I don’t imagine that it was merely a coincidence that John Broich from the Smithsonian chose this moment in our country’s history to document how the American media reacted to the rise of Mussolini and Hitler. It would be difficult to dismiss the possibility that he is sounding a warning that he sees something similar happening today. That is why this is particularly alarming.
When Hitler’s party won influence in Parliament, and even after he was made chancellor of Germany in 1933 – about a year and a half before seizing dictatorial power – many American press outlets judged that he would either be outplayed by more traditional politicians or that he would have to become more moderate. Sure, he had a following, but his followers were “impressionable voters” duped by “radical doctrines and quack remedies,” claimed The Washington Post. Now that Hitler actually had to operate within a government the “sober” politicians would “submerge” this movement, according to The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor. A “keen sense of dramatic instinct” was not enough. When it came to time to govern, his lack of “gravity” and “profundity of thought” would be exposed.
In fact, The New York Times wrote after Hitler’s appointment to the chancellorship that success would only “let him expose to the German public his own futility.” Journalists wondered whether Hitler now regretted leaving the rally for the cabinet meeting, where he would have to assume some responsibility.
We are in the midst of hearing similar arguments being made about the presidency of Donald Trump. For example, there are those suggesting that American institutions (Congress, the Courts, the press) will thwart the worst abuses we imagine. We’re also hearing a fair amount about how his policies will adversely affect his supporters – demonstrating his own futility.
There have been times when I’ve made such arguments. And the truth is, they are plausible to consider. It is also true that, despite his mental instability, Trump might not govern anything like the fascist he often appears to be, and so the comparisons are completely bogus.
On the other hand, this country just elected a man who is mentally unstable, who ran a campaign based on xenophobia and who has consistently demonstrated his admiration for authoritarian leaders. Its hard to dismiss the comparisons to previous fascists.
This is why the piece by Broich triggered the uncertainty I wrote about recently. I’m not one who is prone to over-dramatize the possibilities. On the other hand, we’ve never faced an incoming presidential administration like this one, combined with a majority in Congress from the same party. In other words, we are in uncharted territory.
While I appreciate the predictions of pundits that range everywhere from “America is strong and we’ll be all right” to “we’re on the precipice of the end of democracy,” the truth is that we don’t know right now. That means that we’ll have to learn to live with the uncertainty for a while. But more importantly, we need to be vigilant in our observations as the Trump administration unfolds.
On that last point, you can count on the vigilance of those of us here at the Washington Monthly. That’s why it’s more important than ever to support our efforts. Thank you!