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History isn't repeating itself... yes, Trump is unpleasant but he isn't a reborn Adolf Hitler

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Restrained: People need to remember that US President Donald Trump, pictured here holding hands with his grandchildren Arabella and Joseph outside the White House, has to act within the boundaries of the American constitution. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Restrained: People need to remember that US President Donald Trump, pictured here holding hands with his grandchildren Arabella and Joseph outside the White House, has to act within the boundaries of the American constitution. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

REUTERS

Restrained: People need to remember that US President Donald Trump, pictured here holding hands with his grandchildren Arabella and Joseph outside the White House, has to act within the boundaries of the American constitution. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

I am introducing a ban. On myself. The rest of you are free to speculate to your heart's content. But from now I am forbidding all recourse to historical parallel when it comes to the affairs of Donald J Trump and his White House.

I am driven to this by the tide of intellectually vacuous and historically inaccurate comparisons between Trump and everybody from Attila the Hun to Richard Nixon. Let us establish who Trump is not. He is not a reborn Adolf Hitler; he is not a Russian surrogate; he is not Nixon.

Nor is the United States the Weimar Republic awaiting some rough beast to topple it into fascist autocracy.

Of all the parallels that exasperate me, it is Weimar. That unhappy republic was built on the ruins of the Great War. It came into being with no tradition of strong democratic institutions, constantly threatened by armed partisans of the far left and right, a victim to the kind of economic catastrophe modern-day Americans cannot start to comprehend.

Hyperinflation and violent strikes and the vast reparations owed to the victorious allies combined to create circumstances favourable to the rise of Hitler.

Let us not forget exactly what Hitler stood for. He believed above all in the racial superiority of the German people, a primacy that could be guaranteed only by the murder and subjugation of race "enemies" and the building of a huge empire which would provide Lebensraum for the expanding Reich.

All of this is of a vastly different order to Trump's version of American exceptionalism, an idea that has been with us since the founding fathers framed the constitution of the United States more than two centuries ago.

Trump can be bellicose, belligerent and intemperate. He repeatedly attempts to deflect blame for America's ills on to ethnic and religious minorities. These might appear the tactics of a demagogue, but one restrained by the law. The American constitution is the most cleverly constructed instrument of restraint on this planet precisely due to the amount of power it must restrain. Trump and his ideological ringmaster Steve Bannon will be checked by laws and institutions which have endured Civil War, a Great Depression, two world wars, the Vietnam War and Nixon, McCarthyism and the Cold War.

Were the US a Weimar in the making, we would not see the new attorney general Jeff Sessions being forced to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election. Far from it. The accusers would be locked up, or worse.

When Trump denounces reporters as "enemies of the people", he is not about to send the secret police to round them up. In Hitler's Germany, movie stars did not send coffee machines as gifts to beleaguered newsrooms. The fascist state controlled the press. It controlled the movies. This is not a sanguine response to the unpleasantness and chaos that has defined so much of the Trump administration so far.

But let us see the present for what it is. Every time I read a tweet that summons up the dark 1930s, or hear again the Santayana quote about being doomed to repeat history if we forget history, I feel like going quietly into the mountains, shaving my head, meditating and living on a diet of wild locusts and honey, if these could be found in the Galtees.

Our biggest weakness is not our failure to learn from history but the boneheaded determination to make the wrong comparisons and learn the wrong lessons.

America has never been the shining light of liberal universalism.

Great empires are not built that way. There has always been a tension in the American body politic between the impulses of frontierism - a rough, violent, vulgar ambition - and the stability provided by constitutionalism.

The vigour which drove American development in the 19th and 20th centuries always had a dark underside. The extermination of native Americans and the slave trade spoke of a republic whose embrace of the rights of man was always partial.

The modern USA is every bit as much defined by the menacing high camp of Charlton Heston clutching a rifle at an NRA convention as it is by Barack Obama and his suave lawyerliness. We are witnessing a battle for the soul of America that has gone on since the foundation of the republic.

I think constitutionalism will win, as it always has. Populism will not destroy the Supreme Court, the power of a free press, or the rights of states. This is no time for unhistorical panic.

***

Every village in this part of France has a memorial to the dead of the Nazi occupation.

In Dieulefit, they hid 1,500 refugees fleeing German persecution. The whole town was awarded the honour of being declared righteous by the French state after the war ended.

It is a lovely place set in the mountains among lavender fields and vineyards, of winding cobbled streets and copious shops selling local arts and crafts. There is a left-wing mayor and, if past patterns are anything to go by, most people will vote for a left-wing candidate in the presidential election.

But drive further south or to the city of Orange, about an hour away, and you will find bastions of the National Front. The political patchwork is complex. The Trump effect is being felt here in rural France, but not in the way you might expect. Here in the villages of the Drome Provencale there is a subdued tension as the French presidential elections approach. In the cafes and bars, the conversation is of Le Pen and Macron. Whose vision of France will triumph in April? The collective wisdom in Taulignan, Grignan and Dieulefit - based on an entirely unscientific sample of overheard chats - is that the shame being heaped on Francois Fillon over his unorthodox family financial arrangements will see many of his voters drift to Emmanuel Macron, and that Marine Le Pen will fail to win the second round in a face-off with the charismatic young challenger.

The National Front has strong support in much of the south and Le Pen may well yet defy the doubters, as did Trump and the Brexit campaign. But I detect a new wariness.

The chaos and drama that has surrounded the opening weeks of the Trump presidency is causing alarm. What the French electorate demands, above all else, is stability and prosperity. It is the absence of these that have propelled Le Pen to her current pre-eminence.

In numerous conversations I have heard people condemn the old guard of French politics. But very few have said to me that they want to see the system broken so that the world might begin again. They want managed change, not convulsion. This may be the place where the tide of populism turns.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent.

Sunday Independent