For the last few weeks, I’ve watched with dismay as many of my fellow Jews have risen to speak up against any comparisons of Trump to Hitler. It’s understandable, this anger of trying to limit the comparisons people make to one of the most evil men in history. After all, comparing people and movements to Hitler seems to be one of the most overused and misapplied historical comparisons in our society.
But the danger is much greater when we don’t see where it does apply.
The arguments always seem to be the same. Trump never claimed to want to commit mass genocide or to spread a world war or to do anything as horrific as the Holocaust. The word “trivializing” is often used when people describe this comparison.
But underneath it all, it seems to me, is a certain demand of ownership: the Holocaust was our tragedy. Don’t “trivialize” it by drawing comparisons to building a wall to keep out illegal immigrants or to restricting Muslims from coming to our country.
In other words, the lesson of Hitler is about antisemitism and its singular uniqueness.
And therein lies the danger.
Because Hitler’s rise and success was not just a lesson on antisemitism. When we say “never again” we don’t mean it just for Jews and we don’t mean only in the case of the most drastic extremes of human depravity. We are talking about something bigger, something wider.
The lesson of Hitler, the Holocaust, and World War II is the utter danger we put ourselves in when we allow a despot to rise to power. When we want a despot to become our leader.
In other words, the comparisons to Hitler aren’t about him or Trump. They are about our role in his rise. They are about understanding that Hitler’s rise wasn’t just about one evil man, it was about a country, a continent, and a world, that stood back and allowed him to rise or actively engaged in his ascent.
Hitler would have just been an art school failure without his followers. His demented dreams would have stayed in his mind where they were meant to stay.
His rise was a tragedy, then, not just for the Jews. It was for a world that allowed him and enabled him to rise. The people in his nation who heard him spout hate and yet did not stand up and say something. The people who did not see the unique nature of this man, the despot in him, and how hate was the engine by which he fueled his movement. The world which stood by while he invaded nation after nation before they finally realized that his words of world domination weren’t empty. The people who then watched as Jews were being shoved into cattle cars with their own eyes and didn’t say a word, or who cheered on while it was happening.
Trump is also singularly unique in American history. Never in modern American history has a serious candidate directly argued for war crimes as part of his platform. Or argued that if the military refused to do those war crimes, “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.” Or openly threatened to attack freedom of the press in order to limit criticism of his campaign. Or argued that an entire religion should be barred from entering our nation.
But even those things aren’t what define Trump or his rise. Just as Hitler wasn’t defined by his antisemitism.
No. It is the despotism. The effect it has on the populace. People giving themselves over to every single whim of a man simply because he is that man. A literal political idol. The point of Trump, and the point of Hitler, is that both men could literally say anything and their followers would agree to it. That is what is dangerous, not just the specific manifestations of those whims.
(His later disavows, then, are not for their benefit but for ours, in order to make us question whether he really means what he says. Another strategy of despots.)
Just because Trump hasn’t called for the genocide of Jews does not mean that he is any less a despot. His extreme statements don’t mean a thing without the support of millions of Americans. What is scary isn’t that he has said those things but that he says whatever he wants and that just inflates people’s support. That is the mark of a despot. And that is how Hitler rose to power.
The reason comparisons to Hitler are not just important but necessary, then, is to show us just how far despotism can take us. It is to show us the in the darkest and starkest terms where letting go of your agency to one man’s whims takes you. That Trump is not a one to one comparison with Hitler is simply our good luck and a symbol of the time in history in which we inhabit.
“Never again” is not a call to look out for men who have a weird mustache and an antisemitism fetish. It is a call to us. A call to see the process by which Hitlers rise in the world, and our role in that process.
It’s thus doubly tragic to see Jews, of all people, claim that comparisons to Hitler are trivializing. It’s the exact opposite. To not be able to see that antisemitism has been the marker of a larger hate, a deeper hate, used to gain traction when taking advantage of people’s legitimate or illegitimate anger at the “state of things,” and to claim it as only for us, is to trivialize the lessons we have learned from thousands of years of being on the receiving end of that hate. To not see that we have a duty, a calling, to now use those lessons and see how others are using it against other groups to spark their own rise, is to trivialize our role in history.
The ultimate lesson of antisemitism, of Hitler, of the Holocaust is that the group or groups a despot demonizes are just the beginning of the destruction to follow. The hate is just the kindling by which the spark of the despot’s machinations then spreads. World War II plunged the entire world into darkness, resulting 60 million people dead, a continent destroyed, two nuclear bombs dropped. The Holocaust was the beating heart that kept the hate and destruction spreading.
So now we have a choice. We can be active participants by pushing for the rise of a despot because he happens to say any word that makes us feel like he understands us. We can be the quiet group that is too afraid to say a word. Or we can stand up and say, “Never again.”