The real parallel between Hitler and Trump

I’ve been reading David Cay Johnston’s excellent book The Making of Donald Trump. And without mentioning or even alluding to Hitler or fascism, the book raises an interesting—if unexpected—parallel about Trump’s and Hitler’s rise to power.

One of the themes in a lot of the historical scholarship about Germany in the 1920s and 1930s is how Hitler and the Nazis were able to take advantage of the systemic weaknesses of Weimar: the cracks in the political structure, the division among elites, the fissures in the parties, the holes in the Constitution, and so on. What Johnston narrates, in almost nauseating detail, is how Trump’s ascension to wealth and fame and power—long before he makes his 2016 run for the presidency—is dependent not on the weaknesses of the political system but on the systemic corruption of a rentier economy.

At every step, Trump benefits, almost haplessly (it seems to require very little art), from the built-in advantages to wealth and the wealthy in our society: whether those advantages are in the tax system, the regulatory system, or the courts. (Trump actually spoke of this quite often during his campaign.) And in the same way that Hitler preyed upon his opponents’ cluelessness in the face of his political rise, so does Trump profit from his opponents’ cluelessness in the face of his economic rise.

At every moment when Trump might have been stopped, when he might have been forced into bankruptcy, had his credit denied, had his loans called in, his licenses revoked, at every juncture where he might have been convicted of a crime or sent to jail—and, again, this is well before he makes his successful bid for the White House—some unplanned and unintended conspiracy of economic reason and political lowlifery mobilizes to protect him. (And it really is unplanned and unintended. The genius of the American system is how the Invisible Hand works to produce systemic vice rather than incidental virtue.)

Whether it’s gaming regulators who don’t want to take him on because hotel values in Atlantic City might suffer, or an investigation-happy attorney general who suddenly gets a well timed campaign contribution, or judges upon judges who preside over settlements where records are permanently sealed and vital public information concealed, or bank officials and industry magnates who decide he’s too big to fail—and Johnston makes a fascinating comparison between the way the banks were treated in 2008 and the way that Trump has been treated for decades—this man’s rise to power has been predicated on all the most basic institutions and features of our economy.


  1. ronp March 14, 2017 at 1:02 am | #

    I think the real kingmaker was Mark Burnett who saw his “charm” and put him on the apprentice TV show. Hitler never was a game show host (as far as I know). Another sucky brit. Damn them all. And the aussies who brought us Murdock.

    • Rick Watts March 14, 2017 at 5:30 pm | #

      “HEAR! HEAR!” to your comment on Murdoch: Though as much as anything, our being saddled with him here in the USA can be blamed on allowing him to bypass the normal immigration system and in a matter of mere weeks essentially BUY his citizenship via passage by Congress and signature by Reagan of a “Private Bill” in return for lavish campaign contributions and expressed desire to build his “Faux News” after Reagan dispensed with the FCC’s longstanding Fairness Doctrine.

  2. jws March 14, 2017 at 1:44 am | #

    Not quite understanding how things like “investigation-happy attorney general who suddenly gets a well timed campaign contribution, or judges upon judges who preside over settlements where records are permanently sealed and vital public information concealed, or bank officials and industry magnates who decide he’s too big to fail” fall under “unplanned and unintended conspiracy of economic reason and political lowlifery” with the emphasis being unplanned and unintended. These all portend to real corruption which you also see in his dealings with mafia all over the globe from American mafia poured cement in his buildings to money laundering operations in Azerbaijan.

    • jonnybutter March 14, 2017 at 11:50 am | #

      Not quite understanding how things like “investigation-happy attorney general..[etc]”…fall under “unplanned and unintended conspiracy of economic reason and political lowlifery” with the emphasis being unplanned and unintended.

      It’s unplanned and therefore, strictly speaking, unintended, from the point of view of all the people Trump dealt with. It isn’t really coordinated, exactly. The idea here is the entropy of corruption. BTW, what’s more more banal than entropy?

      i don’t want to get all Freudian here, but..there is a huge stink of death about all this – the longing for death, the sweet allure of rot, of oblivion. This literalistic capitalism we are in is profoundly passive – you could say ‘cucked’ – in that its primary feature is a strict avoidance of making moral, or often even instrumental judgements. The market decides.

      Add in some Right evangelicals to your business alliance – who are expecting Armageddon – and you get an eccentric veering off

      Happy tuesday morning everybody!

  3. relstprof March 14, 2017 at 4:26 am | #

    Put another way, this series of events is endemic to capitalism as it is. Capitalism, as such. It’s totally visible as it is. There’s no need for a philosophical genealogy anymore. We don’t need Foucault to see it anymore. We’re either the blind leading the blind, at this point, or the wildly mistaken.

    Of the wildly mistaken, don’t forget Friedrich Reck, who thought the mindless capitalists that made up Germany in the 1930s would be overcome by sane politicos given over to the common good. But they weren’t. Those few were overcome by greed and racism and the lure of cheap goods.

  4. mark March 14, 2017 at 10:13 am | #

    The exam question remains, ‘Is it a sign of political weakness or strength that the Republican Party chose as their Presidential candidate and then the American people chose as their President a billionaire?’

  5. b. March 14, 2017 at 11:04 am | #

    In this, Trump is not an exception. The Clinton Foundation is a nauseating example of the same dynamics. Every sitting member of Congress is a living, breathing embodiment of this feature – government of the con, by the con, for the con, in a nation of hucksters and frauds.

    The indifference to any perjury by political appointees decried here

    aside from the “Russia Dodge” that has taken on an afterlife all of its own, traces straight back to the unwillingness of almost all elected representatives to be accountable for war powers and other actual responsibilities. Neither Clinton nor Bush – nor Obama – were impeached for violation of the constitution, domestic and international law up to and including illegal war of aggression. Congress refuses to put an end to the many crimes under the pretend cover of the AUMF, and – as China and Russia legitimately critize – the US si the global driving force behind the erosion of the very concept of the nation state. Given the sheer scale of both the mendacity and the idiocy of these crimes, and the shameless profiteering that drives them, I think the focus on Trump is becoming ridiculous.

    • DAVID COLLEDGE March 15, 2017 at 12:26 pm | #

      Entirely agree. Focus on Trump at this level is ridiculous, particularly when the spurious and unhistorical identification is made between the USA in the 21st century and Germany (and Europe) in the 1920s and 30s at the time of Versailles.

  6. Glenn March 14, 2017 at 11:35 am | #

    George Washington as inspiration for a wealthy president:

    Washington used federal troops—marshaled under the “heroic” (as his hagiographers would have us believe) Alexander Hamilton—to put down the Whiskey Rebellion and, after using big government to knock out the competition, then became the biggest producer of whiskey in the U.S.A.

    Alexander Hamilton argued that a constitution (namely the British Constitution) “Purged of its corruptions…would become an impracticable government.”

  7. Howard B March 14, 2017 at 12:11 pm | #

    Would you not add to your main point that Trump like a good lab rat (no insult meant to lab rats) has learned how to exploit the machinery of a rigged American system?
    Any system gets the people and leaders it very well deserves

  8. jonnybutter March 14, 2017 at 12:29 pm | #

    Trump like a good lab rat (no insult meant to lab rats) has learned how to exploit the machinery of a rigged American system?

    You are so right – Trump has learned that he can get away with just brazening it out, no matter how ridiculous the issue at hand. He said so himself: ‘I could shoot somebody on 5th Ave…’ He exemplifies the rigged system.

  9. GRH March 14, 2017 at 12:48 pm | #

    Yeah, Trump was definitely “born on Third Base”.
    What struck me was how the media all proclaimed the Cheeto-n-Chief as “Presidential” after that speech to Congress. I kept thinking of the GroupThink in the play – Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco.

    Another parallel is how the Socialists/Communists were all convinced that if Hitler won their Revolution would sweep away the right-wing in Germany.
    Today we had people like Susan Sarandon…

    • Chris Morlock March 15, 2017 at 3:32 am | #

      Ah yes, Susan Sarandon is the problem.

      Just finished watching the David Cay Johnston interview on CNN’s nightly panel of Infowars style conspiracy theories about Donald Trump. He fed nicely into the foray of silly legal ideas and wild conjecture.

      If this is not a crisis of thought on the Left, I have no idea what is. I have no doubt David Cay Johnston is a real intellectual with credentials but he lowered himself with a panel of Intelligence community defenders and everyone’s favorite entertainment reported Don Lemon.

      A better comparison than Trump=Hitler analogies would be that of the Wiemar Republic and the Democratic party.

    • Julien May 9, 2022 at 8:31 am | #

      It is very true that the working classes of Germany thought that they could overthrow Hitler. The fact is, they had no understanding of what Hitler actually stood for. Their familiar opponent was the Catholic Church and its conservative authoritarian political representatives like Seipel, Dollfuß and Schuschnigg is neighbouring Austria, Salazar in Portugal, Pilsudski in Poland, Smetona in Lithuania, et cetera.

      Hitler was a much more extreme type of authoritarian, based upon completely different beliefs, which gave a much more absolute power to the state and allowed it to be much more efficient in eliminating opposition. There is no doubt that Hitler was much more effective in permanently eliminating the radical and independent working class organisations that had previously existed than other European dictators of his era — as commentators have noted, the German workers did not rise up nearly as much as their companions.

      In contrast, in the US, the lower classes have been virtually devoid of — afraid of — protest ever since the Reagan Era, and especially since the Republican Revolution of 1994. Those places — urban communities of color — where protest against the system has to logically begin are, de facto, policed in much the same manner as Nazi Germany was, and the ruling class knows all about the benefits for them of such a system. Radical left parties that actually represent mass interests (at least in their policies if you read for example the World Socialist Web Site) are effectively the plaything of a few mostly veteran academics. These do not even try to sell their books to the poor urbanites of color who might learn from reading them (assuming they can understand frequently jargon-filled academic writing which seems unlikely) and the cost of printing them can be prohibitive. Without opposition where it can be effective, the richest 1 percent are free to complete the job they have sought ever since the civil rights movement, possibly ever since the aftermath of World War Two — to completely end even nominal democracy in the US.

  10. lazycat1984 March 14, 2017 at 1:38 pm | #

    What you’re saying is true so far as it goes. Trump slithered through the cracks of a society in which elite corruption is tolerated and papered over in inverse proportion to the corruption by the common masses. Hitler took advantage of a vaguely similar situation. But there are far more differences between the two than similarities. Hitler was possessed of a kind of personal courage that Trump just doesn’t have. Hitler was, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, an ‘enraged mystic’. Trump doesn’t exactly have any associations with right wing occult secret societies. I don’t think he’s even been accused of being remotely spiritual. Trump is just a garden variety product of the NY City bourgeoisie. A New York Democrat, but a self aggrandizing blowhard with sharp elbows and a sharper tongue. You probably personally know a dozen people who, had they had a few different career turns would have been carbon copies of Trump.

    I’m sick of Trump/Hitler comparisons. Hitler has become such a cartoon villain (Nazis and Germans generally are the White People that we can safely show being blown up, melted down and otherwise abused. A sort of stand-in scapegoat for the supposed sins of ‘White People’ generally. When Hitler’s humanity is focused on, the pain and trouble he caused becomes something we can all come to grips with and work on. Which is why anyone who tries to do that is immediately castigated.

    • Howard B March 15, 2017 at 10:51 am | #

      You don’t think of Trump as cuasus sui or a black swan?

    • Howard B March 15, 2017 at 2:21 pm | #

      Further- both were grandiose in their own ways, the historical record suggests- I’d say Trump is better as a negotiator while Hitler was a better leader, at planning.
      Who would you rather hire as an employee?

      • lazycat1984 March 15, 2017 at 9:04 pm | #

        Interesting question- Trump can’t take orders from anyone, but it’s pretty clear Hitler was a ‘good soldier’ and further, was a loyal attack dog for General Ludendorff for several years during his stint as a military intelligence agent.

    • Lichanos March 28, 2017 at 1:27 am | #

      I think you hit the nail on the head here.
      “Trump is just a garden variety product of the NY City bourgeoisie. A New York Democrat, but a self aggrandizing blowhard with sharp elbows and a sharper tongue. You probably personally know a dozen people who, had they had a few different career turns would have been carbon copies of Trump.”

  11. Roquentin March 15, 2017 at 7:28 pm | #

    I’ve thought for a long time that one of, if not the biggest fantasy that causes voters to identify with Trump is precisely this: that the rules simply do not apply to him. He can cross every line, say every outrageous sexist, racist, stupid thing in the book, make any kind of terrible decision, and he still come out okay and suffer little to no consequences. That’s what the average Trump voter dreams about when he closes his eyes: a world where he’ll be powerful enough not to give a damn about what anyone thinks, not to have to worry a whit about who his words or actions hurt. When Trump does these things and gets away with them, they feel a little more powerful too, which let’s be frank, is all Trump has to offer them. A feeling of being a little less impotent. The illusion of power by proxy. Trump the father-figure, who has the phallus, who doesn’t need to submit to the law and thus be castrated. It’s all there, straight out of Freud and Lacan, plain as day.

    I spent most of late 2016 cringing, because I just couldn’t wrap my head around how badly liberals where fucking things up, how badly they misunderstood the man and his appeal, how fundamentally wrong they got him. They kept expecting the outrageous things he said to sink him and expended fantastic amounts of effort to this effect. They had it backwards, and the whole sad charade constitutes the largest political own-goal in recent memory. It only got worse after November. I think some of them, far too many, still in this late hour believe chiding people about political correctness will fix this somehow. Maybe they all need to go down, like a forest fire clearing out the debris.

    • lazycat1984 March 15, 2017 at 9:06 pm | #

      Trump provided many cringe-worthy moments during the campaign, but I have to admit smiling to myself when he came out with the line about Hillary coming to his wedding and ‘kissing his ring’ or some such. Good stuff. No wonder a lot of leftists cheered him on as he went through the neoliberal faction of the Republicans like a gorilla on meth.

      • Roquentin March 15, 2017 at 11:01 pm | #

        To do even more armchair psychoanalysis, I have this theory going that the reverence conservatives have for God, country, the flag, family values, Christianity, etc is coupled with a mostly subconscious loathing and contempt for these same things which is arguably just as strong. It’s no big secret that the biggest consumers of porn are the conservative parts of the US, for example. It’s the whole “return of the repressed” thing. Trump so perfectly embodies this contradictory attitude. Secretly, many of them long to see someone come along and defile all these sacred things, but it has to be done very carefully, in such a way that it allows them to maintain their phony reverence for them at the same time.

        Trump fits this role like a hand in glove. Pay lip service to God, Country, Flag, and all the other sacred nonsense while simultaneously befouling it with almost every action he takes. He perfectly captures the contradictory attitude towards the biggest conservative shibboleths and symbols. He makes things much more explicit than they used to be. For this to work, you really need both. You need the surface level family values and nationalism of conservatism, with this underbelly of obscene pleasures (jocular contempt for women, crude racism and bigotry, lewd behavior and jokes). These things are not separate, they’re two sides of the same coin. We need to recognize this if we want to have any hope of combating the right.

        • LFC March 18, 2017 at 9:16 pm | #

          Someone recently reminded me that what Freud meant (at least mainly) by “return of the repressed” is a return of repressed memories of bad/injurious/traumatic things that had been done to one or that one had suffered, not a return of repressed or denied impulses/desires/beliefs etc. (The person who made this point to me knows a fair amount about Freud so I’m inclined to think the point is correct.)

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