There’s an interesting debate about a recent book review – a suggestion that the review of a book about Adolf Hitler is actually a thinly-disguised attack on Donald Trump. It’s caused some interesting debate online, with points being made for and against the statement. (The review itself doesn’t mention Trump at all.) And while I join many others in thinking that Hitler comparisons are overblown at best and nonsensical at worst, it does actually raise an interesting point that should not be forgotten.
What is the difference between Adolf Hitler and Roderick Spode?
Well, quite apart from the fact that one of them is fictional while the other was all too real, there’s one very important difference. Hitler had a massive support base – one pre-1933 estimate suggested that the Nazis were supported by at least a third of the entire German population – while the fictional Spode’s ‘Black Shorts’ were little more than a handful of thugs. Spode is a figure of fun precisely because he’s largely harmless. But if he had even a tiny percentage of the following Hitler had, how long do you think Wooster would have been permitted to make his smart remarks?
(Funny without power, terrifying with it.)
Hitler was often treated as an absurd fellow by the German (and outside) political elites. And yes, there was something faintly comical about him. What those idiots missed was that Hitler enjoyed a large and devoted following. Germany was in deep trouble. Hitler saw opportunity and took it, putting himself at the forefront of a revanchist movement that wanted to seek better times. And while it is possible to dismiss Hitler’s rise as a series of unlikely events, such a view dismisses Hitler’s own agency – the remarkable skill he showed in analysing his opponents and snatching opportunities when they appeared.
But without his following, Hitler would have remained a joke.
Let us pretend, if we can engage in a counterfactual analysis, that Hitler died (or was assassinated) in late 1932. This would obviously have terminated Hitler’s rise to power. But would it have made the ultimate source of his power go away? Those people who supported the Nazi Party – the poor, the desperate, the power-hungry – wouldn’t vanish when Hitler died. Their support would have been lying on the ground, waiting for someone to come along, say the right things and pick up where Hitler left off.
Hitler was not the cause of Weimer Germany’s problems, although it’s pretty much inarguable that he made them worse. The Nazis could not, I think, have made a reasonable bid for power in normal times. No, Hitler was a symptom of political and economic decline – and essential helplessness – caused by matters outside Germany’s control. The (seemingly unfair) belief that Germany had been unjustly punished after the Great War, the (equally unjustified) belief that the German Army had been stabbed in the back by politicians and Jews; economic collapse, depression, starvation, hunger … those problems existed before Hitler was anything more than a minor street orator. And they wouldn’t go away if some kindly soul assassinated Adolf Hitler before he took power.
Perhaps Germany would have been better off without Hitler. Most people wouldn’t consider it something that could be argued. But it’s quite possible that Hitler’s successor might have been worse. The stresses and strains that propelled Hitler into power would have had a chance to get worse.
Trump is not Hitler. The comparison is odious; misleading at best, downright spiteful at worst. But Trump and Hitler do have one thing in common – they are both symptoms, not causes.
The Republican Party saw fit to ignore the concerns of a significant percentage of its core voters. Trump, the supposed clown and idiot, saw opportunity in appealing to those voters and took it. Those voters will not go away if Trump loses in November. Their concerns, their legitimate concerns, will not be addressed. And they will stay angry because no one seems to be taking them seriously.
Trump simply cannot be dismissed. This is a man who won the Republican nomination by beating fourteen of the most powerful Republicans in the country. He could not have done that without a vast support base. (Note how Jeb Bush crashed and burnt.) And while it is tempting to make fun of him, it is important to remember that he won the nomination fair and square. Trump cannot be dismissed.
You may feel that Trump is a monster. But remember – drowning men will clutch at any straws. If Trump wins, he will have to address the concerns of his base. This will not be easy, even with the best will in the world. But if he loses, those concerns will not go away.
And the next person who rises to take the lead may be far worse.