News & Politics

The Uncanny, Frightening Ways That Trump's America Mirrors Hitler's Germany

Even the usually restrained Barack Obama warns Americans we're slipping dangerously close to authoritarianism.

Photo Credit: Evan El-Amin / Shutterstock

President Obama has come right out and said it: "You have to tend to this garden of democracy, otherwise things can fall apart fairly quickly. And we've seen societies where that happens.”

Yes, he invoked Nazi Germany, adding, “Now, presumably, there was a ballroom in Vienna in the late 1920s or ’30s that looked and seemed as if it ― filled with the music and art and literature and the science that was emerging ― would continue into perpetuity. And then 60 million people died. And the entire world was plunged into chaos.”

It was a shocking reminder of Milton Mayer and his seminal work, They Thought They Were Free, first published back in 1955 by the University of Chicago Press.  

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Shortly after World War II, Mayer, an American journalist and college instructor, went to Germany and befriended a small group of 10 “ordinary Germans” who had lived and worked through the war, and interviewed them in depth.  

Mayer’s burning question was, “How does something like Nazi Germany happen?”  

What he learned was every bit as shocking as President Obama drawing the same parallels. He wrote, presciently, “Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany - not by attack from without or by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler. It was what most Germans wanted - or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.

“I came home a little bit afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under combined pressure of reality and illusion. I felt – and feel – that it was not German Man that I met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I.

“If I - and my countrymen - ever succumbed to that concatenation of conditions, no Constitution, no laws, no police, and certainly no army would be able to protect us from harm.”

Mayer tells the story largely through the words of the Germans he got to know during his year in Germany after the war.  One, a college professor, told him:

“What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security....

“This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter. ...

“To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it – please try to believe me – unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop.

“Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”

In this conversation, Mayer’s friend suggests that he wasn’t making an excuse for not resisting the rise of the fascists, but simply pointing out an undisputable reality.

This, he suggests, is how fascism will always take over a nation.  And it seems that even President Obama is now realizing the gravity of the moment that Trump, Pence, and their enablers have brought us to.

Another one of Mayer’s Nazi friends told him:

“Pastor Niemoller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing: and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something – but then it was too late.” …

“You see, one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next.

“You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not? – Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.

“Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows.

“Outside, in the streets, in the general community, everyone is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You know, in France or Italy there will be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this.

“In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, ‘It's not so bad’ or ‘You’re seeing things’ or ‘You’re an alarmist.’

“And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end?

“On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. ...

"But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes.

“That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and the smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked – if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ‘43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ‘33.

“But of course this isn't the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.

“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jew swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.

“The world you live in – your nation, your people – is not the world you were in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays.

“But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed.

“Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God.”

Mayer's friend pointed out that this was the terrible challenge faced then by average Germans, and today is faced by people across the world, as formerly democratic governments from Turkey to the Philippines are taken over by authoritarian, corporatist – fascist – regimes.

And here, too, in the United States, this grand alliance of bigots, billionaires, and authoritarians have seized control of much of our media and virtually total control of the Republican Party.  

As Trump uses Goebbel’s Big Lie techniques to draw in frightened and Fox-brainwashed white people (while vilifying Democrats, liberals, gays, women, Hispanics, Blacks, Native Americans, and pretty much anybody else who’s not a right-wing white Christian male) thoughtful people are asking if we’re really on this road to fascism or not.

A few years ago on my radio show, President Jimmy Carter came right out and said that we’re no longer a functioning democracy but, because of Citizens United, instead we’re “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery.”

“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men?” Mayer's friend asked, perhaps rhetorically.

And, without the benefit of a previous and recent and well-remembered fascistic regime to refer to, Mayer’s German friend had to candidly answer his own question with: “Frankly, I do not know.”

This was the great problem that Mayer's Nazis and so many others in their day faced.

As another of Mayer's Nazi friends noted:

“I do not see, even now [how we could have stopped it]. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice – ‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly, and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men?”

And here we are.  

Nazi leaders and propagandists of the 1930s used the phrase Lügenpresse (“lying press”) at every opportunity to describe the media of their day; today Trump and his supporters are both undermining our faith in our press, and preparing us for a crackdown on press outlets like this one.  

And once net neutrality is done away with, they merely have to work with their friends in the multibillion-dollar ISP corporations who, like with the 2006 AT&T scandal and others, are more than happy to help “intelligence” agencies and the administration out.

The phrase “Fake news” is simply the Trump version of Lügenpresse, and the goal and trajectory are the same.  

Even Mike Godwin, the inventor of Godwin’s Law (basically, that “whoever first mentions Hitler automatically loses the argument”), is now writing in the Washington Post that, “If you’re thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history, go ahead and refer to Hitler or Nazis when you talk about Trump.”

Fritz Thyssen was a very wealthy and politically active German industrialist in the 1930s—arguably the Murdoch/Koch/Adelson/Mercer/etc. of his day in Germany— helped fund the rise of Hitler because he thought it would be good for his business and that Hitler would cut his taxes.  

When I read his book I Paid Hitler, part apologia and part rationalization, I couldn’t help but wonder how the heirs of today’s GOP/Trump-financing billionaires will look back on this era. That’s assuming, of course, that any sort of real history of the events of this time survives Trump and Pence’s dual assault on our news organizations and net neutrality.  

As Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels famously said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

Big lies are in full form now in America, from seemingly trivial things like crowd sizes to country- and world-changing lies about taxes and Iran.  

At the same time, we’re facing the classic fascist technique of discrediting the press and suppressing voices of dissent with draconian threats of jail time or surveillance for simply participating in protests or even visiting a protest website.  

This reckoning was brought on us by a small group of authoritarian/libertarian billionaires and their minions, with the help of a compliant Supreme Court that has declared, without the authority of the Constitution, that corporations are persons and that money used to buy politicians and legislation is First Amendment-protected “free speech.”

Given that the only force that can defeat organized money is organized people, whether our republic will withstand this assault is now in our hands.  

Democracy is not a spectator sport; we must get involved before “the corn is over our heads.”  

Tag, you’re it.

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Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and author of more than 25 books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.