7 min read

Does Trump Want to Be Another... Hitler?

Does Trump Want to Be Another... Hitler?

With the White House putting it on full blast, comparisons of Trump to Hitler are suddenly everywhere. You can scarcely scan the headlines or open social media without being met by a firestorm, set alight, of course, by Trump’s recent scorching rhetoric, which, as the White House says, “echoes”…the Nazis. So: is Trump…something akin to…another Hitler?

In a way, it’s the wrong question. Trump is Trump. And yet there’s little doubt that what his project consists of is at this point not just the nascent nationalist fascism of the first Trump era, but a full-blow variant, a more mature agenda, fascism proper, and in words like “vermin” and “invasion” and “blood,” the clarion call could hardly be clearer. Why, after all, would you proclaim things from a pulpit like “they’re poisoning the blood of our country” if you didn’t want to be something like another Hitler?

When we ask questions like this, what we really want to know, I think is: how bad would, could, it be? What exactly does another Trump era hold? And the answer to that question is bleak. I still don’t think it’s fully grasped enough.

We already know what Trump would do. Here’s a small smattering. Deploying hundreds of thousands of military personnel to ostensibly “guard” the border, but of course there’s hardly a war on, and so it hardly takes a bright spark to understand what this is really about. After that, we might well expect a persistent military presence in cities and towns, under the numerous dubious rationales that autocrats cook up. Added to that, the concentration camps will be back, not that they fully left, but they’d be widely expanded, far beyond the scope of before. In all this, the endgame’s what it always is. Where does democratic collapse fully end? Martial law, of course, the iron hand of violence controlling a society.

This is an abuse of power, an abuse of the military, by the way, and I started with it because I wanted you to see the endgame first. Yes, there’ll be hurdles and hiccups along the way—a military’s a hard thing for an autocrat to bend to their will, at least a professional one, with a sense of purpose and values like America’s—and yet that’s where the next part of the agenda comes into force.

What would happen to the government itself in another Trump era? Everyone should know by now about “Project 2025,” the 1000 page plan to reshape governance. Here’s a small smattering of what we might expect. The Department of Justice, turned into a political weapon, and used with impunity, against any imagined or purported threats to the regime. Trump’s hardly made a secret of that, calling for his opponents to be prosecuted, hungry for retribution. And yet the agenda goes much, much deeper than that. The Department of Education, for example, would probably expand a Florida-like agenda nationally. What little teeth environmental protection has would be turned in on themselves. Meanwhile, basic functions of governance, from the rule of law, to law enforcement, to the administration of everyday life, would basically fall under the purview of petty authoritarians. Every government employee is to have a loyalty test, and a full-scale purge is to happen.

How bad is that? It’s hard to do justice to it, just by explaining the details, so let me try to zoom out, and show you the big picture.

There are moments in the history of societies where they make little mistakes, and then ones where they make Big Mistakes. What’s the difference? Big Mistakes are irreversible. Often permanent. They alter the course of futurity, forever. It’s in this respect that the “is Trump Hitler” question deserve to be thought about. Before Hitler, of course, the paramount example of democratic collapse was Caesar in Rome. The moment the Rubicon was crossed, to the adulation of Romans, the empire began to fall. Big Mistakes.

What America faces is a mistake of that magnitude. A history-altering one. A second Trump era? The devil isn’t in the details. It’s that the transformations would largely be irreversible.
What do I mean by that? Imagine, for example, that the purge of government goes ahead, and every bureaucrat and functionary is replaced with a Trumpist. No—don’t say “it can’t happen.” First let me tell you the way it works. If there aren’t enough loyalists, then government departments and agencies are just left dysfunctional, empty, and threadbare—all the better, to create chaos, anyways. That’s an old, old tactic in the autocrat’s playbook. Eventually, as a society relents, breaks in the spirit, new loyalists emerge, and a government emerges again, a functional one, but in a different sense: an autocratic one.

And then there’s often no going back.

Think of how many societies have made the transition from autocracy to democracy. Not many. Usually, what happens is that instability sets in, even if there’s a renewed hunger for democracy. Attempts to re-enshrine democracy happen, and perhaps they seem to succeed for a time, but ultimately, mysteriously, they never seem to last, work, endure. They’re flimsy as twigs, as fragile as winters. Why is that?

Because such nations have had their institutional capacity broken. That complicated turn of phrase means…a lot of things. It means that the good people have left, and left for good, having been intimidated, harassed, or ruined. It means that values and visions have been destroyed. Roles and power structures have been corroded. A sense of purpose has been eroded. The breaking of institutional capacity is a terrible problem for societies to face, because while it’s easy to break institutions—you can do it in a decade—it takes centuries to build them.

This is why especially after losing democracy, nations are slow to rebuild, if they have it at all. The capacity for it is gone. Society needs a certain set of resources, after all, for democracy to “take” in the soil of civics. It needs talent, values, beliefs, coherence, togetherness. Democracy isn’t something, we’ve learned the hard way, you can just “build” like a bridge, through sheer might of engineering—and we know that after many, many failed attempts around the world to “install” democracies in countries that were missing the capacities for it to begin with.

The danger of another Trump lies there. Americans are told that they’ll “lose their democracy,” but even that’s a poor way to put it. They’ll lose their capacity for democracy, and that’s an irreversible change.

Let me put that to you a little more bluntly. After Trump purges the government, let’s imagine, that by some minor miracle, alright, sure, that the next President, or the one after that, isn’t an autocrat. But now they inherit an entire apparatus of governance that’s made for authoritarianism, and made of petty authoritarians, crackpots, lunatics, fanatics, extremists. What do you do with that? You can’t just purge it again. Because of course bad faith is excellent at hiding in the nooks and crannies of institutional shadows. And even if you do…who’d want to work for it, calculating that maybe they’d end up intimidated, hectored, assaulted, ruined, the day autocracy returned?

This is one key reason that the line from autocracy to democracy is so difficult to cross, and democracy isn’t something you can just “install” like an app.

Or take the example of the military. Having broken and bent it to their will, autocrats gain a long-term strategic resource. If and when there’s a movement back towards democracy, it’s often now the captured military which stands in its way, and stops it in its tracks—another key reason democracy’s line is so hard to cross. This is precisely what happened in the Arab world, and in Russia, for example.

Do you see my point a little bit? The transformations that another Trump era would wreak would do permanent damage. And that’s the goal, after all, of autocrats—like other revolutionaries, they don’t want to incrementally change systems, but to alter them for good. And so we call what they do, often “capture.” They “capture” militaries, or governments, or key offices—meaning that even if there’s another “election,” the mere superficiality of democracy, the “captured” institutions remain theirs, and constantly thwart a society’s wishes. Thus, a pattern of instability sets in—and democracy won’t “take” in the soil that autocracy’s poisoned.

That’s the danger now. And it’s a far greater danger than America yet understands. The White House is at the stage of finally admitting that a fascist movement confronts it, and that’s progress, I suppose—even if it’s years late, at this point. But the deeper points above have yet to really be explained to Americans, these subtleties of how nations can make Big Mistakes, irreversible ones, that harm them forever.

As things stand, Trump will be elected. He won’t even have to stage another coup. America’s hungry for a Caesar—that much is self-evident: a conquering hero, returning home, to set right the fabric of the broken moral universe, and restore hope, glory, and fortune to people who’ve fallen into despair and deprivation, as paralyzed elites shrug, recline, and are fed grapes. But does America want a Hitler? You see, we stand at a remarkable, tragic, and stunning moment in history. Trump’s comparisons to Hitler aren’t overdone, at least not when it comes to attitudes, sentiments, rhetoric, and the idea that democracy itself, its values of equality, justice, truth, and freedom, are the very ills which sapped away the future of the pure and true.

Americans, beaten, dispirited, neglected, abandoned, are falling into the arms of demagogues, like so many nations before them. And what such nations usually learn is this, as bitter regret dawns, and horror strikes. The demagogues bring all of hell’s nightmares with them. They are far, far worse than ever could have been imagined, at the moment the very heart which longed for them ignored history whispering: this the road to nightmares. Turn back, traveller, for the sake of your soul.

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