John Colson: Thoughts on Trump, fascism and Nazi orthodoxy

John Colson
Hit & Run

I’ve been thinking about fascism lately, thanks to the undeniable authoritarian tendencies of former President Donald Trump (the first since George H.W. Bush to lose his reelection bid after four years in office), along with his acolytes and adherents.

Such thoughts, it should be noted, are not happy ones, but rather are a reflection of the growing sentiment that the United States of America is slipping downward in the list of nations ruled by some type of representational or republican democracy.

And, just so the reader does not mistakenly conclude that the U.S. is in some sort of unique spot in the spectrum of failing democracies, I’ve also been thinking about Adolf Hitler and his usurpation of German democratic institutions in the 1920s and 1930s.

The reason for these two-fold musings is that I, like others around the nation and the world, am worried that the U.S. is on the brink of descending into a fascist-like period, in which the adoration and near-deification of a charismatic leader (Trump, in this case) may presage the rise of extreme nationalism, focused demonization of select socio-economic groups, and rigorous manipulation of electoral mechanism aimed at giving total authority to a one-party state, among other nasty trends.

Interestingly, German Nazism, which spawned World War II in response to the defeat of Germany in 1918 at the end of World War I, has been shown to have taken some of its worst cues from racist policies then in practice in the U.S., according to scholars of the period.

The Nazi Party, which got its organizational start in 1920, was founded on Hitler’s hatred of Jews and other minority groups, and initially took its cues from a loosely organized subset of the population known as the Freikorps, a paramilitary culture that fought against occasional communist-tinged uprisings following the end of WWI.

But the Nazi leaders quickly pivoted to nationalistic, anti-communist and racist rhetoric, building up a national consensus that Jews were to blame for the nation’s recent military defeat and for its lingering financial woes, much as Trump scapegoats immigrants, Black citizens and liberals.

Hitler, who was the Nazi leader starting in 1921, according to published historical accounts, was in 1933 appointed Chancellor of German by Pres. Paul von Hindenburg. Building on a rapid-fire schedule of huge national rallies held all over Germany (much like Trump’s favorite campaign tactic,) Hitler speedily erected the totalitarian regime known as the Third Reich and began the persecution of Jews as one of the party’s central tenets.

At about the same time, a cadre of German legal beagles went to work studying Jim Crow laws and other racist policies in the U.S., with an eye toward using our Jim Crow-era policies and laws as a template for the new Nazi regime’s legal framework (more on this from legal scholar James Q. Whitman’s 2017 book, “Hitler’s American Model”).

According to a 2017 Atlantic magazine review of Whitman’s book, the U.S. structure of legalized racism was the basis for several “crucial” Nazi texts issued from 1933-35.

Citing one particular text, the “National Socialist Handbook for Law and Legislation,” the Atlantic notes that one “pivotal” essay “devoted a quarter of its pages to U.S. legislation — which went beyond segregation to include rules governing American Indians, citizenship criteria for Filipinos and Puerto Ricans as well as African Americans [and] prohibitions against miscegenation in some 30 states. No other country, not even South Africa with its apartheid rules, gave the Nazis a more solid framework for building their own racist regulations.”

Reportedly, at a 1934 Nazi conference on establishing a racist state, the attendees were “especially drawn to American legal codes based on white supremacy,” though Whitman and The Atlantic were careful to note that the information in Whitman’s book did not “clinch a formative role for U.S. racial law” in helping the Nazis come up with their own rules.

But, Whitman is quoted as writing, “What the history of this book demands that we confront are questions not about the genesis of Nazism, but about the character of America.”

I leave it to readers to check out Whitman’s conclusions, and then draw their own about what all this might mean for a revival of Trumpism if he wins the 2024 presidential election.

I must point out that, as gratifying it might be to some Trump critics, there apparently is no proof that he expressed admiration for Hitler, or that he slept with a copy of “Mein Kampf,” Hitler’s most-cited work, nearby. It apparently is true that a friend once gave Trump a copy of Hitler’s speeches, “My New Order,” though Trump denies ever having read it.

And as we approach the first anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, Trump-encouraged assault on the U.S. Capitol, I have to wonder exactly why it is that members of Trump’s inner circle (including the friend who gave Trump the volume of Hitler’s speeches) have been saying for about three decades that he has an affinity for Hitler, Hitler’s writings, and perhaps Hitler’s methods of governance.

These hints that our former president has fond feelings for the most notorious racist and murderous dictator of the 20th century are among the things about Trump that I find very troubling, indeed.