About 35 people came to Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on March 23 for an hour of conversation with radio veteran Angie Coiro and two history professors on comparing Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to the German despot Adolph Hitler.
Critics of this discussion are "afraid we are diminishing the importance of one of the greatest horrors of modern times," Ms. Coiro said. "What we're doing here today is (a) serious and respectful (look) at the parallels between the rise of Hitler and the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the forefront of the American Republican Party."
Ms. Coiro's program, "In Deep," is recorded live at Kepler's and airs Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. on radio station KALW (at 91.7 FM).
Her guests were Edith Sheffer, assistant professor of modern European history and German studies at Stanford University, and Charles Postel, associate professor of history at San Francisco State University, where he focuses on political thought and social movements, and teaches a course on American exceptionalism.
The economically dispossessed were part of Hitler's audience, as they are of Mr. Trump's, but Hitler's popularity was a "big tent" movement, as is Mr. Trump's, Ms. Sheffer said. Nazism succeeded, she said, because it cut across social cleavages such as religion, gender, class, and urban versus rural.
"To listen to (Mr. Trump's) speeches, you would think that we are on the verge of calamity," she said. "The sense of national demise is really there." His remedies xenophobia and deportation and his habit of citing his poll numbers and the size of his rallies, feed into his myth-making enterprise, she said.
"If you read his speeches, you get a sense of magical thinking: anything is possible," Ms. Sheffer said. "We can make America great again. It is possible to deport 11 million, 12 million Mexicans; it is possible to ban Muslims."
A candidate who projects a mythical image without specific policies can create a blank slate onto which people will project what they agree with and dismiss what they disagree with, she said. Hitler did that with anti-Semitism, winning over people who thought he would discard those views once in office, she said.
Political violence at rallies is also something the two men have in common, Ms. Sheffer said. The violence at Hitler's rallies "was very much a dramatization, as we're beginning to see at Trump rallies," she said. "I definitely see parallels with the climate of political violence that then escalated in Weimar Germany, and how, ironically, this fed ... Hitler's image of law and order, and how, ironically, these protests are feeding into a Trump image of law and order. The strong man."
"We have, in this country, a long history of racially charged and xenophobic politics," Mr. Postel said. "It didn't start with Trump, and it's been concentrated in the Republican Party over the last 20 or 30 years (and the party) is giving voice to this in ways that it has never done before, in more brutal forms than it's ever done before."
"There's this notion that every opponent is a traitor, someone trying to destroy the country," Mr. Postel said. "And if you really believe that a supporter of Barack Obama is an enemy of the United States, trying to hand the country over to Muslims, why shouldn't you beat them up? You should beat them up."
An important difference: Mr. Trump is using rhetoric, whereas Hitler used thugs, Mr. Postel said.
Hitler arose after a devastating war and national humiliation, with millions out of work. That's not the case today, Mr. Postel said, not with 72 months of job growth. "Yes, incomes have been flat for a long time (but) that's not what's going on here," he said. "This is a tapping of racial and other resentments."
Ms. Coiro asked about the ability of a politician to "speak to two sides of the street at the same time."
"In terms of racial politics, I think a good example would be Ronald Reagan, who was an expert at racially coding things," Mr. Postel said. "He knew how to signal racism, but always with a smile and always with complete deniability."
Mr. Reagan was also an expert at ridiculing the media, saying it was biased and not to be believed, Mr. Postel said. "But he did it in sort of a kind and joking way. Trump actually does the same, but uses violent language against the media and makes jokes about actually murdering journalists," he said. "It has the same deniability."
Among Trump's supporters, "the only thing that's not diverse about them is their skin color. It's white people, it's mainly white people," Mr. Postel said. "Trump is relatively adept at appealing to people who are upset with the trade deals," he added. "His basic appeal, though, is race. ... He puts deporting the Mexicans and building the wall at the center of every campaign speech, and I think there's a reason for that. That is the basis of the appeal. People are voting for him on that basis."
If Trump's supporters think the life of the country is at stake, they may well think they have to take out black protesters and Mexicans and Muslims, Ms. Coiro said, then asked whether we can learn from history and get people to question their views.
"Political combat has always been tough, it's always been ugly, it's always been hard fought," Mr. Postel said. "There's no reason to think that's going to end. (But) we cannot have one of our major political parties be a party of white resentment and white power and xenophobia. We have a majority of these people controlling state legislatures across this country, and I don't consider Trump an outlier. ... Trump may not win, but we are going to have this banging on our door until this is solved."
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