In his seminal two volume biography of Adolf Hitler, British historian Ian Kershaw proposes a plausible solution to a puzzling conundrum. Students of the period have long understood that Hitler was very much a lazy dictator, involving himself in the details of government capriciously, arbitrarily.
Hitler’s schedule was often unpredictable, the hours he kept were odd and inconvenient to the machinery of bureaucracy. He would frequently rise late, sometimes as late as noon. He was allergic to paperwork and seldom involved himself in the minutiae of government. He preferred to talk, and his lunches and dinners would feature long, desultory monologues that none dared — nor even could — interrupt. He would harangue ministers and foreign leaders with his theories of racial purity and government, sometimes for hours. At night he would stay up well past midnight watching Hollywood films. “King Kong,” starring Fay Wray, was one of his favorites.
How did Hitler manage to build a terrible juggernaut like the Nazi war machine out of so odd and apparently ineffectual a lifestyle? Conventional wisdom is that Hitler was less involved in the Nazi state than one might otherwise think, and much of the evil it became might have happened with or without Hitler’s guiding hand. But Kershaw provides a much better theory, the correct one, I think, one that he calls “Working Towards the Führer.”
To be sure, when a project came along that interested Hitler he became obsessively, frenetically involved. But one could not always rely on that obsessiveness, and in its place were installed ministers and lower echelon bureaucrats who fanatically divined what der Führer required of them and engaged themselves in exhausting competitions to outdo one another by “Working Towards the Führer.” Thus was the power and significance of the cult of personality put into play. Stalin, who by contrast lacked Hitler’s charisma and ability to give mesmerising speeches, micromanaged everything. But Hitler didn’t need to. In place of himself he had evil fanatics, and most were correct in divining what der Führer required.
The parallels between Hitler and Trump are striking in this way. Like Hitler, Trump is lazy, unfocused, disdaining paperwork and refusing to read anything more than a few paragraphs, if that. He keeps odd hours and does as he pleases, hiding his indolence in the official White House schedule as “executive time.” Everyone knows what Trump is like and few have trouble guessing what he wants. They take their cues, not so much from lunchtime or dinner time harangues, but from tweets and press gaggles and, of course, occasional direct communication. These policies are carried out by Trump’s appointees stationed high up in government, and their Machiavellian policies engineered to undermine the rule of law and the good of the voiceless trickle down onto the heads of well-meaning but powerless lower echelons of government workers, and are guided by their unwritten rule to always be “Working Towards Trump.”
What shocks me, and what ought to shock every thoughtful American, is the ease and relative compliance with which so lazy and incompetent a man as Donald Trump has managed to dismantle so much of the apparatus of democracy. Trump used to be every inch as ridiculous and worthy of mockery a figure as Hitler was before rising to power. What on earth has happened? How did so many millions of people fall under the spell of this vile, ridiculous, stupid and evil man in so little time?
How did this happen? I think it happened because Americans have had two hundred and forty years of trusting that the man in charge always had America’s best interest as a guiding principle. We may have disagreed with his policies, but we always believed that he had reverence for the rule of law and the notion that a democratic republic, however imperfect, is as close to perfection as the human race has ever come. So thoroughly convinced of this have we become that we have gotten into the habit of confusing the office with the man. With 43 of those men we were relatively safe in doing so. Even Nixon, in the end, bowed to the rule of law. And he always believed that America’s was the greatest government on earth.
Once Trump was elected and inaugurated to the presidency, many Americans became blinded by this confusion of the man with the office. For them Trump’s past was covered over in a patina of trust and tradition that he would do the right thing. Some, of course, see him as the evil that he is and reject him. Others see him as the evil that he is and embrace him. For the rest, they see him as the president, and therefore, to one degree or another, the champion of the American people. They are blinded by the office of the presidency and therefore incapable of seeing the man for what he truly is.
Today we have people at many levels of government “Working Towards Trump,” enacting his policies, looking for his approval and praise. This tendency that recently was so brazenly carried out in public by the Republican cabal of the United States Senate, is enacted in the less visible corridors of government bureaucracy every day. William Barr’s acquiescence to the will of Trump in recommending a reduced sentence for Roger Stone is another example, the resignation of the four prosecutors involved in the case, while praiseworthy, was symbolic of the ultimate impotence of those who resist.
When I look at Trump I see a rapist, a thief, a coward, a liar, a despicable human being. I do not see the president of the United States, nor even the office of the presidency. I know I am not alone. But many people don’t see him that way, and I have to acknowledge that realistically. I also know that if he could get away with it he would have every single human being who hates him and speaks out against him jailed or murdered, including me. I have no illusions there either. We are dealing with a profoundly evil man who will stop at nothing to cling to power, up to and including perverting and rigging the next presidential election. That is why we have to be united. That is why we have to work tirelessly to see him gone and safely in prison. That is why we must never, never, never give up.