Noam Chomsky on Whether the Rise of Trump Resembles the Rise of Fascism in 1930s Germany

No matter where you are in the world, you must by now be well-acquainted with the political chaos in the United States. No one can confidently predict what’s going to happen next. A certain privileged few still find the situation amusing; a certain few have found a tremendous opportunity to increase profit and standing, embracing the madness by embracing Donald Trump, the celebrity real estate mogul some on the right have dubbed their “Great White Hope.”

A column last week by the far-right nationalist Pat Buchanan— whom Trump once denounced as a “Hitler-Lover”—ran with the idea, expressing the paranoiac fantasies of thousands of white supremacists who have rallied behind the Republican nominee. Rhetoric like Buchanan’s and David Duke’s—another supporter Trump once disavowed (then famously didn’t, then eventually did again)—has demolished the “Overton window,” we hear. America’s racist table talk is now a major party platform: the proverbial crank uncle who immiserates Christmas dinner with wild conspiracy theories now airs grievances 24 hours a day on cable news, unbound by “political correctness” or standards of accuracy of any kind.

Granted, a majority of the electorate is hardly thrilled by the likely alternative to Trump, but as even conservative author P.J. O’Rourke quipped in his backhanded endorsement of Hillary Clinton, “She’s wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters.” There’s nothing “normal” about Donald Trump’s candidacy. Its freakishness enthralls his adoring fans. But the millions of Americans who aren’t among them have legitimate cause for alarm.

Comparisons to Hitler and Mussolini may have worn out their usefulness in elections past—frivolous as they often were—but the Trump campaign’s overt demagoguery, vicious misogyny, racism, violent speech, actual violence, complete disregard for truth, threats to free speech, and simplistic, macho cult of personality have prompted plausible shouts of fascism from every corner.

Former Republican Massachusetts governor (and recently rejected Libertarian vice-presidential candidate) William Weld equated Trump’s immigration plan with Kristallnacht, an analogy, writes Peter Baker in The New York Times that is “not a lonely one.” (“There is nobody less of a fascist than Donald Trump,” the candidate retorted.) Likewise, conservative columnist Robert Kagan recently penned a Times op-ed denouncing Trump as a fascist, a position, he writes, without a “coherent ideology” except its nationalist attacks on racial and religious others and belief in “the strongman, the leader (Il Duce, Der Führer), in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation.”

On the liberal left, figures like former labor secretary Robert Reich and actor and Democratic Party organizer George Clooney have made the charge, as well as columnists in the New Republic and elsewhere. In the video above from Democracy Now, Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto compares Trump to Hitler, and Columbia University’s Robert Paxton—who has written articles and a book on his theory of fascism—discusses the possibility of Trump-as-fascist.

At the top of the post, Noam Chomsky (MIT professor and author of the new book, Who Rules the World?) weighs in, with his analysis of the “generalized rage” of “mainly working class, middle class, and poor white males” and their “traditional families” coalescing around Trump. (Anyone who objects to Chomsky’s characterization of Trump as a circus clown should take a moment to revisit his reality show career and performance in the WWE ring, not to mention those debates.)

In Chomsky’s assessment, we need only look to U.S. history to find the kind of “strong” racialized nativism Trump espouses, from Benjamin Franklin’s aversion to German and Swedish immigrants, who were “not pure Anglo-Saxons like us,” to later parties like the 19th century Know Nothings. Perhaps, as John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker last year, that’s what Trump represents.

The history of nativism, Chomsky goes on, “continues into the 20th century. There’s a myth of Anglo-Saxonism. We’re pure Anglo-Saxons. (If you look around, it’s a joke.)” Now, there’s “the picture of us being overwhelmed by Muslims and Mexicans and the Chinese. Somehow, they’ve taken our country away.” This notion (which people like David Duke call “white genocide”) is

Based on something objective. The white population is pretty soon going to become a minority (whatever ‘white’ means)…. The response to this is generalized anger at everything. So every time Trump makes a nasty comment about whoever, his popularity goes up. Because it’s based on hate, you know. Hate and fear. And it’s unfortunately kind of reminiscent of something unpleasant: Germany, not many years ago.

Chomsky discusses Germany’s plummet from its cultural and political heights in the 20s—when Hitler received 3% of the vote—to the decay of the 30s, when the Nazis rose to power. Though the situations are “not identical,” they are similar enough, he says, to warrant concern. Likewise, the economic destruction of Greece, says Chomsky may (and indeed has) lead to the rise of a fascist party, a phenomenon we’ve witnessed all over Europe.

The fall of the Weimar Republic has a complicated history whose general outlines most of us know well enough. Germany’s defeat in WWI and the punitive, post-Treaty of Versailles’ reparations that contributed to hyperinflation and total economic collapse do not parallel the current state of affairs in the U.S.—anxious and agitated as the country may be. But Hitler’s rise to power is instructive. Initially dismissed as a clown, he struggled for political power for many years, and his party barely managed to hold a majority in the Reichstag in the early 30s. The historical question of why few—in Germany or in the U.S.—took Hitler seriously as a threat has become a commonplace. (Partly answered by the amount of tacit support both there and here.)

Hitler’s struggle for dominance truly catalyzed when he allied with the country’s conservatives (and Christians), who made him Chancellor. Thus began his program of Gleichschaltung—“synchronization” or “bringing into line”—during which all former opposition was made to fully endorse his plans. In similar fashion, Trump has fought for political relevance on the right for years, using xenophobic bigotry as his primary weapon. It worked. Now that he has taken over the Republican Party—and the religious right—we’ve seen nearly all of Trump’s opponents on the right, from politicians to media figures, completely fold under and make fawning shows of support. Even some Bernie Sanders supporters have found ways to justify supporting Trump.

But Trump is “not Hitler,” as his wife Melania claimed in his defense after his supporters swarmed journalist Julia Ioffe with grotesque anti-Semitic attacks. Although he has an obvious affinity for white nationalists and neo-Nazis (see his activity on social media and elsewhere) and perhaps a fondness for Hitler’s speeches, the comparison has serious drawbacks. Trump is something else—something perhaps more farcical and bumbling, but maybe just as dangerous given the forces he has unified and elevated domestically, and the dangers of such an unstable, petty, vindictive person taking over the world’s largest military, and nuclear arsenal.

Perhaps he’s just a tasteless, cynical con-man entertainer using hate as another means of self-advancement. He has non-white and Jewish supporters!, his voters claim. He holds “corrupt and liberal New York values“! say conservative detractors. These objections ring hollow given all Trump has said and done in recent years. His campaign, and the response it has drawn, looks enough like those of previous far-right racist leaders that calling Trump a fascist doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. That should seriously alarm any honest person who isn’t a far-right xenophobic nationalist.

Related Content:

Noam Chomsky Defines What It Means to Be a Truly Educated Person

Noam Chomsky Slams Žižek and Lacan: Empty ‘Posturing’

How to Spot Bullshit: A Primer by Princeton Philosopher Harry Frankfurt

Rare 1940 Audio: Thomas Mann Explains the Nazis’ Ulterior Motive for Spreading Anti-Semitism

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (26)
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  • Patrick says:

    You accuse the right of fear and hate-mongering in this drivel. Surely you’re smart enough to see the hypocrisy of your own statements.

  • John says:

    If Hillary wasn’t a criminal and liar I might be able to vote for her but it appears that the Donald is this years version of hope and change. BHO was so awful that the pendulum has swung fully in the other direction.

  • Ed Wood says:

    By “political chaos,” the author means “There is a candidate who doesn’t subscribe to the allowable opinion within the parameters of (a) gigantic government and endless war and political cronyism and (b) really large government, endless war, and political cronyism.” Statists like the author are typical fear mongers whose warnings fail to materialize again and again, but somehow they’re still taken seriously. Laughable.

  • Josh Jones says:

    @Patrick: Did you actually read the “drivel,” or do you genuinely think allying with neo-Nazis is benign?

    @Ed Wood: a) Trump’s promises to build a wall on the border and deport millions of people are not examples of “gigantic government”? How is this possible without massive expenditures and mobilization of huge numbers of police and government personnel? It isn’t! Do you think Trump would end cronyism? How? What makes him a banner of integrity? Please explain. He’s already cozied up to the NRA and more or less promised giveaways to fossil fuel energy companies, undermining all action on climate change. His threats to kill terrorists’ families and reinstitute torture are not calls for more war? Or is all of this just empty talk we should ignore because he doesn’t mean anything he says? The warnings above aren’t my warnings–they’re those of all the people I cited. Are Weld and Chomsky “statists”? Laughable.

  • Dan says:

    The author made an error in stating that Hitlers party barely held on to a majority in the Reichstag. Actually no one had a majority. The Nazis were for a time the largest party but just a tad less than 40% and were losing popularity rapidly. In the last reasonably free election in November 1932 they lost so many seats that Goebbels was in despair. After Hitler was appointed Chancellor the next January that changed. Groups like this don’t need majorities, just enough to have influence in the right quarters. How the Nazis got power is a complex story completely relevant to our times.

    I also disagree with the summary that Trump is not a Hitler. That is more hopeful than realistic. We tend to believe that Hitler was somehow a one-off, something particularly evil. Actually his character is commonplace. They exist everywhere. Hitler’s supposed genius has been considerably exaggerated. He was “farcical and bumbling.” And also a “tasteless, cynical, con-man”. The circumstances were just right, basically chances of history. The Versailles treaty just set up the perfect circumstances for such characters as many people at that time predicted, including John Maynard Keynes and a little later even Winston Churchill. Trump is a fascist and is a very great danger to this country and of course the world.

    The commentator above who called the article writer a typical fear mongerer whose warnings fail to materialize doesn’t know his history or anything about the present state of the world. They do materialize, and often.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Thanks for the correction, Dan. I agree with your comments. In saying that Trump is “not Hitler,” I mean that he’s basically a different kind of fascist, but a fascist nonetheless. I also wrote that he’s “maybe just as dangerous” and that we should all be alarmed at his rise. Realistically, I do believe that’s so, and that the conditions are right in this country for someone like him.

  • Dan says:

    There was something I didn’t put in because I thought my comment might be too long but since some people might notice I suppose it should be added. There was another election in March 1933 where the Nazi’s won back many seats. But that was after Hitler had been appointed Chancellor so that election could reflect a couple of things. One is an increasing dubiousness about the freedom of the elections. The other is the cachet Hitler had achieved simply by then holding that office. What worries me is the apparent legitimacy attached, possibly subconsciously, by many to people in position of real or apparent authority. Consider how far that complete idiot Sarah Palin got just be being chosen as a vice presidential candidate. Now Trump has achieved a similar assumed legitimacy among many which automatically increases his support. Another scary parallel.

  • A.pfeiffer says:

    As a Christian I am alarmed and shocked by Trump’s popularity in the church both in the u.s and Canada.jesus said “I am not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them”.this is a message of love,not hate and fear mongering.christians everywhere need to wake up.

  • Stau says:

    Only had to ready the headline to immediate think “Let me guess. It is!” Your bias is astonishing.

  • Bill W. says:

    Why vote for the lesser of two evils when one can vote for a better, third-option? I’ll be voting Libertarian this time around, Johnson is polling double-digits against Trump and Hillary–meaning he has a chance (34% needed)!

  • Josh Jones says:

    @Stau: Ah, yes, I have an astonishing bias against fascism. How damning.

  • Peter says:

    Steve Mosher, a Catholic convert, has given guarded approval of Trump because of his list of possible Supreme Court Nominees. Hillary would certainly make the SC a Leftist organization. From Canada.

  • Patrick Hattaway says:

    @Patrick…Dunno who you are, but you give my name a bad name.
    @Other detractors…Trump could be this bad. To think otherwise is to be a poor student of history.

  • Patrick Hattaway says:

    @Dan…What you say is correct. Hannah Arendt parsed out these ideas with great clarity half a century ago, but history is taught poorly, and less well remembered.

  • NikFromNYC says:

    Chomsky is Marx’s chimp. Everyone knows this.

  • Erik says:

    Chomsky is a moron so who really cares? Wish I could block him from my world

  • Linda S. Coble says:

    Thank You.

  • Linda S. Coble says:

    Thanks again – for the perspective and the enlightening history lesson. Do not fear that no one pays attention to thoughtful and knowledgeable commentary online. It’s the sound bite thinkers who are suspect.

  • Stuart LeVine says:

    Colman’s love of Chomsky, a fanatical leftist wacko, is all you need to know to dismiss this drivel.

  • James Phillips says:

    When Bernie was running, the common wisdom was “great ideas, but he’ll never get enough support to make them happen.” This about a decades-long DC veteran with a history of bipartisan dealmaking.

    But somehow Trump, who is overwhelmed with detractors and has made enemies on both sides, will easily turn America into a fascist state upon taking office.

  • Henry Hildebrand says:

    I would like to hear more detail on the effects of the treaty of Versailles, and the culture that made Hitler’s rise so fertile. It may explain the blind spot in reasoning that Trump supporters have, and (God help us) find a way to counteract their rabid vitriol and desire for destruction.

  • MWBrown says:

    Google is your friend.

    You’ve already got Versailles Treaty, now add Weimar Republic, and you’re on your way to deeper understanding!

    Good luck.

  • Wll says:

    His statements are valid. Surely you understand that?

  • greg says:

    hes referring to the notion that the usa is one that is governed by rational choices, civic morality and rule of law. trump represents none of these, he represents the opposite. i guess i was wrong about white trash america not actually being trashy enough to vote him in. thank jesus its only a matter of time before white people become a statistical minority—he is the death knell of the dinosaur obnoxious white racists have been for over a decade yest havent had the good taste to recognize.

  • Rudolf Mencken says:

    The real question isn’t whether Trump is a fascist–this easily beocmes either a mere swear word or an empty historical quibble–but how bad is he–is he as bad as a fascist?

    The answer to that is–barring something on the scale of Hitler’s Final Solution, which came at the very end of the Nazi apogee and arguably was not definitive for fascism as a whole–he will be fully as bad when:

    – His private protection staff (schutzstaffel)–which currently does exist–becomes united with a consolidated State police charged with stamping out all effective political opposition.

    – He becomes the benficiary of some sort of Enabling Act that gives him legal dictatorial authority.

    – He establishes concentration camps, death squads, kangaroo courts, and/or other comparable means of physical coercion necessary to maintain a dictatorship.

    – He mobilizes the entire population through propaganda, huge rallies, and coercive professional and other organizations to unite in an organized manner against Muslims and other designated “enemies of the state.”

    Short of at least these basics, you don’t really have fascism. A little populist BS mixed in with authoritarianism, militarism, austeriterianism, and threatening language by itself doesn’t really meet the test.

    The question is, how much difference, if any, does this distinction really make? Bad enough is pretty bad no matter what you call it.

  • harold says:

    W went from a lier to a super lie on steroiods. We have our first dictator and will enact the agenda of the john birch society aka tea party aka Republican party

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