Some say I’m obsessed with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.
I first read about the horrors of the Holocaust as a teenager, and was bewildered. The German people gave us great composers, poets, philosophers and scientists. Yet, in the 20th century, this enlightened nation wholeheartedly turned against the very civilization it helped create.
How could it happen?
I couldn’t find an answer and continued reading, forcing myself to finish “Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account” by Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian doctor who was made to perform horrible experiments on inmates by Josef Mengele. Even my strong stomach became nauseous.
But it still didn’t tell me how a civilized, cultivated people could embrace such evil.
As I grew older and read more, and although I learned just how evil the Nazi regime really was, still I found no answer. Finally, I concluded it was all an aberration. “The German people went crazy,” I said to myself, and to anyone who would listen.
Now in the middle of my eighth decade, I am beginning to understand. I have watched what is happening to my country, and the parallels are dismaying.
True, under Trump’s leadership, we didn’t build concentration camps or commit mass murder. And the vast majority of Americans who voted for him certainly are not Nazis. Some voted for Trump because they are against abortion. Others for his promises to bring back jobs or install conservative judges.
But white supremacist, anti-democratic extremists also saw him as their champion. And following his lead, they stormed the Capitol to overturn the presidential election, creating our greatest domestic existential threat since the Civil War.
Clearly Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler (although I often refer to him as a “mini-Hitler”), but the parallels are hard to ignore. Like Hitler, Trump espoused a racist, jingoistic nationalism appealing to the basest aspects of human nature: fear, anger, hatred, jealousy and violence against the “other.”
Need a scapegoat? Just substitute Muslims or Mexicans for Jews.
Are you a failure? Blame others. Listen only to me. Don’t believe the press. It’s “the enemy of the people.” It’s “fake news.”
For the Nazis, it was the “lying press” — lügenpresse — and, of course, “the Jews are our misfortune” behind every evil that has befallen Germany.
In the same way Hitler painted Jews as both communist revolutionaries and greedy capitalist bankers seeking to dominate the world economy, Trump has us believe immigrants are simultaneously dangerous criminals and cheap labor, seeking to take away our jobs. Trump said our government is a “swamp,” and he “alone can fix it.”
He alone would “make America great again.”
Similarly, Hitler told the Germans their government, the Weimar Republic, “stabbed the people in the back” by signing the “shameful” Versailles peace treaty that ended World War I. If they made him their leader, he would tear it up and renew German pride.
Notably, that other fascist demagogue, Mussolini, promised the Italians he would “restore the Holy Roman Empire.”
Hitler never could have come to power without enablers, politicians who ignored their oath to defend the government because they had no true allegiance to the democratic principles upon which it was founded. Generals who despised the Versailles treaty and wanted to restore Germany’s military might. Industry leaders who feared a communist takeover.
They preferred the fascist, Hitler, whom they believed was a clown they could readily control. But once he gained power, anyone opposing him was shipped off to Dachau, the newly installed concentration camp.
Trump has his enablers, too — A feckless Republican Senate that wouldn’t stop him from assaulting American norms and rules of government. Consider his shameless efforts to solicit foreign actors to interfere in our election. His fomenting of violence against political adversaries. His mendacity and nepotism on a par never before seen in the White House.
These cowardly Republicans ignored their oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Even now, they are mostly silent on his lie that he won the presidential election, and his instigation of the insurrection against the Capitol. They, too, believed they could manipulate Trump to their own ends.
How has that turned out for the Republican Party?
But thankfully the parallels only go so far. We stepped back from the brink. Biden won. Trump lost. The press fought back, as did the courts. Reporters documented his unceasing lies. Federal judges and a few brave Republican state officials refused to accede to his election steal. Corporate leaders suspended donations to Republicans who voted against certifying Biden’s election.
Perhaps most importantly, patriotic army generals made it clear they would not support an American-style coup.
So we are safe — for the moment. But I am reminded daily that despite four years of lying to us and using the demagogue’s playbook to turn us against each other, 74 million Americans voted for Trump. And many still believe Biden is an illegitimate president.
When I rant about it to my pals on Zoom, they quickly look away and stare at their phones. But for me, it is a shocking revelation that, even in the greatest democracy the world has ever seen — in a country with 232 years of constitutional government — people’s heads are turned so easily.
How do we change that?
That is my obsession.