While travelling in the United States recently I was at the same time working my way through Eric Metaxas’ epic biography of Diedrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, (2010). I couldn’t help but notice how similar political and religious dynamics in Germany in the 1930s were to those presently unfolding in America. In this essay I will reflect on the political similarities I see. In the next essay I will consider similarities on the religious front.
On the political front, I will argue that many of the authoritarian moves Hitler made in the 1930s are mirrored, at least to some degree, by Donald Trump today. I don’t think Trump will be able to elevate authoritarianism to the level Hitler did. American democracy has more than two centuries of experience and has built-in checks and balances powerful enough to thwart the authoritarian impulses of any president. On the other hand, democracy was first thrust upon Germany in the wake of WWI and so had not developed institutional protections against the abuses of authoritarianism.
I must say at the outset, that I was greatly disheartened to learn, after reading Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer, that he is presently an avid supporter of Donald Trump. This is hard for me to fathom, given his exposure of authoritarianism under Hitler in the Bonhoeffer book only eight years ago. Nevertheless, I will proceed to note the reflections of Adolf Hitler that I see today in Donald Trump. I will do this largely by quoting directly from the Bonhoeffer book, making a few observations and then allowing the reader to connect the dots.
“Germany wanted to restore its former glory…So the people democratically elected the man who had vowed to destroy the democratic government they hated. Hitler’s election to office destroyed the office” (114).
Trump’s enduring slogan has been to “Make America Great Again!” However, since being elected he has regularly demonized and tried to manipulate institutions designed to rein in an authoritarian president, including; the Congress, the judiciary, the free press and the FBI. By doing so he has brought the office of the presidency into great peril.
“Klaus and Diedrich agreed that Hitler and the Nazis could not last long, but the damage they were doing to the nation was grave” (158)…
Based on Trump’s erratic behavior from day one of his presidency, many predicted he would last perhaps a few months, at the most a year. But both Hitler and Trump were able to out-maneuver their opponents and hang on to power in spite of the damage they were doing to their nations.
“There was still hope that this madman might not be so mad after all or that his wildness might yet be domesticated” (249).
At first many were predicting that following Trump’s dizzying rhetoric of hate, fear and division on the campaign trail he would calm down once in office. However, that hope was never realized.
“We will have to move through a very deep valley, I believe much deeper than we can sense now, before we will be able to ascend the other side again” (374).
Given the intense partisanship Trump has reveled in and exacerbated from the outset it is hard to see a quick exit to the morass the country finds itself in. Some are hopeful that midterm successes of the democrats will quicken the process, but in any case there is a long road ahead, in my opinion.
“One sometimes hears that Hitler was a Christian. He certainly was not, but neither was he openly anti-Christian. He was utterly pragmatic. In public he often made comments that made him sound pro-church or pro-Christian, but there can be no question that he said these things cynically, for political gain” (165).
Prior to entering politics there were no indications that Trump was a Christian. However, once he intuited that he needed the evangelical base to win and keep power, Trump began making statements about how important God was to him. He allowed a Christian chaplain into the White House, appointed numerous openly evangelical people to high office, and frequently invited large groups of evangelical pastors to the White House to cultivate a “Christian” relationship.
“Hitler worshipped power, while truth was a phantasm to be ignored; and his sworn enemy was not falsehood but weakness. For Hitler, ruthlessness was a great virtue, and mercy a great sin” (168).
It is no secret that Trump regularly says things that are simply not true. Fact checkers have documented thousands of untruths he has told while in office, many of them on Twitter. I just don’t get it. In Canada just one lie can be enough to bring down someone in high office. And even more troubling is the fact that many of those lies are made in a ruthless way to put down or “punish” those who disagree with him.
“Required of all army personnel: ‘I swear by God this sacred oath, that I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Fuehrer of the German Reich…'” (232).
Trump values personal loyalty above truth and competence. It is clear to me that the many firings within the White House revolve around the question of loyalty to Trump.
“But as he (Hitler) was every atom a petty man, he was accustomed to diverting exceedingly precious resources of time, personnel, and gasoline for the purposes of his own revenge” (529).
Pettiness and revenge are never far from the surface for Donald Trump. Hoping to pitch an image of strength, he instead projects the impression of a deeply wounded child who has never learned that love and trust will always trump pettiness and revenge.
For the most part I have refrained from writing about politics on my blog. But, as will become clear in my next essay, I am beginning to see why it is important for people of faith not to ignore political realities around them. Sometimes Christian faithfulness calls us to speak up from a faith perspective.