Comparisons between President Donald Trump and Adolph Hitler often strike me as far-fetched, overwrought and occasionally, semi-hysterical.
But it’s worth noting that Hitler did not become Hitler overnight. Evil can afford to take its time. It often moves by tiny increments, barely noticeable even to those living in the middle of it.
Some of the signs are ominous. The great dictators of the 20th century depended on the force of their personalities rather than policy, and their lifeblood was grievance. They managed to convince a critical mass of their populations that their troubles were the result of the transgressions of others, particularly those of other races and religions.
They repressed and compromised the free press. They depended on lies until the notion of objective fact began to lose all meaning. They relied on emotions – love of country, hatred of the other – rather than on ideas. They loved rallies and passionate speeches.
They militarized their societies. When we think of the great totalitarians of the last century – Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Tojo – we nearly always picture them in uniform.
Does any of this sound like Donald Trump? You don’t have to be hysterical to find Trump’s attitude toward the free press, for example, to be alarming. Recently he called the press “the enemy of the people,” evidently naive about the totalitarian heritage of that phrase.
Trump has threatened to “open up our libel laws,” and last week the White House took the extraordinary step of banning disfavored news organizations from Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s daily briefing.
Trump’s contempt for the press complements his lack of regard for accuracy, and he relies much more on passion than on policy, ideas or facts.
And while, except for his prep school days, it’s hard to imagine Trump in uniform, he has surrounded himself with generals. Recently he referred – maybe in a Freudian slip – to the deportation surge as a “military operation.”
Trump told the president of Mexico that if he couldn’t control the “bad hombres” south of the border, Trump would send U.S. troops to do the job. If he was joking, it was an ominous, revealing joke.
There’s much more. But are we on the verge of a Reichian regime? Let’s not get carried away, just yet.
But last summer my Jewish wife and I visited Sachsenhausen, a lesser-known former concentration camp north of Berlin. Our German guide, Jens, showed us the camp headquarters, the parade ground, the reconstructed barracks, the gas chambers and the ovens. It’s a bleak, dreary place, a grim monument to what happens when nationalism and hate go mad.
Jens provided an insight into the pace of evil: When Sachsenhausen was built in 1936, it was represented as a “labor camp,” in a positive, aspirational sense. Its gate bore the same sign as the gate at Auschwitz: “Arbeit macht frei”: “Work sets you free.”
Sachsenhausen took in the unemployed – there were many in Germany in 1936 – and gave them work and taught them a trade. A few were released to demonstrate the camp’s effectiveness. Over time, the camp began to incarcerate petty criminals, drug addicts and the homeless. From there it was only a short step to homosexuals, Romani, prisoners of war and, of course, Jews. Many thousands died at Sachsenhausen.
Jens said that the Germans could accept the notorious concentration camps that came later only by accepting them a little at a time.
So how do you round up and deport 11 million otherwise law-abiding undocumented workers? You start with the “bad ones,” the gang members, the murderers and rapists. As Trump says, “those are the ones who go first.” Who could object to that?
But the word “first” is important. Evil is incremental. It always starts a little at a time.
Germany did not become Nazi Germany overnight. I’m certain that many average Germans were surprised and mortified to wake up one morning and realize what their country had gradually become.
The writer is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.