Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder used an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Wednesday to compare President Donald Trump’s administration to the rise of 1930s German dictator Adolf Hitler. The comparison left host Willie Geist so in shock that he sought to clarify Snyder’s remark.
Snyder was on the program to discuss his book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” in light of the numerous unprecedented political events that have occurred recently. An Amazon.com synopsis of the book reads:
The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.
Geist asked Snyder if any historical parallels can be drawn between the current American political landscape and past world events.
“Of course, there are all kinds of parallels, and every day one sees a new one,” Snyder said.
Snyder gave the example of Trump reportedly asking now-former FBI Director James Comey for his loyalty while the bureau conducted an investigation into the Trump campaign. Snyder suggested that the “idea of loyalty” is one way to “take a rule of law state like ours off the rails and transform it into something else.”
The professor alleged that when Trump asked Comey for loyalty, the president tried to “change the character of the American government.”
Snyder then compared the sitting American president’s actions to those of Hitler. He said it was from that moment that Hitler demanded loyalty that “he was the leader and no longer just the chancellor of Germany.”
Trump’s desire for loyalty isn’t the only thing about the commander in chief that has Snyder concerned, though.
The academic drew a second comparison to Hitler by referring to when Trump sent his longtime personal bodyguard, Keith Schiller, to deliver to Comey’s Washington, D.C., office the letter notifying Comey that he no longer had a job.
“That’s what happens in Germany as well,” Snyder said. “The private security detail eventually becomes the SA and the SS.”
“They become more important than the police. It’s a baby step forward to use the head of your private bodyguard to fire the FBI director, but it’s a troubling indication of the way this man’s mind works,” Snyder said.
The SA, or Sturmabteilung, was the name of the group of German paramilitary officers who helped Hitler rise to power in the early 20th century. The SS, or Schutzstaffel, was the name of the Nazi soldier force that for years kept Hitler in power, according to the History Channel.
Geist appeared so taken aback by Snyder’s comparison that he sought further clarification.
“I just want to be clear, because when you use the term Nazis, all kind of alarm bells obviously go off. You’re not comparing right now what you see in Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler or to the Nazis?” Geist asked.
But Snyder didn’t exactly deny it.
“It’s important that history gives us a sense of possibility. As you said earlier, Americans tend to be trapped in our own history and we forget it very quickly. We’re overwhelmed by daily events,” Snyder said.
He said that Americans are “not so much wiser and more capable than Germans in the 1930s.
“Things that happened to other people can also happen to us. The point is not that we’re exactly the same, the point is that we should be modest, we should be open to the possibility that things can go very wrong, and we should try to learn,” Snyder said. “If we see a warning sign like loyalty or like a private bodyguard taking over functions of the state, we should learn from that rather than saying it can’t happen here.”
“When you say it can’t happen here, you’re making it happen here,” Snyder concluded.