If you happened to be alive during the years of 2016 to 2020, you can probably recall the routine issuance of frantic bulletins that “Nazis” were suddenly on the march in the US. Not just that some ludicrous, ragtag group of self-identified Nazis could be occasionally spotted in the wild — which had always been a somewhat regular, albeit freakish occurrence. Rather, the idea was that full-bore ideological “Nazism” had surged as a genuinely formidable political force, and everyone needed to be extremely terrified of this.
Principally responsible for the alleged outbreak of pro-Nazi fervor, or so the prevailing theory went, was Donald Trump. He had either tacitly or deliberately fueled the Nazis’ rise, because associating himself with Nazis would definitely be a huge boon to his electoral fortunes. MSNBC anchor Joy Reid encapsulated this view when she warned in 2017 that “resurgent Neo-Nazism” had gripped the US under Trump’s rule. Reams of academic articles were published on the subject, wondering whether Trump was the new “American Führer”; it was a commonly-held belief that “Literal Nazis” had taken power. (As opposed to figurative Nazis). Evidence for the theory ranged from the individual emotional turmoil experienced by journalists, to Twitter trolls with cartoon frogs as their profile pictures, to allusive suggestions — including by former apparatchiks of the National Security State — that the existence of immigrant detention centers was proof a Nazi regime had seized the reins of state.
This fearful narrative was propelled by episodes which may now appear somewhat farcical in hindsight, but at the time were taken deadly seriously. One example was an alleged spate of anti-semitic hate crimes that occurred in 2017 — a series of “bomb threat” phone calls were placed to Jewish Community Centers. Even before any details had surfaced about the identity of the suspects, an outfit called the “Anne Frank Center” hysterically attributed personal responsibility for the incidents to Trump. Fans of dark humor were no doubt thrilled when it later emerged that the bomb threats had in fact been called in by a teenager in Israel, as well as a deranged former Intercept journalist — and not some MAGA-hat guy sitting in a corrugated shack in the backwoods of Arkansas. (The “Anne Frank Center” was being run at the time by a hardcore partisan Democratic operative in New Jersey, whom I personally met years ago when he was running a pro-LGBT group. Let’s just say the individual is a tad… excitable. Still, this individual’s bombastic anti-Trump screeds were credulously portrayed by media outlets as carrying the solemn moral weight of the fabled Holocaust victim.)
And so the ever-present specter of Actual Nazis running rampant, taking their direction from Führer Trump, loomed large over the American political scene. This understandably generated lots of fear and stress, most of which tended to be conveniently funneled into boosting the political prospects of Democrats. Even figures as milquetoast as former Maryland governor and 2016 presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, hardly anyone’s idea of an envelope-pushing thinker, proclaimed that the conditions in the US circa 2017 were reminiscent of the conditions in Germany circa 1933. Thus, all responsible citizens were obligated to heed the call for unshakeable “Resistance.” O’Malley typified the trend whereby standard-fare Democrats became incredibly radicalized in their style of rhetoric, even if their policy prescriptions remained relatively static. Always top of the agenda for ambitious liberals was to compete amongst themselves for who could express their Trump-related anxieties in the most apocalyptic terms. Which, of course, included the belief that Trump was governing on behalf of Nazis and/or was himself a Nazi.