Trump Scary, but He’s Not Hitler

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Gelfand’s World –A little more than a year ago, mere weeks after the election of Donald Trump, Timothy Snyder published his best-selling book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

It was a sobering look at how other western democracies had failed under the onslaught of totalitarian stress.

Would the United States go down the path towards something resembling the Italian or Spanish fascism of the 1930s and ’40s? Or, with Mr. Trump’s obviously deranged personality and lack of personal ethics, was a path resembling that of 1930s Germany a possibility?

After all, Mr. Trump’s campaign was a direct appeal to racism and ultra-nationalism, the fear and hatred of minorities that harkened back to Berlin and 1933.

A year ago, we had reason to fear proto-fascism, although most of us held to the belief that the United States is better than that. But as a nation, we were tested.

Over this past year, we have seen enough of the Trump style to understand that he is a petty-minded authoritarian who communicates his own essence by presenting a lot of dictatorial bluster:

–Calling for his political opponents to be imprisoned. 

–Attacking the existence of the news media 

–Attacking the legitimacy of the rule of law as upheld by the courts 

–Presenting falsehood as truth 

–Attacking what is true as being falsehood.

These are eerily similar to the dangers that Mr. Snyder warned about in his book. In this sense, the work was, sadly enough, prophetic. But Mr. Snyder’s book was also a prescription for resistance to tyranny. He explained that we have to fight immediately, because resistance would become much more difficult if we wait.

Thankfully, Many Agree

A lot of other people and organizations must have had similar thoughts, because within days of the election, the American streets were filled with protestors. The Women’s March and the March for Science not only communicated to other Americans that they had allies, it communicated to those taking part in those marches that we were not alone.

And other institutions of democracy held on. It was not only the courts. Curiously enough, the resistance began early in a place we might never have expected — the television networks CBS and NBC.

The two late-night variety shows hosted by Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers have carried on an unrelenting exposure of the illogic and dishonesty of the Trump administration. In so doing, they have made clear that freedom of speech still exists in the United States.

Both of them carry out what real dictators won’t allow: They tell the truth. And they do it night after night.

There is nothing that takes down a man more effectively than being made into a joke, and Messrs. Colbert and Meyers have done their best to make this happen. That Messrs. Colbert and Meyers continue to say what they say shows the rest of the country (and the world) that freedom of speech still exists in America.

Over the past year, we have learned a lot about our democracy. We learned that about two-thirds of us believe in it enough to defend its essential elements — freedom of speech, the work of the courts, and the separation of powers defined in the Constitution. That is the plus side.

On the minus side, we have the other one-third of Americans, those who continue to defend the Trump administration. In polls, they support attacks on freedom of the press and fail to support the independence of the court system.

In the years of the Watergate scandal, a strong two-thirds support for impeachment of Richard Nixon would certainly have been enough.

Mr. Trump’s transgressions seem to be much worse than what Mr. Nixon was accused of doing.

Mr. Trump is using the presidency to enrich himself and his family.

He is not bothering even to put the metaphorical fig leaf on the process. And as Josh Marshall has been pointing out, there isn’t any question that the Trump campaign colluded with a foreign power over the election.

With all that in mind, I might have titled this column Will this be the last year for Trump?

It could have been a debate over the danger that Mr. Trump will somehow try to create a dictatorship rather than be pulled down. After all, that was the warning from a year ago.

The Resistance Is Primary

But a couple of things have happened in the interim. One is the fact of the resistance. Dozens of millions of Americans have made clear that the crazier aspects of Trumpism can’t be allowed to go into effect.

All that resistance and Mr. Trump’s personal unpopularity are leading to instability in the Republican hold on the congress.

You can see it in the surprising number of senior congressional Republicans who have already announced their intent to retire at the end of 2018.

National polls in which people are asked whether they support a generic Republican or a generic Democrat in the next congressional election are, at this moment, distinctly negative for the Republicans.

In a world in which the prospects for the next election are what motivates politicians, the Republican brand has suffered a serious hit.

So that’s the first major finding — the American people have managed to hold back the deluge by making use of that maligned tool called freedom of speech. In so doing, they have reminded a lot of politicians and a lot of ordinary folk that this is not really like the week after the Reichstag fire.

But there is one other insight that has been less noticed. It’s Mr. Trump’s essential neediness.
Everything we’ve learned about him over these past 12 months points to a man who needs (not just wants) to be recognized.

It’s also true that he can’t stand criticism, and desperately craves adulation. At this level, he is like a four-year-old who needs to be held and soothed. The underlying cause might not really matter — some health professionals use the term narcissistic personality disorder to characterize the president — but the result is a man who can dish it out but can’t take it.

A Doubleheader of Danger

This is a guy who is more likely to be dangerous because he overreacts to small provocations. Mr. Trump has also been damaging to a lot of American values because he appoints people (take the Secretary of the Interior for example) who undo the protections we have worked so hard to gain over the years.

Cult of Personality That Failed

So far, Mr. Trump has shown that he lacks the guts (or the imagination) to be a real dictator. Sending late night Tweets about imprisoning your opponents is not the same as actually imprisoning them.

Mr. Trump, you are no Vladimir Putin.

As much as Mr. Trump and his acolytes try to build up a cult of personality around him, it fails. Mr. Trump doesn’t add up to that scary 1930s dictator we worried about a year ago.

He just doesn’t seem to have the lust for power that it takes. He likes to get his way, but doesn’t do the work that it takes to be really effective. In fact, Mr. Trump seems to understand less about how government functions than any previous president or even the most garden variety congressman.

Recent evidence for these views might come from the just-out book by Michael Wolff. An excerpt is now running in New York Magazine.

What comes out (in addition to the assertion that Mr. Trump neither wanted nor expected to be elected) is Mr. Trump’s need to feel respected.

The fact that he can’t get that feeling just from holding the office of the presidency is telling.

This is a guy who is more the whiney toddler than the iron chancellor. He is not a guy who inspires others to follow in slavish obedience to a commanding personality.

Perhaps the best example of Mr. Trump’s essential neediness and his lack of a charismatic dictatorial personality is the behavior of his cabinet in their first meeting.

As the news media reported in amazement, newly created cabinet members began their comments with florid praise of Mr. Trump and how honored they were to work for him.

As most of us recognized instinctively, a president with a sense of self-worth would never need nor want such praise spoken aloud in a cabinet meeting, and would most likely find the experience uncomfortable. But these cabinet members must have been quietly informed by staff that Mr. Trump needs to hear such comments in order to function. This is not a leader that people swear to follow through the gates of hell.

There is no Trump personality cult. There are those who support Mr.Trump because they share political goals (lower taxes for the super-rich) or because he mouths the sorts of prejudices that they secretly want to hear.

But that’s a lot different than believing in a leader because he exemplifies leadership in a time when times are desperate.

That last point is important. Dictators arose in the 1930s in a time when the world had suffered a horrible war (perhaps the worst war in history in terms of human suffering), had endured a cruel economic depression, and had lived through famines in several countries.

Desperation in a large fraction of the population makes it easier for dictators to flourish.

Mr. Trump did not come into office at a similar time.

There are certain parallels, the most important being substantial unemployment and underemployment, but that’s a long way from Europe in 1930.

We may have dodged a bullet in that Mr. Trump doesn’t have the fire in the belly to push for more dictatorial powers. He might like the idea, but he doesn’t have what it takes to fight for it. He is more President Crybaby than Il Duce.

The Real Danger

There is still danger in that Mr. Trump is showing signs of cognitive deficit and irrationality. As numerous reports show, he doesn’t read much, understands little, and mainly reacts to what he hears on television.

The clear danger is that he may continue to deteriorate, becoming even more irrational and emotional than he is now.

With an even more deluded and impaired Donald Trump still in office, it would be hard to predict what he might do because of the immense power the office provides.


We may still wish to consider the legal ways that the nation might provide for a presidential succession prior to 2021. Impeachment might have already occurred in a saner era. But for the past couple of decades, the right-wing has had its own propaganda arm on radio and television, and the right-wing is enjoying having Mr. Trump in office.

If the United States did not have its own semi-official Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda (or as we like to call it now, Fox News and talk radio), the impressive magnitude of evidence linking Donald Trump to unsavory activity would lead to his impeachment or forced resignation.

As it is, Donald Trump will probably hang on for another year and, depending on the outcome of the 2018 congressional elections, we might see a timely resignation.

If Mr. Trump is frustrated about not getting his way in congress right now, imagine how he will feel when Democrats control the body. In the meanwhile, we can hope to be spared from any worse forms of authoritarianism than we have already endured. That is what the continuing resistance is about.


Mr. Trump got his tax cut, so he has something to brag about. If he really wants out of the presidency, he has an excuse. He has agreed to a physical exam this week.

If he wants to quit, he has merely to claim any of a number of conditions and he can leave honorably without the embarrassment of impeachment by the House and trial by the Senate. This isn’t all that likely though, not because he is a new Mussolini but because of his essential neediness. He needs to be the center of attention, and that’s precisely where he is right now.


Mr. Gelfand writes on science, culture and politics for He may be contacted at

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