By Tom Ehrich

As latter-day partisans fling around terms like "dictator" and "Nazi," I decided to read William Shirer's classic book about the real thing.

In "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," the historian describes Adolf Hitler as a sad little man -- a layabout and chronic failure -- who discovered his larger-than-life quest, convinced himself he was above all normal constraints, and found the combination of scapegoating (blaming Jews and Slavs for Germany's woes) and delusion (grandiose master-race theory) that would justify trampling on lesser lives.

Mocked as clownish at first and imprisoned for a foolhardy putsch, Hitler kept honing his message, created a strong organizational structure, and waited patiently for collapsing national fortunes to make his grandiose vision of national purpose appealing.

In time, desperate people rallied to his rhetoric and, without truly understanding the aims he clearly spelled out in "Mein Kampf," set about giving all power to the once laughable "Austrian corporal."

I have much more of Shirer's book to read. But I find it fascinating to read of the early years, when the vision was forming, the calculated scapegoating found its voice, and a demented genius patiently waited for a crumbling world to sink to his level.

We seem a long way from the conditions that spawned Hitler and Nazism. The mega-wealthy venture capitalist who recently likened his opponents to "Nazis" found his whining greeted with derision. Fred Phelps' maniacal targeting of gays was a mild snarl compared with brown-shirt bullies who did more than carry nasty signs. Our entitled 1% don't yet come close to the delusional Prussians, rapacious Junkers and self-serving monarchists who turned Germany into the shambles that Hitler could exploit.

Even the sturdiest democracy, however, can lose its footing. If enough people feel put upon and decide their hope lies in giving up freedom, a free nation can turn quickly sour. Would-be saviors wait in the wings, stirring fear, stoking hatred.

A democracy's contest of ideas will never be pretty. Even a modern economy will never seem always fair to all people. Freedom includes opportunity for cheating, grasping, and coarsening.

But worrisome moves are afoot. States are taking steps to deny votes to certain categories, as if their citizenship was a trial run, not a bedrock. Wealth-hungry politicians are awarding outsized political benefits to the wealthy. Hyper-partisan office holders refuse to govern. Relentless opposition bolstered by distorted information claims public attention.

These paths -- declaring some people expendable, fawning over wealth, and deliberately undermining the nation -- are dangerous for any nation, especially for one that dares to celebrate diversity and to protect the vulnerable.