It is a fraught thing to compare a modern politician, philosophy, or policy agenda with Hitler, National Socialism, or the Holocaust. I have a friend who is quite sensitive to such analogies and wrote this week: “Beware of minimizing the tragedies of the past...Trump is nowhere close to any of those mentioned; exaggeration of this kind is reckless and unwise.” Another friend took a more rhetorical approach. “The person who first uses the Hitler argument,” he said, “loses the argument.”
While I might be content to keep the question of whether Trump is Hitler at arm's length, I can’t help but feeling that we might be Bonhoeffer. I believe that the election of 2016 is the type of situation that Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have recognized and would have wished the German church could have recaptured in 1933, six years before Hitler invaded Poland, twelve years before Bonhoeffer himself was executed by the SS. In calling us to be Bonhoeffer—his spirit and discernment—I don’t think I’m being reckless or unwise.
If Trump is not Hitler, is he nonetheless a fascist? Even though Robert Kagan’s editorial in the Washington Post is entitled “This is How Fascism Comes to America,” he never calls Trump a fascist. Instead Kagan writes, “Trump himself is simply and quite literally an egomaniac. But the phenomenon he has created and now leads has become something larger than him, and something far more dangerous.” And thus Kagan warns:
This phenomenon has arisen in other democratic and quasi-democratic countries over the past century, and it has generally been called “fascism.” Fascist movements, too, had no coherent ideology, no clear set of prescriptions for what ailed society. “National socialism” was a bundle of contradictions, united chiefly by what, and who, it opposed; fascism in Italy was anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-Marxist, anti-capitalist and anti-clerical. Successful fascism was not about policies but about the strongman, the leader (Il Duce, Der Führer), in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation. Whatever the problem, he could fix it. Whatever the threat, internal or external, he could vanquish it, and it was unnecessary for him to explain how. Today, there is Putinism, which also has nothing to do with belief or policy but is about the tough man who single-handedly defends his people against all threats, foreign and domestic.
Dylan Matthews over at The Vox responds to Kagan under a headline: “I asked 5 fascism experts whether Trump is a fascist. Here’s what they said.” Matthews lands on one quotation to embody what these scholarly purists said: “Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism.” Unfortunately the key to understanding Matthews’s argument is in first understanding the definition of palingenetic, and thenin defining Matthews’s understanding of palingenetic. (You are kidding me, right?) Paligenetic means “rebirth,” and Matthews admits that Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” sounds eerily paligenetic, but instead the rebirth must involve the “dramatic abandonment of the existing political order,” usually accompanied by violence. According to one expert, "As long as Trump does not advocate the abolition of America's democratic institutions and their replacement by some sort of post-liberal new order, he's not technically a fascist." (Whew! I guess America dodged that bullet!) But Kagan doesn’t claim that Trump is a fascist. He claims that,
This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.
We don’t need an expert in the technical definition of fascism; we need an expert in
“how fascism comes to America.” Additionally for those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ, and for those of us who, for better or worse, are called “evangelical voters,” we need an expert who looks with a Christian worldview at fascism’s insidious arrival. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is arguably our expert. Here’s how Gilead author Marilynne Robinson introduces him and the year 1933 in her essay “Dietrich Bonhoeffer” from the collection The Death of Adam:
The German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer first put himself at risk in 1933 by resisting the so-called Aryan Clause, which prohibited Jewish Christians from serving as ministers in Protestant churches. In 1945 he was executed for “antiwar activity.” . . . In the years between he helped to create and guide the Confessing Church, a movement of Protestant pastors and seminarians who left the official churches rather than accept their accommodation with Nazism.
At the beginning of the previous year (1932), Adolph Hitler wasn’t even a German citizen. (He was naturalized in February.) At the beginning of 1933, Hitler wasn’t yet Chancellor. (He was appointed by Hindenburg on January 30.) At the beginning of 1933, the National Socialist Party had just failed in a federal election to gain enough seats in parliament to form a majority coalition. In a subsequent election (March 1933), they gained 43.9% of the vote, and that was apparently enough for Hitler on March 15 to proclaim the Third Reich. It is a tumultuous year for sure with the Reichstag burning on February 27 and books burning on May 10. A law prohibiting the formation of all new political parties was enacted on July 14. Things were bad in 1933, but they didn’t yet rise to the (technical) level of the “abolition of [Germany's ] democratic institutions and their replacement by some sort of post-liberal new order.”
In 1933, two days after Hitler is installed as Chancellor, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address on topic of leadership. The broadcast was cut off the air, but not before Bonhoeffer, at the age of only 26, became one of the first ever to publicly criticize the new Chancellor. “Should the leader allow himself to succumb to the wishes of those he leads who always seek to turn him into an idol, then the image of the leader will become the image of the mis-leader. This is the leader who makes an idol of himself and his office and thus mocks God.” When Bonhoeffer next writes--as he does extensively in book, sermon, essay, and letter—Robinson claims,
He is asserting the claims of Christ in all their radicalism in order to encourage and reassure those drawn to what became the Confessing Church. At the same time, he is chastising those who use Christianity as an escape from the evils of the world and from the duties those evils imply, and he is chastising those who have accommodated their religion to the prevailing culture so thoroughly as to have made the prevailing culture their religion. His object is to make core beliefs immediate and compelling, to forbid the evasions of transcendence and of acculturation. He is using the scandal of the cross to discover the remnant church among the multitudes of the religious.
At the same time while Bonhoeffer is writing with seemingly crystal-clear theological reflection (The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, etc.), he also appears to be a confused activist, politically. In 1934, he leaves for England to pastor a German-speaking church and presumably to drum up international resistance to Nazism. He returns home shortly thereafter at the stinging rebuke of his mentor Karl Barth. He takes a post at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1938, but soon writes his colleague Reinhold Niebuhr:
I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people... Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.
He returns to Germany on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic. Strangest of all though is Bonhoeffer’s cancellation of his plans to travel to India. Bonhoeffer wanted to study non-violent civil disobedience at Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram, but instead ends up arrested in Germany for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler. There are few things less non-violent than a bomb. Bonhoeffer’s story has left us with a perplexing question: we call Bonhoeffer a modern martyr for his faith, but how so? Isn’t he simply a failed conspirator?
I admit to being a confused political activist during this US election season of 2016. Since its re-emergence a month ago with “Premature Anti-Fascists” and “Bust the Ballot,” The Liberator Today has and is trying to muddle its way through complexities and definitions, passions and pragmatics. Nonetheless, I am resolute in the clarion call: “repudiate Donald Trump and the rise of an American fascism.” Whether one likes Trump being compared to Hitler or not, we can lay that aside in the calling: “Be a Bonhoeffer!” Marilynne Robinson wrote these words back in 1998:
. . . while the abrupt ferocity of the modern world has, for now, been epitomized in Nazi Germany, it certainly was not exhausted in it. If being modern means having the understanding and will to oppose the passions of collective life that can at any time emerge to disgrace us and, now, even to destroy us, then one great type of modern man is surely Dietrich Bonhoeffer—more particularly, Pastor Bonhoeffer in his pulpit, Pastor Bonhoeffer at his prayers.
Robert Kagan, "This is How Fascism Comes to America,"
Dylan Matthews, "I asked 5 fascism experts whether Donald Trump is a fascist. Here's what they said." www.vox.com
Marilynne Robinson, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer," The Death of Adam (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).