Take it from a German political scientist. As Sebastian Schutte writes at the Washington Post,
During the recent U.S. presidential campaign, a number of editorials compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. As Trump assembled his transition team, another round of articles likened his new chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, to Hitler’s propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels.
What do I as a German think about these comparisons? While Godwin’s Law tells us that any sufficiently long discussion will produce a Hitler analogy, this one cannot be shrugged off. Using it lightly is massively inappropriate, but ignoring real warning signs could lead to history repeating itself. Therefore, we need to take a closer look.
The comparison is certainly overdrawn if we consider how the two men came to power. Unlike Hitler, Trump never tried to seize power by force; he has not spent a decade calling for violence against entire peoples and nations; and he does not speak of building an empire beyond America’s shores.
It’s fairly hard to escape the series of comparisons that pundits have made between Trump and Hitler over the past several months. However, I’m of the opinion that these generate more heat than light. Tom Pepinsky has an excellent blog post on what life in an authoritarian state really looks like today, and it bears little relation to our imagining of Nazi Germany. He’s discussing his experience in Malaysia, whose capital, Kuala Lumpur, is pictured above.
The mental image that most American harbor of what actual authoritarianism looks like is fantastical and cartoonish. This vision of authoritarian rule has jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus. This image of authoritarianism comes from the popular media (dictators in movies are never constrained by anything but open insurrection), from American mythmaking about the Founding (and the Second World War and the Cold War), and from a kind of “imaginary othering” in which the opposite of democracy is the absence of everything that characterizes the one democracy that one knows…
The reality is that everyday life under the kinds of authoritarianism that exist today is very familiar to most Americans. You go to work, you eat your lunch, you go home to your family. There are schools and businesses, and some people “make it” through hard work and luck. Most people worry about making sure their kids get into good schools. The military is in the barracks, and the police mostly investigate crimes and solve cases. There is political dissent, if rarely open protest, but in general people are free to complain to one another. There are even elections. This is Malaysia, and many countries like it.
The salient point is that progressives may be doing their cause a disservice by focusing on fearful narratives of fascism, rather than picking specific policies which they oppose and working against those.
Of course, there are important caveats. I think this set of expectations is largely accurate for people in the US who are white and middle class. People of color and the poor already feel the hand of the state much, much more and often in ways that are deeply unjust. There are good reasons progressives are so apt to talk about policies that will benefit these groups. But this is still different than expecting that all citizens will be subject to a fascist regime.