Many people think that Hitler was democratically elected chancellor of Germany. He wasn’t. In fact, some highly influential conservatives convinced President von Hindenburg to appoint him to the position.

The Nazis never won a majority in German elections. In July, 1932 they won a plurality with 37 percent of the vote. That was their high point. In the next election they lost seats.

With a plurality, the president would normally appoint that party’s leader chancellor, but Hindenburg didn’t believe Hitler was competent and hesitated to appoint him.

Conservatives despised him, considering him a buffoon leading a violent, unruly rabble. One pillar of conservative society referred to him as a “psychopath.” But they saw a use for the little man with the toothbrush moustache. He could be used against the left and in aiding certain ambitious conservatives in their own path to power. Industrialists saw him as an instrument in protecting their wealth against the designs of commies and social democrats.

They were confident they could control him, so they played their game and finally manipulated Hindenburg into appointing him. “You mean to tell me I have the unpleasant task of appointing this Hitler as the next Chancellor?” he reportedly asked. Yes they answered, and so he did.

This story has disturbing similarities to the ongoing tale of Donald Trump. Similarities of character to begin with: two total narcissists, full of resentment, driven more by hate of their enemies than love of their people, neither inhibited by a sense of shame. Hitler even, like Trump, hypocritically presented himself as a protector of Christianity.

Both promoted by conservatives knowing perfectly well the kind of degenerate they’re indulging. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has in the past referred to Trump as a “despicable person,” but endorses him for president nonetheless. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas endorses Trump “enthusiastically’ even though previously he has called him a “bully” and a “pathological liar.” (In the 2016 nomination race Trump called Cruz’s wife ugly and suggested his father conspired with Kennedy’s assassins.) While South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham reportedly testified to a grand jury that the former president would have believed “martians came and stole the election” nonetheless he remains a vocal Trump supporter. The list is long.

All shamelessly pander to Trump out of fear his base will turn on them and out of hope that his base will support them. The public good is no more present than it was with the scheming conservatives of the Weimar Republic.

One of the more intriguing similarities in the two tales is the part played by Alfred Hugenberg, a right-wing German press baron, owner of Germany’s leading film studio and the national news service, with some 1600 newspapers. Hugenberg attempted to sew the seeds for a takeover by creating culture war, immersing the public in inflammatory news, half-truths, rumours and outright lies, creating division and polarization. This mischief bears an uncanny resemblance to Rupert Murdoch and Fox News.

Some of the schemers came to bad ends, butchered by Hitler on the Night of the Long Knives when he rid himself of those allies he no longer trusted. Trump may be less violent but he, too, readily discards allies when he no longer sees them as sufficiently loyal, as poor Mike Pence can testify.

Comparing 21st century America to 1930s Germany seems grotesque and not very long ago I would have thought unimaginable. But then in 2016, when Trump first ran for president, while I believed this buffoon could cause some damage, I never imagined he could threaten American democracy.

Mussolini and Hitler were buffoons, sure, but that was Europe. America had a solid constitution, a loyal military, a vibrant civil society and a crusading press. American democracy was secure, immune to fascism.

But I was forgetting my history. As Trump began to undermine one democratic institution after another—the press, the courts, the military, even elections—I have been forced to remember it.

In the 1930s fascism, indeed Nazism, was alive and well in the U.S. In 1939, the German American Bund held a rally of 20,000 in New York’s Madison Square Garden where they booed President Roosevelt and chanted “Heil Hitler.” Prominent Americans such as the radio priest Father Coughlin, aviation hero Charles Lindbergh and industrialist Henry Ford, praised the Third Reich. And then of course there was the Ku Klux Klan. On August 8, 1925, 50,000 Klansmen marched through Washington.

All Trump has done is revive fascist fever and, like Adolf, put it in the service of his ego and his resentments. And a host of conservatives, for their own advantage, eagerly enable his design.

One wonders if any of these enablers are students of history, of either their own or Europe’s. It is hard to miss the parallels. But ambition and party loyalty are powerful mistresses, more powerful perhaps than fears about repetitive history. The American people are offered a clear choice. It will be up to them to choose the right side of history.

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