly moving in the right direction, will do little to stem the tsunami of anger and frustration that carried Donald Trump into power.


On the positive side, unlike Germany in 1933, the United States survived a challenge to its democracy. The ugliness unleashed during the Trump presidency motivated progressive voters to turn out in record numbers, and the Democrats now hold a majority in both houses of Congress, at least for the next two years. Biden’s intention to strengthen the democratic process by addressing voter suppression, gerrymandering and other issues, if carried out, might actually work in favour of the Democrats in future elections, as they seem to consistently outpoll Republicans in the nation as a whole. Just maybe, a sustained Democrat majority in Congress, especially given considerable pressure from the left wing of the party, will be able to establish a modicum of social and electoral reform and at least begin to turn the tide toward a truly just and equitable civil society in the United States.


And just a footnote: In his song Democracy, Leonard Cohen characterizes the United States as “the cradle of the best and the worst.” What I’ve written here is obviously focused more on the darker aspects of present-day American society. The USA also has an incredibly rich and vibrant culture of progressive thought, music, art, compassionate social and environmental activism, inventiveness and community-building. We Canadians can sometimes feel a bit smug about our progressive policies and institutions, but we too have our issues with racism and bigotry. Just a few days ago we remembered the mass shooting of January 29, 2017 at a Quebec mosque that left six people dead. The drift toward populism and nativism is happening everywhere and the overt and violent expression of this trend that we witnessed during Donald Trump’s tenure as president should serve as a warning to us all.


Turning back to Leonard Cohen, I truly hope that we—Americans, Canadians, humans—will ultimately manage to “Sail on… to the shores of need, past the reefs of greed, through the squalls of hate.”

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2 commentaires


saminwinlaw
01 févr. 2021

Once again, thanks Karl for your blog ruminations and also yours in your comment Klaus, by expanding the analysis to explain/remind us how people can be led to act against/vote against their own class interests.

Or against their own health interests - there was an anti-mask demo in Winlaw on Saturday, January 30 and although I did not see it, I arrived at the Mini-Mart moments after it disbanded. Somebody had called the RCMP on them but apparently they had posted lookouts on the Highway and they scattered.


J'aime

Klaus Offermann
Klaus Offermann
01 févr. 2021

Karl, I agree with much of your blog and agree that the American white supremacist hate groups are a part of the explanation. However, “The fact that, in 2020, after four years of living with a crude, dishonest, bigoted narcissist as their president, 74 million Americans cast their vote for him once again” can not be explained just by an irrational hate.


As I outline in my “memory” Facebook post below my post of your blog: Four years ago I thought that much of the working class electorate was so disgusted with their treatment by both Democrats and Republicans, they decided to strike back at those elites by what ever electoral means at hand. They defeated the establishment of…


J'aime
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