I’m the last person who will tell you that it’s unreasonable to compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler pre-1935. There are a lot of personal and tactical similarities. However, Hitler and Germany in 1932, when the Nazis were elected, differ from Trump and modern America in important ways. The first difference is that Hitler declared his intention to create a Dictatorship if elected. The second is that both sides of the ideological spectrum in the Weimar Republic wanted that Republic to end. It’s an open question whether Donald Trump will do permanent damage to the Constitution and create a Russian or Latin American style kleptocracy, but he has not violently grasped power with the consent of the people. Trump may lie like a rug, but he did not campaign on a platform of Dictatorship and his voters did not ask for one. Our democracy does not share the elements of Weimar that made it collapse, so we can’t look to Germany as a model for what might happen to us.
The Weimar Republic was never overwhelmingly popular
Supporters of Weimar had the bad luck to start a social democracy by agreeing to reparations so crushing and extreme that Germany only made the last payment in 2010. Germany had just lost a massive expansionist war for which it was blamed (in reality, everyone started it), and with it they lost an autocratic, nationalist government most people had previously supported. Many military veterans remained loyal to the old regime, and hated Weimar. The rapidity of change in governmental structure, combined with a radically liberalized social and artistic culture, caused rifts in German society. Although positive social programs were introduced, the hyper-inflation crisis of 1921-24 rocked the German economy and the lives of everyday citizens, and didn’t endear the democratic experiment to the public. Although the Republic experienced some stable and popular years from 1924-1929, when the Great Depression caused another crisis, it was always an experiment many Germans treated with skepticism.
Voters and elites acted deliberately to end democracy
One of the most critical differences between America today and Weimar in 1930 is that Americans, especially those in power, are generally committed to our constitutional regime, and have never known anything else. The elites of German society – the aristocracy, large landholders, the military, and big business – never wanted a democracy, and they were the leaders of the conservative parties. By 1930, both the Communist Party on the left, and the conservative and Nazi Parties on the right, had paramilitary organizations engaging in political violence across the country. Many other parties, especially conservative parties, did not object when the Nazis openly declared their intent to obtain the people’s consent to dismantle Weimar. The 1930 elections gave the Nazis sufficient power to demand a leadership in government, and when they didn’t get it, they prevented parliament from functioning. They effectively dismantled democracy before they even took power. In the last election of the Weimar Republic, in November 1932, only about a third of Germans voted for the traditionally pro-democracy parties, SPD and Centre. At that point, the decision was not between democracy and autocracy, it was between Hitler and another autocrat. The German people intentionally ended their system of government; Hitler did not hoodwink them into thinking he was going to govern cooperatively.
Not with a bang, but with a whimper
Trump may be borrowing manipulation tactics from Hitler’s playbook, but he will never be granted power by the public in the same way. Hitler’s Dictatorship erupted with a bang, and he rapidly consolidated power across German society, largely because people wanted power to be consolidated. If our democracy falls, it will fall with a whimper, in the piecemeal fashion common to flawed modern democracies like Russia and Venezuela. While there are indications some are losing faith in America’s republic, there is no indication half the American people are ready to vote it out of existence. So go ahead and make comparisons between Trump and Hitler. They are both germaphobes. They are both friendless narcissists. Both prefer speaking at rallies to actually governing. Both are ignorant of and disinterested in complex policy issues. Still, it’s really important to make a note of where the similarities end. We don’t have a Trumpenfuhrer, and fortunately we aren’t likely to get one.