By Lorraine Berry in Literary Hub: The Best of the Literary Internet
On February 19, the public intellectual, novelist, essayist, and semiotician, Umberto Eco died in Milan. While the rest of the world has mourned the loss of rock star David Bowie, Eco’s death meant the loss of one of our intellectual rock stars, a man who was as comfortable discussing Barbie as he was explaining the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas….
If your Facebook feed looks anything like mine, the comparisons between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler appear like surreal dreams, with Trump’s face Photoshopped so he’s standing in front of a rally at Nuremberg…. Donald Trump is many things; Adolf Hitler, he is not….
Eco wrote “Ur-Fascism” for the New York Review of Books in 1995, a provocative and challenging essay about how to recognize fascism, a piece dismayingly topical in the face of Donald Trump’s ongoing popularity. But this is where the comparisons to Hitler ring hollow – per Eco’s criteria, Trump is most certainly a fascist, but he’s no Nazi. One of my German history professors, Elisabeth Domansky, someone who had grown up in post-war Germany, used to argue with American interpretations of German Exceptionalism, one of the myths that we propagated to prove that “it could never happen here.” More importantly for me in this instance, was her insistence that the Nazis were not “irrational.” They represented, she argued, the ultimate instance of the “rational” state….
I’m not comparing Trump to Hitler. On the contrary, Trump has not mentioned gas chambers (although he has mentioned he would “absolutely” implement a database of all Muslims living in the United States). But we know that any attempts to draw lines between Trump and Hitler are bound to end tangled up with Internet memes. It seems not only more intellectually honest, but also more accurate, to argue that Trump is tapping into the fourteen elements of Ur-Fascism, that Eco, who had lived through Italian fascism, and who understood that words, even the most banal, have meaning, laid out for us. So, the job of writers is to continue to ask of Trump’s followers, “Yes. He speaks his mind. But what does he mean when he says these things?”