Some Rhetorical Similarities in Trump and Hitler Speeches

I want to write about Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler today. I know no one is going to like what I have to say, but I feel, nonetheless, some urgency about saying it now.

Here is the whole message of this essay. If you are willing to read this sentence, you will have done everything I have asked you to do. [1]

There are amazing and disconcerting similarities between Donald Trump’s inaugural address on January 20, 2017 and Adolf Hitler’s first address as Chancellor—his Regierungserklaerung—on February 10, 1933.

No one will like this.

rhetoric-1I have taught in public schools and universities nearly all my life, so I can tell you that comparing anyone to Adolf Hitler is taken as a serious insult. If you say to a politician who is five feet and nine inches tall that he is as tall as Hitler, he will take it as a mortal insult. He will say, incredulously, “Are you comparing me to Hitler?” If I say that Hitler was a marvelously gifted tactician, deploying a largely unwilling bureaucracy with great skill, I will be accused of “justifying Hitler.”

On the other hand, I will, in this essay, point out some disquieting similarities between Hitler’s first speech as Chancellor and Trump’s first speech as President. These will be pale comparisons; largely rhetorical comparisons. Here is one example, just to illustrate the kind of thing you will run into if you decide to read on. Trump’s use of “the American people” is remarkably similar to Hitler’s use of “das Deutche Volk.

And my other readers, not the ones who will be scandalized that I am comparing Trump and Hitler, will be scandalized that I am limiting myself to the comparison of a few phrases chosen by the President and by the Chancellor. It will seem to them that I am justifying the expected horrors of the Trump administration by complaining only about some words that appeared in his first speech as President.

That is why I said that no one is going to like what I am going to say today. The pro-Trump faction will be angry that I have made the comparison at all. The anti-Trump faction will be angry that I have made such a pale and academic comparison.

Rhetorical Similarities

rhetoric-2Noting these similarities is not a charge against Trump. You can go down the two speeches and just substitute a German expression for an English one and just doing that is scary.[2] It is true, however, that Trump sees many more similarities than I do between the time of his assuming power and the time of Hitler’s assuming power. And because Trump sees these similarities, he chooses words that highlight them.  Any good speaker would do that.  Abraham Lincoln did the same thing; he was a superb speaker as a result.

Let’s pick a four examples just to establish the category. First, there is absolutely no difference between “America First” and “Deutchland Über Alles.” [3] The rest of the world would take that for granted, but it sounds odd to American ears, especially after eight years of Obama’s very inclusive internationalism.

Second, I think “peasants” in Hitler’s speech is very closely analogous to Trump’s “forgotten men and women.” Hitler was quite clear about who he saw as the victims of the previous regime.

Then the peasantry starts to become impoverished, the most industrious class in the entire Volk is driven to ruin, can no longer exist, and then this process spreads back to the cities, and the army of unemployed begins to grow…

In President Trump’s speech, the direct reference is “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”And it is not hard to hear the triumph in the following sentence: “Everyone is listening to you now.” [4]

Third, as a candidate, Trump was very general about the programs he favored. He was interested in building a movement, not in proposing some way to achieve particular goals. And the movement was built by what he often referred to as “the status quo.” Hitler used Systemzeit in the same way.

Hitler, as an outsider to the political process and as the leader of a rapidly growing movement had the same rhetorical challenge that President Trump (not candidate Trump) has and met it in a very similar way. Here is Hitler’s rejection of the status quo.

Our opponents are asking about our program. My national comrades, I could now pose the question to these same opponents: “Where was your program?” Did you actually intend to have happen what did happen to Germany?

Fourth, you can have a “program” by establishing goals and giving control over their rhetoric-4achievement to the appropriate agencies, funding them adequately, and then holding them accountable for their work. That’s not how you build a movement. A movement needs a leader. The leader needs to focus the movement on himself and to give indications that he, personally, is bound to the success of the movement.

Here is what that personal characteristic, that quality of attachment looked like in Hitler’s speech. Again, some such device is crucially important if you are setting a movement against a status quo.

Just as I myself have now worked for fourteen years, untiringly and without ever wavering, to build this Movement; and just as I have succeeded in turning seven men into a force of twelve million, in the same way I want and we all want to build and work on giving new heart to our German Volk.

President Trump achieved that same identity of self and movement this way.

I will fight for you with every breath in my body – and I will never, ever let you down.

That’s probably enough by way of examples. You will have to take my word for it that I skipped over a lot of similarities because my goal was not to be comprehensive, but only to illustrate the category. Both Chancellor Hitler and President Trump saw themselves as bringing a new and hopeful (“stop the carnage”) era and as bringing a fresh and powerful new movement to sweep away the inept politicians that preceded him.

Given that similarity of historical settings, it is not at all surprising that the two speakers employed similar rhetorical devices. They are the devices that the situations really require when you see them the way the President and the Chancellor saw them. [5]  And of course, for political outsiders, comparing anyone to Hitler can be seen as an act of rejection.

As I turn from simple rhetorical analysis, I note with real encouragement that in the rhetoric-3United States of our time (by contrast with the Germany of Hitler’s time) there are many social and political institutions, including a robust federal system, in place. They can’t simply be set aside. They will have to be bargained with.

And historically, when insurgent movements begin to bargain with their opponents, they start to slow down and then they begin to unravel. That’s what I hope will happen here.

[1] If you would like to do more, I recommend reading Hitler’s first address as Chancellor of Germany along with Donald Trump’s Inaugural address. Both are readily available. In fact, you can see either of them on YouTube if you like.
[2] As I am writing this, the electronic version of today’s New York Times is featuring a headline, “Trump Renounces Nation’s Political Class.” All you have to do is substitute Systemzeit, referring to the “wasted years of the Weimar Republic, and you have the same sentiment. It just sounds scarier in German. I know that is parochial of me, but that is just how it sounds to my ear.
[3] Historically, it meant “Germany the new nation” over “any one of the component parts.” In the American context, that would mean an appeal to nationalism, such as we find in the Federalist Papers, over states’ rights. So “America First” in the domestic context would mean, “Not you, South Carolina.” President Trump meant it in an international context, which is much closer to the mistranslation “Germany Above Everyone Else,” the meaning I grew up with during World War II.
[4] And just in case there was any doubt about who he was talking about, he adds this clarification. “You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.”
[5] President Obama, facing a similar situation, appealed to a very inclusive patriotism and although his approach was broadly admired, it never really took hold. President Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, appealed to “the better angels of our nature”by the secessionist states in 1861 and by the radical Republicans who controlled the Congress in 1865.  I guess that has always been a hard sell.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to Some Rhetorical Similarities in Trump and Hitler Speeches

  1. hesskw says:

    Sorry to disappoint you but I thought it was excellent. I have a more complex view of federalism. In this century two presidents have been elected by federal action, contrary to the popular vote. W by the supreme court, and arguably Trump by the FBI. >

    • hessd says:

      I really didn’t think that ABSOLUTELY no one would like the post and if I had thought more carefully, I might have chosen you as one person who really would like it. On federalism, I would like to differ a little. While what the Supreme Court did was truly awful, what they did was to refuse to require the state of Florida to undo something that was truly awful. Florida made egregious mistakes in presenting the ballots (remember the butterfly ballot which recorded the votes of hundreds of Jews in favor of a noted anti-Semite?) and also in counting them, Florida could have chosen to recount them and thus elected Al Gore. On the FBI, I think that Comey made the wrong decision, but it could have been an honest choice. Many people wanted him to shove the findings under the rug until after the election. Besides, I still have a warm spot in my heart for the way he stood up to George W. Bush.

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