Reichstag fire, Berlin, February 1933

The Ominous Similarities Between Trump and Hitler — Trump’s Reichstag Fire and Nero Decree

Donald Trump is a malignant narcissist. So was Adolph Hitler, and Trump is exhibiting more and more Hitler-like behavior as he sees his political fortunes dimming. Two events during Hitler’s time in power in Germany, the Reichstag Fire and the Nero Decree, invite comparison.

The exaggerated threat to federal property and domestic order, used by the Trump administration as a pretext for introducing federal law enforcement officers in Portland, Oregon, and other cities, is Trump’s Reichstag Fire. He hopes to provoke an “insurrection” that he can use to justify calling in active duty military troops and even declare martial law. Like Hitler, he is attracted to authoritarianism and will go to any lengths to maintain his grip on power.

Trump’s deadly demand that society and the economy return to “normal” in the face of the out-of-control COVID-19 pandemic is his Nero Decree. He has abandoned any role in managing the pandemic other than hectoring state public school officials into resuming classroom instruction in the fall, a measure sure to increase the death toll, including among children. Like Hitler, he is a sadist, without regard for human life.

The obvious limitation of a comparison between any other malignant narcissist and Hitler lies in the scale of the harm done by Hitler. I am not suggesting that anything Trump has done or will do is comparable to the Holocaust. But that does not mean that we should not look to Hitler’s behavior for clues for what we can expect from Trump. It is how we learn from history — or at least should learn — to protect ourselves from leaders like Trump.

Analogies by pundits to the Reichstag Fire and Nero Decree are so commonplace that they tend to lose their impact. That should not be the case when applied to Trump. In his case, the comparisons raise the gravest of concerns. They serve to warn us of what may lie ahead.

Trump’s malignant narcissism makes him extraordinarily dangerous. He will stop at nothing to meet the needs of his insatiable ego, including attacking our democracy and precipitating the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of Americans or more from COVID-19.

The Reichstag Fire

In an interview published in early June, Dr. Lance Dodes, a retired assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, warned of drastic action by Trump to prevent the election in November if he believed that he was going to lose.

“In order to have an excuse for ending democracy, [Trump] is likely to have his own ‘Reichstag Fire’ incident.”

And within a month he did.

German president Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolph Hitler chancellor on January 30, 1933. The Reichstag Fire occurred on February 27, 1933, burning the building that housed the German parliament, the Reichstag, in Berlin. An unemployed Dutch laborer with Communist sympathies confessed to and was convicted of starting the fire, although questions linger as to whether he was put up to the arson by the Nazis.

In any case, Hitler seized upon the fire as a pretext to seize absolute power in Germany. He persuaded Hindenburg to invoke a provision of German law giving Hitler dictatorial powers, allegedly to protect Germany from the dreaded Bolsheviks. The Reichstag Fire triggered a series of events paving the way for the rise of the Nazi regime.

On June 26th, Trump issued an executive order instructing federal law enforcement agencies and the Department of Justice to prosecute the desecration or destruction of monuments, memorials, and statues “to the fullest extent permitted under Federal law.” Suffice it to say that vast majority of such structures in Portland, Oregon are on private, state, or municipal property over which federal law enforcement agencies have no jurisdiction.

Nevertheless, numerous officers from various federal agencies began arriving in Portland shortly thereafter. Their mission evolved into protection of the federal courthouse in Portland, over which they do have jurisdiction, although they strayed far from the perimeter of federal property and began removing protesters from city streets — a role for which they have no legal authority.

The federal officers came from a variety of federal agencies, including Customs and Border Protection, the United States Marshals Service, and the Department of Homeland Security. They now number in the hundreds, wear camouflage uniforms with no identifying markings or nameplates, employ aggressive tactics, and appear to be under the general supervision of Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

The responsibility for policing the protests on the streets of Portland falls to city and state officials, who want the federal officers gone, or at least off the streets. The mayor and governor accuse the federal officers of inciting violence and inflaming the situation in the city.

Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli stated that not only are the officers staying in Portland, their deployment may be expanded to cities “nationwide.” Trump suggested over the weekend that New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Baltimore will be next.

Trump, Wolf, and Cuccinelli have pushed a false narrative of cities in ruin, wracked with violence, under siege by leftist guerrillas, and governed by Democratic mayors too weak to act to protect them. Trump claimed, without evidence of course, that the use of federal law enforcement in Portland had prevented the city from being overrun by protesters. According to Trump:

“If you look at what’s gone on in Portland — those are anarchists, and we’ve taken a very tough stand. If we didn’t take a stand in Portland — you know we’ve arrested many of these leaders –if we didn’t take that stand, right now you would have a problem like you — they were going to lose Portland.”

The rhetoric of Trump and his cronies could not be more chilling if they were speaking in German. Make no mistake, the intent of the Trump administration is to make situations in the cities worse, not better. The federal law enforcement officers and their aggressive tactics are a deliberate provocation, an effort to spark confrontations and escalate the level of violence and destruction.

Trump’s endgame is not to place a few hundred federal law enforcement officers here and there to impress his base. Trump wants to trigger an “insurrection.”

Trump, coached by Attorney General William Barr, is itching to invoke the Insurrection Act, a series of laws enacted by Congress in the early 1800’s that allow the president to dispatch active duty military troops to “suppress insurrections” within the United States with or without the consent of mayors or governors. Trump wants to declare martial law. Trump has hinted at it before. On June 1st he said:

“If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

Trump wants to use an “insurrection” in a manner similar to the way that Hitler used the Reichstag Fire. It represents his last best chance to avoid defeat in November and cling to power. He is not above using federal troops to close down state institutions and interfere with the ability of states to hold elections.

If you believe that I am exaggerating his megalomania and malevolence, it is time for you to wake up.

The Nero Decree

Dr. John Gartner is clinical psychologist, a former professor at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School, and one of the authors of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. He equated Trump’s abrogation of responsibility for managing the pandemic to the Nero Decree.

In the waning days of World War II, Adolph Hitler issued a decree titled “Destructive Measures on Reich Territory” that came to be known as the Nero Decree. Hitler, aware that the war was lost, ordered that Germany’s remaining infrastructure be destroyed rather than fall into Allied hands.

The decree applied to all production, communication, and transportation facilities. Railroads, bridges, communication lines, docks, public utilities, factories, and mines were to be demolished.

Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, was appalled. Everything that would allow Germany to recover after the war would be reduced to rubble, causing untold hardship on the German people. Hitler was unmoved by Speer’s protests. According to Speer’s memoir, Hitler told him:

“It is not necessary to worry about what the German people will need for elemental survival. On the contrary, it is best for us to destroy even these things. In any case, only those who are inferior will remain after this struggle, for the good have already been killed.”

Speer took personal charge of the Nero Decree, fully intending to thwart its implementation, which he did. Speer hid his disobedience from Hitler until shortly before Hitler died in his bunker on April 30, 1945, 42 days after issuing the Nero Decree.

Hitler’s contempt for and willingness to cause the suffering of German civilians was an example of the sadism that characterizes malignant narcissism. Trump’s willingness to let Americans die as a result of his mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic is a manifestation of his own well-documented sadism.

The United States is headed toward further carnage from COVID-19 at the hands of President Donald Trump, and he knows it. Because he is incapable of admitting a mistake, however, he will do nothing to mitigate that outcome.

As detailed in a recent New York Times story, the ill-fated decision to press forward with the reopening of the economy and society was made in mid-April. Lockdowns and closures were ended without a program of testing and contact tracing in place to control the pandemic. The story labeled the decision as “perhaps one of the greatest failures of presidential leadership in generations.”

I would describe it as the confluence of two great failures of presidential leadership. The first was the failure by Trump to adopt a national program of comprehensive testing and tracing, using the Defense Production Act as necessary to implement it. The second was the decision to forge ahead with reopening while testing capacity was still woefully inadequate, and to do so based on the administration’s erroneous conclusion that the threat had passed and all that remained was “putting out the embers” of the pandemic.

Devoid of empathy, Trump does not care about the lives that will be lost as a result as a result of his mismanagement. But even if he did, he is characterologically unable to admit mistakes.

Much has been written about the extent of Trump’s narcissistic personality disorder, a subject generally ignored by the mainstream media. The book by his niece, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, brought his psychopathology back into focus.

Mary Trump, a clinical psychologist, explained in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that admitting a mistake is not an option for her uncle. According to her, admitting a mistake was a sign of weakness punishable by the “death penalty” in Trump’s family. His fragile ego simply will not allow it.

So, Trump will not admit his missteps and reverse course by belatedly establishing a national program of testing and contact tracing and backing off demands that businesses remain open and that schools return to “normal” in the fall. He may begrudgingly support the wearing of masks (claiming he always has) but he will not push governors to impose nationwide mask-wearing mandates.

Instead, Trump is going to let people die. A lot of them. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) projects that the nation is on course to lose more than 224,000 lives to COVID-19 by November 1st.

Moreover, Trump is not an “ordinary” narcissist unable to admit mistakes or feel compassion. He is a malignant narcissist. Of all Trump’s undesirable personality traits, his proclivity for sadistic behavior is the most dangerous. The deaths he causes not only will not sadden him, they will satisfy his never-ending need to dominate and hurt others.

The walls of public opinion are collapsing on Trump, largely because of his mismanagement of the pandemic and the resulting damage to the economy. His poll numbers are cratering. He knows that it is increasingly unlikely that he will be re-elected in November. The prospect of losing the election is an existential threat to his ego, a humiliation of unbearable proportions.

Bandy X. Lee, a Yale psychiatrist, and another one of the authors of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, observed that Trump’s “need to place his own psychic survival above any protection of the public” is so strong that he “would be equally inclined to destroy the nation or the world” in response to the possibility of such humiliation.

Dr. Gartner described inflicting pain and suffering on others as “an antidote to the emptiness that [Trump] feels inside and to the humiliation and mockery that he is experiencing from his critics and the public.” According to Gartner:

“Trump enjoys causing harm and suffering…the bullying, the violence, the destruction, frightening people, humiliating people, getting revenge and the like — such behavior is what Donald Trump has done his whole life. It is who Donald Trump really is.”

Mary Trump told Maddow that Trump was never loved as a child, which accounts for the fragility of his ego and the intensity of his sadism. The gratification that others get from love and appreciation, Trump gets from hurting people.

As described by another writer:

“Hurting people makes Trump feel good about himself. It makes him feel powerful and in control. It makes him feel better and full of the self-worth his father ground to dust. It proves that he is alive and that you have been forced to notice him, Donald J. Trump, the author of your misery and master of your world.”

Hitler would have preferred to win World War II. He settled for an attempt to inflict unnecessary suffering on Germans. Trump would have preferred to bask in adulation for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and win re-election. He will settle for inflicting unnecessary deaths on Americans. If that sounds to you like malignant narcissists tend to punish others for their own failures and get gratification from doing so, you are catching on.

What lies ahead

We can hope that an Albert Speer will emerge. Speer was no hero; he was a war criminal. Whether out of self-interest or some remaining shred of decency, however, he at least stepped up at a crucial time to save what was left of Germany.

Unfortunately, there is a paucity of candidates for that role in the Trump administration. Vice President Michael Pence would be ideal, if only because he cannot be fired. He also has the power to initiate action to remove the president under the 25th Amendment. Too bad he is weak, indecisive, and obscenely loyal to Trump.

GOP members of Congress may decide that they have to act if Trump’s chances of being re-elected do not improve over the next several months. Any further depravity by Trump could do irreparable damage to the GOP, especially if no attempt is made by the GOP to rein him in.

The worst case is a Trump victory, but a narrow defeat will not get us out of the woods. Trump already has told us in so many words that he will not accept the results of any election that he deems “rigged.” Dr. Dodes fears that defeat will send Trump into a “paranoid rage.” We should be prepared for the consequences of that rage after November 3rd.

Mary Trump, who brings both personal and professional knowledge to the subject, believes that a crushing defeat in November may cause her uncle to disengage somewhat, and wreak less havoc. It is a ray of hope, and at least gives us something to work toward.

In my opinion, however, there is no reason to be too optimistic about what lies ahead in the next six months. Not since the Civil War has the stability of the United States been in such jeopardy.

Mental health professionals have observed how difficult it is for people with ordinary feelings and experiences to comprehend how the mind of someone with narcissism as malignant as Trump’s works; they do not recognize the danger until it is too late. Maybe recognizing that we have a president whose actions bear comparison to Adolph Hitler’s will be the call to action that some people need.

Retired lawyer, former prosecutor, former social worker, Army vet — former lots of things. Commentary published in Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and elsewhere.

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