In Becoming Hitler, Thomas Weber gives a dense analysis of Hitler the years from the end of the First World War to the mid-1920’s. Hitler was a sycophantic message runner, during World War I, whose superiors saw no leadership potential in. After the war he discovered a talent for public speaking. He would speak for as long as three hours without notes. He spoke for a long time because he didn’t want his speaking engagements to include listening to those who came to hear him, but that doesn’t mean the crowds were unimportant to him. He fed off the crowds’ applause and cheers. His ideas got more extreme as he gave speeches because he craved the reactions his more extreme ideas produced in his audience. His crowds were radicalizing him at the same time as he was radicalizing them.
Hitler was also an avid reader but he only read nonfiction, but he didn’t read books straight through. “His reading was driven by a confirmation bias. He popped in and out of books to look for ideas that confirmed his beliefs, while ignoring or undervaluing the relevance of contradictory ideas.” (pg. 249) This is how he tainted the names of philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, by cherry picking lines from their work. He was building a reputation as an entertaining speaker in Munich and then began travelling to spread his message throughout Germany. All this was before the “Ludendorff putsch,” an attempted government take over by Hitler’s party that would lead to Hitler’s arrest. During his trial he would inflate his role and the failed coup would be renamed the “Hitler putsch.” While imprisoned he wrote Mein Kampf. He had positioned himself as the leader of the country’s most popular right-wing party, but it would require further economic hardship brought on by the crash of 1929 and the following Great Depression to catapult him into power.
“Hitler’s sectarian style of politics, according to which every genuine compromise was a rotten one, was not just an expression of his radical political views. It was also a reflection of his personality, for any compromise that is not merely tactical in nature must be based in accepting the opposing party as an equal, which Hitler was incapable of doing. Thus, in the political arena, he would only be able to function as the leader of a sectarian group standing outside the constitutional political process or as a dictator within a formal framework.”
This paragraph from page 205 resonates so well with Trump it practically hums. Comparing Trump to Hitler is dumb because Hitler led his country to starting World War II and committing a genocide of European Jews. His demagoguery was extreme to the degree we use it today as the definition of extremist demagoguery. Not comparing Trump to Hitler’s beginnings as a demagogue in early 1920’s Germany is also dumb because it’s an instructive warning.
Trump surfs the Internet and watches the news exactly the way Hitler used to read. He talks AT crowds at his rallies, because he has no interest in what they might have to say, he doesn’t value them enough to care, but he treasures their cheers and applause and chanting. They radicalize him as he radicalizes them.
“Demagogue” is a loaded word, but though this book was released in 2017, Thomas Weber doesn’t use it vaguely or directed at any specific person. Trump came to mind, for me, but the book also drew my interest because of Trump. Unlike many of the books being released recently about Trump, this book was probably finished well before the 2016 campaign. Trump is never mentioned. The author makes the point that demagogues come in all different forms. My opinion of Trump is that he’s different from Hitler in all kinds of ways. Trump’s knowledge of Hitler is probably comparable to the average high schooler, so he’s not following Hitler’s blueprint, by any means. Trump is following the path of demagoguery by instinct. Trump is like a lot of Americans who have ingested gobs of right-wing talk radio and Fox news, and he’s been clumsily regurgitating it as a politician. It spoke to the people who’ve also ingested the same rhetoric for the last two or three or four decades. (The rest of his voters just irrationally hated Hillary Clinton, not unfoundedly hated her, but still irrationally compared to the alternative now our president.)
Hitler was driven by insecurity but also highly motivated to acquire land and resources and probably driven by misanthropy. Trump, believe it or not, is a people pleaser. He made vague promises to restore America’s greatness that appealed to a select group of people, who now worship him. His governing strategy is to reward those people for their loyalty by giving them what they want, which essentially is the anger and frustration and pain of everyone who is not them. That doesn’t make him any less scary. What’s really frightening is comparing Germany’s economic state and overall mood following World War I, circumstances that made them highly susceptible to a demagogue, like Hitler, to the relative prosperity of America today. Even then it took another devastating economic turn to put Hitler in power.
Another book I read recently, Flashpoints, by George Friedman, made a point that struck me. Countries don’t start wars or worship demagogues or any other of those common mistakes nations make because they don’t know their history. They do when the pressure to do so becomes greater than the pressure to resist. What pressures led to Trump? We’re economically stressed but we’re not selling our possessions to buy groceries because of inflation, like they were in Germany well before the Great Depression. Trump spoke to people mostly because he promised never to be politically correct, giving his followers permission never to have to be either. “Political correctness” is just what the extreme right named an actual higher level of sensitivity to oppressed groups that much of the country has embraced, that led to gay people marrying and a woman being nominated as the presidential candidate for a major political party. Our resistance to Trump I would grade a C minus. A large portion of his base still worships him. The rest of the GOP, with a few exceptions, is trying to get what they can out of him. There’s certainly a lot of resistance, which is helping, but mostly we’re complacent. What if the pressure mounts?
“When confronted with new emerging demagogues, history may not be able to tell us until it is too late whether the writing on the wall points toward another Hitler, or an entirely different person. However, the conditions that imperil liberal democracy and make the emergence of demagogues possible can be detected early on, be responded to, and thus contained before they become as acute as during the time of Hitler’s metamorphosis.”