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Trump’s Hitler fascination is an ominous echo of the 1930s – Times of India

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Democracy is ailing. Around the world, strongmen seem all the rage. China’s Xi, Russia’s Putin, Hungary’s Orban, India’s Modi and a clutch of Latin Americans, together with the rise of the right in Western Europe, attest to peoples’ increasing willingness to embrace ruthless, mendacious leaders whom they credulously think can get things done, while eliminating their enemies (real or imagined).
There was once a widely held belief in Europe, which became a cliché, that Italy’s 1922-43 “Duce,” Benito Mussolini, made the trains run on time.It was supposed, falsely, that pre-World War II strongmen offered administrative efficiency and economic success.
Many commentators, not least in the US, see a resurgence of that era’s fascism. Immigrants, Muslims and foreigners have taken the place formerly occupied by Jews as scapegoats for misfortune and modernity. Conspiracy theories flourish while public services languish.
Between the two wars, communism remained an ideology cherished by a minority and left-wing elites. But fascism, with its uniforms and mass rallies, calls to eliminate “anti-social elements” and patriotic bombast, was more genuinely popular. Might was seen as a virtue, the law as an instrument to be manipulated.
Donald Trump today promises to be a “dictator” – if voters buy what he’s selling. He has spoken well of Hitler. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present says Trump is pursuing a campaign designed to convince Americans that “authoritarian rule is superior to democracy.”
A 2023 Pew Research Center survey in 24 countries showed that enthusiasm for freely elected leaders is flagging, and a median 59% is “dissatisfied with how their democracy is functioning.” Three-quarters of those polled believe that “elected officials don’t care” what “ordinary people” think, while strongmen do.
For those of us with an acute consciousness of the past, especially the European past, it is terrifying to see so many people oblivious to the horrors committed by the 1930s dictators. It’s also dismaying to see history repeat itself, in the willingness of many of the world’s “haves” to endorse tyrants. I was once asked about the politics of a tycoon whom I knew. I responded that he simply wanted to make the world a safe place for rich people — no more, no less. He was, and remains, a cheerleader for Trump, who granted him a pardon for a US fraud conviction.
The same was equally true of the “haves” of the 1930s. Much of the British aristocracy, including most notoriously Lord Redesdale and two of his daughters — the celebrated Mitford sisters — embraced Hitler. Diana married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascist Party. Her sister Unity became so besotted with Hitler, with whom she forged a friendship, that she shot herself in the head — not fatally — in despair when World War II broke out.
If Churchill had not shown favoritism to his own class by leaving them at liberty, by my reckoning at least four British dukes — Westminster, Wellington, Buccleuch and Bedford — would have been interned during the war for their links to Nazism. Why did they do it? Because, like many of Europe’s rich and much of the City of London, they were haunted by an imagined Bolshevik takeover, which they feared would cost them their fortunes. They embraced the fascists as enemies of communism.
In Berlin, in April 1939, the Duke of Buccleuch planned to attend Hitler’s 50th birthday party, until the British Embassy induced him instead to go home. Even after war broke out, the duke pestered Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to seek a “face-saving peace” that would have allowed Nazi Germany to remain a Great Power. As late as July 1940, when Churchill had taken over, Buccleuch urged the Conservative chief whip to press the government to parley with Hitler. All this was an embarrassment to Buckingham Palace. Buccleuch was George VI’s most senior courtier, Lord Steward of the Household. Only belatedly did the King acknowledge that Buccleuch’s politics mad him an outcast, and ask him to resign.
A British historian has recently written that Buccleuch believed world war might bring revolution to Britain: “It was almost bound to lead to higher taxation and an end to the aristocratic way of life that had somehow survived World War I. His desire to preserve a strong Germany — even a Nazi one — to counter the spread of communism…was shared by a number of his fellow-magnates.”
Lord Rothermere, proprietor of Britain’s Daily Mail, was a notorious pre-war Nazi sympathizer. The historian and biographer of Hitler, Ian Kershaw, was once given a private guided tour of Mount Stewart, the former Northern Ireland home of Lord Londonderry, an appeaser who served as a minister in several 1930s Conservative governments. In Londonderry’s study, Kershaw was fascinated to spot a white Meissen statuette of an SS stormtrooper carrying a Nazi flag. It had been presented to the British peer in 1936 by Joachim von Ribbentrop, then Hitler’s ambassador in London, when he stayed at Mount Stewart as an honored guest.
The diaries of US-born British MP Sir Henry “Chips” Channon testify to a commitment to appeasement at any price. When somebody said at Londonderry’s 1949 memorial service that perhaps the dead apologist for the Nazis had been right all along, the shameless Channon said: “Of course he was.” The dictators offered the only thing for which such people cared — security for their own kind.
Not much appears to have changed. In the US, it is terrifying to behold so many educated people enthuse about the prospect of “strongman rule.” The historian Timothy Snyder recently penned a notable essay denouncing the folly, as well as evil, of embracing such a course. Essential to the strongman myth, he writes, “is the idea that a strongman will be your strongman. He won’t.”
Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest and author of a new book America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators, argues that Trumpism — the GOP standard-bearer’s enthusiasm for the likes of Putin and Orban — is “only the tip of the iceberg in a long history of US right-wing admiration for demagogues and despots elsewhere.”
“Trump is rebranding odious doctrines from the past as something new and shiny and attractive,” the author concludes.
President Joe Biden’s gravest electoral vulnerability is that he appears weak. The recent Pew poll shows half of its respondents, in half the middle-income nations surveyed, enthused about adopting a form of government in which “a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts.” The pernicious appeal of strongmen is that they profess to offer magical solutions. Yet most of us spend lifetimes learning that no such things exist — that our governments can only realistically aspire to manage intractable difficulties, not banish them.
The “solutions” that Donald Trump offers are as simplistic as those of an old frontier gunfighter. Their spurious plausibility is perhaps unsurprising in a society ever-more poisoned by private ownership of firearms. But in truth Trump is a weak man masquerading as a strong one. In the White House, he would be powerless to achieve the outcomes that he promises because they represent fantasies.
It’s terrifying that our greatest democracy should be within range of possibility of re-electing as its president a self-proclaimed would-be dictator, who thinks that Adolf Hitler “did some good things.”





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