How Smart People Miss the Rise of Authoritarian Rule. Until It Is Too Late.

by Bob Schwartz

If you listen carefully, you will hear respected journalists and observers now saying some things about Trump that you rarely heard from them before—not during his campaign, and not until recently during his presidency:

He is a liar.
He is a narcissist, possibly mentally disordered.
He is corrupt.
He is leading America towards authoritarian rule.

Why have they been so reluctant to speak more plainly about the obvious? First, because these are extreme characterizations, not to be offered lightly. Second, the appearance of objectivity is important for these journalists and observers, and such extreme characterizations can be seen as biased—even if true. Third, many people who reached these conclusions could hardly believe it themselves. Finally, in a fit of magical thinking, they thought that it would pass, and that we would revert, much sooner than later, to a more traditional, conventional, decent, reasonable, principled, truthful, democratic approach to American government.

This led me to wonder about others who have observed and covered historic authoritarians as they rose to power. I came across the book Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power (2012). Those Americans who had a front-row seat to the first act of one of history’s darkest and most tragic eras—what did they think they were watching?

Andrew Nagorski writes:

Today, it’s conventional wisdom that Hitler’s intentions were perfectly clear from the outset and that his policies could only result in World War II and the Holocaust. Most people find it hard to imagine that in the 1920s and right through the 1930s, American reporters, diplomats, entertainers, sociologists, students and others living in or passing through Germany wouldn’t have all instantly seen and understood what was happening before their eyes. After all, they had ringside seats, providing them with an unparalleled view of the most dramatic story of the twentieth century. Several of them not only observed Hitler from afar, but met and spoke to him, both when he was still a local agitator in Munich and then the all-powerful dictator in Berlin. To them, he wasn’t some abstract embodiment of evil but a real-life politician. Some Americans tried to take his measure very early, while others did so once he was in power. And even those who didn’t have those opportunities witnessed the consequences of his actions.

Yet their readings of what was happening in Germany, and what Hitler represented, varied greatly. There were those who met Hitler and recognized he represented almost a primeval force and possessed an uncanny ability to tap into the emotions and anger of the German people, and those who dismissed him as a clownish figure who would vanish from the political scene as quickly as he had appeared. There were those who, at least initially, viewed him and his movement sympathetically or even embraced it, and those whose instinctive misgivings quickly gave way to full-scale alarm, recognizing that he was a threat not only to Germany but also to the world.