For students of German history, the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency summons a word fraught with dark meaning: Gleichschaltung.
It literally means synchronization or “to bring into line,” but it refers to the process in Nazi Germany that ensured political conformity “in all sectors, from the economy and trade associations to the media, culture, and education,” according to an article in Der Spiegel.
In Germany of the 1930s, Gleichschaltung meant stamping out unions and political parties hostile to National Socialism, while other institutions like the church and education systems were co-opted into vehicles for Nazi ideology.
Six days into the Trump administration, it’s not hard to find signs of the instinct for control and conformity across all the domains the White House touches. That includes clamping down on communications by federal employees, publishing weekly lists of the crimes committed by “aliens,” threatening to withhold federal money from so-called sanctuary cities, and reportedly telling the EPA to remove climate-change language from its website.
It also extends to the White House promising launching an investigation into voter fraud—despite widespread agreement that none exists—to explain why Trump didn’t win the popular vote, attempts to delegitimize the media which challenges his version of the facts, even Trump’s frantic tweeting about slights real and imagined. All of it is of a piece: Re-frame the political landscape around Trump’s world view.
Gleichschaltung “serves as a useful signal word to remind us to be extremely wary of executive overreach that forecloses any difference of opinion and prescribes what is and isn’t acceptable knowledge,” said Sara Hall, an associate professor in germanic studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.