If a debate goes on long enough, some idiot will draw a Nazi analogy. That maxim, known as Godwin’s law, has deterred most journalists from comparing today’s politicians to Adolf Hitler. But sometimes, what brings the Nazi analogy closer isn’t the length of the discussion. It’s the behavior of the politician. That’s what is now happening in the case of Donald Trump.
In Godwin’s honor, let’s stipulate: There will never be another psychopath quite like Hitler. The German dictator preached such overt hatred, murdered so many people, and earned such infamy that every demagogue since, from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to David Duke, has learned to draw at least tactical distinctions between himself and the Führer.
Then there’s Trump. He’s a salesman, not a fanatic. He doesn’t foist his hatreds on others. Instead, he reads and plays to the resentments of his crowds. He tells them that President Obama was born in Kenya, that Ted Cruz is a Canadian-born Cuban, and that Ben Carson is a Seventh-day Adventist. Trump will go after a Mexican American judge, a Muslim Gold Star family—whatever he thinks will work.
Jews aren’t on Trump’s target list. His son-in-law and grandkids are Jewish. His daughter, Ivanka, is a Jewish convert. But Trump’s habit of retweeting alt-right material—Hillary Clinton with a Star of David, for instance—has immersed him in the muck of anti-Semitism. And in the past few days, Trump has turned to an ideology of global conspiracy that resembles the speeches of a certain politician from a century ago.
For Trump, the principal enemy is Muslims. He blames Muslim Americans collectively for domestic terrorism—falsely claiming, for instance, that many of them saw but didn’t report the preparations for last year’s attack in San Bernardino, California—and says we should never have let their parents into the country. For Hitler, the interlopers were Jews. Speaking in Munich on July 28, 1922, he lamented that they had been given German citizenship. Jews “have always formed and will form a state within the state,” said Hitler. That’s uncomfortably close to Trump’s warnings about Sharia in the United States.
Why did Hitler target Jews? In part it was his personal pathology. In part it was the spirit of the times. But in part it was because Hitler focused on a different kind of crime. Trump campaigns against violent crime. He blames it on immigrants, both legal and illegal. Hitler talked more about financial and cultural crime. In his July 1922 address, the German demagogue criticized the rise of “share-capital’ over “the nation’s labor-strength.” Through this process, Hitler charged, “the stock exchange came to control the whole national economy.” He called for an uprising against foreign financial interests: “We shall possess once again a true German Reich of freedom and of honor, a real Fatherland of the whole German people and not an asylum for alien swindlers.”
Hitler returned to these themes in many speeches, complaining that Germany had become a “puppet of alien forces” (September 1923) and that “the state is not a plantation where the interests of foreign capital are supreme” (April 1923). In April 1922, Hitler explained where his analysis pointed:
If we ask who was responsible for our misfortune, then we must inquire who profited by our collapse. And the answer to that question is that “banks and stock exchanges are more flourishing than ever before.” … It is only the international stock exchange and loan-capital, the so-called supra-state capital, which has profited from the collapse of our economic life, the capital which receives its character from the single supra-state nation which is itself national to the core, which fancies itself to be above all other nations, which places itself above other nations and which already rules over them. The international stock exchange capital would be unthinkable, it would never have come, without its founders: the supra-national, because intensely national, Jews.
Trump hasn’t said the J-word. Because of his family, I don’t think he ever will. But many of his alt-right followers have. And in the past week, Trump has paved the way for his movement to become more openly anti-Semitic, by aiming his speeches at a worldwide financial conspiracy. He says a “global power structure” has “robbed our working class” and “stripped our country of its wealth.” He says this sinister elite has “dissolved” our borders, flooded our land with immigrants, and “bled our country dry.” At a rally in Florida on Tuesday, Trump charged, “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers.”
Trump’s words echo a warning delivered in Munich in September 1922, when Hitler fumed that the destiny of 60 million Germans had come “to lie at the will of a few dozen Jewish bankers.” Likewise, Trump’s depiction of the “rigged media” as an extension of the global conspiracy follows in the Führer’s footsteps. In July 1922, Hitler asserted:
In this other Europe, it is not the peoples which agitate against us, but it is the secret power of the organized press which ceaselessly pours new poison into the hearts of these peoples. And who are then these bandits of the press? The brothers and the relatives of the publishers of our own newspapers. And the capital source which provides the energy which here and there drives them forward is the Jewish dream of world supremacy.*
There’s no evidence that Trump is an anti-Semite. But historically, the arguments he’s making have lent themselves to, and have led to, anti-Semitic movements, policies, and atrocities. And while it’s comforting to point out that our Constitution protects minorities, there’s little evidence that Trump and his followers respect most of that document. Trump has made clear that at a minimum, he’d like to revisit the First, Fourth, Eighth, and 14th Amendments. In speeches this week, he ridiculed the Obama administration for refusing, on constitutional grounds, to revoke the citizenship of newly naturalized immigrants. Trump repeated his insistence that Clinton “should be locked up” despite her having been cleared by an FBI investigation. He said her lawyers should be jailed, too. In fact, Trump added, “She shouldn’t be allowed to run for president.”
Trump isn’t Hitler. But in 1922, Hitler wasn’t Hitler, either. And Hitler was the culmination of a long era of anti-Semitism, fueled by polemics about wealthy foreign elites that met in secret to plot world domination, trample national sovereignty, and suck the blood of the people. Let’s not go down that road again. Let’s not even get close.
Correction, Oct. 15, 2016: This article previously misstated the year of a Hitler quote as 1992. (Return.)