In 2016, springtime for Hitler has been held over by popular demand to summer and fall. “It’s difficult to say when the Hitler analogies got out of control,” observed the writer Michael Lind in Politico way back in March, after the somewhat unexpected trilogy of Bill Maher, Louis C.K., and Glenn Beck found common ground in likening Donald Trump to the Führer. But the avalanche of analogies never let up. By June, the onetime Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman was comparing Trump to both Hitler and Mussolini when addressing fellow GOP fat cats at Mitt Romney’s annual closed-door conclave in Park City. When a New York Times review of a new Hitler biography in September highlighted some striking Trump parallels, the book in question, a thousand pages long and translated from the German, soared up the Amazon list as perplexed Americans ransacked any source for clues to the provenance of the toxic lunatic who threatened their country.
Trump, I’ll argue not for the first time, is no Hitler. As Fran Lebowitz has said, there are 6 million reasons why not. And some other reasons as well: He has neither the attention span, organizational discipline, nor ideological zeal it takes to be a genocidal dictator. He doesn’t even have the skill set to avoid serial bankruptcies. Yet if Trump is no Hitler, he’s proved himself a stalking horse for a movement with Hitlerian ambitions, psychoses, and allies, the foremost of whom is a strongman with credible Hitler potential, Vladimir Putin. Trump has made himself the supreme leader of an enraged swath of Americans, perhaps some 40 percent of the electorate, as eager to blow up our republic as the Nazis were Weimar. A subset of that Trumpentariat adheres to neo-Nazi values (and in some cases neo-Nazi organizations) defined by a hatred of immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and most other racial and ethnic minorities. That group may not add up to the 50 percent excoriated as “deplorables” by Hillary Clinton, but it’s still sizable. After a parade of women accused Trump of sexual assault in the aftermath of “Grab them by the pussy,” a Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 74 percent of Republicans believed their party should continue to support him.
Whether Trump heads directly to political oblivion after Election Day or makes a soft landing at a new Trump TV channel, the Trumpist cause will outlive him. The Trumpists themselves, nurtured within the GOP in embryo for a half-century before Trump’s candidacy rallied them and rebranded them in his own image, will march on. Having already been emboldened by their easy conquest of a major political party, they will be more inflamed than ever by a crushing defeat in an election they are certain is rigged. They may yet rally around a new demagogue who is a more effective Hitler surrogate than Trump could ever be.
And that’s why a second, intertwined analogy remains very much on the table: the analogy between Trump’s collaborators and appeasers and their antecedents who stood idly by or actively abetted Hitler as he consolidated power in the Nazi era. The weak Republican elites who did little or nothing to bring Trump down in 2016 — and who have pandered to his constituency ever since Sarah Palin’s rallies boiled over into anti-Obama lynch-mob hysteria two presidential elections ago — cannot slink away from history’s harsh verdict on the grounds that Trump is no Hitler. After all, Hitler wasn’t fully Hitler either when too many men in power gave him a free pass in the 1930s. At the time Neville Chamberlain sealed Britain’s appeasement policy by signing the Munich Agreement of September 1938, Hitler was still six weeks away from Kristallnacht and a year away from invading Poland. It was not until 1942, according to the Holocaust historian Peter Novick, that “the special fate that Hitler had reserved for the Jews of Europe became known in the West.” But history has not judged that timeline to be an exculpatory factor for Chamberlain, the Vichy collaborators, and the startling number of prominent Americans, most notoriously the aviator turned arch-isolationist Charles Lindbergh, who earlier on eased Hitler’s glide path to his subsequent infamy.
Now historical judgment is lying in wait for their contemporary counterparts. Those in power who said “Yes” or “Maybe” to Trump will remain on the moral hook not only for him but for whatever form Trumpism takes after November 8. They’re in a lose-lose bind: As posterity won’t be kind to them over the long term, so voters, including those in their own party, will punish them in the near term, too.
To date, the blame game over accountability for Trump has focused mostly on the press (which, of course, is also found guilty by Trump and his followers of promoting Clinton). But the press didn’t create him and did not have the power to stop him. The reality is that Trump’s voters dismissed irrefutable journalism about his grotesque character and various scams, some of it dating back to the 1980s, much as they rationalized his bullying behavior and incendiary positions as a candidate in real time. His voters didn’t give a hoot about the outright fraud of Trump University, his other egregious businesses, his nonpayment of taxes, and his racial and sexual transgressions. They ridiculed or ignored the high-minded editorials and op-eds skewering Trump even when written by conservative pundits (George Will, Michael Gerson, and Bret Stephens most ferociously and persistently) or published in traditionally conservative outlets from National Review to the Arizona Republic. They didn’t even care that the Koch brothers — one of whom, Charles, described Trump’s proposed Muslim registry as “reminiscent of Nazi Germany” — refused to support him.
The only people with the power to shut down Trump were those sitting at the top of the Republican Party. Mike Murphy, the GOP strategist who ran a PAC for Jeb Bush’s ill-fated campaign, divided his fellow Republican elites into three categories: “Vichy Republicans,” who went along with Trump and the party base enamored of him; “Survival Republicans,” who tried to remain as neutral as Switzerland; and “Resistance Republicans,” who actively battled his nomination. Murphy might well have been paraphrasing the writer Andrew Nagorski, whose 2012 book Hitlerland similarly categorized the influential Americans, from diplomats to businessmen, who cycled in and out of Nazi Germany in the 1930s as Hitler consolidated his power: “Some of these Americans demonstrated remarkable courage and prescience, while others stood back and averted their gaze, or, in a few cases, collaborated outright with the new regime.”
In the GOP of 2016, a number of big-name figures fell into the Resistance camp or close to it, including Romney, many of Bush 41 and 43’s family members, former appointees and political strategists (like Murphy), and the long lists of retired GOP officeholders who signed anti-Trump letters and churned out an ocean of op-eds. But they had one fatal drawback when it came to stopping Trump: None of them held any actual power within their party. This crucial deficit assured that #NeverTrump would produce little more than bookings for its talking heads to preach to the converted on MSNBC’s Morning Joe (or to the semi-converted, given Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski’s initial promotion of Trump). It was typical of #NeverTrump’s impotence that one of its ringleaders, Bill Kristol, announced in May the imminent arrival of an “impressive” independent candidate “with a strong team and a real chance” to vanquish Trump — only to reveal that this dragon-slayer was a National Review writer named David French whom no one had heard of before (or has heard of since).
Unfortunately for America, those with real clout in the GOP were without exception Vichy, not Resistance, Republicans: the current leadership of both chambers of Congress (Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell), the party chair (Reince Priebus), and the incumbent senators with national followings (John McCain, Ted Cruz). Not to mention their big donors. These collaborators, in contrast to the conservative pundits and out-of-power Republicans of the Resistance, did have the means to derail Trump. For them to do so would have required the guts to defy a mob in their own party and to summon the sacrifice, strategy, and cunning that constitute leadership. They would have had to risk their own political necks and take hits from their own constituents. They would have had to persuade vanity candidates fracturing the anti-Trump vote, like John Kasich, to drop out. Woulda, coulda: They mustered none of the above. They failed to unite around a candidate who might have stopped Trump in the primaries. No matter what slur Trump disgorged, they failed to act, even when they were the specific targets of his insults. They failed to rally around any plan, however risky or potentially divisive within the party, for challenging Trump at the convention in Cleveland. Indeed, with the exception of three incumbent senators not up for reelection (Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina) and a handful of retro GOP moderates and retiring members in the House, every Republican holding office in Washington remained in the Vichy and Survival camps until long after Trump had locked up the nomination. This hall of shame includes supposedly mainstream northeastern Republicans like Long Island representative Peter King, who after the first debate applauded Trump for exhibiting “the feistiness that I think 51 percent of the American people will like.” And it includes “reaching across the aisle” types often celebrated by centrist pundits as putting country over party. Witness Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ostensibly adult chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: He entertained a brief flirtation with the idea of serving as Trump’s running mate and praised Trump’s notably ludicrous late-April foreign-policy address for its “broadness” and “vision.”
It was bad enough that the top Republican leaders gritted their teeth and continued to endorse Trump throughout his cavalcade of indignities over the first 14 months of his campaign. But you’d think even the most cynical of them would have acknowledged that a Rubicon had been reached in mid-August when back-to-back developments left no doubt that Trump was not just a reckless ignoramus and bigot but a clear-and-present danger both to national security and to the Constitution. First came the Times report of handwritten ledgers indicating that his then–campaign chairman, the dictator-friendly lobbyist Paul Manafort, had been paid $12.7 million from Putin puppets for murky services rendered in Ukraine. Given Trump’s repeated Putin accolades, vocal disdain for NATO, and open invitation to the Kremlin to disrupt an American election, it was still further evidence, if any were needed, that Trump was “an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation,” in the words of the former CIA official Michael Morell. Then came the supplanting of Manafort by Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon, a kingpin of an alt-right movement well stocked with anti-Semites and white supremacists. But even then the Vichy Republicans stayed in line, either vacillating, hiding, or muttering faint critiques of their party’s standard-bearer. Thus the Lindberghs and Marshal Pétains and Chamberlains of the modern GOP were all still onboard the Trump Titanic when it smashed into the iceberg of Access Hollywood a month before Election Day — not that it mattered, since, by the Nuremberg yardstick, the time for escaping the Trump taint had passed with the July convention.
Much of the cross-referencing of Trump and Hitler this year has invoked Lindbergh because of Trump’s slogan “America First,” which is also the name of the fascist-friendly organization for which Lindbergh became a leading spokesman prior to America’s entry into World War II. Trump dismissed that link, saying that he saw America First as “a brand-new, modern term.” He probably didn’t know he had stumbled into Hitlerspeak (“the Big Lie”) to tar Obamacare either. On the issue of his ignorance, at least, I believe him. Trump is nothing if not an idiot savant when it comes to fascism.
In reality, the America First movement at its inception in the summer of 1940 was benign. Like the GOP of this election cycle, it did not start out as a haven for American Nazis and their fellow travelers but was more akin to what we might now call a campus peacenik crusade. As Lynne Olson writes in Those Angry Days, her definitive account of the divisive debate over America’s entry into World War II, the early America First advocates included moderate and liberal Republican Yale undergrads like Kingman Brewster and Gerald Ford, editorialists at the Harvard Crimson (“We are frankly determined to have peace at any price,” they wrote), the 15-year-old Gore Vidal, who started a chapter at Phillips Exeter, and the socialist Norman Thomas. But America First all too soon became a magnet not just for isolationists intent on avoiding another world war but for nativists and bigots embracing Hitler’s pathologies: the populist radio priest Father Coughlin and industrialists like the rabidly anti-Semitic Henry Ford and the textile manufacturer William Regnery (whose son Henry would soon start the eponymous conservative publishing house that nurtured the modern GOP’s radical right). It devolved into what Time condemned as a hot mess of “Jew-haters, Roosevelt-haters, England-haters, Coughlinites, politicians, and demagogues.”
Lindbergh’s own metamorphosis had kept apace. His 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic at age 25 in the Spirit of St. Louis had made him the most admired celebrity of his age. But the tragic 1932 kidnapping and murder of his 20-month-old son, as well as the embittering media storm and trial that followed, sent him and his wife, the best-selling author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, into exile in search of privacy. Germany became a frequent stop on their itinerary in 1936, when Lindbergh started inspecting Hitler’s military-aviation program on assignment from the American government. The Lindberghs enthusiastically attended that year’s Berlin Olympics, and in October 1938, he accepted a swastika-decorated medallion, a so-called Service Cross of the German Eagle, from the Hitler deputy Hermann Göring, at an embassy dinner in Berlin hosted by Hugh Wilson, the newly appointed American ambassador who was himself a Hitler apologist.
Once Lindbergh signed on to America First in April 1941, his pronouncements sounded like the Ur-text for much of Trump’s America First campaign. He spoke of Hitler both publicly and privately in admiring terms comparable to Trump’s lauding of Putin, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, and the Chinese leaders who (as Trump put it) exercised “the power of strength” by cracking down on democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Hitler “accomplished results (good in addition to bad) which could hardly have been accomplished without some fanaticism,” as Lindbergh had it. In other words, Hitler, like Putin, got things done — never mind what or how — while wimpy American leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt practiced the “shortsightedness and vacillation” of the sort Trump attributes to Barack Obama. Lindbergh, a nativist who applauded Hitler for defending “the white race against foreign invasion,” thought of Jews much as Trump speaks of Mexicans. “A few Jews add strength and character to a country, but too many create chaos,” he wrote in his journal in 1939. “And we are getting too many.” Lindbergh railed against a media conspiracy identical to the one Trump started flogging in his campaign’s final lap, warning darkly of the “danger to this country” posed by Jewish “ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.” (Trump uses alt-right anti-Semitic code — “global special interests” and “international banks” — in lieu of “Jews.”) Lindbergh also inveighed against what he considered a rigged presidential election in 1940, when both candidates, FDR and Wendell Willkie, favored intervening to counter Hitler’s aggression. “It now seems doubtful that we even had two parties last November, at least as far as the presidential candidates were concerned,” Lindbergh said, charging that Americans had lost “the freedom to vote on vital issues” and that democracy “doesn’t exist today, even in our country.”
If Trump, who took to talking about “the illusion of democracy,” often sounds like a dumbed-down version of Lindbergh, so the Vichy Republicans supporting Trump use some of the same arguments Lindbergh and his fellow appeasers trotted out to rationalize their support of Hitler. Their argument of choice is that Trump, however imperfect, is still the lesser of two evils. In the ’30s, the evil sometimes considered greater than Hitler was Stalin, who was thought to be responsible for butchering tens of millions of people, a crime not exactly comparable to Clinton’s worst sins even if you believe she murdered Vince Foster. Some Hitler appeasers also judged Hitler as a lesser evil to FDR. As Hitler’s bombs were raining down on England in 1940, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio argued that “there is a great deal more danger of the infiltration of totalitarian ideas from the New Deal circles in Washington than there will ever be” from the Nazis. This is of a piece with the Vichy Republicans who claim that a Trump presidency is preferable to letting Clinton nominate justices to the Supreme Court.
For much of the campaign, Ryan, McConnell, McCain & Co. were also prone to claiming that the 70-year-old Trump would somehow change or grow over time or be boxed in by the constitution. If elected, he would be contained by “the constraints and accountability built into the U.S. system of government,” in the words of The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which, like Ryan and McConnell, rapped Trump on the wrist for his excesses but still boosted him as the preferable alternative to “Barack Obama’s third term led by Hillary Clinton.” This argument ignores the reality of presidential power in the age of the Imperial Presidency — the very power that conservatives complain Obama has abused — not to mention the realities of human behavior. And again it echoes the naïveté of Hitler’s American appeasers, including Lindbergh, who believed that “the Germans would eventually moderate the excesses of [Hitler’s] Nazi regime.”
But some of Hitler’s American apologists still possessed more substance and moral standing than Trump and his appeasers. Lindbergh did not earn his celebrity as a schlocky entertainer but as a bona fide hero whose solo flight was a hallmark of American derring-do, bravery, and ingenuity, not tacky self-promotion. In further contrast to Trump, Lindbergh, whose father had been a Minnesota congressman, had no interest in exploiting his celebrity by entering politics and resisted entreaties to run for president. And like the idealists originally drawn to America First, Lindbergh and some of his fellow isolationists were driven to appease the Nazis most of all by their intense desire to keep America out of another world war. That doesn’t excuse their moral blindness to Hitler, but as motives go, it is certainly on a higher plane than those of today’s Vichy Republicans, whose reasons for supporting the Putin-embracing Trump were entirely selfish and partisan: clinging to power, holding on to their congressional majority, and preserving a legislative agenda that would reward the party’s biggest donors with further tax cuts. However misguided, obtuse, or bigoted, Lindbergh and his fellow Hitler appeasers, including some of those in Congress, were trying to put America, not their own careers or party, first.
Not that history gives them any bonus points for that. Nor do they get credit for condemning and avoiding the alt-right-style 1930s hate groups that were progenitors of those that gravitated to Trump — groups like the Silver Shirts, the Crusaders for America, and the Vindicator Association, which vowed to “banish all isms but Americanism” and stop all immigration in part by recruiting its own “border patrol.” The prominent Americans who lent their reputations to appeasing Hitler are tucked into the bed of history with the dogs they lay down with.
Why would it be any different for their 2016 counterparts? The lionized Lindbergh, after all, had far farther to fall than the likes of a Ryan or Priebus. And he did, quickly: Harold Ickes, FDR’s secretary of the Interior, had no qualms about labeling him (hyperbolically perhaps) “the No. 1 United States Nazi fellow traveler.” Not far behind him was Joseph Kennedy, the anti-Semitic Chamberlain admirer who served as FDR’s ambassador to the Court of St. James. Not only did Kennedy try to undermine White House policy as it mobilized to help England defend itself from the Nazis, but he was a fierce advocate for barring Jewish immigration to America on the manufactured pretext that refugees fleeing Hitler might be spies. In Kennedy’s Trumpian view, “a greater fraud and well-engineered scheme was never perpetrated on the American public than that a thousand refugees have been taken into the United States” with “not one of them” having “been investigated by the FBI.”
Once America entered the war, he and Lindbergh were both personae non gratae in Roosevelt’s war plans. After resigning as ambassador, Kennedy, in his biographer David Nasaw’s words, “retreated into a closed Palm Beach universe, surrounded by adoring children and golfing buddies.” He was done in public life. While Lindbergh eventually secured combat missions in the South Pacific and years later was welcomed back to Washington by presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, “his failure to condemn Nazi Germany before World War II haunted his reputation for the rest of his life,” in the judgment of his biographer A. Scott Berg. The verdict was swift for leading isolationists in the Senate and House, like Gerald Nye and Hamilton Fish, who lost their seats in 1944; Taft would fail in two post-1940 presidential runs. The isolationists “would generally be regarded for years to come as stupid, vicious, pro-Nazi reactionaries,” wrote the historian Geoffrey Perret, “or at least as people blind to the realities of a new day and a menace to their country’s safety.”
These days, Lindbergh lives on in American culture not through the 1950s Hollywood biopic in which he was canonized by the saintly James Stewart but as the anti-Semitic villain of Philip Roth’s harrowing alternative-history novel of 2004, The Plot Against America, which imagines Lindbergh importing Nazism to America after defeating FDR in the 1940 election. A political cartoonist who viciously lampooned Lindbergh’s Hitler sympathies in the New York newspaper P.M. in the early 1940s, Theodor Geisel, is more widely known and admired in America today for The Cat in the Hat than Lindbergh is for the Spirit of St. Louis.
As Election Day approaches, some conservative editorialists are already predicting that a Trump defeat will bring peace in our time to the GOP — a restoration of the pre-Trump status quo. Paul Ryan will be back on track for a presidential bid in 2020, and so might Marco Rubio, the party’s great Hispanic conservative hope, whose debasement at Trump’s (little) hand will vanish into a memory hole. “I think Ryan’s got the future of the party and Trump will be rubble after this election,” said the already-recovering Resistance Republican Mike Murphy to Bloomberg News as a Clinton victory loomed in late October. He doubted the GOP would retain “a Trump wing” and instead dismissed the past year as “a temporary Trump invasion.” According to The Wall Street Journal editorial page, Trump is a fluke — a “unique celebrity” who captured the nomination only because of luck and happenstance, “a confluence of unrepeatable factors.” David Brooks concurs: “On November 9, the day after Trump loses, there won’t be solidarity and howls of outrage. Everyone will just walk away.”
It should be noted that these are some of the same conservative prognosticators who predicted Republicans would walk away from Trump a year ago. It’s also the same prediction that followed Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat by Lyndon Johnson in 1964. The Republicans had rolled the dice on undiluted conservatism and lost catastrophically. Now, it was thought, sanity would prevail, and the George Romneys and Charles Percys, the Ryans and McConnells of their day, would come back and restore the old order. But that GOP never did come back. The party’s move to the right continued with Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. The Goldwater foot soldiers didn’t leave after their standard-bearer was crushed but regrouped and ultimately found their champion in Ronald Reagan.
The Trumpists are more radical than Goldwater’s or Reagan’s followers were. They are building their own burgeoning Breitbart–Roger Ailes media empire and are primed to disregard the results of a “stolen” election in which the loser may not concede. The “Second Amendment people” that Trump egged on are already talking openly about rebellion and assassination after a Clinton victory. The damage they may inflict on the country, let alone the Republican Party and the homegrown Nigel Farage–like leaders they may rally around, is yet to be determined. As Steve Schmidt, the former McCain campaign strategist and a #NeverTrumper, told the Washington Post, the postelection GOP will “look like Berlin circa 1945.”
Whatever happens on November 8, few expect a wipeout of Ryan’s 60-seat House majority. But the Berlin analogy is nonetheless apt. There will be chaos and open warfare regardless, and it’s hard to see a world where anything like the ancien régime can be restored. A late-October Bloomberg poll asking Republicans whom they would want to be the face of their party after a Trump defeat found a neck-and-neck race between Mike Pence (who is as nativist as Trump and pro-Putin, and harder right on abortion and LGBT rights), at 27 percent, and Trump at 24. The more “moderate” alternatives, Ryan and Kasich, were a distinct minority — 15 and 10 percent, respectively. (Cruz, at 19 percent, surpassed them both.) Asked in the same poll whose views best mirrored their own, the Republican respondents chose Trump’s (51 percent) over Ryan’s (33 percent).
These numbers shouldn’t be a surprise. This is the same party that embraced Trump in the first place. Most Republicans prefer his signature platform of sealed borders, protectionism, and opposition to Social Security and Medicare cuts to Ryan’s priorities of immigration reform, open trade, and “privatizing” entitlements. Whether Trump wins or loses, Ryan and his fellow elites are certain to be rejected by their own party’s base much as Bush, Rubio, and Kasich were during the primaries — and much as John Boehner and Eric Cantor were before that. The postelection purge may be particularly ugly, given how unhappy many Trump voters are with what they regarded as the elites’ lukewarm support for their standard-bearer. Even as early voting began, Breitbart was pillorying Ryan as a secret Clinton supporter and Sean Hannity was damning him as a “saboteur.”
But lukewarm Trump endorsements by the most powerful incumbent Republicans, however enraging to the current GOP base, were still endorsements, and will still count as black marks on posterity’s ledger book — and as a reminder of their greater failure to lift a finger to thwart Trump’s path to the nomination. McCain seems to sense the harsh historical verdict that awaits him: When the Access Hollywood video emerged, he took the preposterous stand that Trump “alone bears the burden of his conduct and alone should suffer the consequences.” (A day later, perhaps fearing the immediate consequences to his reelection bid, he finally revoked his support.) Ryan still seems to think that if he ignores Trump in the campaign’s final weeks, no one will remember his repeated endorsements and his earlier claim that he and Trump were separated by only a “few differences.”
With time and distance, the morally self-regarding Ryan, “the Hamlet of southern Wisconsin,” in George Will’s withering dismissal, and some of the other GOP elites who tried to be on both sides of the Trump question may resemble no one so much as Charles Stewart Henry Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the Seventh Marquess of Londonderry. The subject of a 2000 biography, Making Friends With Hitler, by the great Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw — and surely a model for the fictional appeaser in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day — Lord Londonderry was a member of the British Cabinet from 1931 to 1935 who sought a friendly peace with the Nazis. Londonderry, Kershaw writes, “had no truck with the fanatical Fascists, or the wide-eyed cranks and mystics who fell for Hitler lock, stock and barrel”; he merely “saw the need to come to a political arrangement with Hitler’s regime.” In the end, however, his noble intentions and distance from the Brownshirts didn’t matter — his “reputation was ruined.”
It is always possible that Trumpism will vanish like a bad dream the morning after Election Day. But if it doesn’t, the reputations of Ryan and the other leaders who made political arrangements with Donald Trump will land on history’s ash heap alongside the remains of the GOP.
*This article appears in the October 31, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.