That does not mean there is no historical precedent for campaigning — and ruling — on a platform of messianic certainty, though. One man who did it was Adolf Hitler.
I know: Likening any modern politician to Hitler is a dodgy errand. And while people have been making the comparison this year, it’s usually unfair and inapt. Hitler was ultimate evil. Trump is no mass murderer; Trump is no Nazi; Trump has launched no wars.
But to any serious student of Hitler’s frightening and unforeseen rise to power in Germany, the recurring echoes in Trump’s speeches, interviews and his underlying thinking have become too blatant to overlook.
No resemblance has been stronger than Trump’s claim that he “alone” could rescue America from its misery. Hitler famously conjured the model of “the genius, the great man” who alone held the key to a country’s destiny. Calling democracy “a joke,” Hitler fiercely disdained what he called “weak majorities.” Progress and civilization could be achieved only through “the genius and energy of a great personality,” wrote Hitler in “Mein Kampf,” his racist political manifesto. Among the great personalities he included Frederick the Great of Prussia, Napoleon Bonaparte, Otto von Bismarck and, by implication, himself.
Hitler was building the case for the “Führer principle” — a belief in the iron infallibility of the leader. It was an elaborate, historically wrought version of the “I alone” principle. With it, Hitler eventually won power in Germany and governed as an absolute despot.
Trump’s analog is: “Trust me.” Leading up to his “I alone” moment at last week’s convention was a long string of assertions by Trump that we just have to trust him — trust him to solve problems and implement even implausibly ambitious programs like rounding up 11 million undocumented immigrants. When challenged during the primaries for programs or plans on how he would carry out his extreme policy proposals, he habitually fell back on “trust me” or variations such as his “unbelievable ability” to “get things done.”
“There has to be a trust,” he told reporters in Michigan who asked for details about his programs. Several times this campaign, he has opened a window on his belief in himself as a unique repository of wisdom by claiming that “I predicted terrorism.” (After the shooting in Orlando that killed 49 people last month, Trump tweeted his thanks to people for congratulating him for being right about such attacks.) Citing one of his books, Trump explained his unique ability to sense terrorism coming when all others are blind: “I predicted terrorism because I can feel it. I can feel it like a good location.”
Trump’s claim of singular powers was on display in an interview with Time shortly before the convention. He accused Germany, Japan and South Korea of playing the United States “for suckers” on defense spending and asserted: “They should pay us, pay us substantially, and they will if I ask them. If somebody else asks them, they won’t.”
Deflecting calls for specifics with assertions of superior ability is a technique that Hitler used, too. He increasingly monopolized the Nazi movement during the 1920s until “the idea,” as his followers called National Socialism, was identical with the man. Likewise, Trump likes to call his juggernaut a movement, but it is really a one-man show. In business, Trump wrote in his 1987 memoir, “The Art of the Deal,” “everyone underneath the top guy in a company is just an employee.” So it would seem in Trump’s political movement, as well, and so one would expect it in a Trump administration. (Trump’s ghostwriter recently denounced the book as mostly invented, but Trump fervently defended the book’s contents as his own.)
Hitler saw himself as singularly endowed to avert Armageddon and reach national greatness. For Hitler, there was no middle ground between the “total downfall” threatening Germany at the hands of a Jewish-Bolshevik world conspiracy and his vision of a renewed German glory — a vision of an instant “leap from despair to utopia,” as historian Fritz Stern put it. Trump, too, posits a pending American cataclysm that can be averted only through his election, which will lead directly to reclaimed greatness.
Trump speaks as though on a mountaintop, holding carved tablets, when he says: “I am your voice.” Hitler climbed to the mountaintop in the very first paragraph of “Mein Kampf.” In his opening words, he invoked Providence to describe the moment and place of his birth. Providence, frequently cited, was Hitler’s surrogate for God throughout the more than 700-page book. “Personality” was his euphemism for the characteristics that mark the Great Man.
“Personality cannot be replaced,” Hitler wrote. “It is not mechanically trained, but inborn by God’s grace.”
This is the core of a messianic complex and the central pillar of the Führer myth — that Hitler was born with the magic wand. By shifting to the magical realism of God-given prescience, Hitler made it easier for people to discard skepticism, shelve their demands for actual solutions and excuse all of the coarseness they saw in the candidate. If this guy has the secret potion — he says he does! — I’m going with him.
So with Trump. After conjuring a nation in utter peril last week and blithely announcing the end of crime and violence was at hand next Jan. 20, he gave doubters the final push they might need to suspend disbelief and take the leap: “I alone can fix it.”
It worked well for Hitler. When the Great Depression hit in late 1929, Hitler’s missionary style began pulling voters over the line of their own resistance to the oddball Nazi, making his party the second-largest in Parliament in the 1930 elections. In 1932, Hitler doubled his vote to 37.4 percent, and the Nazis became Germany’s largest party. By January 1933, they were in charge.
For all the echoes, no one could seriously argue that January 2017 would replicate January 1933 if Trump is sworn in. Yet it throws new light on Trump’s “I alone” mantra to be reminded of its historical antecedents, at least in the matter of megalomania. Trump seems profoundly ignorant of history — in a recent New York Times interview, he claimed not to know that his “America First” slogan was also used for an isolationist movement that flirted with Nazi-sympathizing in the 1930s and early 1940s. Although Trump may know nothing of Hitler’s techniques, his instincts are uncannily reminiscent of them. As in the 1930s, voters are invited into Wonderland, and desperate ones might feel the urge to go.