Benito Mussolini, Donald Trump, and Adolf Hitler.
Left to right: Benito Mussolini, Donald Trump, and Adolf Hitler. Photo credit: Illustration by WhoWhatWhy from NAC / Wikimedia and The White House / Wikimedia

Donald Trump might not be the brightest guy, but he has certainly figured out authoritarianism and what he needs to do for his supporters to keep on following him blindly.

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Some people seem amazed that history keeps repeating itself. After all, times and circumstances change, right? But, if you think about it, it’s hardly a surprise because it’s humans who shape history… and they apparently don’t change at all. 

And when they face uncertainty, when things get tough, or when they feel vulnerable, people often turn to the next self-proclaimed authoritarian who comes along. That’s not only because such demagogues offer (conveniently easy) solutions but also because they usually have a scapegoat at hand… and having somebody to blame is almost as good as things getting better. 

However, history does have the occasional surprise in store — not in terms of how people react but whom they follow. 

For example, when you ask historians how Adolf Hitler could ever rise to power in Germany, they will give you lots of answers about the social and economic undercurrents that led to the emergence of the Nazi Party in the early 1930s. For example, there is the loss of World War I (and the lies that ordinary Germans who did not want to face reality were told about that defeat), the harsh terms Germany received in the Treaty of Versailles, the end of the Prussian monarchy, economic uncertainty after the hyperinflation of 1923, and, later, the Great Depression, self-serving political and industrial elites undermining the young democracy, and a long history of antisemitism.

Obviously, none of the above excuses the unprecedented atrocities the Nazis (and the German people collectively) committed from 1933 to 1945. But it explains why the Weimar Republic fell apart, how Hitler came to power, and why so many regular Germans supported him.

It also shows how fragile democracy can be when determined people are hellbent on destroying it.

Hitler, for example, tried and failed to overthrow the government a decade before finishing the job. He benefited greatly from the leniency of the judicial system at the time.

So, all scholars worth their salt can explain how the Nazis seized power. But they can’t explain Adolf Hitler.

How is it possible that a boorish, non-church going, wannabe billionaire somehow became the champion of an overwhelmingly Christian populist movement? 

How did a scrawny, brown-haired, Austrian-born man with a goofy manner of speaking become the figurehead of a country that believed it consisted of an Aryan master race of blond, blue-eyed Adonises?

In retrospect, such a turn of events seems downright absurd. 

Fast forward 100 years from Hitler’s coup attempt and 90 years from when he succeeded in destroying Germany’s democracy — and look around you at the United States of America circa 2023. When historians look back at this time, they will inevitably ask themselves how it was possible that tens of millions of ostentatiously religious conservatives self-radicalized in a matter of years — and then chose as their champion the rude, crude, buffoonish Donald Trump. 

Once again, the first part of the question is not overly difficult to answer… and some of the underlying reasons will sound eerily familiar. 

First and foremost, the rise of the MAGA movement coincided with the declining share of whites in the US population and the first Black president getting elected.

And, in light of how whites have treated minorities throughout history, it’s not surprising that this dwindling majority suddenly got worried about what would happen when the tables turned. 

But overt (and latent) racism and xenophobia are only part of what fueled MAGA — although probably the biggest part. There is also increasing economic uncertainty, some of it spurred by the Great Recession, which left many middle-class Americans feeling financially precarious while giant corporations and wealthy elites got richer.

And these elite 1 percenters have shown very little interest in the common good or things like democracy. 

Then there were some major events that rattled the country’s psyche. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 made Americans feel vulnerable, and the quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with the emergence of China, did nothing to assure them that the US was still the world’s predominant superpower.

It certainly didn’t help that an emerging right-wing propaganda machine was hitting its stride at the turn of the millennium and stoked all of these fears and concerns of (predominantly) white Americans. 

Given the state of the world and the country in the 21st century, it makes sense that a right-wing movement would emerge to take advantage of these insecurities.

But why Trump? 

That’s a lot more baffling. 

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How is it possible that a boorish, non-churchgoing, wannabe billionaire somehow became the champion of an overwhelmingly Christian populist movement? 

Among all of the Republicans to choose from, Trump seems the most unlikely choice for regular white Iowa farmers.

It just goes to show, as in the case of Hilter, that the message matters a whole lot more than the messenger. Nobody understands this better than Trump himself, who famously said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing any votes. He has come to understand that his loyal voters will let him get away with anything as long as he says what they want to hear. And what they want to hear is that anything going wrong in their lives is not their fault but someone else’s, and that the solution to all their problems — the way to restore America to “greatness” — is to crack down hard on the “enemies” of right-thinking white folk.

One way to prevent history from repeating itself would be for the US justice system to show a lot more spine than that of the Weimar Republic. Heading into 2024, what the courts do may be the central question of the presidential race. 

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