Historians Weigh In On Our Fascist Fears About Trump’s America

Talking about fascism might make you sound hysterical. But academics agree it’s worthwhile.

Photographer Sam Balaban
November 29, 2016
Historians Weigh In On Our Fascist Fears About Trump’s America NYC, November 10th, 2016.  

The day after the presidential election, David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, published a piece titled “An American Tragedy.” Stunned, treading carefully toward some understanding of what was to come, he wrote, “Fascism is not our future—it cannot be; we cannot allow it to be so—but this is surely the way fascism can begin.”


In the days and weeks since, President-elect Trump has lurched and shouted and broken historical conventions in ominous manners. He has also gone about the protocols of governance with some small smidgen of standard procedure, while Democratic leaders urge for a “peaceful transition of power” or say “we owe him an open mind.” As Trump fills cabinet positions and chats with world leaders, that notion of looming fascism has largely retreated in the popular conversation.

This isn’t only due to creeping normalization. It’s also due to the anti-Trump movement’s increased, and rightful, focus on strategy. In the private sector, liberal institutions like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood have reported record numbers of donations. In the public sector, Republican senators have pledged fierce pushback on Trump’s promised draconianism.


Talk of strategy is practical. It’s also wilfully optimistic, and rooted in a certain sector of the opposition’s bedrock belief: our democratic institutions and traditions are too strong for Trump to do away with. So even within the opposition, some equivocate — urge patience, say “let’s wait and see.”

And then there are those who have argued impassionedly and persuasively that Trump is actively a unique threat to American democracy, and needs to be handled as such. Not if or when he carries out on that threat, but right now. “Don’t wait for something dramatic to happen,” Upshot contributor Brendan Nyhan tweeted a few weeks back. “There will be no one moment when democracy fails.”

Writing in the New York Review of Books, with a commanding force, the journalist Masha Gessen elaborated what it is that Nyhan was getting at. “I have lived in autocracies most of my life, and have spent much of my career writing about Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” she wrote. “I have learned a few rules for surviving.”


She ticked off a few things, all painfully, pressingly necessary: “Remember the Future.” “Don’t Compromise.” “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.” But it’s Rule #4 that stuck with me the most.

Be outraged,” she wrote. “In the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock. This will lead people to call you unreasonable and hysterical, and to accuse you of overreacting. It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room. Prepare yourself.”

Long ago — and nowadays, nearly daily anew — Donald Trump established himself as a threat to democracy. But how do you tell people you’re afraid of fascism without sounding like Chicken Little?


Historians Weigh In On Our Fascist Fears About Trump’s America NYC, November 10th, 2016.  

Last week, I spoke with Kathleen Canning, the Chair of the History department at the University of Michigan. (When I was a student there in the mid-2000s, I took Canning’s excellent “Origins of Nazism” course.) She understood the desire to draw parallels between Trump’s dark potential and historical cases of fascism — most famously, the Nazis. But respectfully, she pushed back on the desire to jump directly to that line of thinking. Actively, the “worst danger is self-censorship,” she said. “Normalization. You can already hear it going on.”

Still, she added, “I do believe America can produce our very own version of fascism.”

“It’s not like fascism was always just an interwar phenomenon or always just a reaction to Bolshevik revolution in other parts of Europe,” Canning continued, alluding to two of the driving factors in the rise of the Nazis. “Right now in the U.S. there’s some sort of potential, and it’s very hard to extricate from white nationalism. And it does seem like you’ve got your target group. Except the target group is not one group of Jews — it’s everyone who’s not white.”

In September, a New York Times review of a new biography of Hitler by the historian Volker Ullrich was shared widely. Without ever mentioning Trump by name, Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani drew a number of seemingly sharp, unbelievably alarming similarities between the two demagogues: their exploitative public speaking, their catchphrases, their egomania, their lies.

Following up, The Atlantic spoke with Ullrich directly about the comparison. Ullrich conceded similarities both possibly coincidental (“Hitler was also a multi-millionaire who successfully avoided paying taxes”) and almost certainly not (“resentment of established elites … their mutual talk of restoring the greatness of their respective countries”). Ultimately, though, the historian pointed out that comparing Trump (or anyone) to Hitler is only useful if you fully consider the dissimilarities, as well.

“Hitler possessed a completely different caliber of destructive and criminal energy [than] Antonescu,” Ullrich said at one point, referring to Romania’s one-time dictator Ion Antonescu. Both men were active at the same time, and both men were fervent, authoritarian anti-Semites. Only one entered historical lore. The comparison is a reminder to carefully ascertain danger, to not prescribe attempted genocide to every powerful loudmouthed bigot.

“In the context of crisis, a lot is possible.” —Gavriel Rosenfeld

Ultimately, though, Ullrich does leave The Atlantic with a warning. “If the case of Hitler teaches us anything, it’s how swiftly democracy can be dismantled."

So how swiftly can it?

I spoke with Gavriel Rosenfeld, Professor of History at Fairfield University, and he sketched for me the unique parameters under which Hitler consolidated power after becoming Chancellor of Germany in 1933.

A popular politician with the burgeoning NSDAP (known now as the Nazi Party), Hitler was appointed, not elected, to Chancellor. He was brought in to lead as part of a right-wing coalition that believed it could control his violent, virulent urges. The coalition partners were something along the line of opportunistic racists, Rosenfeld explained, who normalized anti-Semitism in order to gain voters “in a way that people are afraid that Steve Bannon is doing now.” But the conservative coalition never intended on letting Hitler run his agenda in full.

Amazingly quickly, though, all governmental checks on Hitler’s control fell away. In February of 1933, the governmental Reichstag building was burned down, most likely by a young Dutch communist. It was used as a pretext. Press outlets adversarial to the Nazis were shuttered, political opponents were thrown in makeshift concentration camps. “These were factory barracks, abandoned housing complexes,” Rosenfeld said. “The later organized concentration camps grew out of these improvised ones.”

Hitler’s next coup was pushing the Enabling Act through parliament in March. It gave him a four year dictatorial term, and effectively abolished the parliament. Democracy had only existed in Germany since 1918, the end of World War I. In the U.S., Rosenfeld said, “One would like to think it’s got a stronger foundation. The Nazis were fundamentally intent on destroying the party system.”

The historical strength of American democracy is, and will continue to be, a succor. But it can’t be taken as a catch-all bulwark. “Of course, the United States has much stronger institutions than Germany did in the 1930s,” Gessen wrote in her NYRB piece. “The problem, however, is that many of these institutions are enshrined in political culture rather than in law.”

Beyond faith in our political culture, though, Rosenfeld checked off a few more possibly heartening items: the Republican Party’s strong libertarian wing that should act as a Trump check; the unlikelihood of Trump actually being able to change libel laws to curtail free press thanks to the 1964 Supreme Court decision in The New York Times vs. Sullivan.

We talked about how, first with the Stormtroopers of the SA and then the SS, Hitler had street armies. Meanwhile, Trump has “internet trolls that send harassing messages to journalists on Twitter.” Rosenfeld deadpanned: “As far as any paramilitary organizations running around with a capital 'T' on their tunics, that’s the kind of thing that fortunately hasn’t been present yet.”

Doing a bit of thinking out loud, though, Rosenfeld echoed what Canning had told me. “It’s a far cry from street violence and targeted assassinations, God knows, but if [the online Trump faithful] can encourage journalists into self censorship — well, it’s not as effective as abolishing the free press with Stormtroopers. But maybe you don’t have to be so knuckleheaded about it.”

Before we got off the phone, Rosenfeld drew one more parallel: to post 9/11 America, where calls for national unity gave President Bush dangerously wide leverage.

“You can suspend all kind of civil liberties for the sake of national security,” Rosenfeld said. “Stripping people of certain rights is always a threat. That’s why people were so afraid of the Patriot Act. And after the Reichstag fire, there was a feeling that ‘we’re under assault.’”

“The worst case scenario then” — after some unimaginable crisis giving Trump that same wide leverage — “is perhaps internment, or forceful deportations across the border, and Democrats going meekly along with it. It would ostensibly happen on a democratic basis.”

“In the context of crisis, a lot is possible.”

In a recent much-hyped post-election sit-down with The New York Times, Trump seemed to roll back one nefarious campaign promise after another. Possibly most brazen was his disavowal of the torture he’d so recently lusted for (previously: “I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”)

After one conversation with James N. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, Trump had apparently changed his mind! General Mattis had told him, “I’ve never found it to be useful … Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I’ll do better.” And Trump “was very impressed by that answer.”

The optimist hears that and thinks, perhaps this man isn’t insane after all. The pessimist, perhaps, keeps reading the interview, and finds this quote — “To me more important is taking care of the people that really have proven ... to love Donald Trump” — and remembers: this man is a liar and he will say anything he sees fit.

Personally, then, I choose not to hold out hope that Trump will temper his views, or be moderated into some kind of partial submission.

I choose to hold out hope in local officials from so-called sanctuary cities — Chicago, L.A., New York — who have pledged to not cooperate with federal officials on mass deportation despite threats of funding cut-offs and even prosecution. And I choose to hold out hope in the protests and the groundswell of active resistance that I believe the protests indicate.

In 1930s Germany, even before Hitler consolidated his cult of personality and choked out avenues of dissent, there was no real protest movement to speak of. (The closest thing were barhall brawls between the then-budding Nazis and a patchwork of communist and socialist groups in Berlin. One local motto: “Beat the fascists wherever you encounter them!") In the modern day U.S., whatever else happens, the protestors put us on the historical record. “We reject the President-elect,” the kids in Vegas and Philly and D.C. chanted.

I thank them dearly for that. And I urge them to ignore any pleas for “civility,” any calls to “get back to normal” — I urge them to keep going. “The autocrat’s favorite con,” Gessen wrote in her NYRB piece, “is the implied equivalency between civil resistance and insurgency. [This is] the explanation for the violent suppression of peaceful protests the world over.”

To continue speaking about Trump’s historical threat to democracy is worthwhile as well. There are those that will scoff at you, that will laugh at you, that will tell you, that cannot happen here. Remind them that it doesn’t have to be Hitler’s Germany to be fascism, that it doesn’t have to be Putin’s Russia to be autocracy. Remind them that it doesn’t have to be anything other than Trump — doing what he has said all along that he will — to be a nightmare.

Historians Weigh In On Our Fascist Fears About Trump’s America