Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini greet each other at an airfield in Venice in June 1934. (Associated Press)

In the run-up to the American election, there’s been a lot said about the dangers of demagoguery and nativist politics. Analysts and historians have trotted out various parallels, likening the campaign’s most surprising — and, to some, alarming — candidate, Republican nominee Donald Trump, to myriad would-be strongmen and actual dictators, including Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

These comparative gestures, particularly to Hitler, serve to obscure more than they reveal. But they go to show the depth of concern about Trump’s candidacy and rhetoric, which taps into a larger far-right, populist turn that also seems to be taking place across the pond.

On Monday, a letter posted by a German working in the United States that urged Americans to vote against Trump went viral.

“Go ahead, vote for the guy with the loud voice who hates minorities, threatens to imprison his opponents, doesn't give a f--- about democracy, and claims he alone can fix everything. What could possibly go wrong? Good luck,” read the letter, with the hashtag #BeenThereDoneThat.

As WorldViews noted, the impulse to invoke Hitler in a modern-day analogy is less common among Germans than elsewhere.

“Hitler comparisons are far less frequent in German public life than they are elsewhere in Europe, the U.S., or Israel,” German historian Thomas Weber explained to my colleague Rick Noack. But he went on: “The near consensus [in Germany] indeed is that Trump is a minority-hating lout, who threatens to imprison his opponents, has disdain for democracy, and claims that he alone can fix everything.”

Georg Diez, a columnist for the German newsweekly Der Spiegel, wrote a similarly stinging critique of Trump on Monday.

“It is disastrous that a racist with fascist tendencies has come so close to taking over power in this country, a man who appeals to hate, greed and the basest of instincts, an agitator who plays people off against each other, who abhors losers and who adheres to the credo: might makes right,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, here’s the point that many Trump critics seem to be making: Forget the Hitler metaphor and think about the larger context.

Trump isn’t Hitler and his opponents aren’t the enemies Hitler and other 1930s fascists sought to crush. Consider, instead, the underlying conditions that allowed for Hitler’s rise. That’s what Mark Mazower, an acclaimed scholar of 20th-century Europe and a professor of history at Columbia University, illustrated in a lucid essay on the nature of fascism published over the weekend in the Financial Times.

Mazower begins with an obvious caveat about our present moment: “No one is calling for a single party state. There are no serried ranks of black- or brownshirts marching through the streets. There are no royalists who will embrace anyone rather than fall into the abyss of Bolshevism.”

But, he observes, “the racism and anti-immigrant feeling at [fascism’s] heart never went away.” This has been amplified at a period of profound political and perhaps even cultural crisis in the West, with populist movements rejecting the claims of a supposed “globalist” elite, balking at immigration and championing the defense of sovereignty and national borders.

This backlash has had a range of effects: It has led to a segment of the American voting public developing a marked hostility to the perceived “establishment,” the media and even the democratic process. It has called into question the independence of the judiciary and federal law enforcement agencies. And it has accentuated the sense of an insurmountable divide within American society.

“Underpinning the rise of fascism was a profound crisis of liberal democracy,” explains Mazower when discussing the collapse of Weimar Germany. “The real lesson waiting to be learned is from this interwar crisis of democratic institutions.”

He lays out the mood at the time:

Across Europe, many blamed the power of the legislature for society’s woes and wanted to see more power in the hands of a single leader. Parliaments were written off as façades that rubber-stamped what unaccountable lobbies and elites demanded.

The most striking parallel of all: political parties moved to the extremes and spoke about one another as if they were fundamentally illegitimate. Judiciary and police became politicized. It is this crisis of institutions that provides the most striking parallel between Weimar and the US today.

This toxic reality of parties that view the other as “fundamentally illegitimate” cripples more fragile democracies in other parts of the world; it can prompt coups, the jailing of the opposition, and pave the way for authoritarian rule.

That sense of a zero-sum game — epitomized by Trump’s apparent refusal ahead of Nov. 8 to accept defeat if it seems he has lost — is the atmosphere choking the air on Election Day in the United States. And it can’t be dispelled by one day at the ballot box, as Mazower concludes:

But fascism was always about more than the dictators. Indeed, as the conservative political thinker Michael Oakeshott wrote decades ago, it is a kind of liberal illusion to focus on the figure of the dictator, as though one person was the only problem. The real problems lie in the dictator’s shadow, in the conditions that enable the leader’s rise. The hollowing out of those basic institutions without which no modern state or society can govern itself, the extremism of political discourse — these things are already with us. And seem set to persist in the U.S.

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