I’ve always resisted comparisons between Adolph Hitler and Donald Trump and between Trump’s election and the onset of fascism. Trump is not plotting genocide. The geopolitics are entirely different. But as I was recently reading Volker Ullrich’s terrific biography of Hitler (Hitler: The Ascent, 1889-1939), I was reminded of a certain similarity between the men, and it’s relevant to the current battle over the border wall.
To justify his political and racial views, and to win support for controversial domestic and foreign initiatives, Hitler simply made things up. He insisted that Jews shirked service in World War I and in 1937, as Stalin was killing off the last Jews who had been in leadership, he insisted that “more than 80 percent of the leading positions” were occupied by Jews. To win support for his invasion of Czechoslovakia, Hitler had the Nazi-controlled press fabricate stories about government atrocities against Sudeten Germans.
In his campaign for the border wall, Trump and his dutiful aides have manufactured fictions about terrorists streaming across the border. While U.S. Customs has reported only six people on the government’s watch list attempting to cross the border in the first half of 2018, Trump claimed that 3755 “known or suspected terrorists” had been apprehended. White House Secretary Sarah Sanders reported nearly 4000. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen has echoed these false charges. Trump may use these lies to justify calling for a national emergency, which, if you want to carry the comparison a little further than justified, echoes Hitler’s Enabling Act of 1933 that allowed him to act independently of the Reichstag. Other presidents have used fabrications to justify their initiatives — George H.W. Bush claimed Iraq was readying an invasion of Saudi Arabia to justify taking action against Iraq in the fall of 1990 — but during his presidency, Trump has outdone his predecessors by a very wide margin.
There is one difference, however, between Hitler’s scare tactics and Trump’s. Because of his unquestioned power after 1933, Hitler was able to create facts to justify his actions. In Austria, he got the local Nazis to incite rebellion, which prompted the government in Vienna to repress them, which Hitler then used to justify the Anschluss. In Czechoslovakia, he got the Nazi group to keep making demands on the Prague government that they knew it would not grant to block any kind of agreement that would have prevented a German takeover. Trump does not yet have that kind of power to create facts, and probably will not acquire it. If anything, he is losing power as the Democrats take over the House, and his cabinet disintegrates.