The governing principle of the Trump administration is total irresponsibility, a claim of innocence from a position of power, something which happens to be an old fascist trick. As we see in the president’s reactions to American rightwing terrorism, he will always claim victimhood for himself and shift blame to the actual victims. As we see in the motivations of the terrorists themselves, and in the long history of fascism, this maneuver can lead to murder.
The Nazis claimed a monopoly on victimhood. Mein Kampf includes a lengthy pout about how Jews and other non-Germans made Hitler’s life as a young man in the Habsburg monarchy difficult. After stormtroopers attacked others in Germany in the early 1930s, they made a great fuss if one of their own was injured. The Horst Wessel Song, recalling a single Nazi who was killed, was on the lips of Germans who killed millions of people. The second world war was for the Nazis’ self-defense against “global Jewry”.
The idea that the powerful must be coddled arose in a setting that recalls the United States of today. The Habsburg monarchy of Hitler’s youth was a multinational country with democratic institutions and a free press. Some Germans, members of the dominant nationality, felt threatened because others could vote and publish. Hitler was an extreme example of this kind of sentiment. Today, some white Americans are similarly threatened by the presence of others in institutions they think of as their own. Among the targets of the accused pipe bomber were four women, five black people and two Jews. Just as (some) Germans were the only serious national problem within the Habsburg monarchy, so today are (some) white Americans the only serious threat to their own republic.
Hitler formulated his version of total irresponsibility after the disaster of the first world war, which destroyed the Habsburg monarchy and fragmented its German ally. He found an explanation for the disaster that spared the ego of the German nationalists who had supported it. The world was a struggle, Hitler maintained, among superior and inferior races. If superior Germans were somehow defeated in a war, this only proved that an invisible power stood behind the visible facts: global Jewry.
According to Hitler, Jews inculcated ideas, such as that of individual rights, that drew people away from their natural bloodlust. The notion that Jews are responsible for civil rights or immigrant protection, one that seems to have motivated the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, is an example of this Hitlerian way of thinking. Since Jews are supposedly responsible for rights, they are blamed when people beyond the dominant group exercise rights. Because the spread of the norm of rights takes place in the mind, the only response, thought Hitler, was to remove Jews from the planet. The accused Pittsburgh murderer (“all Jews must die”) seems to have thought in just this way.
The attraction of the Nazi conspiracy thinking is that we can feel like victims when we attack. Its vulnerability is that the world is full of facts. Hence Hitler’s hostility to journalism. In the Germany of the early 1930s, the newspaper industry was suffering after a financial crisis. Hitler and other Nazis used the idea of the “Lügenpresse” (“fake news”) to attack remaining journalists who were trying to report the facts. In Germany and Austria today, the far right once more speaks of the Lügenpresse, in part because the American president has made the idea respectable. The extreme right in Germany and Austria knows perfectly well that “fake news” is American English for Lügenpresse.
In the United States today, reporting was already in trouble for similar reasons before Trump, like Hitler, began to claim that the reporters who seek the facts are liars and enemies. Naturally, the president denies responsibility when people take him at his word and draw instead from the conspiracy thinking he himself spreads. Trump blames the press for attempts to murder members of the press. He seizes the occasion, as always, to present himself as the true victim. The facts hurt his feelings.
Trump and some of his supporters mount a strategy of deterrence by narcissism: if you note our debts to fascism, we will up the pitch of the whining. Thus Trump can base his rhetoric on the fascist idea of us and them, lead fascist chants at rallies, encourage his supporters to use violence, praise a politician who attacked a journalist, muse that Hillary Clinton should be assassinated, denigrate the intelligence of African Americans, associate migrants with criminality, run an antisemitic advertisement, spread the Nazi trope of Jews as “globalists”, and endorse the antisemitic idea that the Jewish financier George Soros is responsible for political opposition – but he and his followers will puff chests and swell sinuses if anyone points this out.
If Trump is not a fascist, this is only in the precise sense that he is not even a fascist. He strikes a fascist pose, and then issues generic palliative remarks and denies responsibility for his words and actions. But since total irresponsibility is a central part of the fascist tradition, it is perhaps best to give Trump his due credit as an innovator.
- Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. He is the author of several books of European history as well as, most recently, On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom