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November 29th, 2021

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2016: The last year of the Weimar Republic

Rabbi Yonason Goldson

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Published March 16, 2016

2016:  The last year of the Weimar Republic

Comparing Donald Trump or any other political figure to the Nazi party distracts from the real issues

Let’s get one thing straight. Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler.

For that matter, neither are George W. Bush, David Cameron, feminist leaders, anti-gay activists, political correctness zealots, PETA, or the grammar police.

All of these have been denounced as Nazis by their political enemies and, regardless of one’s politics, all such comparisons are worse than beyond the pale.

The most casual student of history knows -- or should know -- that Adolf Hitler and his Nazis were in a class by themselves. ISIS and the Ayatollahs of Iran come close; but even they, detestable as they are, do not rise to the level of Nazi evil. By all accounts, anyone making casual equations between political adversaries and the Nazis automatically disqualifies himself as a responsible commentator.

More important, such trivial equation diminishes the atrocities of Nazism. This is something we dare not allow, lest we lose our sense of revulsion to Nazi horrors and thereby invite history to repeat itself.

But we live in an age where facts matter less and less all the time. Self-righteous emotion rules the day, and many of us truly believe that our political opponents do not deserve free speech because they are not merely wrong -- they are evil. They deserve to be called Nazis, because they do not agree with us. They might as well be guilty of genocide, since they are out to destroy our civilization… because they don’t agree with us.

FACING THE FACTS

So let’s cool it with the rhetoric and try to look at the real picture.

Again, Donald Trump is not a Nazi. But he is a great many other things. He is crude, he is crass, he is petty, he is narcissistic in a way that makes our current president look almost self-effacing. He appears to have no core values, aside from whatever feeds his own ego. He is unrepentant for his own inconsistencies, exaggerations, and errors, and unapologetic for the excesses of his supporters. He has no plan, just a Rolodex full of empty promises.

True, he has proven himself hugely successful in real estate development and reality television (including, tragically, his republican primary campaign). But his resume includes a pattern of magnificent failure in other commercial ventures. He has almost single-handedly degraded the political process and the dignity of public service in a way that would have seemed impossible after the moral devastation of Bill Clinton’s administration.

None of this makes him a Nazi, even if it does show him to be a truly horrific choice for President of the United States.

And yet, despite all that, his popularity continues to climb. Why?

Bill O’Reilly recently laid out the fairly obvious explanation in bullet points. Over the past several years, Americans have been witness to:

vilification of police officers

uncontrolled drug and human trafficking across the southern border

a sluggish economy that overburdens the working class

a growing terror threat poorly managed by the administration

a divisive and out-of-touch president

an irresolute and ineffective congress

assault on traditional and religious values by a culture of rabid political correctness

a legal system that confuses victims and perpetrators

a press corps more interested in promoting ideology than in honest reporting

an educational system more interested in indoctrination than learning

a grievance industry that exploits the freedoms of their own country while denouncing it as wicked

One election cycle after another has provided us candidates promising change who deliver more of the same. So why would people not rally around a crusader who rejects the political status quo, who disdains political correctness, who promises security and stability by invoking nationalism and refuses to back down from any fight?

Much the same way Adolf Hitler did before coming to power in 1933.

So the pundits are indeed on the right track; they’re just heading in the wrong direction.

THE MIRROR OF HISTORY

In 1919, World War I ended with Treaty of Versailles, wherein the victorious allies imposed draconian reparations on Germany. The architects of German aggression were all dead, and the unfortunate representatives of the reconstituted German government had no choice but to agree with the demands of France and Britain, albeit under protest.

Germany was humiliated in defeat, in war and in peace, stripped of arms, honor, and wealth, and reduced to economic and political chaos. During the early 1920s, runaway inflation rendered the deutschmark virtually worthless and, just as recovery began to take hold in the latter part of the decade, the Great Depression sent the German economy reeling once again.

The Weimar Republic was attacked by the left for abandoning the working man and attacked by the right for submitting to indignities at the hands of the western nations. Unemployment, crushing national debt, political partisanship, and widespread feelings of betrayal by a government perceived to be both feckless and authoritarian created the perfect environment for a party platform built on nationalist pride and xenophobic rhetoric.

Enter Adolf Hitler. Enter Donald Trump.

They may have little in common beyond their message of militant nationalism and their charismatic narcissism. But showmen rarely make good leaders, unless they have the wisdom and the temperament necessary for responsible stewardship. Neither of which was evident in 1933, or is evident now.

In this new era of surrealism, it’s ironic that we can find prophetic wisdom in as unlikely a source as Hollywood scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin. In his 1995 masterpiece The American President, we find this exchange between President Andrew Shepherd and his domestic policy advisor, Lewis Rothschild:


Lewis Rothschild: People want leadership, Mr. President. And in the absence of genuine leadership they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership; they’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water they’ll drink the sand.

President Shepherd: Lewis, people don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty; they drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.


The truth is that both are right. Deprive people of authentic leadership for long enough and they will certainly lose the ability to tell the difference between reality and illusion.

When we reflect upon the contrast between the elegant ideals set forth by revolutionary leaders two and a half centuries ago and the cartoonish ranting of the avenger seeking coronation today, there is ample reason for anxiety that has nothing to do with Nazi genocide.

The escalation of violent rhetoric and now violence itself between Trump supporters and Trump protestors is shredding the already worn fabric of civility and respect for authority in this country, with the tactics — if not the ideology — of fascism becoming more common on both sides. As chaos becomes increasingly the norm, the likelihood of authoritarianism rising up to meet it as an equal and opposite reaction increases as well.

And that is why, as inconceivable as it may be to imagine the American people supporting another Adolf Hitler, it’s becoming less farfetched to imagine that they might rally around another Benito Mussolini.

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Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches, writes, and lectures. His new book Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages is available on Amazon.

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