Editor’s note: This post is part of a summer-long series, The Sociology of Trump. Every Friday RI Future will feature an essay written by a Brown University sociology student on an aspect of Trumpism. Read the introduction: Culture, power, and social change in the time of Trump.
With the rise of American fascism in the news, many talk of Trump and Hitler in the same sentence. It’s easy to treat this juxtaposition as a political question, but it’s helpful to treat this sociologically. Indeed, the discipline has a very strong tradition of comparative and historical research; in 1980, Theda Skocpol and Margaret Somers identified three broad methods in this articulation: parallels across time and space, contrasts of context, and using theory and history to develop macrocausal arguments. Drawing on her extensive familiarity with the rise of Hitler, Julia Rosenfeld extends the first of these traditions to explore the commonalities in the cultivation of the charismatic authority of Hitler and Trump. One big takeaway: regardless of competence or morality, such figures may never lose the faith of their followers. – Michael Kennedy, professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University.
Adolf Hitler has often been viewed as one of the most charismatic, if criminal, political leaders in modern history. As a result, he has frequently been served as a basis of comparison for other demagogues and dictators. Of late, no political figure has been compared to Hitler as often as Donald Trump.
Yet, while Trump shares many characteristics with Hitler — such as his influential charisma, scapegoating of minorities, hateful ideology and fascist supporters — historians have hesitated to draw too many similarities between them due to the presence of their obvious differences. Hitler and Trump existed almost one hundred years apart in radically different nations with substantially different governments. Hitler embraced a radical ideology known as National Socialism, while Trump does not have any clear worldview.
Despite these differences, however, it is interesting to note from a sociological perspective why the two leaders have been compared so often. In studying the leaders’ rise to power, it becomes clear that though Hitler and Trump may not have shared the same political goals, they used very similar methods to present themselves as charismatic leaders seeking to achieve larger ends.
According to the famed sociologist, Max Weber, charismatic leaders emerge in “times of great need and desperation,” (1) when the public feels the need for radical change. This tends to happen under the regime of a legal-rational or traditional authoritative figure, like an established president or king, who fails to serve the citizens properly. We may call this, after Jurgen Habermas, a “legitimation crisis,” where the people no longer trust their established government to provide for and protect them, thus withdrawing their support. It is in troubled eras like these, such as during a war or financial crisis, that charismatic leaders emerge as saviors, promoting themselves as outsiders offering total and radical change.
Both Hitler and Trump emerged as charismatic leaders in historically tumultuous times. After World War I, Germany was experiencing the worst financial crisis in the nation’s history. There was hyperinflation, poverty, and a widespread feeling of desperation due to the trauma of the war and the dismal economic situation. Hitler offered the German people a simple diagnosis and cure for their problems: the Jews were at fault, and he would restore Germany to its former glory. Though the 2008 American financial crisis was not as severe as Germany’s in the 1930’s, it put millions of people out of work and created a significant amount of distress and fear. By the time of the 2016 election, many Americans felt alienated from the political establishment. Trump emerged as a candidate speaking to the “forgotten people” of America, scapegoating illegal immigrants for the nation’s unemployment rate, and promising to make America great again with his exemplary business skills. The promise of a redemptive miracle, regardless of whether or not said promise is actually reasonable, is thus an extremely effective tactic for a charismatic leader, offering hope to vulnerable people in a desperate situation.
Both Hitler and Trump were also outsiders when they came to power, demonstrating a radical shift from a more traditional government to a revolutionary one. People only want radical change when the existing government has lost credibility; therefore it is necessary that a new leader has distance and perspective to make sure he will actually be different. Hitler was not a traditional politician. He had never held office before, and had led a revolution as the leader of the National Socialist Party. He opposed the democratically elected Weimar government, as did many Germans, and therefore was granted the charisma of a legitimate leader. Similarly, Trump had never held elective office before his presidency and had been relatively uninvolved in politics. He was known primarily for being a businessman and reality TV star, and used this to his advantage in his campaign, claiming that he was not a corrupt politician, but a fresh leader who would run the government efficiently like a business. Therefore both leaders signified a radical departure from the workings of traditional government that had caused the trauma and crises in the past.
Charisma is easily attributed to leaders during desperate times when their people feel the strong need for change. This sense of charisma overpowers reason and elicits emotional, instead of rational, responses. Any contradictions in a leader’s promises and any flaws in his or her character are thus ignored, due to the feeling of credibility their powerful charisma allows. People are vulnerable, and as long as they are hearing what they want to hear, irrationality often trumps reason. Furthermore, fear is irrationally driven, and both leaders established non-existent, though clearly defined, threats (conspiring Jews and terrorist Muslims) that only they had the power to address. Fear-mongering enabled both Hitler and Trump to present themselves as saviors dedicated to protecting good citizens from evil.
Hitler and Trump each built up their charisma by channeling religious and spiritual fervor, thus presenting themselves as holy and godlike figures. As Weber argues, charismatic leaders are believed to have superhuman qualities, perhaps even “personal and exclusive relationships with God.” (2) Their dedicated followers interpret their leader’s charisma as so powerful and influential that it must be spiritual. Weber writes that this type of charisma enabled the founders of biblical religions, like Jesus and Moses, to command and lead their followers, but it also is applicable to secular leaders. The most important component of this spiritual appearance is that leaders are “considered extraordinary and treated as supernatural, superhuman, or endowed with exceptional powers and qualities.” (3) Therefore, these leaders do not actually have to actually possess superhuman qualities; their followers only have to perceive them as such, thus giving them the legitimacy required to rule. Through their effective charisma, Hitler and Trump were both able to portray themselves to their followers as messianic figures who could bring salvation to the desperate people.
Hitler constructed his powerful religious appearance through the skilled use of propaganda. Triumph of the Will was a propaganda film commissioned by the Nazis in 1934 from director Leni Riefenstahl, who carefully constructed Hitler’s cinematic charisma. In the opening scene, Hitler’s plane descends over the medieval city of Nuremberg, the camera panning to the glorified Gothic cathedral emblazoned with flags bearing the swastika. As Hitler’s plane continues to descend, the shadow of it makes the shape of a cross over the city. This traditional religious imagery invoked by the Nazis paints Hitler as spiritually symbolic. Furthermore, reporter William Hire famously stated that the crowds in the film had “something of the mysticism and religious fervor of an Easter or Christmas Mass in a great Gothic cathedral.” (4) Riefenstahl was thus able to portray Hitler as having the effective charisma of someone like Jesus himself.
Historians have also noted that one of Hitler’s biographies, Adolf Hitler: Sein Leben und seine Reden (Adolf Hitler: His Life and his Speeches) “heralded him as Germany’s ‘saviour.’”(5) The book also “makes some outlandish claims arguing that it should become ‘the new bible of today’… uses terms such as ‘holy’ and ‘deliverance;…and compar[es] Hitler to Jesus likening his moment of politicalization to Jesus’ resurrection.’ (6) Most interestingly, it has been recently discovered that Hitler himself actually wrote and collected the speeches, demonstrating a clear manipulation on his part to concoct a charismatic image of himself as a religious figure.
Trump has also notably portrayed himself as superhuman and godly. He demonstrates that he lives in absolute luxury, in a tall tower named after him in one of America’s most important cities. He consistently talks about how wealthy, smart, and successful he is, as well as how much people love him. For example, in one of his rallies he went on a rant saying:
“My uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart—you know.. if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!”
Though this statement is fairly incoherent and lacks a clear political message, it illustrates Trump’s ability to present himself as someone exceptionally qualified to lead the people due to his superhuman talents. Furthermore, Trump’s continually references his fame and celebrity presence which also help shape his appearance as a divine leader. It should be noted that in America, there exists a fascination and fanaticism surrounding celebrities that can be described as almost spiritual. Celebrities are adored in a comparable fashion to superheroes and religious leaders. Trump as a celebrity is therefore a sort of secular Jesus figure.
Interestingly, neither Trump nor Hitler were actually religious people before their ascent to power. Although they certainly did not abide by traditional Christian values, they still managed to gain the support of religious people. Trump’s base included evangelical Christians, who in the past had voted for traditionally religious candidates who were supporters of Pro-Life and anti-Gay policies. Trump, however, had previously stated he was pro-Choice, and also had multiple ex wives and children from different mothers. According to sociologist Arlie Hochschild, he is still appealing to Evangelical Christians because he “ tapped into the fear and hope underlying the Rapture” appearing as a “powerful judge who decides who is saved and damned.” (7) Hochschild goes on to write that, “Like an Old Testament God, Trump judges. Most of all, he tacitly promises his faithful followers that he will restore their sense of being, visibility and honor.” (8) His charisma, therefore, is interpreted as divine by his followers. This is exemplified by the fervor of his followers at his rallies, one of whom was recorded as carrying a poster that stated: “Donald J Trump a guardian angel from heaven…his spirit and hard work as president will make the people and America great again!!!” (9)
Both leaders also utilized technology and media to build their charisma. As Weber elucidates, media has “the oracle,” and is able to build “charismatic powers.” (10) Saskia Sassen similarly writes that “sociologists see technology as the impetus for the most fundamental social trends and transformations.” (11) Many historians have noted the importance of technology to the power of the Nazi regime. The Nazis took over radio programming, broadcasting Hitler’s voice and messages into millions of people’s homes. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister was considered to be “the first grand manipulator of modern media..instantly seiz[ing] control of the means of communicating.” (12) Goebbels knew how powerful the radio was as a technological propaganda tool that would enable the Nazis to influence far more people than would be possible physically.
The Nazis also took control over the German film industry and utilized innovative cinematic practices in order to valorize Hitler’s charismatic image, exemplified by Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. The film is particularly haunting because it is effectively able to portray Hitler’s charisma to an audience that is not physically there to see him. Though Riefenstahl claimed the film was a “documentary,” film historians have noted the usage of avant-garde and innovative filmic techniques she utilized to carefully construct a specific image of the Führer’s presence and his devoted followers. Modern sound amplification technology, film development techniques, and movie theaters enabled the Nazis to reach millions of people that they may otherwise not have been able to reach. The government provided Riefenstahl with countless aerial photographers, lighting technicians, and cameramen, as well as considerable artistic authority in determining the angles of the shots and formations of the masses. Critic Susan Sontag writes how Triumph of the Will “uses overpopulated wide shots of massed figures alternating with close-ups that isolate a single passion, a single perfect submission; clean-cut people in uniforms group and regroup, as if seeking the right choreography to express their ecstatic fealty.” (13) The film’s intention is not to convey Hitler’s ideology and policies, but allow the audience to lose themselves in the spectacle of a powerful leader speaking to the enthralled masses.
Media and technology have also been some of Trump’s most effective tools in constructing his image as a leader. Much of his fame was built through his reality TV show, The Apprentice. Though the show is presented as “reality” TV, the way Triumph of the Will was called a “documentary,” the show was expertly constructed and scripted in order to present Trump as a powerful and savvy businessman. Despite factual evidence that clearly demonstrated Trump was not an incredible business mogul (such as his massive debt), “the rhetoric, framing, and shooting style of the show suggested he was the smartest, most skilled, most important businessman in America.” (14) Therefore Trump’s charisma, once again, is driven by emotion, not rationality. What The Apprentice demonstrated was that it is not “actual hard work that makes you successful, but the ability to evince the feeling and effect of power and wealth.” (15)
Trump has also utilized Twitter to construct his persona as a leader in a way that no politician has ever done before. He is well known for breaking the norms of decorum in Washington, deviating from any traditional political scripts and saying whatever his id demands him to say. Trump’s tweets create a spectacle of unpredictability that elicit engagement from his audience, who gather around him virtually to listen. Furthermore, the medium of Twitter has similar effects to that of radio for Hitler, removing “the filter between the celebrity and his public [and] creat[ing] a persuasive aura of authenticity.” (16) Both leaders utilized relevant forms of media in order to create a feeling of sincerity. Scholars and critics have also hypothesized that “had Goebbels been around today…he would have grasped and exploited the ubiquity of social media…and relished the random distribution of defamatory vitriol via Twitter.” (17) Despite living in radically different time periods almost a century apart, Hitler and Trump were both successful in strengthening their charismatic personas through capitalizing upon the most innovative and relevant technologies available to them.
One of Weber’s most important points in describing a charismatic leader is that a leader’s authority is completely contingent upon the support of their followers. The approval of the masses, thus, is the foundation of a charismatic leader’s rule and important to maintain. Both Hitler and Trump effectively utilized the rally as a political tool in order to create excitement and garner support from their base. Rallies were crucial to both leaders because the events rely upon putting crowds of people into the same physical space, creating a “spiritual community” the Nazis referred to as “vergemeinschaftung.” (18) Similar to the use of technology to create enthusiasm, the actual political content of Hitler and Trump’s speeches was not as important as the energy and engagement between the leaders and their followers.
Riefenstahl, before creating Triumph of the Will, attended one of Hitler’s rallies and noted how “these rallies, orchestrated in a style that combined Roman martial insignia with Hollywood choreography, were the essence of Hitler’s spiritual message.” (19) This observation reflects the famous critic Walter Benjamin’s theory of the fascist aestheticization of politics, the idea that “life and the affairs of living are conceived of as innately artistic, and related to as such politically [while] politics are in turn viewed as artistic, and structured like an art form which reciprocates the artistic conception of life being seen as art.” (20) Riefenstahl’s powerful filmic documentation of the rallies allowed a movie-goer to lose themselves in the fervor of the spectacle, a phenomenon that was meant to imitate the even more magnified experience of physically attending a rally. The magnitude of Hitler’s rallies was so intense that people felt as though it was a spiritual, artistic experience. Therefore, the Führer was able to create what Weber deemed a “community of disciples” devoted to him, the “preacher.”
Trump similarly was able to create a fanatical community of disciples through the spectacle of his rallies. Unlike Hitler, whose speeches were carefully written and expertly executed, Trump was continually noted for going on nonpolitical and often incomprehensible tangents about his life. Observers of his rallies noted that “He wings it because winging it serves his purpose. He is not trying to persuade, detail, or prove: he is trying to thrill, agitate, be liked, be loved, here and now. He is trying to make energy.” (21) Despite the disorganization of a Trump rally in comparison to one of Hitler’s, the event allows for the same effect, a powerful energy contributed by the charismatic leader that creates an overpowering emotional effect on the community, who are able to experience a spiritual feeling of totality that makes them even more loyal and dedicated to their leader. Historians and analysts have noted that “For both men, the theatre of politics was just as important as the instrumentality. In the view of one respected academic, a Hitler rally in the early 1930s was ‘well worth it’ for the entertainment value. Crowds thrill to Trump’s bullying bellicose manner, his playing to the gallery and demonization of opponents, his egocentric fictions, and his huge lies, which go far beyond anything seen before in American politics.” (22) Therefore, charismatic leaders strengthen the integral community of their followers by performing their charisma and putting on a sort of spectacular show.
As Weber notes, charismatic leaders lose their authority when their followers no longer support them. Due to the emotional, rather than rational, connection between followers and charismatic leaders, support often continues even when there is clear evidence that the redemptive promises made to the people will not come true. Devoted disciples do not want to believe that their messianic leader could possibly be incompetent or have created false hope. Hitler’s legitimacy as a leader lasted essentially until he committed suicide in his bunker. For much of his time as dictator, his most loyal followers were unwilling to blame him for continual defeats until he finally died. Though Trump’s term as President has only begun, a similar phenomenon seems to be occurring. Trump has already demonstrated that many of his promises were lies, visible in his recent failure to repeal and replace Obamacare. Despite his health care plan being called “Trumpcare,” many of Trump’s followers and fellow Republicans attributed the blame to the Democrats, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, or the system of the government in general. There is a desire of the devoted to want to exonerate their leader from any blame, because in admitting defeat, they would have to admit that redemption may not actually come to them.
Though Trump is still in office as President, it is important to note Weber’s warning about a charismatic leader’s fragile authority, which is completely contingent upon the support of his followers. If enough support is lost, a legitimation crisis will ensue, just like the one that enabled the leader to gain power in the first place. Though Hitler may have remained dictator until his death, his suicide and the subsequent end of World War II signified that his expertly constructed persona was not enough to “redeem” Germany. Thus, a careful eye must be kept on President Trump, whose authority is similarly dependent upon one of few political tools he possesses: his charisma.
When making serious comparisons, it is always imperative to note the complexity and nuance of a claim. Donald Trump is not Hitler. In fact, many have argued that if a comparison was to be made, he is more similar to figures like Joseph Goebbels, manipulator of the media, or George Wallace, white supremacist. Furthermore, just because similarities can be drawn between Trump and the Führer does not mean there will be another Holocaust or a World War III. Hitler and Trump should not be compared in order to determine the fate of America, for though history does repeat itself, there are far too many differences between the structures of the two governments and the leaders themselves to make such historically irresponsible claims.
However, similarities between the two do exist, and they are important to explore in order to see the larger picture of how charisma enables leaders from different nations and time periods to rise to power in the first place. Charisma in itself does not connote a demagogue. Figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi had charisma, but used it not to gain highest political office, but rather to generate social change. Thus, charisma is a tool that can be used in different ways to achieve different ends. Hitler and Trump both shaped themselves as charismatic leaders through similar methods, and it enabled both of them to gain power. Therefore, perhaps there is a larger pattern that goes beyond the comparison between these two leaders. In universally applying Weber’s theory, it is possible to make a claim that charisma is integral to all demagogues’ ascendance, legitimacy, and authority.
- Szelenyi, Ivan. “Lecture 19 – Weber on Charismatic Authority.” SOCY 151: FOUNDATIONS OF MODERN SOCIAL THEORY. http://oyc.yale.edu/sociology/socy-151/lecture-19.
- Lease, Gary. “Odd fellows” in the politics of religion: modernism, National Socialism, and German Judaism. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1995, p. 265.
- MailOnline, Stephanie Linning for. “Hitler really DID have a Messiah complex: Historian reveals the Nazi leader’s first biography which compared him to Jesus and called him ‘Germany’s saviour’ was actually written by the Fuhrer himself.” Daily Mail Online. October 07, 2016. Accessed April 09, 2017. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3826961/Hitler-really-DID-Messiah-complex-Historian-reveals-Nazi-leader-s-biography-compared-Jesus-called-Germany-s-saviour-actually-written-Fuhrer-himself.html#ixzz4dnP0jFcc.
- Hochschild, Artie Russell.”Trump, ‘The Apprentice,’ and secular rapture – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. September 06, 2016. Accessed April 09, 2017. https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2016/09/05/trump-the-apprentice-and-secular-rapture/7Z0wiDi3efnG41oqasEzGN/story.html.
- Saunders, George. “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” The New Yorker. November 11, 2016. Accessed April 09, 2017. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/11/george-saunders-goes-to-trump-rallies.
- Sassen, Saskia. “Towards a Sociology of Information Technology.” Current Sociology 50, no. 3 (2002): 365-88.
- Irving, Clive. “Donald Trump Isn’t Hitler-He’s Like Goebbels.” The Daily Beast. June 11, 2016. Accessed April 09, 2017. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/06/11/donald-trump-isn-t-hitler-he-s-like-goebbels.html.
- Sontag, Susan. Fascinating Fascism. New York Review of Books, 1975.
- Petersen, Anne Helen. “The Key To Trump Is Reading Him Like A Celebrity.” BuzzFeed. Accessed April 09, 2017. https://www.buzzfeed.com/annehelenpetersen/what-would-trump-be-without-twitter.
- “Expert on Nazism explains the shocking similarities between Trump and Hitler’s propaganda tactics.” Raw Story. Accessed April 09, 2017. http://www.rawstory.com/2016/10/expert-on-nazism-explains-the-shocking-similarities-between-trump-and-hitlers-propaganda-tactics/.
- “Expert on Nazism…” Raw Story.