Adolph Hitler’s “behavior during imprisonment convinced the authorities that, like his political organization…he was no longer to be feared. It is believed he will retire to private life and to Austria, the country of his birth.” So read a 1924 New York Times article headlined “Hitler Tamed by Prison” in the aftermath of his attempted coup.
Failed Coup Attempts
After Hitler’s failed coup attempt and prison term, the mainstream belief (or wish?) was that he had learned a political lesson and would be on good behavior thereafter. Nearly a century later Senator Susan Collins, a so-called “moderate” Republican, made a similar claim after President Donald Trump’s unprecedented second impeachment trial: “I believe that he will be much more cautious in the future.” Explaining why she voted to acquit Trump on charges of “incitement of insurrection” or a coup, Collins myopically contended that Trump had supposedly learned “a pretty big lesson” and would be on good behavior thereafter.
To refer to Hitler’s and Trump’s actions as a coup d’état is not an overstatement. A political coup is commonly defined as the removal of an existing government from power, usually through violent, illegal, and unconstitutional means, all of which characterize the failed actions of both Hitler and Trump.
Hitler and Trump Remained
As we know from history, neither did Hitler nor the Nazi Party go away after Hitler’s failed coup attempt. In fact, it gave Hitler time to write his massive Mein Kampf (My Struggle) while in prison and further refine his political stance on fascism. Hitler remained adamant that a strong leader for the nation was needed: “one man must step forward” with undisputed “force” to “form granite principles from the wavering idea-world of the broad masses and take up the struggle for their sole correctness.”
As we also well know, neither Trump nor MAGA Republicans faded away after Trump’s January 6, 2021, coup advocacy. Just 6 months after the failed coup, Trump proclaimed that those who violently and illegally laid siege to the U.S. Capitol “were peaceful people, these were great people…the love in the air, I’ve never seen anything like it.” At the same time, conservative and far right legislative candidates and incumbents were groveling at the financial trough of more than $100 million that Trump already had on hand after leaving the White House.
Necessity of Support by Conservatives and Business Elites
Obviously, the political, economic, and social conditions in Germany – and fascist Italy – in the 1920s and the United States in the 2020s are not the same. But a historical pattern can be found in how conservatives and elites reacted in Germany, Italy, and the U.S. over time. Conservatives and their financially elite supporters in both Germany and the U.S. feared any gains from a program of socialism that would lead to a redistribution of wealth and stronger protections and rights for workers. Conservatives in both nations were/are fervently anti-socialist and preferred/prefer a far-right extremist alternative for its explicit espousal of opposition to the left, anti-fascism, and labor.
The U.S. conservative anti-socialist/anti-communist drumbeat didn’t arise in the 21st century but burst forward with virulence after WWII. Indicative of an ideological litmus test as the antithesis of a democracy was the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities that existed from 1945-1969, eventually renamed, then abolished in 1975. As the tacit sub-text, White supremacist nationalism as “American” against that which is perceived as “foreign” existed then and now in the halls of Congress and state legislatures.
In the end it was political conservatives in both Germany and Italy who made amends with Hitler and Mussolini and allowed them to gain dictatorial power through political manipulations. Although the vigilante violence of fascist Brownshirts and Blackshirts was in plain sight in the public square, neither Hitler nor Mussolini came to power in a violent coup. Instead, fascist parties and their leaders advanced their political clout through parliamentary compromises led by conservatives.
In the U.S., we only need to look to the nearly 60% of the 249 Congressional Republicans who supported Trump’s false narrative of a “stolen” election. Interestingly, like Hitler and Mussolini, Trump never received a majority of the votes for president but nevertheless assumed office given the nuances of an archaic constitutional design. Although a 57% majority of senators voted to find Trump guilty of inciting an insurrection against the government, anti-democracy Senate rules required a super majority of 60%.
In no way did Mussolini or Hitler rise up alone out of nowhere. Business elites were initially wary of Hitler and Mussolini. But because the two fascists leaders were clearly anti-socialist and opposed independently organized labor organizations, wealthy donors sensed shifting political winds and added their financial support to the fascists.
In 2015 Trump did not appear out of nowhere from being a TV personality to a voice for the far right while upstaging his Republican competitors as the party’s nominee for U.S. president. For years previously Trump had been trying to find a way to national power, vacillating as a Democratic, peddling racist narratives, and even creating his own but failed political party. Today Trump quite literally owns the Republican Party. After the siege on the Capitol, 249 corporations pledged not to fund what was now labeled the “Sedition Caucus,” the 147 members of Congress who supported overturning a legitimate and verifiable election count that showed Trump had lost his bid for a second presidential term in 2020. Only 85 of the 249 companies 18 months later held true to their commitment while the others continued to give generously to far right electoral campaigns.
Divisiveness, Disorder, and Performance Politics
Fascists in the inter-war years between WWI and WWII contributed to political instability in Italy and Germany. Politically-perpetuated divisiveness provided opportunites for fascist inroads into mainstream governance. Relatively weak liberal democracies were unable to forge coalitions to challenge fascist parties and their ready-to-act militias. Inter-war communists and socialists distrusted one another and could not find common ground – all the while witnessing fascistic political violence arising in their midst. Conservatives were never inclined to find alliances with any leftist parties and in practice preferred fascism over leftwing alternatives that threatened the status quote of the elites.
In the 21st century, U.S. conservative and far-right politicians continue to sling their mud and lies at any one who opposes them. Labels such as communists, socialists, and Marxists are widely used dog-whistles. For corporate interests they signal not to worry about any support for labor and social welfare programs. For politicized evangelicals they signal not to worry about any support for multiculturalism and infringement on anti-diversity Christian absolutism.
Far-right militias display their alliances by also declaring themselves anti-socialism and “antifa hunters.” During the 8 years of the Obama administration and through Trump’s administration and into Biden’s term, Republicans have demonstrated how political divisions and disorder – both inside Congress and on the streets – works to their benefit in bids to hold onto political and economic power.
For more than 15 years running, politics as performance and spectacle are the public face of state and congressional far-right and conservative politicians. Absent are legislative actions to address such material conditions as a growing food insecure population and unabated increases in the number of unhoused/homeless people. Far-right and conservative political negligence includes dismissing the worthiness of an estimated 11 million children – 1 of 6 of all children – who are currently food insecure – and somehow blaming children and their parents for their own poverty and suffering. Meanwhile, heartless conservatives and the far right with their puffed-chests make hypocritical proclamations about “family values.”
Future Far-Right, Fascistic Outcome for U.S.
In recent days the “Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol” continues to reveal the desires and efforts by Trump and his loyalists to forge a coup by overturning the 2020 presidential election results by any illegal means necessary. The looming question remains as to what will actually come of this investigation, especially with a tepid Justice Department and the approach of November mid-term elections with a blaring bullhorn reiterating the falsehood of a “stolen election.” For now, as long as the sails of conservatives continue to billow and tack to the far right without any substantive resistance from liberals and the left, Trumpian-style fascistic politics will remain a presence in the U.S. for years to come.