Although the West has had an uneasy relationship with individuals of the Muslim faith since the Iran hostage crisis, after 9/11, two Middle Eastern wars, a regime change in Libya, and civil war in Syria, Muslims have become the favored target of the Western world. With anti-Muslim and other xenophobic rhetoric pushed into hyperdrive this election season, it's the sort of story American Jews like me are not entirely unfamiliar with. My grandparents, who had the foresight to stash money away in the Netherlands before their assets in Germany were frozen, fled from Hitler's Germany in 1938. Other less fortunate members of my family, whose ancestors in Westphalia had lived and often thrived as horse and cattle dealers for almost two-hundred years, never thought Germany would actually harm its own people - they were "Proud Germans" after all! - and didn't realize they should have left until it was too late.
Knowing what Trump actually believes can be difficult - his opinions and policy positions are inconsistent - but both the left and the right have drawn comparisons between Trump and Hitler. Aside from generally xenophobic rhetoric and proposals aimed at non-whites, he's called for registering all Muslims in America and banning them from the United States - a plan Hitler would have regarded as rather unambitious. While it's difficult to imagine that Trump would actually attempt to exterminate Muslims and Muslim Americans or would even want to, might these Americans eventually be forced to live in some version of an open-air prison or detention camps in Trump's America? Well no, one might argue, of course not. He's ruled that out. (In contrast, in one interview he didn't rule out Japanese internment camps during WWII had he been alive.) The only problems with that Trump claim are that by one count his position on "Muslim Bans" have changed a total of fourteen times, his radical changes on policy positions are simply mind-boggling, and he may well be a sociopath. Also, although Hitler dreamed big in Mein Kampf (1925), he started off with small actions.
Many may dismiss the notion that America could ever become a fascist state under a rogue leader such as Trump. They may be right, but what many don't realize is how similar our current situation is to Pre-Nazi Germany. Prior to Nazi-takeover, Germany was in fact a democracy with a highly liberal constitution. Then, in the midst of an economic depression, Hitler offered middle class Aryans a solution in the 1932 Presidential election - Germany's last democratic election before becoming a Nazi state - where he campaigned on a platform to strip Jews of citizenship and "guarantee jobs and benefits" for all who had "German blood." Interestingly, Hitler didn't even win. Paul von Hindenburg of the Independent Party captured 53% of the vote, beating Hitler of the National Socialist German Workers' Party by 16 points in a three-party contest. Shortly after, arch-conservative Hindenburg appointed him Chancellor, providing Hitler with a launching pad for his populist movement, supported by big business, to among other things, "make Germany strong again." That last phrase may sound a bit familiar. In any event, the appointment of this man who some considered to be "a clown" ended up being a tremendous mistake.
How did this all happen in a liberal democracy? How did a man who in 1932 lacked majority support in Germany and actually lost Germany's last pre-Nazi democratic election end up getting Jews into ghettos seven years later? And then pull of "The Final Solution"? These questions and others have been addressed by many books, papers, and articles. (The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the 3rd Reich is a good starting point.) This article certainly won't answer them, though a moving passage from Milton Mayer's 1955 book, They Thought They Were Free: Germans 1933-1945, which examines illusions of freedom and the development of fascism in Germany, provides some crucial insight:
"That's the difficulty. If the last and the 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...everything has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you lived in - your nation, your people - is not the world you were born in at all."
In these two paragraphs, Mayer sums up at least part of Hitler's genius: The brutality of Hitler's fascism may only have been matched by its banality, and its slow creep upon a nation. Although the reasons people obey authority while disregarding their own conscience are highly complex, Mayer highlights one rather simple and important reason why people do this: People fail to act on small, incremental steps. The Holocaust could not have happened over night. That's why there were five long years between the boycotts of Jewish businesses in 1933 and the massive violence of 1938, followed by the corralling of Jews into ghettos the next year. And then things got much, much, worse.
Even if liberal democracies can be fragile enough to turn into Fascist states, is Trump the man who would do it? The Klu Klux Klan apparently thinks so, which is presumably why they endorsed him and stated "A lot of what he believes, we believe." Among their similarities Hitler had while Trump has a desperate need for power and adulation. But they also have their differences. While Hitler was deeply motivated to eliminate races and groups he believed were inferior, Trump who was considered not too long ago a "liberal's liberal," began a Republican Presidential bid as a publicity stunt, and during his current campaign appears focused on saying and doing almost anything to aid in his rise to power. In other words, he is not clearly driven by a personal ideological agenda.
The thing is, this may not make him less dangerous as Commander-in-Chief. Using, for instance, Presidential Executive Orders (which may not be necessary, but are useful tools that carry legal weight) with a Republican majority in Congress and a right-leaning U.S. Supreme Court, it would not be difficult to imagine how this man who has been called a textbook narcissist and likely sociopath would eventually push aggressive anti-Muslim and other xenophobic policies - ones that may or may not break federal law - in order to please his most ardent supporters, many of whom hold deeply hostile views toward all Muslims and non-whites. (That's a simple example of how governmental check-and-balances don't always work or protect The Constitution.) It's true, he lacks any of Hitler's discipline that made him so effective, but Trump may not need it. Although Trump himself has little interest in governing, he has stated a preference for his cabinet to be populated by business executives and military generals who will follow his directives. As noted by Mayer, Hitler's slow crawl of escalating acts eventually forced the country to deal with its "Jewish swine" problem - a notion that in some form had infected the mind of at least one young infant. Several years from now, might some be calling for us to address the "Muslim swine" problem? Or, imagine if there were another major terror attack. No "slow crawl" necessary.
All in all, it is deeply troubling that we have allowed a man to become a Presidential nominee in America who has been endorsed for President by the Klu Klux Klan, a convicted Neo-Nazi terrorist, a Serbian War Criminal, and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who has repeatedly encouraged his supporters to use violence, and who has suggested that since we have nuclear weapons, we should be using them. It is troubling that we have a candidate for the Presidency whose chief qualifications for President are television-style charisma, a mixed record of business success, cheating his employees, a documented record of tax avoidance, a documented record of misogyny, proposed policies violating The Constitution, 1st, 5th, and 14th Amendments, a "guns everywhere agenda," a belief in his own superior genes, and a belief in eugenics. Yes, eugenics. He has also pledged to curb freedom of the press.
It is further troubling how clear some of these parallels are, and how we may be repeating a slow decline into fascism that my family, other Jewish families, and the families of other persecuted groups eventually experienced at or near its most extreme in the Final Solution. Although we do not face the dire economic circumstances of post-World War I Germany that helped fuel the rise of Nazism, in the hands of Trump our humble late 18th-century experiment in democracy may be less immune to fascism than we think in 21st century big-gulp America, meaning "there is a decent chance the American experiment would be over" or at least encounter a serious setback. What gives us the right and the arrogance to believe that history can't happen here? In the hands of a megalomaniacal President who has no respect for democracy, it’s indeed frightening that Muslims, Muslim-Americans, and other non-whites would be the ones who have to pay the main price just for being who they are.