What is it that drives politics toward extremism? Some interesting possibilities arise from a reading of Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, a biography of Hitler by Volker Ullrich.
Hitler appealed to the German masses as potentially virtuous. He appealed, it might be said, to their souls as Germans, to their Germanness. He even envisioned a “dictator who is also a genius…, a man of iron who is the embodiment today of the German spirit….” Those are Hitler’s words by the way.
Hitler appealed to Germans to reclaim virtues they once had, when Germany was characterized by “orderliness, cleanliness, and precision… [where work was done] honestly and dutifully.”  Again, those are Hitler’s words. Ullrich argues the Hitler regarded the masses “as nothing more than a tool to be manipulated to achieve his political ambitions.”  Hitler might be said to manipulating German masses, but he might also be said to be “grooming” the masses so as to raise them up by appealing to them to recover the virtues that were shown in “the great heroic time of 1914” when Germany was forced to take up arms against the Entente of Britain, France, and Russia at the start of World War I.
Hans Frank, who heard Hitler speak in January 1920, said that “He spoke from the bottom of his soul and all our souls.” There was a “unity of the word and the man,” according to Konrad Heiner, his first biographer. “A measure of authenticity flowed over the audience even when he was telling obvious lies.” Authenticity trumped lies.
Was Hitler a populist? Yes and no. Yes, he was in that he appealed to the many as if they were capable of being, once again, virtuous, pure, hardworking, patriotic Germans. He didn’t sell the German people short. But, also, he wasn’t in that the people’s potential for virtue, for patriotism could only be actualized by the leadership of a few who were men of iron, men who were embodiments of the German spirit. Genuine or complete populists, on the other hand, trust the many and, therefore, empower them without seeing a need for dictators, geniuses, or men of iron. “Heil Hitler” showed the limits of Hitler’s populism.
Genuine or complete populism points away from what might be called a politics of leadership or a visionary politics. Woodrow Wilson and Hitler thought of themselves as visionaries and both embraced a visionary politics, not genuinely populist politics. It might seem then that it is visionary politics that drives politics toward extremism, even though such a politics may be and has been called “soul craft.” And as the leader “ascends” while conveying his vision to the many, so too, it is thought, that the many and the nation “ascend.” Visionary politics understood as soul craft was well summed up by Barry Goldwater when he said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” a line allegedly written by Harry Jaffa, the leader of the “West Coast Straussians.” Understanding politics as soul craft is most comforting but, among other things, it makes the issue of tyranny disappear. There is some danger in that.