How Hitler went from fringe politician to dictator — and why it's a mistake to think it couldn't happen in the US
One reason many people find the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency scary is that Trump often sounds more like an authoritarian than a president.
Trump supporters argue that Trump's dictatorial rhetoric is a sales pitch and that Trump is more reasonable and less megalomaniacal than he sounds. They also point out that the United States has checks and balances that restrict the power of the president and make it difficult for a would-be dictator to seize absolute control.
But given what might be described as Trump's "dictatorial tendencies," it's worth reviewing how at least one famous dictator rose to power and transformed a democracy into a dictatorship.
Many observers have already drawn parallels between Trump and Adolf Hitler — not late Hitler, but early Hitler, before the horrors of the late 1930s and World War II (in other words, before Hitler became Hitler, back when millions of Germans viewed him as a refreshingly bold and strong leader who could restore a troubled country).
To do so is not to suggest that Trump is or would become another Hitler. No one knows what Trump would do with the power of the presidency, and fanatical psychopathic dictators like Hitler are thankfully rare. But the parallels between the rise of the two men are clear enough that it would be unwise to ignore them. Especially because, as Slate's Will Saletan recently observed, Trump's rhetoric is, in fact, becoming more and more early-Hitler-like.
Hitler himself went from fringe politician to chancellor of Germany in the space of a few years. And he went from Chancellor to dictator in a matter of months.
If Trump is elected president next month, he will instantly have more power than Hitler had when he was appointed chancellor of Germany in 1933.
It is true that the United States in 2016 is in far better shape economically than Germany was in the early 1930s. It is also true that US democracy has already survived about 240 years of constitutional challenges, depressions, megalomaniacs, and wars — unlike the fragile Weimar Republic that was Germany after World War I.
But Trump already has more popular support than Hitler had before he eliminated Germany's democracy. Trump's party has more control of the government than the Nazis did. And President Trump would be the commander in chief of a military whose weaponry and power Hitler and the Nazis could only have dreamed of.
So it seems worth briefly reviewing this period of history and thinking about how it might be relevant to today.
From fringe politician to chancellor
For most of the 1920s, Hitler was a fringe-party rabble-rouser. In 1923, as the leader of the tiny Nazi party, he incited a violent attempt to overthrow the government and got himself thrown in prison for treason (a short stay that he later used to his advantage).
Hitler was a talented and mesmerizing speaker, and his speeches appealed to primal emotion and resentment rather than logic. His basic message was simple (and familiar):
Thanks to the incompetence and weakness of its leaders, the once-great nation of Germany had been reduced to a humiliating shadow of its former self.
Hitler and the Nazis, Hitler promised, would make Germany great again.
After a period of economic instability and hyper-inflation in the early 1920s, Germany's Weimar economy stabilized. Even by the end of the decade, after nearly ten years of selling their story, Hitler and the Nazis were still viewed as extremist cranks. In the elections of 1928, for example, the Nazi party won only 3% of the seats in the Reichstag, Germany's parliament. A year later, a Nazi candidate for president won an even more feeble 1% of the vote.
After the stock-market crash of 1929, however, everything changed.
As the shockwaves from the crash and Great Depression spread, Germany's economic situation deteriorated rapidly. Unemployment soared from about 10% to about 15% in a year — and then to a staggering 30% over the next two years. Violence and political unrest increased.
Economic distress creates an understandable desperation for change. And in the misery that was Germany's economy after the crash, two formerly fringe parties on opposite ends of the political spectrum gained support — the communists and the Nazis. In the elections of 1930, the Nazis shocked the country by capturing 19% of the vote.
The rise of the Nazis and communists fragmented Germany's government and created a power vacuum. More centrist political parties failed to unite in opposition. And over the next two years, as Germany's economy continued to deteriorate and unemployment skyrocketed, Hitler and the Nazis expertly exploited the situation, campaigning relentlessly via propaganda, speeches, and intimidation.
In the spring of 1932, at the height of the depression, Hitler himself ran for president. He won a startling 39% of the vote but lost to the incumbent 84-year old Paul von Hindenburg, who had been persuaded to run for a second term because he was the only one viewed by non-Nazis as capable of defeating Hitler.
By that fall, the Nazis had captured 33% of the seats in the Reichstag and become the largest political party in Germany.
A few months later, at the end of January 1933, believing that he could appease Hitler while still controlling him, President Hindenburg appointed Hitler as chancellor, the leader of the government.
From chancellor to dictator
At this point, the Nazis had amassed more power than any other political party in Germany, but still lacked a majority in the Reichstag. Germany still had a free press and a president, and German citizens still had basic civil rights. As chancellor, moreover, Hitler still did not control Germany's military or foreign affairs. And President Hindenburg still had the power to fire him.
But as soon as he was appointed chancellor, Hitler began rectifying that.
Hitler persuaded Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and set a date for new elections in early March, 1933, with the goal of winning a Nazi majority.
In the lead-up to the vote, the Nazis waged a campaign of fear, arguing that the rival communist party was planning to take over Germany by means of a violent revolution.
Then, a week before the election, Hitler either brilliantly orchestrated or brilliantly capitalized on (or both) an event that allowed the Nazis to frame the communist takeover story as a seemingly self-evident reality.
On the night of February 27, 1933, a fire ravaged the Reichstag building in Berlin.
Historians still argue about whether the fire was set by a lone-wolf communist or planned as a "false flag" operation by the Nazis.
Either way, Hitler pounced on it.
Hitler declared that the fire had been the first strike in the communist revolution that the Nazis had warned about. The next day, he persuaded Hindenburg to enact a law known as the "Reichstag Fire Decree," ostensibly to protect the German people from the forthcoming communist rampage.
The Reichstag Fire Decree suspended most civil rights in Germany — freedom of the press, freedom of expression, habeas corpus, rights to privacy. Hitler would never again restore them. The Reichstag Fire Decree also allowed the Nazis to start rounding up members of the communist party and throwing them in jail, an effective way to neutralize political opponents.
In the ensuing elections, the Nazis increased their control of the Reichstag from 33% to 44%. With help from an allied party, this gave them a simple majority. But it did not give them enough to fulfill Hitler's ultimate goal — the passage of an "Enabling Act" that would give Hitler the power to change laws without the Reichstag. To do that, the Nazis needed a two-thirds majority.
It took only another two weeks for Hitler to get it.
On March 15, 1933, Hitler held his first cabinet meeting as chancellor, during which he outlined his plans to pass the Enabling Act. The vote was set for nine days later, on March 24.
By that time, thanks to the powers granted by the Reichstag Fire Decree, most members of the communist party in the Reichstag were in jail or in hiding, thus neutralizing one major voting bloc. Lest the empty seats of these communists hinder the assembly of a "quorum," the Reichstag president, Herman Göring, changed the Reichstag's rules to exclude communist members.
Hitler struck a deal with the Catholic-led Centre party, promising that Catholic civil liberties and schools would be protected in exchange for its support. And the Nazis intimidated or detained enough members of the one remaining major party to ensure the Act's passage.
The Enabling Act superseded the Weimar constitution and eliminated the Reichstag's role in Germany's government. After the Act was passed, Hitler and the Nazis could enact whatever laws they wanted. Such was the power of the Enabling Act, in fact, that Hitler never even bothered to rescind the Weimar constitution. Instead, he simply renewed the Enabling Act every four years until the end of his reign.
By the summer of 1933, it was all but over. Just five years after a national election in which the Nazis won only 3% of popular vote, there were no other political parties in Germany.
The only remaining check on Hitler's authority was Germany's aging President Hindenburg, who still retained the right to dismiss him. From the spring of 1933 to the summer of 1934, Hitler continued to show Hindenburg deference and respect in public. In early August, 1934, when Hindenburg was on his deathbed, Hitler passed a law that merged the powers of the presidency with the powers of the chancellor. When Hindenburg died, Hitler's ascendancy was complete.
The United States in 2016
Most Trump supporters reject any comparisons between Trump and early-Hitler and between Weimar Germany and today's United States.
And there are indeed important differences.
Hitler was more overtly racist, anti-Semitic, and fanatical than Trump, for example, and more explicit about his goal of absolute power. Trump's bigotry is less extreme, and at least until recently, his presidential campaign has seemed more like a publicity stunt than a power grab. (When he's not being angry and apocalyptic, Trump is also funnier and more entertaining than Hitler appears to have been — which is probably one reason many of his supporters view his more extreme rhetoric as shtick.)
But similarities between the two men are also hard to miss. To wit: Their prodigious talent and charisma; their appeal to emotions and conspiracy theories rather than logic; their annoyance with democratic institutions and the messy and inefficient democratic process; their disregard for facts; their disdain for a free press; their confidence in their own judgment and "gut feel" versus the conclusions of experts; their eagerness to attack, shame, and divide opponents, their skill at "cutting deals" to achieve ends; their reverence for leaders with absolute power; their conviction that they alone can lead their countries to greatness. ("I alone can fix it.")
One of the arguments as to why a Hitler-like seizure of power could never happen in the US is that our "checks and balances" would prevent it. Members of the opposition party, the story goes — along with more reasonable members of the would-be dictator's party — would stand up to him or her in the name of the country and democracy.
It's certainly comforting to believe that.
And absent a crisis or shock along the lines of the one that rocked Germany in the early 1930s, it might be the case.
But it's easy to imagine that one or more of the economic plans that Trump has floated — trade wars, protectionist measures, retaliatory punishment of companies that annoy him, debt "renegotiations," massive tax cuts that would likely balloon the deficit — could lead to unintended consequences or a deep recession.
It's also easy to imagine that, given his powers of persuasion, President Trump might be able to convince people that this increased misery was caused not be him but by his remaining opposition. If only President Trump had the power to finally vanquish the remaining establishment...
Similarly, it's easy to imagine that, after a major terrorist attack or increase in violent crime, President Trump might call for some sort of emergency power to control the situation. Given the the fear and knee-jerk backlash that often follows such events (recall the Patriot Act), it's easy to imagine that some form of this power might be granted.
The hurdle to enacting a Constitutional Amendment in the United States is high. It requires a two-thirds majority in both Congress and the Senate and ratification by three-quarters of the states. In a normal environment, this is hard to achieve. During a crisis, however, it could become easier.
Even with his recent dip in the polls — and even in a solid economy — Trump stands to win at least 40% of the US popular vote, a greater share than the pre-Führer Hitler ever got. Trump's party, meanwhile, already has greater control over government than the Nazis had before Hitler took over. And most of the more reasonable members of the Republican party — the ones who most people assumed would have long ago stopped Trump's rise — either lack the power to do so or are already so cowed that they refuse to denounce him.
Even if Trump does not try to increase the power of the presidency, it's easy to imagine that, as commander in chief, and with the power to issue executive orders, he might just act first and deal with consequences later, inviting dissenters to do what he is said to have invited angry former business partners to do — take him in court.
Lastly, and importantly, even if Trump loses the election, it's easy to imagine that he and his supporters will regard the loss as just a temporary setback. The same economic distress or terrorist attack might occur on Hillary Clinton's watch, after all. And if it does, Trump's m.o. of blaming every problem — real and fictitious — on the corrupt and ineffective establishment will only get easier.
So it does not seem wise to assume that what happened in Germany in the 1930s — and in other once-Democratic countries in recent history — could never happen here.
On the contrary, it seems worth considering the possibility that, given the right combination of personalities and circumstances, it could happen anywhere.
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This is an editorial. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.