The Economist, a fine British newsmagazine, is rarely wrong, but it was recently in strongly suggesting that the casual disregard for truth that is the very soul of Donald Trump’s campaign is something new under the sun. The technology — tweets and such — certainly is, but his cascade of immense lies certainly is not. I’d like to familiarize the Economist with Adolf Hitler.
I realize that the name Hitler has the distractive quality of pornography and so I cite it only with reluctance. Hitler, however, was not a fictional creation but a real man who was legally chosen to be Germany’s chancellor, and while Trump is neither an anti-Semite nor does he have designs on neighboring countries, he is Hitlerian in his thinking. He thinks the truth is what he says it is.
Soon after becoming chancellor, Hitler announced that the Jews had declared war on Germany. It was a preposterous statement because Jews were less than 1 percent of Germany’s population and had neither the numbers nor the power to make war on anything. In fact, in sheer preposterousness, it compares to Trump’s insistence that Barack Obama was not born in the United States — a position he tenaciously held even after Obama released his Hawaiian birth certificate.
At the time, people tried to make sense of Hitler’s statements by saying he was seeking a scapegoat and had settled on the Jews. Not so. From my readings, I know of no instance in which Hitler confided to an intimate that, of course, his statements about Jews were, as we might now say, over the top. In fact, he remained consistently deranged on the topic. He was not lying. For him, it was the truth.
Trump’s fixation on Obama’s birthplace is similar. It was not, as far as he’s concerned, a lie. It was a strongly felt truth that he abandoned only last week and then only under intense pressure — not out of conviction. To Trump, the lie was not what he had been saying about Obama’s birthplace; it was the one he had told when he finally was compelled to say that Obama was born in the U.S.A. The reason he did not apologize for having so long insisted otherwise is that an apology would have crossed his personal red line. Like a child, he had his fingers crossed.
Just as Hitler’s remarks about Jews were deeply rooted in German anti-Semitism, so was Trump’s birtherism rooted in American racism — with some anti-Muslim sentiment thrown in. Trump’s adamant insistence on it raised issues not, as some have so delicately put it, about his demeanor, but instead about his rationality. It made a joke out of the entire furor over revealing his medical records. I’m sure that Trump is fine physically. Mentally, it’s a different story.
In a purloined email, Colin Powell called Trump’s birther fixation “racist.” But the former secretary of state has never done so publicly, and his hesitation about Hillary Clinton — “for good reason she comes across as sleazy” — is no excuse for being AWOL in this fight. Like Henry Kissinger, George P. Shultz and some other GOP grandees, he has retreated to a neutral corner, as if the fight is not his, too. They all have their qualms with Clinton, but not a single one of them can possibly believe that the United States and its values will not survive her presidency. A Trump presidency is a different matter.
It’s a mistake to make the unreasonable compatible with the reasonable — to think, say, that Trump cannot be serious about this birther stuff or building a wall or likening the difficulties of becoming a billionaire to the loss of a son in Iraq. That was the authentic Trump, a man totally unburdened by concern for anyone else.
There is no lie that cannot be believed. Even after Germany had murdered most of Europe’s Jews, allied investigators at the end of World War II found that many Germans believed, as historian Nicholas Stargardt put it, that their country’s defeat only “confirmed the ‘power of world Jewry.’ ”
Germany was not some weird place. At the advent of the Hitler era, it was a democracy, an advanced nation, culturally rich and scientifically advanced. It had a unique history — its defeat in World War I, the hyperinflation of the 1920s — so it cannot easily be likened to the contemporary United States. But it was not all that different, either. In 1933, it chose a sociopathic liar as its leader. If the polls are to be believed, we may do the same.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.
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