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A more powerful army, nuclear weapons, and climate change make all the difference.
Most people would be hard-pressed to name a single leader of a major democracy in the past two centuries who is so narcissistic, so corrupt, so inarticulate, or so dishonest as Trump.
But none have been all these things at once, and there is arguably only a single case of a more hateful and vengeful demagogue, with such mendacious and erratic tendencies, heading a major democratic state in the past two centuries, and the democratic system by which he came to power did not last long.
Reasonable people do not make comparisons with Hitler lightly. His murder of six million Jews—and two million more Roma, communists, homosexuals, and disabled people—constituted just a portion of his crimes against humanity, which included among other things a plan to starve 30 million Slavs in Eastern Europe. Hence, the idea that the erratic buffoon we are so fond of mocking might prove as dangerous can seem a stretch.
But whereas Hitler possessed the most powerful military in the world, that which Trump commands is better financed than the next eight most powerful militaries combined, and he possesses enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over.
If for no other reason, Trump could prove more dangerous than Hitler simply because he possesses greater firepower.
Yet, it is also easy to forget that, according to social historian Peter Fritzsche, most Germans in the 30s did not believe Hitler would take their country to war. Hitler actually kept the peace for six years before launching a mostly quiet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, Trump has already stepped up arms sales and logistical support to Saudi Arabia in their blockade of Yemen, which has taken 18 million people to the brink of starvation in what is now the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. He has increased drone strikes fivefold, while dramatically increasing the civilian death toll. And he has already bombed two major cities to rubble in the fight against ISIS, Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.
Meanwhile, before North and South Korea came together for peace talks, he had taken America to the brink of what might have easily slid into a nuclear war with its most inscrutable adversary, as he later did with America’s most dangerous in Iran.
The idea that this kind of brinkmanship can be sustained without catastrophic consequences is foolhardy. The idea that it is more peaceful than Hitler is ahistorical nonsense.
The world got a whole lot more dangerous when Trump took office—not simply because of what he might do but because of what he might not do as well. America has long served as the guarantor of global stability. This has meant participating in a multitude of global institutions, which can galvanize action on everything from terrorism to trade. But it has also meant punishing states that threaten the peace and mobilizing coalitions to preserve the global order.
It is no accident that the list of adversaries with which America has recently gone to war is a rogue’s gallery of the world’s most reprehensible forces: Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Muammar Gaddafi, the Taliban, and ISIS. The military interventions have often been ill-considered and punishingly stupid. They have often been partial, selective, distractive, and irresponsible. But they have made dictators intent on ravaging their own populations think twice before initiating major crimes against humanity.
America itself has been a sort of global leviathan, which has kept the peace among all others, reserving the right to war-making to itself alone. But Trump has no interest in preserving the global order and is more apt to praise the most oppressive dictators. This has sent would-be war criminals a signal that crimes against humanity will go unpunished, and the results have been predictable.
Burma has carried out a genocide against its Rohingya minority. Saudi Arabia has stepped up its forced starvation of Yemen. China is carrying out a cultural genocide in Xinjiang. Brazil seems poised to do the same with indigenous peoples in the Amazon. Assad and Putin have intensified the slaughter of Syrian rebels and their civilian charges in Idlib. And Israel has taken to shooting thousands upon thousands of Palestinian demonstrators, many of whom have been children while beginning to annex the West Bank.
Any state with a score to settle against some restless minority knew that if it acted fast they would get a free pass—and it will only get worse if Trump remains in power. So, if Israel has been waiting to commit full-on genocide in Gaza with hundreds of thousands dead, where it has already closed off access to medicine, now is the time to do it.
If Bolsonaro wants to kill off the remaining indigenous peoples of the Amazon and turn it into farmland, there may be no one to stop him from burning it down, and with it the future prospects of human civilization.
Trump not only wants to do nothing about climate change but often seems to revel in actions that would make it worse, as in his support for the dying coal industry. And it can sometimes seem as if he revels in it because he likes destroying things that are good.
And much as was the case with fascism last time, it is this unleashing of genocide that is the greatest threat. However, American liberals do not seem concerned with whether Trump will starve millions of children in Yemen. Nor do they seem too concerned that genocide has been exploding under his watch or that the geopolitical order is falling apart and could lead to countless wars in power vacuums around the world. And few have given any thought to what might happen if he created a new global order controlled by the world’s most brutal leaders whom he continually praises.
There is simply too much on their plates that is too close to home. Hence, the big question on everybody’s mind seems to be how far he will go in the forced expulsion of undocumented immigrants, for this could quickly degenerate into an ethnic cleansing on American home soil.
Dozens of immigrants died in custody even before Covid struck, including at least seven children. Meanwhile, close to a couple hundred have been sexually molested by their jailers, and thousands more by other children, demonstrating an utter disregard for their safety, according to Health and Human Services. Numerous women in one facility have had been given hysterectomies without their permission, prompting comparisons with Nazi doctors. And administration officials have argued unsuccessfully in court that they are under no obligation to provide the toddlers they have separated from their parents with toothpaste, shampoo, bedding, and flu vaccines.
But a quarter of circuit court judges have now been appointed by the Trump administration, while they possess an overwhelming majority on the Supreme Court, and the administration has shown no compunctions about flouting the law.
If Trump remains in office for a second term, conditions are likely to degenerate, as the prison system itself grows larger, at which point the language of “concentration camps” would cease to be controversial.
Their existence is the inevitable result of basing a political movement on the dehumanization of immigrants and refugees, using their imprisonment to deter their arrival, detaining more people than can be processed humanely, privatizing the facilities that provide their food and shelter, and attacking the press which is exposing the crime. As was the case in Nazi Germany, the camps are, in short, the inevitable result of fascism, and the logical result of continuing this state of affairs is that it will only get worse.
Stress and overcrowding will intensify the trauma and incidence of disease. Detaining more people will intensify the overcrowding and dehumanization. It will stress the guards, whose tendency to dehumanize detainees grows, and it will deaden the consciences of its supporters who drift deeper in denial.
Already, these camps constitute one of the worst abuses of a civilian population, carried out on home soil, by the federal government, in American history. But the concentration camps are new, and conditions in them could easily degenerate, as they ultimately process millions more immigrants and refugees, under a shambolic administration, where cruelty proliferates, and abuses of power are so pervasive that critics can’t keep up.
America may possess stronger institutions than those of the Third Reich, but they are fast eroding as the chaos of this administration spreads.
As time passes, Trump appointees would increasingly dominate the military, the courts, and the bureaucracy. Thus, if he is reelected, we should prepare for an increasingly brutal government. And if the camps keep filling up, while provisions stay slim; and if the famine in Yemen begins killing hundreds of thousands, or perhaps even millions, and Trump draws closer to the authoritarians he praises, who are carrying out their own crimes against humanity, it is not inconceivable he would start to resemble Hitler to the rest of the world as well.
It may be inconceivable in the present, but so also was the Second World War and the Holocaust to ordinary Germans in the 30s. But none of this need take place if only we all make sure everyone we know votes like their life depends on it.
This is a substantially revised excerpt from The Fascism This Time: and the Global Future of Democracy.
~ Theo Horesh