A historian on Trump’s failure to call evil by its name
The president had a chance to take a stand against fascism. He didn’t.
“This was our Beer Hall Putsch. This was the beginning of our revolution.”
The original “Beer Hall Putsch” was the first Nazi spectacle in 1923. It was modeled explicitly after Mussolini’s March on Rome. The putsch was an attempt by Hitler, the leader of the nascent Nazi Party, to seize power from the German government by marching to the center of Munich, alongside 2,000 fellow Nazis.
The putsch failed, amounting to little more than a crazed mob. Hitler was arrested and charged with treason. But the event became central to Hitler’s rise, as he used the subsequent trial to perform fiery speeches that were printed and reprinted in German newspapers.
On Sunday, I reached out to Timothy Snyder, a professor of European history at Yale University. Snyder has made a career of studying the history of 20th century fascism, and earlier this year released a book titled On Tyranny, a tightly argued warning about the dangers of encroaching American fascism.
I wanted to know what he thought about the events this weekend in Charlottesville, about the fact that the self-described alt-right protesters were shouting chants like “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil” (the latter a direct reference to Nazi ideology), and about President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to condemn white supremacy in clear terms.
“There are moments,” he told me, “when there isn’t a gray zone, when there isn’t really room for nuance, where if you’re not resisting, you’re partaking.” Saturday was one such moment, and Trump’s insistence that the violence is “on many sides” was a missed opportunity to take a stand against an emergent threat.
You can read our full conversation below.
What was your reaction, as a historian of fascism and a citizen, to what you saw yesterday?
Well, my very first reaction has to do with the codependence of the American far right and Islamic terrorism. This is an administration that depends, for its legitimacy, on the threat of Islamic terrorism. And it makes policy which would seem to make Muslim terrorism more likely (i.e., the Muslim ban).
And then, at the same time, you have this incident in Charlottesville, where an American right-wing terrorist tried to take the lives of people by driving his car into a crowd of citizens, which I immediately recognized as a copycat attack modeled on the last several Muslim terrorist events in Europe, in Nice and England in particular.
That was the very first thing that struck me, that American white nationalist terrorists are copying the very people they say they abhor, that they claim to be defending us from.
Obviously, there’s nothing new about white nationalists or neo-Nazis in America, but did yesterday strike you as a flash point event that might trigger more organized violence?
As your question indicates, this really depends on us. It depends on how local government reacts, how state government reacts. It depends on people keeping their heads. It depends upon law enforcement enforcing a law. In a normal situation, I would say that it depends upon how the federal government reacts. But we know that we’re not in a normal situation. What’s most striking, if you want to try to link what happened yesterday to our own history, is that we now have a president who doesn’t regard Nazis as a symbol of evil.
That’s the really striking thing. His reaction to this event is to say that everyone is at fault, and we should all hold together. That’s not the reaction that one would expect from the president of the United States. But it is consistent with what I’ve been trying to get across for the past few months. It’s consistent with Trump and Steven Bannon’s attempt to do away with the part of the American story that celebrates entering and winning the Second World War. It’s consistent with their attempt to do away with the part of the American identity that has to do with being anti-fascist, or anti-Nazi. It’s consistent with their botching the Holocaust Remembrance Day in January. It’s consistent with the utterly bizarre way that Sean Spicer talked about the Holocaust, when he said Hitler didn’t kill his own people. It’s consistent with Trump being the first major American politician in recent memory to skip visiting the Ghetto Memorial when he came to Warsaw in August.
And above all, it’s consistent with his “America First” slogan. This is what America First means. America First means an America where a Nazi Germany was not the enemy. So that’s the broad historical circle. We have an administration which has “America First.” What “America First” meant when it was used during the WWII era was that we should not resist Nazi Germany. Mr. Trump’s remarks on Saturday are totally consistent with that.
This is who and what the administration has been from the very beginning.
It’s also consistent with Trump’s conspicuous unwillingness to offend or alienate white nationalists, on whom he apparently depends for votes.
With Mr. Trump, there are two questions. There’s a question of his own convictions, and there’s the question of what he sees as politically useful. In terms of his own convictions, well before he became a politician, he was doing quite dubious things. For example, publishing that ad in 1989 in New York in which he prematurely called for the death penalty for those five African Americans falsely accused of rape. I just don’t think he would have done that if those people had not been African Americans.
I find it very striking that basically everybody on the alt-right sees Trump as part of their story. They all think that Trump is a stepping stone toward where America should be going. The white nationalist leader Richard Spencer, for example, talked about Trump as John the Baptist, which means he thinks Trump is clearing the way for the world Spencer wants to create, which is this white supremacist America.
When the stakes are this high, when we’re confronting this kind of violence, the difference between actively enabling and refusing to condemn is negligible.
There are moments, there are times, when there isn’t a gray zone, when there isn’t really room for nuance, where, if you’re not resisting, you’re partaking. And if you’re the president of the United States, you’re literally the last person in the country who has the right to indulge in nuance, who has the right to stay in some of kind gray zone at this time.
In other words, Mr. Trump’s failure is the greatest failure that one can imagine in this situation. There are things he could do that are worse, of course. He could actually endorse National Socialism in so many words. But short of that, not recognizing that these events, in their moral and historical seriousness, is just about the worst thing that a chief executive can do.
When you look at what’s happening right now, do you see echoes of 20th century European fascism? And by echoes I don’t simply mean parallels — those are obvious enough. I mean, do you see reasons to be seriously alarmed?
Okay, let me try to break that down and answer it in a calm way. First of all, it’s of course true that America has a history of the extreme right. We have a history of fascism, and even National Socialism. In 1939, you could get 20,000 people to Madison Square Garden to listen to a pro-Nazi speech. The tamer view of America First, that the Nazis are basically our allies in the civilizational struggle, that view attracted much, much more support than that. And, in general, the America of the ’20s and ’30s was not so different from the Central and East European societies that we now tend to criticize for their historical anti-Semitism.
Is there an increase in this racism, in this anti-Semitism? Yes. Everybody who measures this sort of thing says that there has been since the end of last year. The Southern Poverty Law Center says that there’s been an increase in incidents of the threats and violence under the Trump administration. Are we at a point where we should say that this is a threat to the system of the society as such? No, we’re not at that point yet.
But when the Daily Stormer writes today that “This was our Beer Hall Putsch,” they’re referring to the history of the German National Socialist Party. So in order to see the phenomenon for what it is, we have to have some sense of the history. The neo-Nazis are well aware of their own history, as it were. And we have to recognize what’s in front of us.
You stress constantly the importance of language. Terms like “fascist” and “Nazi” have been emptied of meaning over the years due to overuse or misuse. But they absolutely apply here, and the people about whom we’re talking happily embrace them. So how do you think we should talk about these groups, how should we engage them? What sort of language is necessary?
I think you make a good point that the terms suffer from erosion. And I think the only way to react is to always use terms with precision oneself. So when one refers to Richard Spencer as a leading American white supremacist, that’s exactly what he is. That’s how he describes himself. When one uses the word “fascist,” that’s a word that almost no one uses to describe themselves. So one has to have some definition of what a fascist is.
For example, a fascist is someone who believes in will over reason, whose politics begins with separating the outsider from the insider. A fascist is someone who believes that the main issue with global politics is a conspiracy against one’s own group. Given all that, it’s safe to call the kinds of people we’re talking about “fascist.”
The second thing, I think, one has to do is to build context around the people that we’re talking about. So if the language they use or the symbols they employ or the torches they carry are conscious references to Nazi Germany, which they are, then we have to fill in the context, we have to thicken those references, so that people remember all that is involved, in what they’re talking about.
And I think the final thing one has to do is to remember that history is there so that we can see the present, not so that we can dismiss the present. People often say, “Well, this is not exactly like 1933. Therefore, it’s not a big deal.” That misses the point. The point is to use the past to recognize the present, to see what’s actually going on in the present.
If we fail to do this, if we fail to see what’s happening in front of our faces, we will not be prepared for what comes next.