Daniel Herman

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Are Trump and his supporters Nazis? Are Proud Boys destroying democracy? Or, as conservative pundits claim, is it Bernie Sanders and the Antifa vanguard that are steering us toward the rocks of fascism?

The claim that Sanders and his supporters are Nazis is based on the idea that German Nazis — the “National German Socialist Workers’ Party” — were actual socialists. Though distorted, that assertion contains a wisp of truth. German fascists adopted the “socialist” moniker to compete with Germany’s popular Social Democratic Party, whom Nazis blamed for the Versailles Treaty and Germany’s weakness.

Even as he promoted economic fairness, however, Hitler praised entrepreneurialism and lambasted unions and strikers. Indeed, he sought to crush the labor movement. His early constituency consisted primarily of small business owners, not workers. He built a larger movement on the ideal of absolute loyalty to Germany. Nazis loved slogans like “blut und ehre” (blood and honor).

Coupled to Hitler’s ideal of honor was Aryan racial supremacy, an idea partly derived from American eugenicists. The U.S. had put eugenics into practice through sterilization campaigns, but turned against eugenics (mostly) when it fought Nazism. Nazi eugenics led to the Holocaust; some of those murdered were Bernie Sanders’ relatives.

In the realm of foreign policy, Hitler’s first act was to aid Spanish fascists seeking to overthrow their country’s elected, socialist government. He succeeded. Hitler also allied with the Italian fascist, Mussolini, whose fiercest enemies were socialists and communists.

To neutralize Hitler, socialists and communists aligned with liberals in the “popular front.” In the U.S., the most socialistic president in our history, Franklin Roosevelt, prepared for war. (Brief aside: FDR’s 1944 “Second Bill of Rights” — which asserts that all Americans have the right to good medical care, housing, education, and economic fairness — laid the basis for Sanders’ platform.) In France, socialist Leon Blum led the popular front to victory in 1936, becoming prime minister. After leaving office in 1937, he continued to decry appeasement. When Hitler created a French puppet state, Blum went to Buchenwald. Other French socialists and communists joined La Résistance.

Bernie Sanders, to put it mildly, resembles FDR and the socialist resistors far more than he resembles Adolph Hitler.

What about the other part of the equation? Is Donald Trump a genuine fascist, as Democrats often assert? Despite his authoritarian tendencies, Trump has neither banned political opposition, nor smashed the opposition press, nor seized control of the judiciary (all of which Hitler had accomplished by 1933). Even at the height of Russiagate, U.S. courts operated with full independence. The opposition press, meanwhile — despite Trump’s insults — operates at warp speed.

Certainly one can make a case that Trump’s anti-immigrant policies partake of fascism. Too, his debate reference to the Proud Boys — “stand back and stand by” — and his seeming refusal to promise a peaceful transition — are ugly and alarming.

The Proud Boys, however — whom Trump subsequently renounced — are about as likely to create dictatorship as Antifa is to overthrow capitalism. Unlike Hitler, Trump has no allies powerful enough to make him Führer. The military won’t sustain him, nor will Congress. Conservative judges might help him win election litigation, but they’re not going to outlaw the opposition party. Nor will the FBI and DOJ cease prosecuting right-wing terrorists.

Unlike alarmists on both sides, I don’t think democracy will die in November. Long-term trends, however, are worrisome. Not to diminish Trump’s incendiarism, but liberal media bears some blame. The cable business model of appealing to partisans — a model that drives legacy print outlets, too — demands constant outrage and theatrical grandstanding. It also requires ignoring facts and analysis that run counter to partisan narratives. Social media does much the same. Our media teaches us to despise one another.

There’s not likely to be civil war in November — no matter the election’s outcome — though bloodshed and rioting are entirely possible. What we need under those circumstances will be voices of calm. Letting incendiary presidents, street LARPers, and polemical media draw us into their theatrical production is precisely what can lead to disaster. Americans need to take a hard look at where we’re headed and turn the ship into calmer seas.

Daniel Herman is a Central Washington University history professor. Left and Right is a column provided by CWU professors to represent a variety of political viewpoints.

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