Credit: Martin Schoeller/ TIME

Donald Trump, a dictator rising

10 mins read
Credit: Martin Schoeller/ TIME

“He shouted out really, really simple political ideas. I thought he wasn’t quite normal.”

“I myself had the feeling that here was a man who did not think about himself and his own advantage, but solely about the good of the people.”

“A glance, a gesture, was enough to send the crowd into raptures. People used to become oblivious of everything but their idol and would shout with tremendous enthusiasm.”

Those were the words said of two 1930s dictators, who defined the charismatic and “inspiring” leadership. It is not the leadership of today, but the hallmarks of dictatorial style seen in Hitler and Mussolini are all to easy to see in Donald Trump.

Before Trump became President Trump – moving from his position as the head of US television show The Apprentice – we laughed at just how ridiculous he was. Now, we seem to have fallen into quiet disbelief as this – and I will say it plainly – baboon prances his way through the halls of the White House.

But we should not underestimate this intriguing case study for the rise of dictator-like politics that has the potential to emerge from the early decades of the 21st century. As Marx said, history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”.

Hitler and Trump

When Adolf Hitler rose to power, it was on the back of a wave of anger and feeling of being outcast by the establishment born out of Germany’s punishment for the First World War.

Contrary to popular belief, Germany wasn’t in dire straits for the entirety of the period between WW1 and WW2; the mid-to-late 1920s saw a time of general prosperity for Germany, but it existed concurrently with inconceivably high levels of government spending in infrastructure.

In 1913, spending per head was at 20.5 marks; by 1925 that figure had risen to 60 marks. The crash which followed coincided with the Wall Street crash of 1929, and it saw Germany’s situation dramatically deteriorate.

Those at the bottom, forgotten by the establishment, were left hungry, and turned to someone with an obvious and grand solution to the problem for help. That man, Hitler.

He pointed to the Jews as the source of the problem, just as Trump has turned to the people of Mexico to denounce them for “bringing crime, they’re bringing drugs, they’re rapists”.

One man, Jorge Ramos – a Mexican immigrant, who has lived in the US for 30 years – decided to challenge Trump. He wrote him a letter with his phone number, asking for an interview.

Trump posted his number online. Ramos then confronted Trump in person and the result of that was, well, you can see for yourself in the video below.

The presenter calls this a “remarkable confrontation”; this is not a “remarkable confrontation”. This is a suppression of the freedom of the press to hold those in power to account. The bouncers proceeded to tell Ramos to go back to his own country, despite the fact he is an American citizen.

The posting of Ramos’s number online also acted as a warning to any other would-be investigators: Mess with me, and I will mess with you.

I highly recommend watching Jorge Ramos’s TED Talk on the matter, it is quite inspiring, but equally depressing.

What do Trump and Hitler have in common? Their ability to manipulate the national consciousness. Trump speaks in simple political terms, just as Hitler did. He also pins the problems of a nation on ridiculously simplistic bodies, such as the Mexicans/Muslims/anyone who isn’t an American.

Trump has created this notion of a pure American: He stands up for the true American man and woman; he will protect the American people from those non-Americans coming to the US and taking advantage of you all.

Not only that, but Trump’s flamboyant and outrageous rallies are reminiscent of a bygone era, in which speaking directly to an enraptured audience was the method by which Mussolini and Hitler rose so easily to power – and with such power.

As Dennis says in Monty Python: The Holy Grail: “Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses”.

And, indeed, it is from the crowd that Trump has taken his legitimacy.

Mussolini and Trump

Mussolini was one of the first great leaders of the modern era to realise the potential of the moving image in the controlling of the people. Indeed, it creates a kind of imagined community, a sense of loyalty to an idea of a community in which the sovereign is the natural leader.

That man was Mussolini, and he captured the imagination of Italy. Television and cinema has been around for a long time now, but the media is the oxygen to the flame that is Donald Trump’s existence.

Outrageous actions, sackings left right and centre which inspire genuine laughs from the press galleries, grandiose ideas (I am talking about walls here), misogyny, and so forth – all of these stoke a flame that is symptomatic of a millennium governed by the media.

When I say “governed by the media”, I do not mean in it in a Trumpian, clear-the-swamp sense; rather, how we absorb our information today is mostly through the media and not rallies, and we can now interact with our leaders through the media.

Announcing policy before consulting his staff has become the order of the day for Mr Trump, and he will not shy away from insulting an entire demographic should the occasion arise.

Mussolini also promised Italy empty, ludicrous promises. Just as “Il Dulce” promised to reclaim Gibraltar from Britain, Trump promises to build a wall at the border with Mexico, and have a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”.

Empty promises are another identifiable aspect of dictatorships, as was mentioned in a recent special edition of Timewatch on the very matter of dictators.

Order, loyalty, respect

If there is one very concerning thing about the rhetoric emerging from the White House in just the last month or so, it is that of order, loyalty and respect.

Just after being sacked as the head of the FBI, James Comey revealed Donald Trump expected loyalty from him.

He went further:  “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”

“I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.”

Retired general John Kelly was recently appointed chief of staff to replace Reince Priebus – who was caught up in the Scaramucci fiasco – in order to bring discipline and order to the White House.

Just last week, upon the announcement of not allowing transgender persons to fill army roles, Trump said it was to ensure the military was “focused on decisive and overwhelming victory” which would be jeopardised by the “disruption” caused by transgender personnel.

If I was to be rather crass about all of this, I would say the Republican Party are doing a great job of pussyfooting around up until now.

Now, there are some making a stand, with the likes of John McCain emerging as a potential headache for Trump in the months and years to come.

The Trump administration is taking each day as it comes, with no ability to plan or preempt what the next day will bring. Is that stability? Is that order? What it might require is a strong hand, and goodness knows will that be a black day for America.

Featured Image Credit: Martin Schoeller/ TIME

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“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

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