There’s an unwritten rule among those of us who teach Holocaust Studies: never equate the Holocaust or Hitler with anything or anyone. They are, by their very natures, sui generis.
Donald Trump and the MAGA movement are forcing many of us to abandon that rule.
This decision isn’t a kneejerk reaction to Trump’s recent ‘dictator on day one’ or ‘poisoning our blood’ comments, alarming as they might be. It’s the result of seven years of tracking his and his followers’ intentions, threats, and actions, culminating in their articulated blueprints for a Trump second term. Historical fascination with Trump and Hitler’s similar paths to power has turned to dread at the prospects of a second Trump administration, one founded on autocracy, nativism, and revenge. Right-wing think tanks are calling for a ‘Red Caesar’ when in reality they’re calling for a Second Hitler.
If you think the above is overreaction, then compare the Nazi rise to power with Trump’s goals and make your own decision:
Attempted Overthrow of the Government: In 1923, Hitler and his followers failed in an attempted putsch, leading to a trial and imprisonment in which Hitler’s popularity increased as he railed against the German version of The Deep State. A century later, Trump masterminded a failed coup and is using his upcoming trials—without any proof—as evidence of a deep state conspiracy against him and his followers.
The Rise to Power: Hitler took power with the help of the Brown Shirts, a loosely organized pack of thugs who bullied and terrorized his opponents and, eventually, the German populace into submission. Here at home, organizations like The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers have joined with local MAGA foot soldiers, using threats and violence to drive moderate politicians from office and ensure the election of their own candidates.
Consolidating Power: Upon ascending to the Chancellorship in early 1933, Hitler moved quickly to eliminate any threat to his power. In his first month in office, a staged event (the Reichstag fire) gave him the opportunity to declare martial law and assume dictatorial power. He opened Dachau, the Reich’s first concentration camp, in April, populating it with his political enemies. He then took control of the Civil Service, banning Jews and populating it with Nazi loyalists. By the end of that first year, Goebbels had taken control of the media and begun the propaganda campaign that would power the next dozen years.
Trump has already laid out his own version of the above: replacing government employees with his loyalists and sycophants (interviews already underway); turning the DOJ into his own vindictive police force; modifying or abolishing the constitution; and opening large-scale camps. On the media front, building on his success with Fox, Newsmax, et al, he will seek to intimidate or legislate the rest of the media outlets into submission.
And those are only the stated goals before he gains power. Once there, he could stage his own Reichstag event, then use the Insurrection Act to declare martial law. It’s hard to see either of the other two branches of government having the power or will to stop him.
Co-opting Key Institutions: The Nazis Gleichschaltung, a political philosophy based on gaining control over all German institutions—social, political and cultural—and using them to advance and consolidate Hitler’s totalitarian agenda. The medical profession was used to define and exterminate ‘useless eaters’ (the physically handicapped and mentally challenged). The courts identified, discriminated, and ultimately validated the campaign against the Jews. Industries used slave labor, with some companies (Farben, Krupp, and even IBM) playing key roles in the Holocaust. Schools and youth organizations became training grounds for the next generation of Nazis, turning children against their parents. And Hitler was extolled as a savior from both Protestant and Catholic pulpits.
Trump’s form of Gleichschaltung is based on a relentless attack on the truth. This denial of reality and history will play out in dramatic and deadly fashion in a second Trump term. Consider the following institutions and how they have already been compromised by the MAGA movement and what a second term could bring:
Medicine: Covid was a myth, bleach a medicine, and the Center for Disease Control an enemy.
Abortion is now a crime, with doctors threatened with jail.
Science: ‘Blood’ will be politicized. Anything ‘green’ will be mocked and outlawed. Climate change denial will be a requirement of any Trump appointee.
Education: History will be rewritten to eliminate any American misdeeds. Books will be banned and libraries emptied. DeSantis’ education policy for Florida will be nationalized.
Misinformation: Right-wing social media platforms and networks will be empowered while mainstream networks and publications will face extreme censorship, if they’re allowed to exist at all.
Religion: Conservative Protestants have made their peace with Trump’s flaws and sins and now see him as a Holy Warrior sent by God to administer old-fashion Old Testament justice on His (God’s and Trump’s) enemies.
And that’s just events and stated intentions to date. Think of the horrors a second Trump presidency will unleash, with an ‘imperial presidency’, dominating or ignoring the other two branches of government and meeting little or no resistance. Retribution will commence—against past Trump cabinet members, generals loyal to the Constitution, political foes, and members of the media. Between prosecution and an exodus of those who don’t share the MAGA agenda, a weakened resistance will make a Trump dictatorship inevitable. It isn’t farfetched to imagine an America with a photo of Trump in every classroom, a MAGA-fied military loyal only to Trump, and political foes joining refugees in Trump’s growing network of camps.
If you think that it can’t happen here, remember that 20th-century Germany was considered the most advanced and sophisticated culture of its time. If it happened there. It can happen here. In fact, we’re halfway there.
Tom Hogan is a former lecturer in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He now lives in Austin, TX.