Ron Rosenbaum is one of my favorite long-form journalists of all time. His 1998 book Explaining Hitler is a brilliant look at those who have tried to explain the Nazi phenomenon from Allen Bullock to Hugh Trevor-Roper to Lucy Dawidowicz to Claude Lanzmann, and even the dread David Irving. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in political, cultural, and intellectual history. I re-read sections of it after seeing Denial.
The quote comes from a sidebar to Frank Rich’s brilliant New York Magazine cover story, Trump’s Appeasers. Rosenbaum was asked about the Hitler-Trump comparisons:
What do we learn from the effort to understand Trump as Hitler?
People ask me if there is a comparison to Trump, and of course the main difference is murder. Hitler was genuinely genocidal, and I see Trump more as a clownish fool, the WWE entertainment guy, rather than someone who has the power of hatred inside of him. On the other hand, how can you know? The journalist Julia Ioffe became a target of Trump’s supporters on social media, and what they did seemed to be crossing a Rubicon. The hideousness of the anti-Semitic cartoons—pictures of Jews being shot, of Ioffe being loaded into an oven—brought out a murderousness that I had not imagined was there.
So, the really big question is, was Trump summoning up these visions or, once he found they were there, did he decide to ride that row? Were we learning something new about him? Was he learning something new about himself? It’s similar to the comments by him about David Duke. It would have been so easy to go, “Oh, I can’t—these guys who support me, I have nothing to do with them.” But he wouldn’t. And his daughter is Jewish! I don’t think he knowingly said, “Okay, part of my campaign strategy is to get these vicious, murderous racists to mobilize my campaign.” But the fact that he was willing to take advantage of it is very telling.
Trump’s been a magnet for Hitler analogies. Are those comparisons clarifying at all, or always distractions?
I want to say both. Distracting because the disproportion is so great between what Trump has done and what Hitler did. And people are always using Hitler to prove their mandate, to say this or that validates their vision of politics. But on some level Trump does show a charismatic talent—you see it at some of the rallies. Part of the question up in the air is a paradox that traces back to Socrates: No man is capable of causing great evil without thinking he’s doing the right thing.
An interesting take from a man who knows his stuff, which is refreshing in this era of instant experts. Make sure you read Rich’s entire piece wherein he compares Trump and Charles Lindbergh. America First, yo.