Scholar of the Nazi period explains why fake news may be a more powerful authoritarian tool than secret police
October 18, 2018
History can teach us many lessons about Donald Trump and his rise to power. As shown by his deeds, words and policies, Trump is an authoritarian and a demagogue who has, so far, been restrained by America’s weakened democratic institutions and norms. Trump has repeatedly shown contempt for America’s cosmopolitan, pluralistic multiracial democracy. He and his supporters would smash that order and a create a new one based upon white racial authoritarianism (as well as naked plutocracy) if, and when, they have the opportunity to do so.
Learning lessons from history about the present requires a keen appreciation of context. The model of authoritarianism that Donald Trump, the Republican Party, their allies and voters represent will fit the cultural and political norms and institutions of the United States. This usurpation of American democracy will be both similar to and different from what took place in other countries and at other times.
In all, history’s lessons must be learned carefully, and applied with even more care if we are to make better sense of the present and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, as well as resurgent reactionary right-wing movements around the world.
What lessons do the fall of German democracy after World War I and the rise of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler hold for the United States in the age of Trump? What role does an assault on democratic norms and traditions play in the rise of fascist and authoritarian movements? In what ways are “traditional” Republican elites like Mitch McConnell responsible for an “outsider” such as Donald Trump taking power? Is dissent being criminalized in the United States by Trump and his followers? What is “illiberal democracy,” and how will it do the work of authoritarianism in the U.S. and elsewhere? Is Trump a fascist, or is he better described using another label?
In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Christopher R. Browning. He is the Frank Porter Graham Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. He is the author of several books, including the most recent “Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp.” Browning is also the author of the recent and widely-read essay “The Suffocation of Democracy,” which appeared both online and in the Oct. 25 edition of The New York Review of Books.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Authoritarian leaders like Donald Trump can cause widespread pain and confusion to the public. As a historian and expert on Nazi Germany, how are you feeling? What were your first reactions to Donald Trump’s rise to power?
The first reaction was frustration. We are caught in a situation where none of our previous political experiences as a country when democracy was functioning well, albeit far from perfectly, equipped us to deal with this situation. I sensed that it would be a tyranny of the majority which would create this type of crisis. This is why, of course, we have the Bill of Rights and other checks on power. But what we really have now with Donald Trump and the Republican Party is a tyranny of the minority, where gerrymandering, voter repression and the Electoral College give the minority of the population electoral victory even when they do not have a majority of the vote for the presidency or the House and Senate. Demographic shifts, geography and cultural divides are a perfect storm for minority rule by the Republicans in the United States.