As Donald Trump closes in on the Republican nomination for President, comparisons to Hitler continue. And while references to the dictator are never absent from political hyperbole, one can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a bit more legitimacy to them when it comes to the Donald. Even the creator of Godwin’s law won’t dismiss the comparison out of hand.
Superficially, there is something there. Trump appeals to the same kind of nationalist worldview that inspired Hitler’s supporters. Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” isn’t substantively different than Hitler’s. Neither are his arguments for what has caused the decline: corrupt politicians who have sold out the nation, the presence of subversive or merely unwanted elements (Jews and communists for Hitler; illegal immigrants and Muslim refugees for Trump), and inept economic policy, meaning not enough of or the wrong kind of state intervention.
Like Hitler, Trump touts himself as the only hope to save his country, a strongman-type leader who will run a command economy, rid the country of subversive elements, and restore lost international respect. His disdain for civil liberties like free speech and open support of torture are an even more chilling similarity. For Trump, government isn’t the problem, it’s the solution, as long as the right leader is running it.
But for all the similarities, there are important differences. He certainly can’t be accused of sharing Hitler’s racial beliefs. Trump’s wall to keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico will have a yuuuuge door in the middle to admit legal immigrants of the same ethnicity. He has repeatedly voiced his admiration and respect for the Chinese, because “you can still respect someone who’s knocking the hell out of you.”
Most striking is Trump’s foreign policy differences with the Fuhrer. While Trump does advocate some sort of military action against ISIS, he’s strikingly noninterventionist in general. His willingness to come out and admit the Iraq War was a mistake – in South Carolina no less – and his general view that America should start questioning its ongoing military posture everywhere, including NATO, are the opposite of the aggressive military component integral to Hitler’s plan from the beginning.
So what do you call Trump’s brand of nationalism, if not outright fascism? If you take away the boorishness of Trump’s personality and insert more thoughtful, elegant rhetoric, you’d call it traditional American conservatism, before it was infiltrated by more libertarian ideas. American conservatism was always about creating an American version of the mercantilist British Empire and it really never changed.
Since the founding of the republic, American conservatives have argued for a strong central government that subsidized domestic corporations to build roads and infrastructure, levied high protectionist tariffs and ran a central bank. This was Alexander Hamilton’s domestic platform, championed by his Federalist Party. Henry Clay and the Whigs adopted it after the Federalist Party died. From the ashes of the Whigs emerged Lincoln and the Republicans, who were finally able to install Clay’s “American System” after decades of electoral failure.
The Republican Party has remained startlingly consistent in its economic principles, despite incorporating free market rhetoric in the 20th century. Republicans from Lincoln to McKinley to Coolidge to George W. Bush have been protectionists. Hoover reacted to the Depression by signing the Smoot-Hawley tariff, for all the same reasons Trump threatens tariffs now. And what was the first thing Republicans did in the 1950s, after two decades of Democratic Party domination? A huge government roads project that had Hamilton smiling in his grave.
Trump promises more of the same, justifying his stance against nation-building by saying, “I just think we have to rebuild our country.” Make no mistake, Trump isn’t suggesting cutting military spending and allowing the private sector to build what it chooses to build. “We” is the government, with Trump as its intellectually superior leader.
Trump isn’t Hitler; he’s Hamilton, advocating the kind of centralist government Hamilton spoke about in secret at the Constitutional Convention and attempted to achieve surreptitiously throughout the rest of his political life by eroding the same limits on federal government power he had trumpeted to sell the Constitution in the Federalist Papers. Trump wants to be Hamilton’s elected king, running a crony-capitalist, mercantilist economy just as Hamilton envisioned. Even Trump’s campaign slogan is Hamiltonian. Hamilton’s stated goal was “national greatness,” something he referred to again and again in his writing.
And while Hamilton was certainly a more eloquent and well-mannered spokesman for conservatism, Trump is actually superior to him in at least one way: Hamilton was a military interventionist, whose ambition to conquer the colonial possessions of Spain was much more like Hitler’s desire to seize the Ukraine for Germany than anything Trump wants to do internationally.
One has to wonder: Is that the real reason neoconservatives like Bill Kristol, John McCain and Lindsey Graham are so anti-Trump?
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.