It still seems inconceivable that Donald Trump holds sway over so many voters and that the Republican Party so slavishly adopted him as its role model. The irony is that Trump is such a small person, described perfectly by the Swiss historian Herbert Luethy: “And yet, on the heights of power, [he] remained the same poor devil. In the very center of mighty events… a being of almost inconceivable spiritual, moral, and human inferiority…[with] the blustering of a barroom debater who knows how to do everything better because he doesn’t know how to do anything… who had never found a single healthy or genuine human contact…his systematic avoidance of all confrontation, discussion, examination, or self-examination, the flight from himself into an unreal world of uninterrupted monologues where he could hide his inner emptiness—all this remained…until the end of his life.”
This fits Trump to a tee—except that Trump was 8 years old when Luethy wrote that description of Adolf Hitler in 1954 for Commentary magazine. When Luethy refers to “the reek of obscenity, of degenerate and perverted lewdness, that almost hits the reader of Mein Kampf in the face” it is difficult not to recall Trump’s leering allusion to grabbing women, the rape allegations against him, and his close association with Jeffrey Epstein.
Luethy didn’t need to read the future to peg Trump so unerringly. As a historian he understood the pattern that marks fascism’s recurrence. Societal tensions that tap into long-standing irrational fears trigger rage, hopelessness, and desperate longing to believe in the magical figure who assures the mob, “It’s not your fault, they are to blame. If we only get rid of them, we’ll return to that magical time when bluebirds sang and we—you!—were feared by all!” This is common to fascist movements everywhere. Mussolini invoked Rome’s ancient glory while the Nazis invoked a barbarian past when the tribes of “Germania” overturned the western Roman Empire. Vladimir Putin and his fundamentalist Russian Orthodox and paramilitary allies revere the Russian kingdom of a thousand years ago (whose capital, ironically, was Kiev). So too do the militia and gun nuts, the Proud Boys and Moms For Liberty who invoke the “Spirit of ’76”. However, as Luethy wrote of Hitler’s followers: “…his band of ‘old fighters’—that chosen collection of pederasts, drug addicts, rowdies, crackpots, and criminals—belong with some nest of vampires rather than a [vital] barbarian horde.”
The white, patriarchal Christian America that today’s Republicans claim to admire is an ignorant, infantile fairy tale. If there were one thing the Founding Fathers agreed upon, it was that government was necessary to prevent the disintegrative anarchy of the mob and blind pursuit of purely selfish interersts. Which is why the Republicans have been ranting against the federal government since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Their goal is to become the mob and to destroy the government’s ability to protect the nation from the depredations of the string-pullers whose money pays for electoral campaigns, right wing “institutes”, and an unending stream of propaganda. Governing itself is not on the agenda. With all the challenges facing us, Republicans stonewall on guns, pursue abortion seekers with the zeal of witch-hunters, obsess over non-hetero expressions of sexuality, and chant about building a wall to protect us from Mexicans. Meanwhile they block any constructive program on behalf of the public good.
This strategy eventually backfires. Hitler was given the Chancellorship of Germany on January 30, 1933, by conservative politicians who feared the majority of voters who belonged to moderate, democratic, socialist, and communist parties. So too, today, a great many corporate, financial, and military leaders support or play under-the-table footsie with our own demagogues, falsely assuming, as did so many Germans, that they can control the twisted impulses behind a mob in thrall to unthinking authoritarian beliefs.
Luethy is also one of many historians and psychologists who drew the connection between fascism and sexual anxiety. “When Hitler starts talking about ‘race’ and ‘blood’ every attempt at even the most primitive kind of rational argument ends, and he lapses into the language of sexual hallucination…the fixed point around which Hitler’s image of the world revolved.” James Baldwin’s short story “Going to Meet the Man” follows the twisted racial fantasies of a southern white cop experiencing impotence with his wife. However, lying in bed with her, he recalls witnessing a lynching of a black man when he was eight years old. At this point, his sexual urgency returns. Baldwin understood American racism as well as anyone. He knew, too, that racism itself and the propaganda that reinforces it is always rife with lurid sexual warnings about the perverse appetites of the targeted group, a tactic the Nazis used against the Jews and also a central theme of American racism throughout history.
Why did Trump’s rants about the threat of illegal immigrants; his barely coded slurs against Jews, Muslims, and blacks; and his pandering to white supremacists prove so successful? Many of us naively assumed the vast majority of voters would reject his crude appeals to their worst instincts. But people like Hitler and Trump do not define the issues or culture of their time, they concentrate and exalt the simmering hatred, paranoia, anger, and fear that conflict inevitably arouses. As Luethy writes of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, “Hitler’s central political idea is…an insane vision in which history, politics, and ‘the life struggle of races’ unroll in images of copulation, promiscuity, blood defilement, natural selection, cross-breeding, bastardization, rape, and abduction—world history as a sexual orgy in which filthy and diabolic sub-humans lie in wait for blond maidens.” Among today’s anti-LGBTQ fanatics a common theme is, indeed, that homosexuality and transitions to the opposite gender will lead to bestiality and marriage between humans and animals, or insidious plots to “turn” children “gay”.
Thus Tucker Carlson, playing Goebbels to the Republican fascist movement, broadcasts the obscene concoction of “Replacement Theory”. This notion that “liberals” want to replace the “white race” (is there such a thing?) with people of color is right out of the Nazi propaganda playbook. And it works. Millions of Americans hang on Carlson’s every word. The Republicans have been wielding the specter of rampaging black criminals and immigrant rapists since the 1970s. Trump, Murdoch, and Carlson just take the rhetoric closer to its extreme. Replacement Theory carries Republicans’ paranoia a step beyond the absurd outcry over Critical Race Theory, which they completely misrepresented. And already Replacement Theory is being replaced by the even more insance charge that schools and libraries are “grooming” children, a perverse sexual fantasy suited to the dark imaginings of the legions of Donald.
This propaganda has consequences. Florida’s governor DeSantis is already leading the charge to ban books and fire teachers who do not stay within the bounds of a narrow, racist, homophobic, exclusionary, and historically ignorant ideology. Already there is a movement to further slash public funding for education and libraries. At this rate, the Red states’ schools will more closely resemble German schools in 1938 than reasonably competent American schools in 2022. And while it will be the majority of Americans—the poor, people of color, women, non-Christians, people of moderate and liberal views, immigrants, gays—whose perspectives will be cleansed from the curricula, one might also pity the brainwashed children of those who embrace this nonsense.
Luethy forecasts what governance in this type of society can become by describing precisely what Germany became under Hitler: the ‘convulsion squad’ of the mass meetings, whom his [Hitler’s] presence sent into hysterical fits. What Hitler said hardly mattered and he learned quickly, indeed, to alter his rationalizations according to his audience. A torrent of…dark affect-laden verbal symbols—’disgrace,’ ‘blood,’ ‘shame,’ ‘Jew,’ ‘race,’ ‘sin’—washed over his audience and transformed it into a mass bereft of its senses.
“He talked himself into fame, he talked himself into power, he talked himself into war, and he talked himself into disaster. Did he know what he was doing? Nowhere can it be shown that his political aims, his ideas about the future, consisted of anything but the marching, the heiling, the flags and the torches of the huge crowds straining up to him.”
The Republican party today no longer articulates coherent policy; since Obama’s election in 2008, it has been entirely obstructive. Their role-model, Trump spent his entire career addictively pursuing the mob’s roaring acclamations and the drug-like high of chaos. He didn’t govern, he tweeted. He never read any briefings but was swayed into one action or another by the most obsequious flatterer of the moment. “He had nothing but his burning hatred and his pathological obsessions, but it was clear now that this was enough to bring under his spell hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands of others who likewise possessed nothing else.”
And what was Hitler’s grand plan per Mein Kampf? He planned “state-directed biological mutations, ‘forced breeding…[the] ‘Nordic essence’ was to be extracted from the European peoples that lent themselves to the process. Eastern Europe and Russia were to be excluded from this forced ‘upward breeding,’ and illiteracy, plague, and poverty were to kill off superfluous slave populations to make room for the brave new asphalt world of the Nordic race.”
Of course, we say, Republicans would never go as far as the Nazis did. But then, either would Germans in 1933. The industrialists, landowning “Junkers”, Prussian militarists, street thugs, bourgeoise longing only for stability, and blatant opportunists did not support Hitler on the basis of Auschwitz or Babi Yar or Dachau. But they all had their reasons for backing him, they all figured they could use him.
None of them understood that their very conniving was a severe moral betrayal that made them powerless against Hitler’s passion. Nor that when leaders cultivate and exhort savage, debased, reflexive rage, it resonates with the rage of the mob, and all reason, planning, and manipulation go out the window. In the end, it is the mob that leads its destructive hero straight into the free-fall of the abyss.
Let’s give Luethy the final word, on Hitler and on Trump: “The fit of rage turned on and off at will, the rug-chewing became an instrument to be manipulated, a weapon in the struggle for power within the party, a diplomatic arm, finally a weapon to be used in the supreme direction of war—and even in the disastrous last months of his life, he found that these fits of rage which no one dared contradict could make possible, if not the impossible, then at least the insane.”