Comparisons to Hitler are a kind of taboo. It is like comparing mere mortals to the devil, or human lapses of conscience to ultimate evil.
For me, a Holocaust survivor, Hitler is like a standard measure of irrational thinking and destructiveness.
In the past I dismissed my tendencies to compare irrational leaders and dictators to Hitler as sensitivities from my past. However, lately I have found that others have been drawing similar comparisons.
For instance, in his book Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler: Making a Serious Comparison (2016), Horace Bloom compares the oratory styles of Hitler and Trump. Both were outrageous and disregarded truth, but ‘..getting the facts wrong matter[ed] much less than getting the emotion right.’ Both cultivated anger at their nations having been betrayed and made to suffer unnecessarily. Both promised to rectify this injustice.
Similarly, Rosenfeld (Cambridge University Press Online, Dec 2019) noted that a stream of scholars see ‘..that Trump’s ascent bears a worrisome resemblance to interwar European fascism, especially the National Socialist movement of Adolf Hitler.’ And Haaretz(26thFeb 2020) opined, ‘Donald Trump is not Hitler, but his words and actions encourage and embolden those who yearn for an Adolf of their own.’
For me, Hitler and Trump share other characteristics. Both branded themselves with unique physical characteristics, such as Trump’s orange face and straw-coloured special hairstyle. Both used characteristic postures and symbols. Both could draw loving and adoring crowds. Both harangued their followers with the injustices inflicted on them, which they, the leaders would reverse. Yes, they would lead them to dominance, dignity, and prosperity.
Both used simple language, repetitiveness, and slogans: ‘Deutschland über alles.’ ‘We’ll make America great again.’ All problems would be solved. Those who caused the problems, the malign political, racial, ethnic, and national ‘others’ would be walled off or be rid of.
To outsiders, both Hitler and Trump appeared comic, immature, base, lying, and nasty. Both had been considered to be mentally dysfunctional. Hitler had been labelled as delusional, psychopathic, narcissistic, sadistic, and paranoid. Trump has been labelled a malignant narcissist, and 350 psychiatrists endorsed judgments that Trump was brittle, cruel, vindictive, delusional and irrational; and that his mental state ‘could lead to catastrophic outcomes’ (The Independent, 4thDec 2019).
The problem is that none of these diagnoses capture the essence of the men. And if millions adore these men and adhere to their perspectives, by definition they cannot all be abnormal.
In 1938 the American journalist H.R. Knickerbocker asked the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung, what constituted Hitler’s unusual power. Jung answered, ‘Hitler is the mirror of every German’s unconscious…He is the loudspeaker which magnifies the inaudible whispers of the German soul..Hitler’s power is not political. It is magic.’
Hitler and Trump believed in their different magics. Hitler believed that Providence, an inner voice guided him. When Trump countered those who thought that he was unstable with ‘I am a very stable genius,’ he meant that his instincts contained superior, innate knowledge.
What power of mind fascinates and inveigles millions of citizens? What magic dog whistles to people’s baser instincts?
Demagogues require circumstances in order to flourish. Germany in the 1930s had experienced a lost war, humiliation, the Great Depression, unstable government, and widespread starvation. The country was ripe for a Messiah or a Napoleon.
Circumstances in America have not been quite as dire, but the US had lost the Vietnam War, and could not win the Afghan and Iraqi Wars.
Increasing inequality added to demoralization. According to Forbes rankings, there are currently 630 billionaires in the US. At the same time, many underprivileged, often black or coloured Americans cannot afford health care, and 50% of children live under the poverty level.
Government and society became polarised, fragmented, and dysfunctional, to the extent thatThe Atlantic (Nov 2019) warned of lessons from the American Civil War- the ‘ties that bind us are fraying at alarming speed’.
Underprivileged America, with its strong evangelical movement, has also become ready for a Messiah or a dictator.
As a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, I needed to understand what was going on in the human mind. How could leaders rant and lie, and followers, as if hypnotised respond to the power and the promises? What divided the mind in which its currency was desire and belief from the mind in which the currency was thinking and logic?
I have learned that it is as basic as anatomy. We now know that normally there is a harmonious balance between the thinking, conscious, observing, logical left half of the brain and the instinctive, unconscious, emotional, non-verbal right hemisphere of the brain.
In major stress and trauma situations the two halves of the brain disconnect, with one or other half dominating perspectives of the world. The proponents and opponents of Hitler and Trump reflect these disconnected worlds.
We don’t know the future. History instructs but does not always fully repeat itself. It is possible that Trump’s supporters will realise that their leader prefers adoration by the crowds rather than shielding them from the corona virus. They may realise that he is part of the 1% who milk the nation and give little back. Perhaps Trump will fizzle out at the next election and become a bizarre historical aberration.
On the other hand, losing has never been an option for Trump. If he sees that he will lose, he may, like Hitler, take advantage of or create a state of emergency and suspend elections.
Beside Trump, the world that enabled Trump is in desperate need of renewal. The lessons of the World Wars may help here. Defeat, poverty and humiliation after World War One led to Hitler, fascism and war. Help and restoration of dignity to the defeated after World War Two led to seventy years of prosperity and peace.
This time, the defeated, poor, and humiliated reside within America. Blaming them or outsiders is unhelpful. The people need a new social contract, a type of generosity that helped to rebuild Germany and Japan after World War Two.
This is not just an emotional argument; it is also logical. Replacing gross inequalities that threaten people’s survival with dignity and a sense of justice releases energy, reciprocity, well-being, and peace.
Yes, Hitler’s Germany maybe does have lessons for Trump’s America.
Paul Valent is a retired psychiatrist and writer. His latest book is ‘Heart of Violence; Why People Harm Each Other’.