POV: Comparing Trump to Hitler Misses the Point
In his fear-mongering, he’s more like Joe McCarthy, George Wallace, and David Duke
Is Donald Trump Hitler?
It’s a relevant question now that the real estate tycoon turned presidential candidate has won the New Hampshire primary and become a top contender for the nomination. Fellow Republican hopeful John Kasich aired an anti-Trump ad last fall that alluded to a similarity between the Donald and the Führer by paraphrasing First They Came…, the cautionary poem about Nazism.
But I believe there are several reasons why Trump is not Hitler.
- Trump’s brand includes men’s crystal cufflinks, silk ties, Celebrity Apprentice, golf resorts, perfume, and a black T-shirt that reads, “I’m very rich.”
Hitler’s “brand” included the swastika, the Gestapo, the Panzer tank, and bombers that blitzed London. It was all about death and domination.
- Trump had a cameo in Zoolander, the Ben Stiller spoof of male models.
Hitler was the subject of perhaps the most impressive propaganda film of all time, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
- Hitler assembled a group of psychopaths who conceived and executed history’s greatest mass murder machine.
Trump hangs out with beauty contestants, old white rich guys, and faded movie stars. One could imagine this group putting together reality shows and casino deals, but not Auschwitz.
- The Führer is a much more impressive moniker than The Donald.
Who could chant “Heil The Donald!” without chuckling?
- Hitler invaded Poland.
Trump hired 200 undocumented workers from Poland to demolish one of his buildings. They were called “the Polish Brigade” and sued him for wage theft.
But is Trump dangerous? Yes, although I don’t think about Hitler. I think Joe McCarthy, George Wallace, and David Duke.
McCarthy, a US senator from Wisconsin, preyed on Americans’ fears of communism in the Cold War era of the 1950s and created a virtual reign of terror. Many people who were guilty of nothing more than attending a few leftist meetings wound up going to prison, losing their jobs, and being driven out of their professions.
McCarthy was almost as much of a media hound as Trump, endlessly appearing on TV or in newsreels claiming he had found Commies everywhere, from the State Department to your local library. McCarthy inspired Arthur Miller to write his searing drama of the Salem witch trials, The Crucible.
George Wallace is famous for standing in the courthouse door when he was governor of Alabama, declaiming, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, twice ran for president, first as a Democrat in 1988, and then as a Republican in 1992.
Trump is much more entertaining than Joe McCarthy, who was a dark, menacing presence, and certainly more cheerful than the bombastic George Wallace. As for Duke, being the KKK Grand Wizard does not get you invited to a lot of nice dinner parties—or a lot of votes.
The Donald has been honing his media skills for years, through his TV shows and his movie cameos. He has created his own outlandish persona, which, before he went all nativist on us, could be rather fun, if silly. In that regard, the historical figure he most resembles is P. T. Barnum, the circus impresario, who reportedly said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
But then Trump discovered that fear-mongering could raise his poll numbers. The circus lights on his campaign turned dark and the carousel music even darker. Trump is tapping into a deep vein of fear of “the other” in the American psyche. When that vein gets exposed, bad things happen. In the early 20th century, draconian immigration laws severely limited the numbers of Asians and people from Eastern Europe (Slavs and Jews) who could enter the United States. We put Japanese restaurant owners, doctors, and farmers into internment camps during World War II because we were afraid of spies and saboteurs. Jim Crow lasted for many years in the South after slavery ended.
The black critic and TV talk show host Tavis Smiley called Trump a “racial arsonist” and slammed the media for not focusing more on the way that Trump’s poll numbers jump each time he utters a slur about people who are not white men (Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, women).
Tavis Smiley is right. The sound of Trump’s voice, for the media, is Kachinggg! Kachingggg! Kachingggg! as the cash registers churn, the TV ratings soar, and the internet clicks skyrocket.
But is Trump at heart a supporter of some kind of master race theory? Probably not. He’d sell a luxury hotel to a Muslim or a casino to a Mexican in a minute. But he is a narcissist and an opportunist. It has dawned on him that he in fact might be the Republican nominee, but only if he can stir up enough anger and fear.
The sad truth, however, is that what might be called “the nativism of convenience” can be as harmful as the real thing. Attacks on Muslims in the United States are rapidly accelerating. Salon reports, “Since the Nov. 13 Paris attacks—for which ISIS claimed credit—and the Dec. 2 San Bernardino shooting—which was blamed on Islamic extremism, about which the FBI investigation has raised doubts—the incidence of anti-Muslim attacks has rapidly spiked, to off-the-chart levels.”
The Boston Globe reported this past August that “a 58-year-old Mexican immigrant sleeping outside the JFK/UMass MBTA station was attacked by two South Boston brothers who were on their way home from a Red Sox game. State police say Steven and Scott Leader both urinated on the man and beat him with a metal pole. “After they were arrested, one of them admiringly quoted his political hero. ‘Donald Trump was right; all these illegals need to be deported.’”
You don’t have to be Hitler to communicate the idea that some people aren’t “like us” and need to be punished and/or harmed, whether they are innocent or guilty.
How do we deal with this? Maybe voters have to borrow a classic line from Trump himself on Celebrity Apprentice.
Caryl Rivers, a College of Communication professor of journalism, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at email@example.com. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions.