The comparison between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump is unavoidable not because they want the same things or will probably have similar effects--neither of which I believe--but because they both have been chosen to lead their nations without any governmental experience and from outside the political establishments of their countries. Both, too, have been chosen in the midst of the crises that afflict modern nations every 80 years or so, and both certainly do want to change the course their countries are on significantly. Few historical issues have been investigated more thoroughly than how Hitler managed to take power in Germany. I was intensively exposed to that debate as a graduate student, and I thought I knew some of the answers. Now that the United States has experienced something similar under entirely different circumstances, however, I am not so sure.
Although Hitler had been a fringe political figure in Germany beginning in the early 1920s, not until 1930 did the Nazis score their first big electoral success, becoming the largest party in the Reichstag or German Parliament. By that time, the German nation had experienced at least three catastrophic events during the preivous 15 years. The First World War, which the Imperial German government did so much to unleash in 1914, cost the Germans an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million lives, reduced the value of Germany's currency by at least 2/3, and ended in defeat, revolution, and partial occupation. The nation viewed the Versailles Treaty as a humiliation, and owed a huge reparations bill. In 1922, the government's inability to pay the reparations led to a new Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr, and the government responded with hyperinflation, totally wiping out the savings of nearly every German. The economy stabilized and improved somewhat in the mid-1920s, but in 1929, the impact of the stock market crash hit Germany very hard. That enabled the Nazis to make their breakthrough in 1930, and by the time of the next election in 1932, unemployment was nearing 25%. That allowed them to do even better, although they won only 37% of the votes and 230 out of 608 seats in their best showing.They slipped a bit in the second election that year, but Hitler was nonetheless able to form a coalition government with the more traditional German National Peopls' Party.
What helped bring Hitler to power was the complete collapse of most of the established middle class parties and a split within the Left. When the Nazis won 230 seats in July 1932, the Social Democrats--the largest workers' party--won 133, and the Communists 89. While the Catholic Center Party maintained agood deal of strength with 37, the established center- and left-wing middle class parties had been wiped out. The Communists, acting on orders from Moscow--which foresaw the complete collapse of the Weimar Republic and a Communist victory--refused to cooperate with any other party, which meant that it was impossible to put together a non-Nazi majority in the Reichstag. Indeed, that situation had prevailed since the 1930 elections, and as a result, German Chancellors had ruled with the help of emergency decrees. They alone enabled them to pass budgets.
What is astonishing is that Donald Trump has been elected President despite the lack of any comparable misfortunes in the United States. While we have been "at war" with Al Queda and ISIS for 15 years, our total casualties are not even close to the losses that any of the First World War combatants suffered in a couple of days of hard fighting in that war and total less than 1% of German casualties in that whole war. The Great Recession did have an impact similar, although not nearly as great, as the inflation in Germany: it wiped out the net worth of a substantial number of Americans, but by no means all. But our unemployment rate did not reach even half what the Germans (and the United States!) had experienced by 1932. We have been in recovery for seven years and our official unemployment rate, at any rate, is quite low.
The mid-twentieth century was the climax of an age of rationalism, and my teachers and I assumed that 37% of German voters would not vote for Hitler without some good reason--chiefly, economic misery--for doing so. Yet we have just seen a substantially larger 47% of American voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump, strategically distributed so as to give him the election. What happened?
Well, to begin with, since Trump secured the Republican nomination, he really managed to graft himself onto our existing political structure in a way that Hitler never did. He, like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and even, to a certain extent, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama, is a product of the system of direct democracy that both parties put in place 40 years ago. And although many of his positions are somewhat extreme, all of them have been taken by various Republicans over the last 20 years. The Republican establishment resented him because he was not one of them, but he built on the propaganda work they had done. Some readers will remember my posts on dau tranh (if you do not, a search of the blog will turn them up.) Trump run on the premise that government is not working. The Republicans had not only been saying that for several decades, they did their best to prevent it from working for the last eight years. A Republican propaganda campaign lasting several decades has taken over the vast majority of our state governments and convinced well over 40% of the population that Washington is evil. Trump was the beneficiary.
Now the American center has not collapsed the way the German one did, and has a comfortable home in the party of the Clintons and Barack Obama. The American left is however somewhat splintered--and we, unlike the Germans, have no Communist party. The American left includes younger progressives who supported Bernie Sanders, some of whom clearly did not go to the polls to vote for Hillary Clinton. But it also should include lots of families in declining industrial towns, and it does not. Such families voted for Trump. He did what Hitler never managed to do--he won the votes of a substantial portion of the working class, even though he claims to be a billionaire and is bearing the standard of the party of the rich.
I have thus arrived at the finding that has been discussed by many Democrats and even affirmed by one of the architechts of modern Democratic strategy, James Carville. The Democratic Party has abandoned the working class in favor of the suburban middle class--with the exception of minority voters who base their votes on race, rather than class. Hitter's party, of course, was named the National Socialist German Workers' Party, but it never won a substantial working class vote before taking power. Trump's support evidently came from two sources: the bedrock Republican vote in the red states, and a major portion of the white working class vote in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which hadn't voted Republican since the 1980s.
This, then is the reason Trump won 475 of the American electorate, while Hitler never got above 37% of the Germans in a really free election. He was not, in fact, as much of an outsider as he claimed to be--he took many common Republican positions and easily won the normal Republican vote. And somehow--and I still do not understand how--he convinced a great many voters whose economic interests would have put them on the Left that he was on their side. He had an easier paty to power than Hitler. We are beginning to get glimpses of what he might do in power, and I will survey that situation once again after January 1.