Prior to Donald Trump's inauguration, there was a lot of debate about how awful we should expect his administration to be. Some people said we shouldn't expect anything because Trump's message was so inconsistent and incoherent throughout the campaign. Some people, notably Masha Gessen, said we should take his most terrifying promises seriously. Some people just squeezed their eyes tight and tried to pretend it was all a bad dream.
Well, it's been two weeks (yes, only two weeks), and thus far, things are looking pretty terrifying. A lot of people are throwing the word "fascism" around, and not in a humorous way. Is this hyperbole or grim reality? To get a sense of where we are and where we might be going, Gothamist spoke to Isabel Virginia Hull, professor of history at Cornell University and one of the foremost scholars on modern Germany. Here's Hull on warning signs, the durability of the American state, and the power of protest.
Tell me about the past two weeks.
I expected them to move very quickly, and they did, but there were a number of things I did not expect and one of them is the elevation of Steve Bannon, who is the closest thing to a genuine fascist that I've seen ever in American government—and the removal in the National Security Council of the military leaders. That's extraordinary and unprecedented.
Bannon is not a security expert. He's not an expert in government at all. That's one thing. The second thing is the fact that the Trump Administration didn't engage in a transition. They were uninterested in both the documents prepared by the Obama administration and in meeting with the heads of the various divisions of government. The third thing is the purge of the senior-most officials in the State Department. The fourth thing is the order banning Muslims—and that's what it is—the manner in which that happened, the process, which is to say a small group of advisers with no government experience keeping it secret and then launching it. That's also unprecedented.
The lack of that transition, the purge of the people in the State Department, an order clearly going out to Homeland Security not to follow court orders—that's all pretty remarkable and it indicates that these people want to remove the normal functioning of government and to replace the adepts at government—the people with experience and knowledge—with toadies who will do whatever they tell them to do.
And the fact that there is not a spine to be found among the Republicans, with the possible exception of maybe McCain and maybe Lindsay Graham and possibly Collins, this stuff is going to roll over. There are no checks and balances left. I think most of us have thought that the government itself would be able to prevent some of the worst possible things, both in terms of the content of policy, but also in the manner in which policy is made and put into effect.
And it appears that they're trying very, very hard to get around that one last barrier to complete destruction of the legal status quo.
How does this compare to what was seen with European fascism in the 1920s and 30s?
The place that I know best is the end of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of National Socialism. In fact, the purge that occurred there in government occurred primarily in Prussia, which was the largest and the most progressive state. The purge began in mid-1932 and in the end it wasn't necessary to purge all that many people to bring the government apparatus into line.
I think that the purges in the United States are going to have to be greater—if they're actually going to do this kind of thing. But the real question, historically, that I've been thinking about is whether it's 1930 that we're in or 1933. And the 1930 thing is interesting to contemplate because Hitler was not in power—it was Heinrich Brüning and other merely authoritarians.
What they did was to eviscerate the legal operation of the Weimar Republic and destroy parliamentary government, and that's the thing that provided the opportunity for a really organized and ideologically driven party to take over.
What the right wing, it seems to me, has lacked in the United States up till now, is an organized ideologically driven party. And my fear is what the far right will do is to capture the Republican Party. Because of the lack of response against what they're doing from within the party, it seems like they may actually be able to use the shell of the party and fill it then with content which is inimical to democracy.
Where does it diverge?
If you imagine that this is 1933, the difference is that first of all, Trump is no Hitler. Trump is, I have thought, a totally unprincipled person, who therefore doesn't count as a fascist because a fascist or a National Socialist is a true believer in real big ideological weltanschauliche [worldview] principles over which they are prepared to die and to have everyone else die.
I have a very high bar to call somebody that and my bar is a pretty well-formed ideology, a really fanatical attachment to it, and a rigidity in not modifying it. I don't think Trump fits that bill. I think Steve Bannon might fit that bill. And the question then is: Who's running the government? Is it Steve Bannon or is it Donald Trump? And Donald Trump's inability to keep his mind on anything for more than 15 seconds would suggest that he's a character much more like Kaiser Wilhelm II than Adolf Hitler. These are the thoughts that a German historian has.
— TIME (@TIME) February 2, 2017
And the mass mobilization we've seen?
That's all different and very good. In the Weimar Republic, first of all, the democracy itself was very weak and ours isn't. Secondly, it was eviscerated for two and a half years before Hitler's appointment as chancellor. We don't have that...yet. We have a very vibrant democracy and a very stable one. There's a tremendous amount of organized, popular resistance and institutional resistance to the kinds of things that are going on. That's our best hope to avoid something really catastrophic internally. Then there's all the foreign political ramifications and I think that it is going to be harder to avoid breakage there.
What formal or customary checks and balances are left in the federal government?
I think most of us were imagining that the courts would be able to protect us, and that engaging in the legal process would slow down the worst overreaches and ultimately reverse them. The question then is: What would happen if they purge the executors inside government and those people decide not to follow the orders of courts? I really do not know what will happen then.
The federal bureaucracy runs according to laws and regulations and these cannot be simply dismissed by presidential decree. I find it interesting that we call them "presidential orders," but they're actually decrees and they can only do certain things and not other things. But if you weaken that layer of governmental operation, all bets are off. And it looks like that's what they're trying to do.
They've certainly done it with the State Department. There can be no question about that. If you look at the people whom they have fired, those are exactly the people who would have prevented a whole lot of this nonsense with the Muslim ban. And then, of course, the firing of the interim attorney general.
Is it ridiculous to be looking for warning signs? I've noticed a number of people posting on Facebook that the left is overreacting, that in Weimar or early Nazi Germany, Hitler's vision of genocide and total war was very clear, and we're seeing nothing like that.
If you just read Mein Kampf, it was all there, you could figure it out. But if you actually look at Hitler's speeches, it's there in the beginning, in the early 1920s, but after 1928 or so it's gone. And it's gone because he's running for office. He doesn't, in fact, say, "I'm going to kill everybody." He's anti-Semitic, but he doesn't give programmatic anti-Semitic speeches.
In the years down to 1939, when he launched the Second World War, he titled himself, "The Apostle of Peace." If you were perspicacious, you could see where it was going because of what they did, but not necessarily because of what they said as they were doing it.
We should definitely be looking for warning signs and, furthermore, they are very obvious.
What would a coup look like?
The word "coup" is being used right now. Yonatan Zunger has said that what we have now is a "trial balloon for a coup." You can have a rolling series of things. In fascist Italy, they rolled for years before establishing Mussolini's dictatorship. These things don't have to happen overnight; they can go step by step. The word "coup" might be somewhat misleading to the kind of evisceration of law, order, and protections that we may be seeing here.
Protesters at an LGBTQ anti-Trump rally in Greenwich Village on Saturday. (Scott Lynch / Gothamist)
Can you explain the Republican Party's complete fealty to the Trump regime? At least historically, many in the party wouldn't have supported all of the policies he's putting forward.
If I look at the Republican party, it's true, they had not in the past signed on to all of these things. But they're signing on to them now. They're not protesting them and they're agreeing to carry them out.
It's all about being in power and becoming corrupted by it—only, the corruption here has happened rather quickly, which is presumably due to the recent history of the Republican Party. Beginning with Nixon's Southern Strategy, the Republican Party became the repository of institutional racism in the United States and of course that has not immunized it from any of the stuff that Trump has put forward. The centrality of its positions in the culture wars has positioned it in a way that would make the GOP more easily penetrable by forces far to the right of it. That's what we are seeing.
Is there a point at which Trump's overreach would get through to people? Some sort of bright line?
Is there a place where the American public would draw the line and say absolutely "no"? Some of us are drawing it right now. A significant number of people—I would hope a majority of Americans—would draw it now. But that leaves the rest of them. I think about all of the absolutely outrageous things that Trump said and did which made no impact whatever on the 62 million people who voted for him. I have no idea what it would take for those people to draw a line.
A lot of political observers interpret the vote as based primarily on material grievances—that people are unhappy with the way their lives are going and therefore they voted to upset the apple cart. If that were true—and I'm actually skeptical about that, but it certainly plays a role—you would have to wait for huge increases in prices, a lack of turnaround in jobs, and other things we can assume are likely to happen under the Trump administration.
But that's going to take time. It's going to take several years for people to be fed up on a material level, unless we were to have a series of trade wars so great that prices would spike considerably.
The other analysis of why people voted the way they did was the cultural stuff: the fact that we had a black president whom they didn't recognize as representing themselves, the fact that they felt they had lost the culture wars and that the nation that was moving ahead somehow wasn't theirs. Without that conviction, the underlying anxiety and anger about economics might very well have been expressed on the left, instead of on the right.
So I can't answer your question about what it would take to move Trump supporters to reject what has happened. I was shocked that they voted for him in the first place. I would have thought that they would have found him so shocking that they couldn't bring their hand to pull the lever in the voting booth.
Alphonse Landi, a retired New York City sanitation worker, on Election Day. (Francesco di Benedetto/Gothamist)
And they'll have blood on their hands...
Well, we'll see. But are they responsible? Absolutely. It's shocking, and I think the only way that you can really explain it is that they feel so victimized themselves that they just simply disregard everybody else.
Is that how people have felt in Nazi Germany?
They felt threatened, they felt like they were victims. They had identified with the nation and it had been crushed in the war, and then the inflation, and then the depression, and on, and on, and on. As Jonathan Kirshner has pointed out, the Germans suffered a hell of a lot more than the Americans have in the past generation. And it's kind of shocking that people would go for so radical and so unethical and so, frankly, disgusting a change with that relatively smaller amount of suffering on their own part.
Can people coexist after this kind of societal trauma? Is there hope?
I imagine there are going to be a number of bridges burned. But what typically happens in the fullness of time is that people move on. People do overcome these things. Not everybody, but on the whole they do. People are very resilient that way.
I was very buoyed by the marches last Saturday. I was at one of them here in our little town and I'm very pleased at the response of NGOs like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, NARAL. I'm very pleased at Governor Cuomo's response to this. There's a lot of good stuff going on and if we all hang together and continue our activism and our vigilance, I think that we may be able to stem the worst.
But it's going to be a long haul. It is not going to be over tomorrow and people have to get in there and they have to stay in there and they have to not be afraid.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.