For those who genuinely believe that Trump represents a bona fide threat of Fascism, the inevitability of his administration fills us with despair. Trump lied and deceived his way through an entire campaign and got away with it; he has promised to reverse decades of progress on civil rights; he feeds off of, and in turn feeds, a menacing “alt-right” white supremacy movement which has not felt this close to the very apex of national power in generations. Throughout the United States, reported incidences of racism following Trump’s election have shot up remarkably. Such moments keep us in a state of perpetual tension and dread.
Even before he has occupied the Oval Office, there is already a sense in which the usual means of protest – the online petition, the call to the Congressman or governor, the street protest – seem inadequate to the threat. Especially the threat faced by non-white, non-straight people. Discussion often turns to individual acts of bravery or defiance as the best way to keep one’s sense of utility and integrity intact.
Or, for white allies, to localized efforts meant to alleviate the suffering of individuals we fear will soon to be targeted by Trump’s initiatives. Alternatively, “internal exile” and the seeking of solace within the warm embrace of domestic life – essentially, a preemptive depoliticization – is seen as one strategy for coping. Again, more available and consoling to white heterosexual allies than the actual targets of Trump’s agenda. Such measures constitute individualized, non-collective ways of dealing with four crushing years, in which a demagogue sits in the most powerful office in the world and a mainstream press seems ready to parse its language to suit his.
Comparisons to historical fascism can add to a sense of hopelessness in this situation. But if we probe that history more deeply, it actually offers a hopeful lesson: the value of collective, public action. While it is commonly believed that fascist power, as exercised in the period between the World Wars, only offers lessons on the “totalitarian state” – how to be imprisoned, steamrolled, marginalized and socially ostracized if you get in that state’s way – what it also offers is a contrary, if less appreciated lesson: the fascist’s desire not just to coerce, but to build consensus.
Not just to persecute minorities and rule over a trammelled majority, but to achieve at least the acquiescence of the majority, when not seeking its active participation. And yet this aspect – the fascist’s desire to gauge and foster the popularity of his actions – is key. Unlike other totalitarians of 20th Century history, fascist leaders were in fact very concerned with public opinion. Not, to be sure, the opinion of minorities who were to be excluded from the national community; but of the ethnic, religious and cultural majority, who could still operate within that community.
A whole branch of the Nazi state apparatus – the Security Service (or Sicherheitsdienst, SD) – was concerned with assessing public opinion. It did not have the task of rooting out dissent but rather to meticulously and faithfully record and report it. At a time when polling in Germany had not yet existed – and would have been pointless in a dictatorship – the Nazis still found ways to obtain a sense of the public’s mood. The public sphere had been illegalized by the fascist state, but this did not mean that public opinion no longer existed – or that German fascists, once in power, no longer cared about it. They very much did. As displayed through government blandishments like vacation programs or the lottery to purchase a Volkswagen, when it came to the ethnic and religious majority, the German fascist state did not simply seek to suppress dissent – but to gain assent. Hitler’s SD continuously took the temperature of that public (through eavesdropping on public conversation, among other methods) to gauge at least acquiescence, if not outright support, for its measures.
This is key to understanding the current predicament. Trump is not simply a blowhard demagogue intent on crushing his opposition and further marginalizing the already marginalized. He is an egotist, and a fragile one at that. A man who has convinced himself that he is loved and that his “frank talk” earns him admiration and consensus. Like fascists before him, this exposes an Achilles Heel – his need for public affirmation and adulation. We can expect, in other words, that the sensitivity of historical fascists to the mood of the public they cultivated will be a feature of the Trump administration as well. This weakness can be exploited.
We already have two such examples, before Trump has even enjoyed his first day in office. The first is the Department of Energy flatly refusing the Trump transition team’s request for a list of employees who have worked on climate change; in that case, Trump’s people quickly backed down (while trying to save face by claiming the request had “not been authorized.”) The second came just a few days after the New Year, when the Congressional GOP announced it would effectively eliminate an oversight body, the Office of Congressional Ethics – only to reverse itself the very next day after a storm of public outcry. Revealingly, Trump himself, characteristically mindful of public opinion, positioned himself against this elimination just in time to claim credit for the GOP’s reversal.
These small moments offer insight into the Trump administration’s actual governance, and shed important light on how we proceed from here. Historically, protest from the majority population in the face of fascism – not individualized attempts at maintaining personal integrity or decency in the face of barbarism, but collective action – could and did yield results. The record shows that, rare as such moments were, they led the Nazis to back down.
One of the most illuminating of these moments occurred late in the war, and consisted of gentile spouses of Jews who were selected late in the Holocaust for persecution. Given their relatively elevated status as partners in “mixed marriages,” the Jews in these marriages were targeted by the Nazis later than Jews without gentile spouses or baptized children. And when the Nazis finally came for them, their spouses – mostly wives – came out in to the street to protest. Spending days in front of the Gestapo office in Berlin’s Rosenstrasse, they loudly and publicly demanded their husbands be returned to them. While there was no free press within Germany to report on this incident, it was an amazingly courageous act of defiance in the face of a state that had by then been killing its own citizens for years. Their motivations were admittedly personal instead of ideological – the saving of their husbands’ lives rather than a generalized protest against antisemitism. And perhaps owing to their personal motives, they found the means to endure threats and intimidation. But they were also members of the Volk, and therefore to be treated differently. Eventually the Nazis backed down and returned these Jewish men to their spouses, the majority of whom then survived the war. To save face, the authorities told themselves that they would redeem this setback “once we’ve won the war” – a common refrain among Nazis who assured themselves that domestic setbacks were merely temporary.
Individual acts of heroism, when they succeeded, were only effective because the Nazi regime perceived them as expressions of collective will. One such moment was a clergyman’s sermon of protest in 1941 against the state’s so-called “Euthanasia Campaign,” against those with inherited mental or physical “defects.” The victims of this campaign were mostly gentiles who would otherwise have been upheld as part of the Master Race, were it not for their “inferior genetics.” Both Protestant and Catholic clergy were well aware of the Nazis’ campaign, since the victims came primarily from Germany’s church-run asylums. The vast majority stayed silent in the face of this clear violation of the sanctity of life. But whereas those few Protestant clergy who chose to voice their concerns did so by writing privately to the government without effect, the Catholic bishop of Münster, August von Galen, chose instead to unequivocally condemn the killing, from his pulpit, during a Sunday sermon. The Nazis were thunderstruck by the move: both because von Galen exposed what had, until then, been a state secret; and because other clergy had until then been quiet about what they knew. Now the secret was out.
Von Galen was imprisoned, tried and executed, right? Wrong. While members of Hitler’s inner circle were furious about such a clear challenge to the state, not a hair on his head was harmed. Once the Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels, reminded the party elite that doing anything to such a well-known clergyman would result in a steep drop in morale in Münster and the surrounding region of Westphalia, the local authorities left von Galen carefully alone. Aside from a de facto house arrest, von Galen received no retribution for his actions. Only by leading such a large flock – having a large social following, in other words – could an individual’s actions have this kind of effect. This too, was to be sorted out “once we’ve won the war.”
What do these moments reveal? Public resistors took extremely high risks in the Third Reich, certainly – especially if it came from those who acted individually or only in small groups. But when the action was collective, or came from a prominent member of German society considered fully “Aryan,” then the response of the state could be very different. Even though the Nazi state would restart the Euthanasia Campaign under greater secrecy, von Galen’s actions had the effect of momentarily stopping the Nazis from pursuing one of their most important goals – the racial “cleansing” of the German people. And in their very small but revealing way, the women of Rosenstrasse briefly stymied the Nazis in their primary ideological objective – creating a “Jew-free” Europe. Whereas defiance in the face of the Gestapo could bring with it very real punishments, such moments reveal that once fascists fear losing popular opinion and at least tacit popular support, they will yield.
Of course neither von Galen’s nor the Rosenstrasse women’s protests forced the Nazis to substantially change course or abandon their larger goals. But it is also tragically the case that, whereas von Galen spoke out against the Euthanasia Campaign, against the genocide of the Jews – which he also knew about – he had nothing to say. Not in public condemnation, nor in private correspondence. One of the great counterfactuals of Holocaust history concerns what could have happened if he, let alone the larger Catholic episcopacy or even the Papacy, had spoken out. An unambiguous, united front in this way may very well have changed history. Widely-made presumptions that Pope Pius XII would have been arrested had he denounced the Holocaust publicly must be weighed against the Nazis’ timidity in the face of von Galen’s public denunciation of racial murder.
In the coming months, we will expect Trump to fulfil at least some of his promises, even if he has already balked at fulfilling others. Most painfully, the expulsion of millions of undocumented immigrants, and the likely repeal of civil rights, whether judicially or legislatively, especially for LGBTQ Americans. What the history of anti-Nazi resistance reveals – even as the anticipated actions of the Trump administration in no way match the crimes of the Third Reich – is that small-scale action is not enough. That von Galen or Rosenstrasse women did not fundamentally alter the course of the Third Reich is painfully evident; however, it is also the fact that the Trump administration will have nowhere near such radical objectives. Our obligation to preserve the social advances of the last several decades is best fulfilled not by individual acts of heroism or personal integrity (as salutary as those acts can be, and necessary if it means protecting a life), but rather collective action in which the strong, unambiguous voices of many against these injustices are heard simultaneously. Politicians can certainly hear that collective voice through thousands of individual phone calls. But they hear it louder still when they also see it. Not just on the day after inauguration day either, but at every instance where fundamental rights and freedoms are on the chopping block.
Sustained, visible protest can serve as a remarkable demonstration of the effect of such organized and collective action. And whereas the valiant women of Rosenstrasse acted primarily out of familial preservation, and Bishop von Galen out of outrage that patients in Catholic asylums were being killed, it will be incumbent upon all to commit themselves, no less than Latino, Muslim, or LGBTQ Americans in the crosshairs of Trump’s administration, to take part in sustained protest.
Slinking into our chairs feeling despondent is exactly what those in power these next four years want. Let us disappoint them.