On Veteran’s Day (a.k.a. Armistice Day), our national holiday to recognize and appreciate the sacrifices of those who have defended the country and acknowledge our participation in WW1, the former President of the United States called his political enemies “vermin” and encouraged their extermination.
It was bad.
In fact, it was so bad that numerous very serious publications invoked the all-time comparisons of evil dictators—Hitler, Mussolini—to demonstrate to even the most obtuse readers how brazen Trump continues to be. They brought up the historical context and precedent for that kind of rhetoric, the horrible and terrifying consequences, and the ways it connects with other publicly disseminated plans to punish dissent and obliterate opposition should Trump come to power again.
And as someone who has spent the last 7+ years trying to bring attention to this, I have to say: The comparisons and condemnations won’t be enough.
This is the point where you probably throw your hands up in frustration and walk away, or close this tab, or just decide to watch kittens (strongly recommend). And I wouldn’t blame you. But I am not just here to sow distress or hopelessness. Understanding why comparing Trump (or anyone really) to Hitler and/or Mussolini won’t actually convince people to reject fascism is just the starting point for getting to the method that does.
Among the biggest problems with the historical comparison is that we are already taught history wrong and the invocation just makes it worse. Most of us are only aware of what Hitler and Mussolini became, not how they started. Added to the fact that we live in the 2020s United States and not 1930s Europe, it’s almost impossible for people to take the parallel from abstract to concrete. And then you’ve got the very real issue of people’s brains turning off or getting overwhelmed just by mentioning two of history’s greatest monsters. It’s a perfect recipe for ending a conversation, not starting one.
Then there’s the reality that many of us (myself included) don’t necessarily think about our politics as a tangible, day-to-day reality. Despite living in a marginalized identity and writing about politics for a living, I’m not in tune with every way that politics is shaping my existence; that is a recipe for a kind of misery that is too much even for me. The rhetoric, the threats, the plans for weaponizing the federal government: these sound so outlandish to most regular people going about their regular lives that panicking about it seems like a tremendous waste of time. As far as most people are concerned, it’s just something Trump is saying for attention or absurdity, because Joni Mitchell never lied when she said, “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”
The answer to this kind of trained apathy and disconnection is not to get louder (trust me, I’ve tried). It’s not to make the threat seem huge and impossible, or to give Trump an outsized presence in every conversation or your own mind. That’s giving him too much credit, and taking away valuable and precious headspace you need to be your best self. Instead, the resolution lies in tiny details.
People might not grasp the urgency of his rhetoric, but I’m almost certainly sure that if someone is disagreeing in good faith with you, they don’t think you should be dragged off to a camp or afraid to dissent. Most people don’t think that disputes over tax rates should be solved with violence. Most people don’t think that speaking a different language or wearing different clothes is grounds for the government to disappear you. And if they still feel strongly enough about it and you don’t want to disengage, then flip the script. Would it be ok for you to advocate doing those things to them if your side holds control over government?
Keep it small, simple, personal. Remind people of their principles: what they hold dear for themselves and the people they love; what motivates them to engage and connect with others; what they want from and for the world, and how that shapes their convictions and practice. Build a resistance to accepting a government that does whatever it wants to whomever it wants whenever and however it wants. Encourage a conception of freedom that is about the ability to disagree as much as it is to support.
Because the historical secret of the dictators we invoke to prevent new ones from rising is that they didn’t seize power; it was handed to them, willingly.