Civil liberties lawyer Burt Neuborne questions whether federal government can contain Trump and GOP power grabs
By Steven Rosenfeld
August 16, 2019 “Information Clearing House” – A new book by one of the nation’s foremost civil liberties lawyers powerfully describes how America’s constitutional checks and balances are being pushed to the brink by a president who is consciously following Adolf Hitler’s extremist propaganda and policy template from the early 1930s — when the Nazis took power in Germany.
In “When at Times the Mob Is Swayed: A Citizen’s Guide to Defending Our Republic,” Burt Neuborne mostly focuses on how America’s constitutional foundation in 2019 — an unrepresentative Congress, the Electoral College and a right-wing Supreme Court majority — is not positioned to withstand Trump’s extreme polarization and GOP power grabs. However, its second chapter, “Why the Sudden Concern About Fixing the Brakes?,” extensively details Trump’s mimicry of Hitler’s pre-war rhetoric and strategies.
Neuborne doesn’t make this comparison lightly. His 55-year career began by challenging the constitutionality of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. He became the ACLU’s national legal director in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. He was founding legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School in the 1990s. He has been part of more than 200 Supreme Court cases and Holocaust reparation litigation.
“Why does an ignorant, narcissistic buffoon like Trump trigger such anxiety? Why do so many Americans feel it existentially (not just politically) important to resist our forty-fifth president?” he writes. “Partly it’s just aesthetics. Trump is such a coarse and appalling man that it’s hard to stomach his presence in Abraham Lincoln’s house. But that’s not enough to explain the intensity of my dread. LBJ was coarse. Gerald Ford and George W. Bush were dumb as rocks. Richard Nixon was an anti-Semite. Bill Clinton’s mistreatment of women dishonored his office. Ronald Reagan was a dangerous ideologue. I opposed each of them when they appeared to exceed their constitutional powers. But I never felt a sense of existential dread. I never sensed that the very existence of a tolerant democracy was in play.”
A younger Trump, according to his first wife’s divorce filings, kept and studied a book translating and annotating Adolf Hitler’s pre-World War II speeches in a locked bedside cabinet, Neuborne noted. The English edition of My New Order, published in 1941, also had analyses of the speeches’ impact on his era’s press and politics. “Ugly and appalling as they are, those speeches are masterpieces of demagogic manipulation,” Neuborne says.
“Watching Trump work his crowds, though, I see a dangerously manipulative narcissist unleashing the demagogic spells that he learned from studying Hitler’s speeches — spells that he cannot control and that are capable of eroding the fabric of American democracy,” Neuborne says. “You see, we’ve seen what these rhetorical techniques can do. Much of Trump’s rhetoric — as a candidate and in office — mirrors the strategies, even the language, used by Adolf Hitler in the early 1930s to erode German democracy.”
Many Americans may seize or condemn Neuborne’s analysis, which has more than 20 major points of comparison. The author repeatedly says his goal is not “equating” the men — as “it trivializes Hitler’s obscene crimes to compare them to Trump’s often pathetic foibles.”
Indeed, the book has a larger frame: whether federal checks and balances — Congress, the Supreme Court, the Electoral College — can contain the havoc that Trump thrives on and the Republican Party at large has embraced. But the Trump-Hitler compilation is a stunning warning, because, as many Holocaust survivors have said, few Germans or Europeans expected what unfolded in the years after Hitler amassed power.
Here’s how Neuborne introduces this section. Many recent presidents have been awful, “But then there was Donald Trump, the only president in recent American history to openly despise the twin ideals — individual dignity and fundamental equality — upon which the contemporary United States is built. When you confront the reality of a president like Trump, the state of both sets of brakes — internal [constitutional] and external [public resistance] — become hugely important because Donald Trump’s political train runs on the most potent and dangerous fuel of all: a steady diet of fear, greed, loathing, lies, and envy. It’s a toxic mixture that has destroyed democracies before, and can do so again.
“Give Trump credit,” he continues. “He did his homework well and became the twenty-first-century master of divisive rhetoric. We’re used to thinking of Hitler’s Third Reich as the incomparably evil tyranny that it undoubtedly was. But Hitler didn’t take power by force. He used a set of rhetorical tropes codified in Trump’s bedside reading that persuaded enough Germans to welcome Hitler as a populist leader. The Nazis did not overthrow the Weimar Republic. It fell into their hands as the fruit of Hitler’s satanic ability to mesmerize enough Germans to trade their birthright for a pottage of scapegoating, short-term economic gain, xenophobia, and racism. It could happen here.”
Here are 20 serious points of comparison between the early Hitler and Trump.20 common themes, rhetorical tactics and dangerous policies
- Neither was elected by a majority. Trump lost the popular vote by 2.9 million votes, receiving votes by 25.3 percent of all eligible American voters. “That’s just a little less than the percentage of the German electorate that turned to the Nazi Party in 1932–33,” Neuborne writes. “Unlike the low turnouts in the United States, turnout in Weimar Germany averaged just over 80 percent of eligible voters.” He continues, “Once installed as a minority chancellor in January 1933, Hitler set about demonizing his political opponents, and no one — not the vaunted, intellectually brilliant German judiciary; not the respected, well-trained German police; not the revered, aristocratic German military; not the widely admired, efficient German government bureaucracy; not the wealthy, immensely powerful leaders of German industry; and not the powerful center-right political leaders of the Reichstag — mounted a serious effort to stop him.”
- Both found direct communication channels to their base. By 1936’s Olympics, Nazi narratives dominated German cultural and political life. “How on earth did Hitler pull it off? What satanic magic did Trump find in Hitler’s speeches?” Neuborne asks. He addresses Hitler’s extreme rhetoric soon enough, but notes that Hitler found a direct communication pathway — the Nazi Party gave out radios with only one channel, tuned to Hitler’s voice, bypassing Germany’s news media. Trump has an online equivalent.
“Donald Trump’s tweets, often delivered between midnight and dawn, are the twenty-first century’s technological embodiment of Hitler’s free plastic radios,” Neuborne says. “Trump’s Twitter account, like Hitler’s radios, enables a charismatic leader to establish and maintain a personal, unfiltered line of communication with an adoring political base of about 30–40 percent of the population, many (but not all) of whom are only too willing, even anxious, to swallow Trump’s witches’ brew of falsehoods, half-truths, personal invective, threats, xenophobia, national security scares, religious bigotry, white racism, exploitation of economic insecurity, and a never ending-search for scapegoats.”
- Both blame others and divide on racial lines. As Neuborne notes, “Hitler used his single-frequency radios to wax hysterical to his adoring base about his pathological racial and religious fantasies glorifying Aryans and demonizing Jews, blaming Jews (among other racial and religious scapegoats) for German society’s ills.” That is comparable to “Trump’s tweets and public statements, whether dealing with black-led demonstrations against police violence, white-led racist mob violence, threats posed by undocumented aliens, immigration policy generally, protests by black and white professional athletes, college admission policies, hate speech, even response to hurricane damage in Puerto Rico,” he says. Again and again, Trump uses “racially tinged messages calculated to divide whites from people of color.”
- Both relentlessly demonize opponents. “Hitler’s radio harangues demonized his domestic political opponents, calling them parasites, criminals, cockroaches, and various categories of leftist scum,” Neuborne notes. “Trump’s tweets and speeches similarly demonize his political opponents. Trump talks about the country being ‘infested’ with dangerous aliens of color. He fantasizes about jailing Hillary Clinton, calls Mexicans rapists, refers to ‘shithole countries,’ degrades anyone who disagrees with him, and dreams of uprooting thousands of allegedly disloyal bureaucrats in the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI, and the CIA, who he calls ‘the deep state’ and who, he claims, are sabotaging American greatness.”
- They unceasingly attack objective truth. “Both Trump and Hitler maintained a relentless assault on the very idea of objective truth,” he continues. “Each began the assault by seeking to delegitimize the mainstream press. Hitler quickly coined the epithet Lügenpresse (literally ‘lying press’) to denigrate the mainstream press. Trump uses a paraphrase of Hitler’s lying press epithet — ‘fake news’ — cribbed, no doubt, from one of Hitler’s speeches. For Trump, the mainstream press is a ‘lying press’ that publishes ‘fake news.’” Hitler attacked his opponents as spreading false information to undermine his positions, Neuborne says, just as Trump has attacked “elites” for disseminating false news, “especially his possible links to the Kremlin.”
- They relentlessly attack mainstream media. Trump’s assaults on the media echo Hitler’s, Neuborne says, noting that he “repeatedly attacks the ‘failing New York Times,’ leads crowds in chanting ‘CNN sucks,’ [and] is personally hostile to most reporters.” He cites the White House’s refusal to fly the flag at half-mast after the murder of five journalists in Annapolis in June 2018, Trump’s efforts to punish CNN by blocking a merger of its corporate parent, and trying to revoke federal Postal Service contracts held by Amazon, which was founded by Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post.
- Their attacks on truth include science. Neuborne notes, “Both Trump and Hitler intensified their assault on objective truth by deriding scientific experts, especially academics who question Hitler’s views on race or Trump’s views on climate change, immigration, or economics. For both Trump and Hitler, the goal is (and was) to eviscerate the very idea of objective truth, turning everything into grist for a populist jury subject to manipulation by a master puppeteer. In both Trump’s and Hitler’s worlds, public opinion ultimately defines what is true and what is false.”
- Their lies blur reality — and supporters spread them. “Trump’s pathological penchant for repeatedly lying about his behavior can only succeed in a world where his supporters feel free to embrace Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ and treat his hyperbolic exaggerations as the gospel truth,” Neuborne says. “Once Hitler had delegitimized the mainstream media by a series of systematic attacks on its integrity, he constructed a fawning alternative mass media designed to reinforce his direct radio messages and enhance his personal power. Trump is following the same path, simultaneously launching bitter attacks on the mainstream press while embracing the so-called alt-right media, co-opting both Sinclair Broadcasting and the Rupert Murdoch–owned Fox Broadcasting Company as, essentially, a Trump Broadcasting Network.”
- Both orchestrated mass rallies to show status. “Once Hitler had cemented his personal communications link with his base via free radios and a fawning media and had badly eroded the idea of objective truth, he reinforced his emotional bond with his base by holding a series of carefully orchestrated mass meetings dedicated to cementing his status as a charismatic leader, or Führer,”Neuborne writes. “The powerful personal bonds nurtured by Trump’s tweets and Fox’s fawning are also systematically reinforced by periodic, carefully orchestrated mass rallies (even going so far as to co-opt a Boy Scout Jamboree in 2017), reinforcing Trump’s insatiable narcissism and his status as a charismatic leader.”
- They embrace extreme nationalism. “Hitler’s strident appeals to the base invoked an extreme version of German nationalism, extolling a brilliant German past and promising to restore Germany to its rightful place as a preeminent nation,” Neuborne says. “Trump echoes Hitler’s jingoistic appeal to ultranationalist fervor, extolling American exceptionalism right down to the slogan ‘Make America Great Again,’ a paraphrase of Hitler’s promise to restore German greatness.”
- Both made closing borders a centerpiece. “Hitler all but closed Germany’s borders, freezing non-Aryan migration into the country and rendering it impossible for Germans to escape without official permission. Like Hitler, Trump has also made closed borders a centerpiece of his administration,” Neuborne continues. “Hitler barred Jews. Trump bars Muslims and seekers of sanctuary from Central America. When the lower courts blocked Trump’s Muslim travel ban, he unilaterally issued executive orders replacing it with a thinly disguised substitute that ultimately narrowly won Supreme Court approval under a theory of extreme deference to the president.”
- They embraced mass detention and deportations. “Hitler promised to make Germany free from Jews and Slavs. Trump promises to slow, stop, and even reverse the flow of non-white immigrants, substituting Muslims, Africans, Mexicans, and Central Americans of color for Jews and Slavs as scapegoats for the nation’s ills. Trump’s efforts to cast dragnets to arrest undocumented aliens where they work, live, and worship, followed by mass deportation… echo Hitler’s promise to defend Germany’s racial identity,” he writes, also noting that Trump has “stooped to tearing children from their parents [as Nazis in World War II would do] to punish desperate efforts by migrants to find a better life.”
- Both used borders to protect selected industries. “Like Hitler, Trump seeks to use national borders to protect his favored national interests, threatening to ignite protectionist trade wars with Europe, China, and Japan similar to the trade wars that, in earlier incarnations, helped to ignite World War I and World War II,” Neuborne writes. “Like Hitler, Trump aggressively uses our nation’s political and economic power to favor selected American corporate interests at the expense of foreign competitors and the environment, even at the price of international conflict, massive inefficiency, and irreversible pollution [climate change].”
- They cemented their rule by enriching elites. “Hitler’s version of fascism shifted immense power — both political and financial — to the leaders of German industry. In fact, Hitler governed Germany largely through corporate executives,” he continues. “Trump has also presided over a massive empowerment — and enrichment — of corporate America. Under Trump, large corporations exercise immense political power while receiving huge economic windfalls and freedom from regulations designed to protect consumers and the labor force.
“Hitler despised the German labor movement, eventually destroying it and imprisoning its leaders. Trump also detests strong unions, seeking to undermine any effort to interfere with the prerogatives of management.”
- Both rejected international norms. “Hitler’s foreign policy rejected international cooperation in favor of military and economic coercion, culminating in the annexation of the Sudetenland, the phony Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the horrors of global war,” Neuborne notes. “Like Hitler, Trump is deeply hostile to multinational cooperation, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the nuclear agreement with Iran, threatening to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, abandoning our Kurdish allies in Syria, and even going so far as to question the value of NATO, our post-World War II military alliance with European democracies against Soviet expansionism.”
- They attack domestic democratic processes. “Hitler attacked the legitimacy of democracy itself, purging the voting rolls, challenging the integrity of the electoral process, and questioning the ability of democratic government to solve Germany’s problems,” Neuborne notes. “Trump has also attacked the democratic process, declining to agree to be bound by the outcome of the 2016 elections when he thought he might lose, supporting the massive purge of the voting rolls allegedly designed to avoid (nonexistent) fraud, championing measures that make it harder to vote, tolerating — if not fomenting — massive Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, encouraging mob violence at rallies, darkly hinting at violence if Democrats hold power, and constantly casting doubt on the legitimacy of elections unless he wins.”
- Both attack the judiciary and rule of law. “Hitler politicized and eventually destroyed the vaunted German justice system. Trump also seeks to turn the American justice system into his personal playground,” Neuborne writes. “Like Hitler, Trump threatens the judicially enforced rule of law, bitterly attacking American judges who rule against him, slyly praising Andrew Jackson for defying the Supreme Court, and abusing the pardon power by pardoning an Arizona sheriff found guilty of criminal contempt of court for disobeying federal court orders to cease violating the Constitution.”
- Both glorify the military and demand loyalty oaths. “Like Hitler, Trump glorifies the military, staffing his administration with layers of retired generals (who eventually were fired or resigned), relaxing control over the use of lethal force by the military and the police, and demanding a massive increase in military spending,” Neuborne writes. Just as Hitler “imposed an oath of personal loyalty on all German judges” and demanded courts defer to him, “Trump’s already gotten enough deference from five Republican [Supreme Court] justices to uphold a largely Muslim travel ban that is the epitome of racial and religious bigotry.”
Trump has also demanded loyalty oaths. “He fired James Comey, a Republican appointed in 2013 as FBI director by President Obama, for refusing to swear an oath of personal loyalty to the president; excoriated and then sacked Jeff Sessions, his handpicked attorney general, for failing to suppress the criminal investigation into… Trump’s possible collusion with Russia in influencing the 2016 elections; repeatedly threatened to dismiss Robert Mueller, the special counsel carrying out the investigation; and called again and again for the jailing of Hillary Clinton, his 2016 opponent, leading crowds in chants of ‘lock her up.’” A new chant, “send her back,” has since emerged at Trump rallies directed at non-white Democratic congresswomen.
- They proclaim unchecked power. “Like Hitler, Trump has intensified a disturbing trend that predated his administration of governing unilaterally, largely through executive orders or proclamations,” Neuborne says, citing the Muslim travel ban, trade tariffs, unraveling of health and environmental safety nets, ban on transgender military service, and efforts to end President Obama’s protection for Dreamers. “Like Hitler, Trump claims the power to overrule Congress and govern all by himself. In 1933, Hitler used the pretext of the Reichstag fire to declare a national emergency and seize the power to govern unilaterally. The German judiciary did nothing to stop him. German democracy never recovered.”
“When Congress refused to give Trump funds for his border wall even after he threw a tantrum and shut down the government, Trump, like Hitler, declared a phony national emergency and claimed the power to ignore Congress,” Neuborne continues. “Don’t count on the Supreme Court to stop him. Five justices gave the game away on the President’s unilateral travel ban. They just might do the same thing on the border wall.” It did in late July, ruling that Trump could divert congressionally appropriated funds from the Pentagon budget — undermining constitutional separation of powers.
- Both relegate women to subordinate roles. “Finally,” writes Neuborne, “Hitler propounded a misogynistic, stereotypical view of women, valuing them exclusively as wives and mothers while excluding them from full participation in German political and economic life. Trump may be the most openly misogynist figure ever to hold high public office in the United States, crassly treating women as sexual objects, using nondisclosure agreements and violating campaign finance laws to shield his sexual misbehavior from public knowledge, attacking women who come forward to accuse men of abusive behavior, undermining reproductive freedom, and opposing efforts by women to achieve economic equality.”
Whither constitutional checks and balances?
Most of Neuborne’s book is not centered on Trump’s fealty to Hitler’s methods and early policies. He notes, as many commentators have, that Trump is following the well-known contours of authoritarian populists and dictators: “there’s always a charismatic leader, a disaffected mass, an adroit use of communications media, economic insecurity, racial or religious fault lines, xenophobia, a turn to violence, and a search for scapegoats.”
The bigger problem, and the subject of most of the book, is that the federal architecture intended to be a check and balance against tyrants, is not poised to act. Congressional representation is fundamentally anti-democratic. In the Senate, politicians representing 18 percent of the national population — epicenters of Trump’s base — can cast 51 percent of the chamber’s votes. A Republican majority from rural states, representing barely 40 percent of the population, controls the chamber. It repeatedly thwarts legislation reflecting multicultural America’s values — and creates a brick wall for impeachment.
The House of Representatives is not much better. Until 2018, this decade’s GOP-majority House, a product of 2011’s extreme Republican gerrymanders, was also unrepresentative of the nation’s demographics. That bias still exists in the Electoral College, as the size of a state’s congressional delegation equals its allocation of votes. That formula is fair as far as House members go, but allocating votes based on two senators per state hurts urban America. Consider that California’s population is 65 times larger than Wyoming’s.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s majority remains in the hands of justices appointed by Republican presidents — and favors that party’s agenda. Most Americans are unaware that the court’s partisan majority has only changed twice since the Civil War — in 1937, when a Democratic-appointed majority took over, and in 1972, when a Republican-appointed majority took over. Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s blocking of President Obama’s final nominee thwarted a twice-a-century change. Today’s hijacked Supreme Court majority has only just begun deferring to Trump’s agenda.
Neuborne wants to be optimistic that a wave of state-based resistance, call it progressive federalism, could blunt Trump’s power grabs and help the country return to a system embracing, rather than demonizing, individual dignity and fundamental equality. But he predicts that many Americans who supported Trump in 2016 (largely, he suggests, because their plights have been overlooked for many years by federal power centers and by America’s capitalist hubs) won’t desert Trump — not while he’s in power.
“When tyrants like Hitler are ultimately overthrown, their mass support vanishes retroactively — everyone turns out to have been in the resistance — but the mass support was undeniably there,” he writes. “There will, of course, be American quislings who will enthusiastically support an American tyrant. There always are — everywhere.”
Ultimately, Neuborne doesn’t expect there will be a “constitutional mechanic in the sky ready to swoop down and save American democracy from Donald Trump at the head of a populist mob.” Whatever Trump thinks he is or isn’t doing, his rhetorical and strategic role model — the early Hitler — is what makes Trump and today’s GOP so dangerous.
“Even if all that Trump is doing is marching to that populist drum, he is unleashing forces that imperil the fragile fabric of a multicultural democracy,” Neuborne writes. “But I think there’s more. The parallels — especially the links between Lügenpresse and ‘fake news,’ and promises to restore German greatness and ‘Make America Great Again’ — are just too close to be coincidental. I’m pretty sure that Trump’s bedside study of Hitler’s speeches — especially the use of personal invective, white racism, and xenophobia — has shaped the way Trump seeks to gain political power in our time. I don’t for a moment believe that Trump admires what Hitler eventually did with his power [genocide], but he damn well admires — and is successfully copying — the way that Hitler got it.”
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a national political reporter focusing on democracy issues. He has reported for nationwide public radio networks, websites, and newspapers and produced talk radio and music podcasts. He has written five books, including profiles of campaigns, voter suppression, voting rights guides and a WWII survival story currently being made into a film. His latest book is Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (Hot Books, March 2018).
A Night at The Garden
In 1939, twenty-thousand Americans rallied in New York’s Madison Square Garden to celebrate the rise of Nazism – an event largely forgotten from American history. A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN uses striking archival fragments recorded that night to transport modern audiences into this disturbing gathering. With chilling resonance in today’s political climate, the film is a reminder about the power that far-right ideology once had in America and a wake-up call about the importance of addressing it today. More at: ANightAtTheGarden.com
“But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they
who disowned the word ‘Fascism’.” – Sinclair Lewis – From the book “It Can’t Happen Here”