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A WWII Refugee Explains Why Trump Is No Hitler

This article originally appeared on VICE Alps

Image: Dora Schimanko at a 2012 protest in Vienna against the Academics' Ball, a prom organized by Austria's right-wing party FPÖ.

Dora Schimanko is an 84-year-old Austrian former refugee. After the Anschluss in 1938, when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany, she and her Jewish family fled to the UK to escape persecution by the Nazis. "They could have persecuted us for being lefties or being Jewish—either case, we'd be damned," she writes in her 2011 book Warum So Und Nicht Anders (Why it's Like This and Not Any Other Way).

After returning to Vienna in 1946, Schimanko got involved with Austria's communist party and started speaking at public events against fascism and far-right extremism. She also speaks as a witness of WWII in Austrian schools.

The rise of far-right parties in Europe, Donald Trump's presidential win, and his actions during his first few weeks in office have given way to a lot of talk about the return of fascism to mainstream politics. Comparisons with Adolf Hitler are never far away when we talk about authoritarian world leaders—or any world leaders, in fact: Republicans often compared Obama to the head of the Nazi party—but the analogy has been made often since Trump came to power.

We spoke to Schimanko to get her take.

(Hitler photo: German Federal Archive, via; Trump photo: The White House, via)

VICE: What do you make of Donald Trump?
Dora Schimanko: Well, Donald Trump is quite an actor and entertainer. I think that makes him a populist icon—the perfect candidate to represent the ruling class in the United States: profit-driven multinational corporations.

So you're saying he's basically some kind of capitalist savior?
Yes.

How did you find out that Trump had won the election?
A friend of mine told me about it after she heard it on the morning news. I couldn't believe it at first; it just didn't seem possible to me. But soon after finding out I started reading up on the American electoral system. I think Trump's victory was only made possible because of that system. Clinton actually had the majority of votes.

After Trump got elected, many urged the public not to panic and just wait to see what he would be like as president. Within his first week of office he scaled back the Affordable Care Act and tried to keep people from seven Muslim countries from entering the US, among other things. Did you see that coming?
God, yes. Trump is a profit-hungry representative of the ruling class—I didn't expect anything less, to be honest.

Those seven countries included Syria, where so many refugees are fleeing from. You yourself fled Nazi Austria in 1938. What do you think would have happened to you if England had closed its borders for refugees at the time, like what happened in the US last week?
Oh, I would most certainly not be alive right now. I would be long dead. But the policies in England back then were so different from the current policies in the US. In those days in England there were international conventions regarding taking in refugees, but the country also had another system for immigration, where English people who were willing to support you and cover your costs for coming over could invite you. Some aristocrats and Quakers, for example, financed many refugee children's passage to the UK.

There's a lot of talk about Trump and his team having fascist tendencies. Do you see parallels between Germany in 1933 and the United States in 2017?
No. We really do live in a different millennium. I don't think that a system of forced labor would work in America as it did in Nazi-Germany, for example. And I think that democracy in the US today is in a much better shape than it was in Germany back then.

So you're not worried that fascism will make a comeback and settle in the US, then?
Oh yes, I'm very worried about that. I think that if Trump saw a chance for profit in the concept he would turn the United States into a fascist state the first chance he got. But I really do hope that the American democracy is stronger than anything Trump can do to the country in four years.

So you'd say that people are way off when they compare Trump to Hitler?
Sure. Trump is rich—Hitler definitely wasn't that rich. Trump is dangerous in a different way—he stands for very dangerous interests. He doesn't have to actively persecute minorities in his country, but he's a representative for large, greedy corporations that endanger the whole planet in their search for profit.

Trump Has Barred EPA Staff from Talking to the Press

The Trump administration has banned Environmental Protection Agency staff from posting to the department's social media accounts, updating its blogs, or speaking with the press, the Hill reports.

This media blackout decree was issued on the same day President Donald Trump signed two executive actions allowing for the construction on the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines.

According to the Associated Press, EPA employees received an email from the Trump administration on Tuesday afternoon laying out the terms of the media blackout. The email also enacted a contract freeze, prohibiting staff from awarding new grants or contracts, as well as continuing work assignments. The halt on EPA activities is likely to affect numerous projects around the country, like removing hazardous waste or testing drinking water. 

Trump's EPA transition leader, Myron Ebell, told ProPublica that the move might be a "wider than some previous administrations," but was a normal part of any White House transition. "They're trying to freeze things to make sure nothing happens they don't want to have happen, so any regulations going forward, contracts, grants, hires, they want to make sure to look at them first," Ebell said of the incoming administration.

There were also reports of other government employees, from the US Department of Agriculture to the Department of Health and Human Services, being issued similar restrictions on outside communication.

It should go without saying that the EPA did not respond to VICE's phone calls requesting comment on the matter. 

Why 2016 Seemed Like the Worst Year Ever

"Man has become a kind of prosthetic God," Sigmund Freud tells us in Civilization and Its Discontents. "When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but… We must not forget that present-day man is not happy in his Godlike character."

The good doctor might have been wrong about the value of the vaginal orgasm, but he was right about the crippling, self-destructive anxiety undergirding modern life and how poorly our species seems equipped to handle it. This was prescient when Freud first published it in 1930, and like too many other things out of that decade, it feels fresh again at the end of 2016.

It's common to lament 2016 as a kind of spectacularly miserable year, a singularly awful global catastrophe where all the good celebrities died and all the bad ones became president. But 2016 is not sentient, and it's not deliberately tormenting you (no matter how much it sometimes feels that way). It's really just the year a number of cultural, technological, political, and ecological trends all collided into one another in the worst possible way.

In hindsight, it's easy to see how everything that boiled over this year was bubbling away for the better part of the decade. It feels like we live in a markedly—even unthinkably—different world than we did in 2011 or 2015. But we're really just catching a boomerang. This was the year our chickens came home to roost.

Can't Get Enough of That Kulturkampf

This year has infamously racked up an impressive celebrity bodycount, including David Bowie and Prince and Leonard Cohen and Muhammad Ali and John Glenn and George Michael and Carrie Fisher and, and, and...

Many of these people were cultural giants of the 20th century—in a way that might be impossible in the 21st century. Thanks to the proliferation of media technology (and changes in its consumption), it's difficult for anyone to cultivate the same kind of universal cultural appeal or influence of someone like Bowie or Fisher. As Sam Kriss has noted elsewhere, we're not only mourning the loss of beloved idols but the last links to a fading world: "There really were more celebrity deaths in 2016 than in previous years, and there'll be even more next year, until everyone who unified the culture is gone, and the only people left are aging YouTube stars and problematic faves, heirs to a more atomized world, whose disappearance will be wailed at by their isolated fan bases and utterly ignored by everyone else."

This metamorphosis in media has been underway for more than a decade, but 2016 is the year we finally began to understand its true ramifications. There is no question that the spread of smartphones over the last decade is changing the way people interact with one another and the world. It's trendy in technophile circles to call this a "revolution," but counter-revolution works just as well. Social media in its present form—that is, a disparate network of privately owned websites functioning as a public space, the content of which is subject to manipulation by advertising algorithms powered by personal information extracted from users—is as profoundly, maddeningly disempowering as it is a vehicle for personal enlightenment, community engagement, and social organization.

Take this year's absolute meltdowns about "fake news" and "post-truth." "Fake news" morphed from a descriptive term for deliberately false stories circulated on social media for advertising revenue to "deliberate misinformation from agents of [the Russian state/international Jewish financiers]" to "anything dissenting from the [liberal political establishment/Alt-Right hivemind]" to "anything I don't like." These are not the conditions of "post-truth"—because political discourse has always exceeded (and often contradicted) empirical reality—but rather what Alex Tesar has dubbed "meta-truth."

Changing media technology, dovetailing with the precarious economic conditions prevailing since the Great Recession in 2008 and the bankruptcy of traditional economic, intellectual, and political authorities have landed us in a condition of epistemic anarchy. The political earthquakes of 2016 have demonstrated, that in conditions of meta-truth—the intellectual state of nature—the only rule is brutal, naked, awesome force.

The Circus Comes to Town

Shock and awe was how the far right won most of 2016's major political battles.

Consider, first, the Brexit blitz. When David Cameron called the referendum on Britain's membership in the EU, it was on the assumption that it would be a resounding success for Remain and that the Euroskeptic fringe that had been floating in the Tory coalition would finally shut up and go away. Business leaders, tenured academics, and every other member of the Liberal Political Establishment was trotted out to stress how terribly complex leaving Europe would be and how they had all these statistics about how neoliberal globalization might be a touch uncomfortable for the poor but that everything otherwise was tickety-boo. The Leave camp, by contrast, focused on stoking racist fantasies about murderous immigrants, completely disingenuous claims about how much money they would could funnel into the NHS if they weren't paying Brussels, and the fabulous lie that moving political power from the technocracy in Brussels to the plutocrats in London would make life better for the average (white, aging, anxious working-class) Briton.

The ghost of an entirely imaginary British Empire—the wrong answer to the right questions—cut the country off from the continent in a political upset that the Leave campaign did not anticipate. The Remain coalition spent approximately zero time wondering how they misunderstood the mood of the electorate or why they were so out of touch, and instead immediately moved to asking why voters were so stupid. There was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, and nobody learned anything and the exact same experience was repeated four months later across the pond.

Constitutional wranglings in the United Kingdom have nothing on this year's American election, when what was a punchline for 20-odd years slowly metastasized into President Donald Trump. Trump is one of the greatest conmen in American history, channeling the anxiety, alienation, and resentment of white, rural America into a victory over one of the worst political campaigns ever run in the history of the republic. Faced with overwhelming evidence of widespread popular dissatisfaction with the status quo, Hillary Clinton campaigned on the absurd slogan that "America is great because America is good" and was so convinced of her own inevitable coronation as the khaleesi of corporate feminism that she didn't even bother campaigning in Michigan. Half the electorate stayed home, and a few million useful idiots for a bargain-bin American Bonaparte handed control of the world's preeminent nuclear arsenal to a 70-year-old toddler and his merry band of vampire billionaires.

Like Brexit, the Trump campaign was running a scam of biblical proportions and improbably won the day—thanks to a perfect storm of antisocial radicalism bubbling at the fringes of American life for the better part of the last decade. What observers had once assumed was the Republican Party eating itself in the face of Barack Obama's triumphant liberalism was actually the total colonization of the GOP by Andrew Breitbart's parasitic ghost. Meanwhile, disaffected white virgins who had been radicalized on pickup artist websites in 2012 and spent 2014 laying the groundwork for a violently reactionary white-identity politics by getting mad about video games online and became, in 2016, a vanguard of computer literate neo-Nazis described in the press as the "alt-right."

Fascism has been a hot topic in 2016, specifically because of the ongoing argument over whether or not Donald Trump and the alt-right can be called a properly fascist movement. They are definitely not classically fascist—there are no partisan paramilitaries storming through the streets (yet)—but they belong in the same family tree of extreme reactionary politics. You can call it neo-fascism, or post-fascism, or even proto-fascism, and there is a valuable debate to hold about splitting these semantic hairs. But I think the f-word works just fine, because the genius of fascism is that it is always morphing its shape. It is the ultimate pastiche ideology—an ideological chameleon, rearranging its spots to suit the historical moment, pressing stoner cartoon frogs into the service of white supremacy.

Fascism flourishes in conditions of meta-truth precisely because it is so malleable, so forcefully beguiling, so deliberately free of even pretending to care about the Liberal Establishment's idea of "truth." It recognizes, consciously or otherwise, that truth is a function of power. Donald Trump's regular, pathological lying underscores that the real goal of fascist rhetoric is not to convince, but to awe and impress. This is why fact-checking the alt-right's absurd claims are useless and arguably counterproductive—everything they do and say is intentionally performed in bad faith.

Keith Olbermann can scream and sob into a flag all he wants. It only makes Trump stronger. He may or may not ever build that border wall, but the central promise of his campaign remains true: He will do whatever he wants, and the rest of us will pay for it.

This Planet Is Burning Up

Not that there's ever a good time for the political triumph of reactionary nationalism, but this is an especially bad one. Major countries are turning inward and the international community is fracturing at the exact moment when coordinated global action on climate change is most necessary.

The real sense in which the future arrived in 2016 are all the ecological barriers the planet broke this year. Not only was this the hottest year ever recorded (RIP 2015), but the planet also permanently passed the threshold of 400 parts-per-million of atmospheric carbon dioxide for the first time in millions of years, which by all accounts is not so great a time. Second, and more alarmingly, the Arctic has been anywhere from 20 to 30 degrees Celsius warmer than usual all autumn, losing 19,000 square miles of ice over five days in November.

These are significant developments. Higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere along with abnormally warm temperatures in the Arctic bring us perilously close to triggering a number of unstoppable climactic feedback loops. A markedly warmer Arctic means more dark, sunlight-absorbing ocean surface, which in turn warms the Arctic further, and on and on. (Pay no attention to the melting permafrost behind the curtain.)

All of these trends existed well before 2016, but we can point to 2016 as the year we blew past those major milestones and definitely entered the Anthropocene. Ironically, the surest sign that humanity has entered a geological era defined by our impact on the planet's ecological metabolism may turn out to be that we are no longer able to control or mitigate what we have unleashed. There is no question now that after 2016, we live on a different planet than the one any previous generations in human history inhabited.

And as 2017 looms, epistemic anarchy reigns. The incoming president of the United States believes climate change is a hoax and has appointed a former Exxon executive as secretary of state. If the long arc of history does indeed bend toward justice, the devil and his angels are making sure they grab everything that isn't nailed down before the final trumpets sound.

The situation is dire. Angry baby boomers are taking their countries back at the same time as the world spins catastrophically out of their control. Everyone is connected to one another and the entire compendium of human knowledge by the supercomputers we carry around in our pockets, and we have never felt more anxious or alone. We are prosthetic gods hell-bent on our own crucifixion.

But it would be irresponsible to wrap all this up on such a bleak note. There are reasons for hope. If 2016 was the year that the old order of the world finally started cracking to pieces, that means it's also the moment when space opened up for something new. Right now, the forces moving to occupy those spaces are monstrous. But their victory is fragile, and they can be pushed around. There is a clear hunger for a different future—something better, something not constrained by the beige, dead-eyed dogmas of technocratic liberalism.

Millennials take a lot of shit for being apathetic, flighty narcissists. But the other major Western political upheaval of 2016—the one spearheaded by a geriatric Jewish socialist named Bernie Sanders—shows that we'll come out in droves for anyone who will listen to us, for anyone willing and able to give voice to the demand that our lives don't have to get worse forever just so some monsters with suits and stock options can get rich off our labor while cities sink into the sea.

The clock is ticking, but it shouldn't be paralyzing. Nihilism is a disease and irony is a vector. It is possible to dream differently and it is possible to organize and it is possible to win. Let 2016 be a kick in your ass, not a boot on your throat.

So slam as many drinks or joints or pills or lines or quiet moments of sobriety as you need to get through New Year's Eve 2016, and then get the fuck up. The future is here and it's ours if we take it.

If we don't, somebody else will.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.

Why Authoritarianism Refuses to Die

There's a fascist in every one of us. Yeah, you too. At least that's the thrust of an argument first made in the 1930s by an Austrian psychoanalyst who studied under Freud, developed theories on politics and sexuality that infuriated both communists and Nazis, and eventually came to the conclusion that you're more likely to warm up to the idea of fascism if you're sexually repressed. Wilhelm Reich, to put it mildly, pissed a lot of people off.

But before his theory linked fascism to stifled orgasms, Reich posited his idea on right-wing nationalism in his 1933 text "The Mass Psychology of Fascism." "My medical experience with individuals from all kinds of social strata, races, nationalities, and religions showed me that 'fascism' is only the politically organized expression of the average human character structure," he wrote, "a character structure which has nothing to do with this or that race, nation, or party but which is general and international. In this characterological sense, 'fascism' is the basic emotional attitude of man in authoritarian society." Meaning the way we defer to authorities—first our parents, then our teachers, then our bosses, and so on—bakes a potential predilection for fascism into every society.

Fast-forward to 2016. It's been a year when we've struggled to even verbalize the direction in which Western politics has drifted. Some call this wave of Anti-Establishment surprise election results and anti-immigrant sentiment a form of right-wing populism. Others, a pivot toward conservatism or perhaps nationalism. People first started using the word "fascist" to describe Donald Trump in 2015, before he was even made the Republican presidential nominee. We've ended up with a load of different ways to try to express a basic concept: There are lots of people worried about safety and security who want the firm hand of an authoritarian state to shield them from the perceived trauma of globalization, migration, and international terrorism.

Left-wing politics as we've come to know it—centered on the ideas of welfare, openness to other nation states, and accepting multiculturalism—has lost ground to a politics steeped in law and order with just a touch of protectionism. And as Reich observed in the 1930s, cash-strapped, overworked people who feel afraid can vote (some against their interests) to pick authoritarianism over liberalism.

But the question is: Why? Just what is it about, say, Brexit or Trump that psychologically appeals to millions? Voting emotionally isn't really understood, and we easily descend into damaging stereotyping—"'Little England' northerners voted to Leave" or "out-of-touch London elites voted Remain"—rather than proper analysis. But politics professor at Birkbeck University of London Eric Kaufmann quickly discovered a unifying thread running through the types of people more likely to want out of the EU. And it had nothing to do with class, wealth, or location.

"Culture and personality, not material circumstances, separate Leave and Remain voters," he wrote the day of the referendum result. "This is not a class conflict so much as a values divide that cuts across lines of age, income, education, and even party." And those values relate more to authoritarianism.

When looking at a 2015 British Election Study survey of 24,000 white Brits, the probability of someone voting Leave leapt to 73 percent if they were in favor of the death penalty. Similarly, if they responded to wanting to see people who commit sex crimes "publicly whipped, or worse," they were much more likely to want out of the EU. On the other hand, the probability of voting Leave hovered at about 14 percent for those who said they were opposed to the death penalty. Boiled down, those more likely to favor a tough-on-crime, conservative approach to punishment leaned toward wanting Brexit.

This not only explodes the idea that the white working class somehow voted as a monolithic bloc in favor of leaving the EU, but also hints at why times of economic and social upheaval push populations toward the right. "Right-wing authoritarianism is on a level of psychology almost," says Kaufmann, speaking over the phone. "In one population, you're not going to have one response—it's not like 'all whites' are going to say no to immigration. What you have is one group of whites, to put it crudely, interested in change and novelty and experience. They're quite accepting of change, or even embrace it. Another group sees the world as a dangerous place and wants to be protected from it—they embrace law and order."

Though Kaufmann noticed this in June, more data seemed to confirm it elsewhere. In November, YouGov data from from 12,000 people polled showed that authoritarian populist ideas—once consigned to the margins—were held by about half the population in eight out of 12 European countries. In Britain, this figure was at 48 percent, though 20 percent of those polled self-identified as "right-wing." Many still ascribed to an opposition to human rights (itself a deeply counterintuitive view, surely) and anti-immigration views backed by support for strong foreign policy. From Romania to the Netherlands to Poland, a particular value system appears to be on the rise.

Academics have tried to define it for years. In the 1980s, now-retired psychology professor Bob Altemeyer came up with his own extension of a 1940s right-wing authoritarian scale, which is exactly what it sounds like: a sort of ranking system to make sense of why people gravitate to the right. It encompasses traits like a submission to authority, aggression toward outsiders, and loving social norms or traditions. Though Kaufmann isn't a fan of the term "right-wing authoritarianism," he acknowledges its complexities.

"There are really two types: one, social dominance, who really believe in survival of the fittest; and two, those who are fearful and seek order and security and routine," he says. That bid for comfort feels magnified when life is hard—for example, during the Great Depression, before World War II, and in today's post-recession uncertainty.

"At the moment, people do not perceive their future as vivid or certain," says Dr. Simon Moss, associate professor in psychology at Charles Darwin University. "Because of this uncertainty, they tend to prioritize their immediate needs over their future goals." In turn, that leads to a heightened response to perceived threats. "When people bias their attention to information that aligns with their preferences and preconceptions," Moss continues, "they tend to perceive their own group as superior and other groups as inferior. That is, they want to feel better rather than seek accurate information. Consequently, prejudices are rife. They gravitate to leaders that reinforce these prejudices. Brexit and Trump follow."

Academic Matthew MacWilliams pointed this out as early as January, in relation to Trump. Again, authoritarianism looks to be the unifying factor among the president-elect's supporters. "Authoritarians obey," MacWilliams wrote. "They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to 'make America great again' to building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations."

And that's where the appeal lies. A strongman becomes both a comfort blanket and a stern, trusted figurehead. They're the ones who can help people "take back control of their borders" or make their country great again. And if there's apparently a little fascist inside each of us, that may be just what they want to hear.

Lead photo: Eva Braun / NARA via

Follow Tshepo Mokoena on Twitter.

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