The first time I heard someone compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, I bristled.
Trump spent his campaign to win the RNC nomination vomiting hateful, ignorant rhetoric with such speed and consistency we didn’t have time process his latest moral blasphemy before he puked up another outrageous statement. Hitler incited the deadliest war and genocide in history: Sixty million buried, burned and bombed to pieces by one man’s madness. There’s no analogy between the two, I thought, and seeing a college kid who eked out a C in Poli-Sci 101 tweet a “Heil Trump” meme displayed deep ignorance.
Then, while living in Madrid earlier this year, Spaniards told me Trump reminded them of Francisco Franco — the fascist general who ruled the country for 36 years.
“Trump is like Franco,” a 30-something IT specialist told me at a bar. “He will be your Franco and so he will be the world’s Franco.”
He had a desperate force in his voice but I couldn’t tell how serious the guy was. We’d met an hour before, strangers paired up at a table for Madrileños looking to improve their English. I let the comment pass. Given enough time, every friend I made in the city would ask about Trump and I worked hard to answer honestly, then briskly moved past the subject. I honed a standard script that opened with an apology and closed by insisting he only appealed to sliver of Americans—a claim that became increasingly difficult to sell as he taunted, slandered and lied his way through debate victories and steamrolled into the RNC. I found myself failing to excuse our culture’s fascination with Trump while Spaniards repeatedly smacked me with the Trump-as-Franco metaphor.
At first, the comparison seemed as absurd as the “Heil Trump” nonsense — calling Trump a fascist seemed out-of-touch, almost funny. But I quickly learned these people don’t joke about Franco. El Generalissimo doesn’t pop up in Facebook memes or on bumper stickers. In the rare conversations when people mention the dictator, they usually do so in hushed tones fearful of calling forth the ghost that still haunts the nation.
Trump-as-Hitler quips reduce Hitler to an abstraction. Americans don’t have concentration camps converted into museums or grandparents who were tattooed and bulldozed into mass graves. We have an Internet axiom called Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies that proclaims, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” For us, Hitler stands in as a stale, generic representation of ultimate evil. Spain doesn’t need a stand-in—they dealt with a very real ultimate evil.
During my first weeks there, I learned not to bring up Franco. Questions I asked about him went unanswered or were dismissed in a couple of sentences. There seems to be a tacit but systematic evasion of the man: If you try to look for his impact at Museo de Historia de Madrid, you’ll notice a glaring gap in the exhibitions between the years 1938 and 1975. Franco ruled with such cruel megalomania for nearly 40 decades most citizens chose to never mention him publicly — “We might use his name, most of us won’t, you should be careful not to,” my Spanish teacher said. In fact, the only time I heard about Franco was when he was compared to Trump.
But I couldn’t see it. I mean, look at them: One’s a mousy military man, the other is a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together from the worst bits of Snooki, Scrooge McDuck and Biff from “Back to the Future.” Trump was a punchline, and cheap one at that. But this was before Trump became the official GOP candidate. As Trump buried his opponents under Tweets and bizarre-but-unchallenged claims, I took the comparison more seriously. I began to see it as the warning it was meant to be. Spaniards were scared: For us and for themselves.
Trump presents himself in a radically different manner than Franco. The Spanish caudillo was an introvert who avoid the spotlight. The Donald grins like a game show host loving every scrap of attention he can attract. But the pair share an obsessive xenophobia and shocking talent for using their political ineptitudes to stumble into success.
After meeting Franco, an American journalist said, “He did not give a frank answer to any question I put to him. A less straightforward man I never met.” Onetime ally and Spanish monarchist Juan Antonio Ansaldo wrote, “Franco is a man who says things and unsays them, who draws near and slips away, he vanishes and trickles away; always vague and never clear or categoric.”
Trump excels at this kind of deflection. Recall that early rally when someone asked him how we would get rid of American Muslims and he answered with, “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things, and a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.” Or the rally months later when a different person also asked about how we can oppress American Muslims and he responded, “You know, and we are looking at that. And we are looking at that. We’re looking at a lot of things.”
Trump may never speak in specifics — he founded his brand of newspeak on phrases such as “many people are saying” and “I don’t know” (as in “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.”). But his message is clear: America would be better off as a white, homogeneous society and extreme action needs to be taken to achieve this goal (see walls, mass deportations and assassinating suspected terrorists families and/or homegrown political opposition).
There are two problems with this idea. The first is it is morally repugnant. The second is that it’s not sustainable.
With complete control of the government and millions of supporters, Franco waged a war against anything he considered un-Spanish. He banned religions other than Catholicism, crushed unions, and made it illegal to speak Catalan and Basque (or even give your children Catalan or Basque names).
Of course, oppression is not the natural state of a country familiar with democracy. You have to apply an increasing amount of force — through rigged courts, military action and networks of secret police — to hang on. With enough effort, a dictator can carve out a couple of decades of control, but against growing resistance. Just as Trump’s rhetoric recruits terrorists, Franco’s policies turned a small, peaceful Basque separatist movement into an underground army planting car bombs and assassinating politicians.
In the end, the economic burden of systematic persecution and isolationism (to say nothing of moral cancer it poisons society with) chips away at totalitarianism. Whether it’s Franco’s fascist state, South Africa’s apartheid or Trump’s dream of expelling Mexicans and Muslims, all grand conservative campaigns ultimately collapse.
In Spanish classes and cafes, I argued Trump would fail before he began by losing the election. That didn’t comfort them much. Last year, Spaniards’ view of the United States hit its highest level in 15 years with nearly two-thirds of the population having a favorable opinion of us. Seeing the spark of fascism in the country of John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama will erode that goodwill.
Jingoists like Trump say it doesn’t matter if Europeans like us or not. But for the rational, it matters why they don’t like us. Mainstream Europe despises the rise of the radical right in States because they know how dangerous it is. They know Trump doesn’t need to be Hitler (or Franco or Mussolini) to do damage. He has already emboldened and galvanized a sizable minority through xenophobia and anti-intellectualism, misogyny and the religious and ethnic scapegoating despots crave. The movement has already begun and the results look a lot like the beginnings of Spain’s Falangists, Italy’s Blackshirts and the droogs from A Clockwork Orange.
At a campaign event in Fayetteville, NC, a Trump fanatic sucker-punched a black man in the face. At rally in Birmingham, a group jabbed, tackled, and kicked another black protester. In Boston, two men beat up and urinated on 58-year old Latino homeless man; later one of them told the police, “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.” Not once has the candidate resoundingly rejected these violent vigilantes (most often he’s encouraged them: “I’d like to punch him in the face” was an average response to opposition).
Many Americans see a depressing election cycle. Spaniards see a strongman rising to power on our country’s first legitimized fascist movement.
To call Trump a modern Hitler exaggerates him and in that exaggeration we lose touch with the very real danger he poses; the comparison is so ridiculous it somehow absolves him. Instead it’s time to see Trump as the Spaniards do, as he really is: a Generalissimo just beginning to gather troops.