The criminal charges against former President Donald Trump could have been his downfall. Instead, he’s turned them into an opportunity.
He’s been indicted four times, most recently surrendering on Thursday to Georgia authorities on charges that he tried to overturn the 2020 election. Despite that, he continues to enjoy poll numbers that put him in a historically strong position for a nonincumbent to win his party’s nomination, running nearly 40 percentage points, on average, ahead of his closest competitor. Six of his eight Republican opponents on the debate stage Wednesday night indicated that they would support him as the nominee even if he’s convicted in any one of the four cases against him. A big majority of likely Republican primary voters believe the charges are politically motivated; few think he actually tried to overturn the 2020 election.
Rather than hiding from his legal problems, Trump is leaning into them, arguing that he’s “done nothing wrong” and that the charges represent a plot against him. By invoking the charges, and using them to his political advantage, historians say that Trump is echoing a familiar playbook.
Many have already drawn parallels between the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection and Adolf Hitler’s failed coup attempt in 1923, now known as the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. The circumstances around the events and the men at their center are very different. But the putsch and Hitler’s trial thereafter, which he used as a platform to advance the ideas behind Nazism and catapult himself into the national limelight, provides a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy in the face of a charismatic autocrat whom the political establishment fails to squash while they have the chance.
“I think it’s particularly on that kind of tactical level or even on the level of demagoguery where there are clear parallels between the two men and between the January 6 insurrection as well as the Hitler putsch,” said Thomas Weber, a professor at the University of Aberdeen who has written extensively about Hitler and Nazi Germany, including in a forthcoming book, Fascism in America.
In November 1923, Hitler — then a still relatively unknown leader in Germany’s nationalist movement — organized an attempt to take over the regional Bavarian government. His aim was to provoke a “March on Berlin” to overthrow the democratic Weimar government on the basis of a big lie: that Germany had not lost World War I on the battlefield, but had instead been “stabbed in the back” by its political leaders and Jews on the home front.
He interrupted a political gathering at a large beer hall in Munich that night, firing his gun into the air and taking a prominent regional politician hostage before announcing his revolutionary intent to the crowd. But he didn’t win the support of local politicians and the police, who violently clashed with Hitler’s Nazi subordinates, several of whom were killed. He fled, but was quickly arrested and tried for treason. His co-conspirators tried to pin the blame on him, and he came to embrace that version of events, making long speeches during the trial in which he took full credit for the putsch, showed no remorse, and committed himself to his cause on behalf of all Germans. He only served a few months in prison before being released on a pardon, more famous, more popular, and more emboldened than ever.
The question is whether Trump can successfully use the charges against him to engineer his next political victory, just as Hitler was able to consolidate support behind him during his trial and lay the groundwork for the Third Reich. I spoke with Weber about what history might suggest in that respect. Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you see any parallels in terms of the way that Hitler behaved during the trials — doubling down and taking credit for the putsch — and how Trump is approaching the January 6 cases?
The parallel lies in using the courtroom as a national stage to consolidate support and sideline any competitors. In that sense, the comparison works very well.
Their ultimate aims might have been different. In Hitler’s case, this was about becoming a national figure, while obviously Trump is already very much a national and international figure. It’s interesting that initially, Hitler was thinking about using his trial very differently, namely to take others down with him. He then realized that was difficult for many reasons, and that, in fact, it was actually much better to take credit even for things he hadn’t done and exaggerate his own role in the putsch. For Hitler, it was clever to capitalize on the fact that others might want to diminish their role in order to really present himself as a national leader in the making.
It’s difficult to tell how exactly Trump will act in a courtroom. But he’s using — kind of brilliantly, in a moral-free way — the language of victimization to get support behind him, and also very cleverly always says, “This is not just about me,” but presents himself as the embodiment of the American people, of the underprivileged.
I think Hitler used a slightly different approach where he was not really trying to present himself as a victim, but rather he just proudly endorsed everything that he was doing. I suppose Trump may also endorse everything that he’s been doing, that it was his right [to seek to overturn election results he falsely maintains were fraudulent].
The GOP is reluctant to criticize Trump over his legal issues and the Republican presidential candidates are also fighting for their own place in the party. Did Hitler’s political rivals react similarly after the trial?
Other leaders who weren’t in the courtroom underestimated Hitler in a way that might be different because no one is underestimating Trump.
But the similarity is that both Trump and Hitler really benefit from the infighting within their own political camps. In a way, Hitler’s career should have been over by early 1924, when he was in prison. Yes, he was sent to prison for far too short a period, but at the same time, the expectation would have still been that his 15 minutes of fame were over because while others were in the limelight, he was just in prison and wasn’t allowed to speak publicly.
But what then happened was that the radical right in Germany was really fragmented and didn’t have any able leaders. No single person emerged victoriously from the infighting. As a result of that, which was unexpected and not of Hitler’s making, Hitler could benefit from that because people then started to talk about this legendary, new, right-wing young guy, as he had presented himself in the courtroom.
In the case of the GOP, there’s also a lot of infighting. No one quite dares to really take Trump on. The field is too fragmented. [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis has proved spectacularly ineffectual. So as a result of that kind of infighting and fragmentation, you again see a parallel to Trump. And all of the courtrooms will now provide Trump with a perfect stage to present himself very cleverly as a victim of the deep state and as an embodiment of how supposedly half of America is being victimized.
What lessons can politicians today learn from that history in terms of how to handle Trump as he goes on trial?
The lesson that the Bavarian establishment learned is that they really burned their fingers in accepting someone like Hitler. Hitler could only stage the coup because of the [support of] the traditional Bavarian establishment. The Bavarian establishment learned that you cannot weaponize, you cannot control people like Hitler — or today, Trump. As a result of that, they went back to more mainstream conservative politics and rejected right-wing extreme populism and demagoguery. Interestingly, in 1933, Bavaria was really the last German state to fall to the Nazis.
So I guess the lesson here would be that it is a mistake to think that it actually helps the GOP to rely on a populist like Trump, when ultimately, people like Trump are destroying rather than saving the GOP.
Is it too late for the GOP to learn that lesson?
It’s difficult to tell. We can hope that it’s not too late, that the GOP can be saved. I think we should also not underestimate the resilience of the GOP and that there are a lot of people who keep their heads down at the moment who, if they team up, could potentially save the party. That is our best hope for both the GOP and for American democracy.
More importantly, it’s always easy to just kind of point at particular politicians or at a party. But all of that is a symptom of a much bigger crisis. It’s a crisis of erosion of what one could call pre-political values — and in the collapse of values like trust, decency, that you act with empathy even toward adversaries — and all those values have been eroding across American society and the Western world, not just on one side of the political divide. They have just had more disastrous consequences for the time being on one side of the political divide.
Unless we get that under control — and that is really up to civil society — we won’t be able to save Western democracy in any country. It’s a much bigger challenge.