Donald Trump is NOT Hitler

Okay, folks. Donald Trump is not Hitler. Donald Trump is not Stalin. Donald Trump is not Mussolini. Donald Trump is not Berlusconi. Donald Trump is not Putin (though he’s weirdly similar to Zhirinovsky) and its way past time to dump all those stupid analogies.

The other day I was assured that Trump can’t win the presidency because women and people of color will rise up against him if he wins the GOP nomination. I don’t know if Trump can win a general election, but I’m pretty sure that prediction adds nothing to the debate either way. You would think that after a year in which everything people said about how social systems work has proven inutile that we’d see a bit more humility but we don’t. So I’m going to say something and put it on record: to date, Donald Trump is sui generis and we’re about to learn a shit ton about ourselves.

My Love Affair and Partial Breakup with FiveThirtyEight

Four years ago I was infatuated with Nate Silver. No, not in person, but as a writer. For those who missed the story then, or who absorbed one of the weird retellings circulating on reddit (can’t find the link) Nate Silver took a bank of computers to the polls and came up with very good predictions in a series of elections leading up to the defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012. More importantly, he published (most of) his methods.

Silver’s approach was simple: he looked at the polls that had come out in the past, labeled components of pre-election polls (how they were conducted, who they covered, who developed the questions etc) and then conducted an extensive analysis using their accuracy at predicting an actual vote as the criterion. From this not only was he able to assign “accuracy scores” to the polls themselves, he was able to disassemble and reassemble parts of the polling to interpolate results where no poll had been conducted. This required a lot of mathematical heavy lifting and Silver has always been a bit coy with his models, but the results, especially in 2012, speak for themselves.

To some extent Silver had it easy. Polls are considered self-report predictions, which are the fatal flaw in every goddamn “stages of change” study I read (you know the ones: on a scale of one to five, how likely are you to continue eating three cups of oat bran per day?) but the act of voting is much like the act of responding to a poll, plus it requires no more effort or social capital to vote X vs Y when the voting is secret.

Much has been made of how Silver “beat the pundits” but this is a bit of a misunderstanding. He wasn’t studying politics at all- he was studying the relationship between how people respond to polls, and how they vote. That was it. The “pundits” he was outguessing were trying to predict voting behavior from news stories, demographic trends, old wives’ tales, and other random bits of wisdom and weren’t playing the same game at all.

Then, sometime between 2012 and 2015, Silver lost the plot and decided to be a pundit himself. I won’t join the dogpile on his (persistent) Trump skepticism except to say that, had he looked at the polls blinded, the Trump phenomenon was there all along. What stood between the numbers and the prediction was the conviction, broadly held by Silver and a whole lot of other people who should know better, that a Trump victory in a party that didn’t want him was impossible.

So Who Was Hitler Anyway?

I actually think this is a history problem. I, and probably both of my readers, have grown up in an era in which the behavior of large groups of people is a scientific field of study, and we rarely reflect on how anomalous that is. Charles MacKay wrote The Madness of Crowds in the 1840s, and both Durkheim and Weber preceded the second world war, but for the most part the study of sociology, especially systematic sociology, has been a post-war phenomenon. That means it has also been a post-nazi phenomenon, and this has had an effect.

What do I mean? In 1945, Germany was in ruins, the world had entered the atomic age and the cold war, Americans were starting to realize exactly how many civilians had been exterminated in “labor” camps, and yet no consensus narrative had emerged how such an unthinkable sequence of events could have happened. (For a modern analogy, ask yourself how you would explain to an eight year old the causes of WWI- if you have a good and honest answer I’m curious to hear it.) Within a few years, though, Adorno had published The Authoritarian Personality and a decade after that we had Eichmann in Jerusalem and the Milgram obedience experiments and the first rumblings of an antipositivist philosophy trying to act on the lessons of fascism in a meaningful way.

Just as wars provoke developments in trauma medicine, cataclysmic social crises provoke developments in sociology. The third reich was a very good reason to go out and learn more about how humans behave in groups.

By the time I was old enough to give a damn, “we,” meaning the western intellectual tradition, thought that we had a thorough understanding of how the nazis came to be, how they had commanded such adoration and power during their brief reign, how they had compelled such horrific acts from the German people, etc. We had a system, custom-built to explain the nazis, that explained the nazis. A side effect is that now, every large-scale bad social movement looks a bit like nazis, but that’s overfitting for you.

We Don’t Know What Will Happen With Trump

So why did WWI? That frustrating sense of not really getting it is what you should be thinking about the future career of Donald Trump. Everything we think we know about how “women and people of color will rise up” is based on the same kind of modeling that assured Nate Silver that the party would decide, or that Bush’s endorsement hat trick would prove critical, or that Rubio’s early lead over Clinton in head-to-head matchups would guarantee his eventual nomination. These are narrative rules based on prior observation, but we don’t actually know the moving parts of how individuals behave, or even how large groups behave.

One weird analogy I’m seeing compares Trump to The Mule, from the Foundation books. If they were written today, Foundation would be the embodiment of Hubris and the Mule would be the unprovable truth that demonstrates the incompletness of the psychohistory model. Asimov wrote a long time ago, though, so the Foundation survives the anomalous Mule. There’s a whole history of positivism and anti-positivism wrapped up in these two interpretations that’s not worth going into here, but what makes Trump The Mule so compelling is how he’s anomalous. He isn’t anomalous in how he behaves, he’s anomalous in that he’s invisible.

Lets get back to Nate Silver. Since I first thought to look at the numbers, Trump has led in the polls in virtually every state, consistently and by large margins. A mechanistic understanding of history would see this as an indication that people were going to vote for Trump and Trump was going to win. However, we’re all too smart for that- we want a narrative understanding in which the forces and powers and trends that we believe in can derail mechanisms, rather than vice versa. We want to believe that parties decide, that there is a political force called “women and people of color,” that there exists a trait called “presidential” that somehow matters here. This is supposition on top of humbug (or, consistent precedent, but that can be the same thing) but it blinds us to the mechanisms of what we’re seeing. Frontrunners tend to win- Trump is behaving like a frontrunner, and his supporters are acting like supporters of the frontrunner, and somehow when people try to write up the election in terms of social systems and organizational theory, all this becomes invisible.

And don’t scoff at the general yet either. If turnout to primaries and caucuses is any guide, the next president will be a republican. If head-to-head matchups in polling are a better guide, Clinton wins against Trump and loses to anyone else (Sanders beats Trump, but its hard to find a poll that shows him winning the nomination). I’m not sure what I think will happen here.

If a Trump presidency is as catastrophic as some pundits are predicting- and remember, they don’t know- then one thing is for certain: we’re about to learn a whole lot more about how humans behave in groups.

By the way…

Apparently my new project is called “clumsy writings about why history doesn’t work the way you think it does.” I tried this earlier, trying to explain how whatever is happening that feels like a “collapse” its outlines, structures, mechanisms and causes will only be apparent in retrospect, and we should stop looking for analogies in the past. Actual historians don’t tend to think history repeats itself, or if they do, they find celebrated yet incomplete examples that don’t assume the world began a century ago and only one bad thing every happened in it. I welcome challenges to this but please don’t limit your scope to Western Europe in the Twentieth Century, okay?

Oh, and whenever I mention the Nazis I have to mention two things: Godwin’s Law and my enduring admiration for the German people’s willingness to accept, over several generations, collective responsibility for the fact that the most intellectually and scientifically advanced country on earth went crazy, declared war on the planet, exterminated twelve to thirteen million people for being “undesirables,” and left their entire continent a smoking ruin. Genocide is not uncommon in human history, a willingness to confront responsibility for genocide is, sadly, quite rare.

13 thoughts on “Donald Trump is NOT Hitler

  1. The most prescient observers saw Trump from a long way off. Gore Vidal foresaw him thirty years ago: the “Cornpone Nazi”. If Trump fails then another will take his place. When Rome entered decline, similar figures emerged. The times call forth the man, or opportunist, if you wish. Hitler was different in that he had a longer time to prepare and had a private army ready. Trump has nothing behind him like that. He’s just a walking, talking billboard for himself, so is much weaker and dependent on the system to carry him along. In the USA that can work as far as getting into power goes. After that, you just have to play the game. Ronald Reagan did and it worked for him.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Trump is not Hitler – nor any of the others named – but he does look, walk and quack like a fascist; but not (yet) like a Nazi.
    In the pocket where I keep my other fantasies, I secretly see a situation where, if you remember, Trump met with his ol’ buddy Bill (Clinton) prior to entering ‘the race’ to solicit some advice. They had a few beers and a cigar or two and Bill says to Donny, “I think you ought to jump in, just for fun, stir things up and mess with the Repubs minds, just to see what’ll happen. And, just to sweeten the deal, I’ll bet you 10 zillion dollars you won’t beat Hillary, should you decide to go all the way.” “Deal!” says Trump.
    I reckon that, having destroyed the republican party, he’ll drop out at the last minute, forgo the Presidency and the 10 zillion dollars (’cause he doesn’t need either) and he and slick Willie will have another few beers, a cigar or two and share a good laugh.
    Or, he’ll continue on his quest and decide to destroy the whole country.
    ‘Tis anybody’s guess….

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, I mean, I just don’t see any proof of that. I don’t even see any suggestive evidence beyond that it makes a kickass story. The parsimonious explanation is just the face one- the US is a country in which economic marginalization and racism go hand in hand. I probably should write a separate entry on this, but the resentment I see in my extensive ethnography of the rural midwest where I live (that’s sarcasm on the word extensive, by the way) is always both economic and racialized at the same time. The problem is that prosperity has been taken away and given to the “undeserving”- I don’t have a job because Mexicans, my money isn’t worth anything because China, I can’t find an apartment because Section 8, I can’t carry a gun on airplanes because Muslims, I can’t educate my kids because gays, I can’t get a mortgage because the democrats gave all the mortgages to subprime borrowers… the idea, so beloved of the snooty left that the “working class” has legitimate grievances and unfortunate racist tendencies and all you have to do is address the one without touching the other- that’s horsecrap. This is a brutally racist country, and if there’s a surprise its how shocked- SHOCKED!- people on both sides of the aisle are acting.

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  4. My short answer to why WWI (and WWII and the Cold War) started is this:

    The British Empire was visibly unsustainable, and all the most powerful militaries in the world got ready to fight over which one would become the new global colonial power. When a little fight started, they all jumped in, more because they were all eager to prove their dominance than because of the nature of the little fight.

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    • My short answer for WWI: oil. the Brits knew it was in the Middle East and the Germans knew it was in the Middle East, and they both knew it was to be the life blood of the glorious twentieth century, and they both wanted it.

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  7. Robert Newman is a comedian, not an historian, but his take on the causes of WWI makes more sense to me than does what I was a taught in school–that it was a tragic accident precipitated by the actions of a Lone Nut with a Gun.

    The story goes like this: Coal was an okay fuel for railroad locomotives and commercial steamships, because they could be fueled at the beginning and end of their run. It was not convenient for battleships because refueling at sea was not practical, so they were tethered to their coaling station. Oil fuel could be pumped from a tanker to a battleship so the ship could stay on its blockade station. Also, you could run trucks, tanks, and airplanes on oil but not on coal. So oil was the future.

    Britain and Germany had coal but not oil. Britain went to Iran and founded the Anglo-Iranian oil company. Germany went to Iraq and found oil there. Germany wanted to build a railroad from Baghdad to Berlin to bring the Iraqi oil back to Germany. Britain wanted to keep the oil away from the Germans, and feared that a German Iraq might wind up subverting British interests in India. This is what made the war such a hoo-hah. It was about control of the oil fields far from the battlefield of Verdun. It was about geopolitics. Maybe Newman is projecting today’s world on 1914, but it makes sense.

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  8. My elementary school reason for ww1: There was a king who made up a lot of crazy rules and pinky swears and binding contracts and secret passwords that kept the peace between a lot of countries that hated each other. When he died, he hadn’t really written it all down, and he was the only one who knew all the passwords, and his son was not nearly as good at talking people down and getting them to agree to things. His son wasn’t as smart or tricky. So when the kingdoms finally got into a fight, under the new prince, no one could stop the whole group from going nuts.


    • Well, close, I think. First, a side note, many people are confusing the question “why where the great powers in conflict?” with “why did WWI start?”, and I think these are different questions. I think it started because Otto von Bismarck thought the Kaiser and his son would live longer than they did did, and he snubbed the grandson, Wilhelm II, so when the Kaiser died, and then his son 99 days later, Wilhelm II was quite unhappy with Bismarck, and fired him, and then did a bunch of dumb things, culminating with invading France.

      Other notes, with the exception of the American Civil War, which had ended 50 years earlier, no modern army had tried to attack a really well dug in army. The civil war showed that this was almost impossible, and the advances in the intervening 50 years had favored defense, but no one at the top really seems to have understood this. So when the troops stopped marching and started digging, it was over, and the real blood bath started.


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