Yesterday a friend for whom I have a great deal of respect wrote ma an email suggesting that today's Republicans and the early Nazis have a good deal in common. The remark immediately set me thinking, because I think that at this point, it is a half truth--and it's very important for anyone with any hope for America to understand both what is true, and what is false, about that analogy. While the Tea Partiers may show many psychological parallels to early enthusiasts for National Socialism, they are, in many ways, inferior to them--and nowhere more so than among their leadership. Thus, while they may indeed have dreadful consequences for the United States, the consequences, it seems to me, will be of a very different character.
In the long scheme of history, the period from roughly the 1790s until the 1960s will be known as a great age of organization and mass human endeavor. All over the western world, and in a few nations such as Japan and China that adopted various western models, huge institutions, economic and political, sprang out of nowhere. In the late nineteenth century the largest institutions were corporate; in first two-thirds of the twentieth, they were political. Communism in Russia industrialized a backward nation and created a whole new society. In China it did something similar, before managing to mutate into something quite different. The Japanese built up an empire covering much of Asia, before their disastrous defeat by smaller powers. Germany mobilized, conquered all of Europe, and put millions of people to death. The United States rebuilt its infrastructure, put millions to work, and helped win a huge war on both sides of the globe. Britain nationalized its basic industries (although it also gave up its empire.) The defeated nations of Western Europe built the Common Market, which became the European Union.
Now this was not a smooth process. The western civilization that emerged from the 1870s was badly shaken by the First World War, especially among the losers such as Germany, and then given another huge shock by the depression. Meanwhile, by 1930, the Prophet generation born in the 1870s and 1880s was, in some areas at least, passing the peak of its influence. The Nomad generation that followed them was largely a generation of bitter cynics. All over Europe, they had made huge sacrifices in the First World War for which they received no reward. They had no commitment whatever to the achievements of their parents and grandparents, and they became the troops of the Fascist parties, first in Italy and then in Germany. A similar emotional dynamic is at work today.
Generation X, born 1961-81, did not have to lose millions of its members in the trenches, but millions of its members suffered a different kind of trauma in their childhoods--the break-up of their families. While Boomers remember watching Alan Shephard and John Glenn blast off in their classrooms, Gen X watched the Challenger explosion. Ronald Reagan seduced a good many of them with his optimistic rhetoric, but they are too young ever to have seen government accomplish great things. Their lives have taught them to look after themselves and their families--within which they tend to be actually over-protective--and to expect others to do the same. And in the last two elections they have made a dramatic debut on the highest levels of the political stage, and the consequences are now evident for all to see.
In 2008 two Xers made it on to the national ticket for the first time: Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Although President Obama is from the very leading edge of his generation, his childhood completely fit its pattern, and he is very proud not only of not being a Boomer but of believing that Boomer concerns are not his own. (He reportedly chafed when Richard Holbrooke told him during the Afghanistan strategy review that the discussions reminded him of discussions in the LBJ White House about Vietnam.) The President however is not my main focus today.
Thanks largely to last fall's elections there are now 119 Generation Xers in the Congress. 83 of them are Republicans and 36 are Democrats. The Democrats are the party claiming to stand for the achievements of the last eighty years of American life, and they are correspondingly much older. Indeed, most of the leadership of the Democrats in Congress, including Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, and their committee chairmen in the Senate are from the Slent generation, whose youngest members will turn 69 this year. John Boehner is a Boomer, but most important lieutenants, Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, are Xers. We can't understand them if do not keep in mind that they feel no commitment or any allegiance to anything this country did before 1980 or so. Their attitude was summed up by one of their number after a Thursday meeting with Treasure Secretary Tim Geithner: "We didn't start this mess."
In fact, the techniques that have given the House Republicans their majority have a good deal in common with the ones that gave the Nazis a third (far fewer, let it be noted) of the Reichstag deputies between 1930 and 1932. They include the endless repetition of many slogans bearing no relation to the facts; the exploitation of resentment towards certain groups, now defined by class, education and ideology more than by religion or race; constant assertions of moral superiority; and a hatred of the political establishment. Conspiracy theories have fueled the Tea Party's rise, just as they did the Nazis. And the Tea Party, which now rules the lower house of our legislature, has gone much further much faster than the Nazis did, partly, of course, because Limbaugh and the rest have been preparing the way for decades.
But what is it that they want to do? This is where the comparison breaks down completely.
Although Hitler used more or less mindless resentment to get into power, he had no intention of returning to some imaginary paradise modeled on the distant past. The Tea Partiers revere 1890s America but he did not revere 1890s Germany. He saw himself in the forefront of modernity, he and his collaborators had great plans, and they wasted no time putting them into effect. The built superhighways and new public buildings, just as the New Deal was doing in the West. They controlled the economy and foreign currency purchases, borrowed billions, and but millions back to work. And they built a new military machine with the goal of conquering eastern Europe and emerging as a world power capable of competing with the British Empire and the United States. Fortunately for the world, Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States beat them at their own game.
The Tea Party leadership have no such ambitions. They oppose new infrastructure projects. They want to dismantle a welfare state, not create one. They want Americans (in theory at least) to provide their own retirement income, their own health insurance in old age, and their own protection by carrying firearms around in public. It is not impossible that certain states, within a few years, will begin talking about doing away with public education. (Some southern states have in effect been moving that way ever since integration back in the early 1970s.)
Only a party, and a generation, with no commitment to existing institutions can blithely talk about unleashing a worldwide financial crisis by defaulting on the obligations of the United States because "we didn't start this mess." Such a party poses a great danger to the Republic and the world. Modern civilization depends on well-organized, functioning institutions. But the threat they pose is not authoritarianism, but anarchy. The Xer in Chief in the White House has to make a forthright stand for effective authority. So far he has not--but that is a subject for another day.