The Internet exploded with comparisons between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler on Saturday when Trump, speaking at a rally in Orlando, encouraged the audience to raise their right hand and pronounce their intention to vote for him in an impromptu pledge resembling that taken by witnesses in the court of law. The key feature, however, was not the pledge, but rather the raising of the right hand, which prompted onlookers to take to the Internet and express their outrage, likening Trump to Hitler.
Trump’s entire campaign has been plagued with the unflattering comparison, usually due to Trump’s hostile, xenophobic and racist policy suggestions and comments, however the right-hand salute of the Fascist movements in 20th century Italy and Germany are a particularly unique expression of alignment to the values of those movements and are an uncommon sight today. For a prominent politician to make a similar gesture and for a similar reason i.e. a show of solidarity from the crowd, is practically unheard of. The stunt performed at the Orlando rally would have certainly been identified as an obvious trigger for comparisons to Hitler by any staff, or Trump himself, when planning whether or not to do it. If that was the case, then being compared to Hitler does not concern Trump or his staff. Alternatively, if it was an unscripted act, then the realization of what he had done failed to show as he was doing it, but members of the crowd were not so oblivious. As Trump pronounced a badly worded pledge for the audience to repeat, scarcely a sound could be heard, prompting Trump to claim “that’s good enough,” before proceeding. Yet, observing the crowd, one can distinctly see the occasional fascist salutes, only for the bearer of the arm to readjust, probably from a realisation of how it would look on camera.
Considering the first possibility, that Trump, nor his staff, are concerned with comparisons to Hitler, I argue that the certain mindset of one whose political alignment is that of the far right, xenophobic and militaristic policies for implementation in politics, a comparison to Hitler is considered a grave insult by those who disagree with that political position, but is considered a great secret flattery for the recipient of the insult. Hitler, unlike Trump, was not a wealthy, babbling buffoon, but rather a highly articulate and ruthless politician who outmanoeuvred all of his opponents through sheer skill. There are countless inferior characters in the world who would relish the comparison to Hitler, who can be considered the greatest hero of the far right, but by all others, the greatest villain that ever lived. People who take to this flattery are not often stupid enough to show it publicly. It remains a distinct possibility that Trump relishes the comparison. It helps associate him to one of the most iconic historical figures of all time, and it is an identity he appears unafraid to embrace.
Are subtle Nazi symbols being intentionally used by Trump to build this association? There have been numerous such symbols published by the Trump campaign. The first notable one was the campaign advertisement which features Trump’s image superimposed over a number of key images, namely the American flag, the White House, and what turned out to be a group of Waffen SS soldiers. Trump blamed this “fault” on an intern and deleted the picture after the fact came to light. The public pledge is the latest and most startling resemblance to Nazi symbology and the fact that Trump did not flinch when members of the audience certainly did is a telling feature of the identity he wishes to build around his campaign, and if he can, his presidency. There are explanations for how he could be triggering comparisons to Hitler on purpose.
As stated above, the reason why he may secretly appreciate comparisons to Hitler have been discussed. But how could he remain an acceptable public figure to the public by emulating Hitler, and furthermore, how can he win the approval of the public and have them join in? The answer can be seen by observing his campaign as a whole. As with fishing, you must lure the prey slowly and carefully until they bite. There is a way to influence the mindset of the masses, and it is being done every day by institutions such as those that make up the mass media. Islamophobia, for example, has become a prominent issue today through systematic, repetitive and ever-increasingly shocking (and to more sceptical viewers, ever-increasingly implausible) news reports of rare and unique atrocities which are promptly accompanied by key trigger words, two vital ones being “terror” and “Islam”. Through repetition and consistent association of Islam to atrocious acts, Islamophobia develops and the trigger words set off a particular set of unpleasant images when heard or read. Hitler managed very successfully to pummel the public with propaganda from his party’s well-funded media machine, to the point where he won millions of supporters for a blatantly militaristic and anti-Semitic cause, and managing to placate those who did not support him. Trump appears to have embarked on his own similar project. He is slowly easing the public into accepting ever-increasingly obvious associations to the Third Reich.
Without the power of the mass media, Trump’s influence is limited to his core of supporters. As the video of his pledge stunt shows, even those supporters flinched en masse to the blatantly Naziesque demand being made of them. Furthermore, Trump’s campaign is limited in time as opposed to that of the mass media, which can erect a mass-produced mindset over a significant period of time, taking all the time it needs and even enjoying a temporary period of silence to recover if one or more of their news reports attempts to make claims beyond the scope of publicly accepted plausibility. The latter mistake can seriously harm the credibility of a news outlet. For this reason, Trump is engaged in a very bold and risky move. Trying to build an acceptable association to the Third Reich is alienating him from vast swathes of the electorate and even risks alienating some of his core supporters. He is also fighting against a culturally embedded mindset of despite against the Nazis. Western society is raised from childhood and educated to pathologically despise the Third Reich, Hitler and everything associated with them. If Trump were to try and emulate Mussolini, I would argue there would be far less criticism and far less resistance.
The Orlando rally pledge was a leap in the dark for Trump. Trying to have supporters embrace a right-hand show of solidarity, in any form, is one of the most difficult things to do considering the points made above. It is the most iconic symbol of the Third Reich, closely associated with Hitler himself, making it more an end goal to aspire to for people like Trump, but also a major red flag for people not like him. He will be severely punished in the media for this latest move, but if he continues to goad his support base with more mild-mannered symbols of the Third Reich, he may come much closer to a modern-day Hitler figure in the coming months. Whatever the condemnation, it is very likely Trump is relishing the comparisons to Hitler rather than reeling from them, and if that is the case, such associations only motivate him to continue his campaign.