I've been reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume, 3600-page autobiographical novel, My Struggle. I recently finished the middle portion of Book 6: The End, a rambling 400-page essay about Adolf Hitler and Mein Kampf that is unlike any other part of Knausgaard's massive endeavor.
This excerpt is longer than any other passages I’ve quoted by any other writer (except Ross Maccdonald, arguably more entertaining). I feel a little bad about that, but the points Knausgaard makes here shouldn’t be missed—especially right now.
Hitler expressed what the average German thought but declined to say, and he did so compellingly and with such conviction as to make it legitimate, and the more people who followed him in that direction, realizing that what one thought in one’s own mind yet was perhaps wary of expressing could indeed be expressed, the more legitimate it became. The opinions Hitler expressed were clear and unambiguous, he concealed nothing, and they could easily have been repudiated, he and his party having no power on their own, such power being granted by those who listened to them and who in doing so heard themselves, their own voice of reason, the voice that said this is the lay of the land. That nothing suppressed that voice, those hitherto quiet thoughts, and that the structures to reject such baseness had ceased to operate became Germany’s tragedy.
This is the lay of the land, said Hitler, this is the lay of the land, said the people and cheered Hitler, and in doing so they cheered themselves and their own. Hitler gave self-righteousness a voice, we could say, but only if we are above that voice, only if our taste is superior, our judgment superior, only then is it the voice of self-righteousness. If one is a part of it, it is righteous. And who is to say where the boundary lies between righteous and self-righteous?
Knausgaard’s commentary about Mein Kampf and Hitler was written around 2009. Donald Trump wasn’t anything more than a rich, preening clod and an American embarrassment at the time—I doubt the Norwegian writer knew much more about the man than his name. In addition, he doesn’t write about America and its history or politics at all in My Struggle. Yet when I came across the paragraph above, I was stunned: That “then”—in the 1930s—that Knausgaard elucidates is at least somewhat analogous to our American “now.”
I’ve avoided Hitler-Trump comparisons in the past, because as Karl Ove says, it has become rote over the years to compare authoritarians and despots and terrorists—such as Idi Amin or Osama bin Laden—to Hitler, when in truth he exceeded anything they ever did. He did it because of not just his hatred but also because of how he used the language of propaganda in the most simple but effective ways for mass effect to displace Germany’s logic with a malignant emotion that became a passion of identity for its populace.
Knausgaard quotes a couple of paragraphs from Mein Kampf that get right to the essence of Hitler’s thinking on how to overcome the mind and conscience of a nation and fill it instead with terroristic reasoning, with violence and mass slaughter.
The more I’ve spent time with this difficult but fascinating portion of Knausgaard’s book, the more I’ve been riveted and knocked on my ass by the correlations between—dare I say it?—Trump and Hitler. Also, reading this at a time when Trump is advocating racism and violence against people who want the knee of oppression off their necks, well, it’s been unsettling, to say the least.
KNAUSGAARD: Hitler was so sure of himself when it came to the potency of propaganda that he felt he could afford to reveal his recipe. Hitler referred to propaganda as a weapon, “a frightful one in the hand of an expert.”
Knausgaard then quoted those brutally revealing Mein Kampf paragraphs I mentioned above, about Hitler’s credo of propaganda. I’m not going to reproduce them directly myself—because I’m queasy about quoting anything from Mein Kampf—but I’ll paraphrase because Hitler’s reasoning is central to what I’m after here. Here goes:
Whom should propaganda be addressed to, Hitler asked, and answered: always and exclusively to the masses. The art lies in doing this skillfully and effectively enough that everyone will be convinced that the fact—the claimed fact—is real. You must aim its effect at the emotions and only to a small degree at the intellect. The more exclusively you consider the emotions of the masses, the more effective a propaganda campaign will be.
Another way of saying this, Hitler proclaimed, is that the art of propaganda depends on understanding the emotions of the masses and using that understanding to win their attention. You have to remember that the intelligence of those masses is small—you need to limit propaganda to a few points and harp on your slogans until every member of the masses understands what you want him or her to understand. If you sacrifice your slogan you will piddle away your effect because the masses can’t digest more. Follow a simple line and your propaganda will be psychologically sound. (Here I’ll allow myself to quote Hitler briefly, when he declared: “What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.”)
I still feel uneasy about Hitler-Trump analogies but there’s a similarity between the latter’s brute force use of propaganda and Hitler’s formulated approach: appealing to the emotions of the masses by heightening prejudice against minorities and the disenfranchised while disregarding reason. The dissimilarities, of course, are important. Hitler gave a lot of thought to his tenets; Trump, probably very little, operating on instinct instead. If this should sound like I’m saying Hitler was smarter than Trump, it’s because I am. Others have pointed out that we’re fortunate for that, because a smarter Trump would likely be more effective.
Mary Trump has provided a psychological assessment of her uncle in Too Much and Never Enough, offering the blueprint for how he has extended his familial dysfunction to the American family. Mary Trump’s book is valuable for many reasons, not least in explaining Trump’s denial of the pandemic, coupled with his increasing propensity to despotism. These two things merge for disastrous effect.
Trump's what I used to call, when I was speaking during readings about my family years ago, the Bad Dad: His authority is all that matters and the family exists primarily for the sake of keeping his image and inviolability paramount. Transfer that to a nation—which is what Trump tries to do all the time, though he’s not smart or conscious enough to know it’s what he’s doing—and you have something worse than an ideology, because Trump doesn’t have one.
We are subjected to a man who believes primarily—even solely—in self, who puts self above everything, and it’s simultaneously a dominant and fragile self. Something like that is what happened between Hitler and Germany; Hitler embodied the nation and the nation identified with him. The leader and the people melded into a mass psychosis. Hitler, though, actually had an ideology and a belief in the lost cause of World War I. Trump has only Trump.
Granted, Donald Trump’s racism and misogyny are real. In 2016 that animosity tapped into a subliminal American consciousness that now, in 2020, is no longer dormant or concealed but instead out in the open, proud and loud. But Trump certainly couldn’t articulate his racism as Hitler did his anti-Semitism; he inherited his biases and antipathy, whereas Hitler studied and sourced his malice.
This is good for us because in addition to being smarter than Trump, Hitler was much cannier. He calculated and plotted and had a true philosophy of propaganda whereas Trump has only the instinct I mentioned, plus opportunists who do have ideologies and know how to exploit his impulses to realize their own wretched creeds and convictions and hopes.
But there are other important differences between Hitler and Trump. One is the variance of time: It is awful that Trump has as much appeal to a mass as he does, and just as awful that he’s determined to bend the laws to match his will and ambition, which are one and the same. But whereas Hitler was able to take over the whole of Germany, Trump has not taken over the whole of America, and he never will.
We see mass demonstrations against him daily, and we read acidic criticism and disrespectful cracks about him nearly every hour. It isn’t that these things would not have been tolerated in Nazi Germany—though they wouldn’t have been—but worse, Nazi Germany would never have produced anything like that because Hitler’s persuasive command of the people was total.
America still has a strong liberal tradition—much of it growing more progressive all the time—and that is a saving grace. This is what it means to be an American: Some of us are pushovers but more are not, and those who are not have no appetite for, and increasingly little tolerance of, state violence of the sort in Nazi Germany. If push comes to shove, we will of course shove back forcefully. So Trump is no Hitler, though it’s not for want of trying. And Americans—as a national body—will not adopt a fascist mind, no matter how much Trump grows steadily in that direction. In part, we have the law, but also better angels. If they need to be fierce, they will be, but they are not hate-filled, murderous angels.
Hitler could cause a nation to fuse with his mix of psychology and politics, into a fascist regime based on the ideology of German nationalism, America doesn’t work that way, not in any totality. That leads me to believe it can’t actually happen here.
Our guiding myth is not Germany’s. No matter how fucked-up we can be and how guilty we are, enough of us still have the democratic dream instilled in us, along with the founding revolutionary ideal in our bones, and so we will resist and offset this time of ignominy. But it won’t be easy. We are in the middle of a plague (two actually, if you count the presidency) and Trump has abnegated any effective remedy.
That may—and should—cost him his reelection, but in the meantime, his toxic influence has inspired enough of his followers to scorn and flout precautions against illness and possibly death. The question becomes: Is there a way out of this? Well, not for everybody.
There are maddening weeks and seasons ahead, and I’m afraid a myriad of deaths will attend those seasons, because Trump’s endmost instinct is fatality. What’s the good of lurching his way into all that power if he can’t use it for power’s ultimate temptation: to decide when and how to end people’s lives?
Which is to say, Trump still has his dreams and we see him reach for them every day. Accordingly, one last passage from Knausgaard’s My Struggle:
Nazi Germany was the absolute state. It was the state its people could die for. Watching Riefenstahl’s film of the rallies in Nuremberg [Triumph of the Will], its depiction of a people almost paradisiac in its unambiguousness, converged upon the same thing, immersed in the symbols, the callings from the deepest pith of human life, that which has to do with birth and death, and with homeland and belonging, one finds it splendid and unbearable at the same time, though increasingly unbearable the more one watches, at least this was how I felt when I watched it one night this spring, and I wondered for a long time where that sense of the unbearable came from, the unease that accompanied these images of the German paradise, with its torches in the darkness, the intactness of its medieval city, its cheering crowds, its sun, and its banners, whether it was something I imposed upon them, knowing how this paradise arose, what it would become and at what cost, and what happened to it, but I came to the conclusion that this was not the reason, that it came not from what was in me, the knowledge I had of what lay behind the images of those days, but from something in the images themselves, the sense being that the world they displayed was an unbearable world. Not that it was a false world, because this was obvious, its every image meticulously created from scratch for that particular occasion, it was more that this false world, one of the few pure utopias to be established in the last century, in which everything was exactly the way it was supposed to be, was unbearable in itself....
In the Third Reich the voice of human conscience did not say it is wrong to kill, it said it is wrong not to kill, as Hannah Arendt so precisely observes. This was made possible by a shift in the language, displayed in its purest form in Mein Kampf, which contains no “you,” only an “I,” and a “we,” which is what makes it possible to turn “they” into “it.” In “you” was decency. In “it” was evil. But it was “we” who carried it out.
We will likely never have a unified “we,” not altogether for the better and not all together for the worse. We have learned too many hard truths about ourselves these last few years. But we will never be Trump’s nation in the way Germany was Hitler’s nation. We will fight to be a better people, and we will fight to determine what a better people is. It will be the fight of our lives.
Leni Riefenstahl, director of the pro-Nazi film Triumph of the Will (1935), turned Hitler's propaganda into art.
"When I looked at the numbers that have come in from all of the various sources, we had the biggest audience in the history of inaugural speeches. I said the men and women that I was talking to, who came out and voted, will never be forgotten again, therefore I won’t allow you, or other people like you, to demean that crowd and to demean the people that came to Washington DC from faraway places, because they like me, but more importantly they like what I’m saying.”
-- Donald Trump
Mikal Gilmore is the author of four books, including the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning memoir Shot in the Heart, and the 1960s cultural history Stories Done. He is a longtime writer for Rolling Stone.