For the past 12 years here, I've been trying to provide long-term perspectives on current events. During that time the great crisis in American life and world affairs has deepened. This paradoxically makes it harder to stick to a long term perspective, since one so easily becomes absorbed by the news of the day. But I am going to try to do so, partly by trying to post about the Trump Administration only once every two weeks. And today's post will involve a glimpse into the past and into the future, rather than a look at today's headlines.
It also involves the third-rail comparison between Trump and the current Republican Party on the one hand, and Hitler and the Nazis on the other. But I am not going to suggest that Trump plans to do away with our civil liberties, put millions of Americans into camps, or commit mass murder, or that he is going to unleash a major war, even though I regard that as slightly more possible. Instead the comparison will focus on one very important similarity between Trump and Hitler. Both have gotten into power largely by protesting against the impact of economic change. And my comparison goes to the question of whether Trump has any chance of actually restoring the economy that has slipped away over the last half century. As it happens, Hitler and the Nazis also promised to do that--but in practice, they did the opposite.
My text today is a remarkable book from the late 1960s, Hitler's Social Revolution, by a very fine historian, now retired, David Schoenbaum. Schoenbaum taught for decades at the University of Iowa and wrote at least three different works of modern German history, each concerned with a different era, as well as a study of US-Israeli relations. His place within the department has now been taken by a scholar specializing in gender and sexuality issues in modern Germany--a very typical change in today's history departments.
Germany in the interwar period was very different from the United States during the last two or three decades, but both societies included large groups suffering from the impact of economic change. In Germany, these included farmers hurt by low prices and international competition and a large new white collar class of clerks and retailers who often lived on proletarian incomes. By 1930, the year of the first big Nazi electoral success, Schoenbaum argued that the Nazi core was brought together by various fears: "fer of the department store, frear of communism, fear of the Poles, fear of further decline in the price of farm commodities, and 'the politics of cultural despair' [a reference to far right opposition to the modern world in general.] As I write this piece, I am increasingly troubled that no contemporary academic, to my knowledge, has produced a comparable breakdown of who is behind Trump, and why. But surely many of his voters were motivated by fear of further job losses, fear of immigrants, fear of Islam, and fear and hatred of political correctness. There is, by the way, one critical and somewhat encouraging difference between Nazi followers and voters and Trump's. The Nazis were disproportionately young; Trump supporters are disproportionately old.
Both coalitions were in part protesting long-term economic and cultural changes. In the German case these changes included the growth of great retail chains like department stores, the development of world agricultural markets, and the disruption of currencies caused, ultimately, by the First World War. The contemporary United States is at a completely different stage of development. Our small farmers and small shopkeepers ceased to be a political force decades ago, the working class has been devastated by foreign competition, outsourcing, and automation, and service workers, not office workers, are the fastest growing part of our economy. In addition, although both 1930s Nazis and today's Republicans rail against minorities, the immigrant presence in today's United States is much, much larger than the minority population of Germany in 1933. As a matter of fact, successive German governments had used high tariffs to insulate Germany from some of the impact of globalization for more than 50 years by the time Hitler took power, and the Nazis went even further in that direction by trying to create an autarchic German economy. The United States on the other hand has been moving towards freer and freer trade for about 80 years now, and it is very unclear whether Donald Trump will actually be able to change the role of trade in our economy to any significant extent.
Hitler, like Trump, came to power promising to help all economic sectors of the nation, and especially to protect those who had been losing ground. The Nazis had also stood firmly for the preservation of the traditional status of women, who had been advancing into the professions at a rapid rate. But none of these promises, as Schoenbaum showed at great length, came true, even before the catastrophe of the Second World War. "In 1939," he wrote, "the cities were larger, not smaller; the concentration of capital greater than before; the rural population reduced, not increased; women not at the fireside but in the office and the factory; the inequality of income and property distribution more, not less, conspicuous; industry's share of the gross national product up and agriculture's down." Traditional elites remained in charge of major institutions. Schoenbaum might have added, as I found in my own research on that decade, that while the Nazis had ended unemployment, the whole population had continuously to deal with shortages of basic consumer goods and foodstuffs such as butter because of tight controls on foreign trade. This undoubtedly caused enormous frustration among the Nazis' original constituencies and indeed among the whole lower half of the population. They could however no longer express their dissatisfaction either at the polls or in print, since they lived in a police state, and the war gave everyone new and much bigger problems to worry about.
It is very likely, in my opinion, that Trump's followers will be similarly disappointed: that in four or eight years we will have fewer industrial workers, not more; that illegal immigrants will remain a huge presence in our economy and society, if indeed they have not been given some legal status; that the financial industry will be even more powerful than it was before; that health care will be harder to come by for ordinary Americans; and that the white proportion of our population will have continued to shrink. The question is whether the Trump Administration can keep dissatisfaction under control by continuing a daily propaganda campaign against its enemies in the media and the Democratic Party and by mobilizing resentment against political correctness and its political manifestations. It seems very likely to me that law enforcement will eventually by unleashed against demonstrators, but I do not foresee a police state. As in the case of National Socialism, those not belonging to our national community may face the biggest problems. There may indeed by large-scale deportations of immigrants, although in the long run I doubt very much that their presence will be substantially reversed.
Both the elevation of Hitler to the Chancellorship in 1933 and the election of Donald Trump represent tremendous failures of democracy in modern western nations. In both cases, a barely sufficient coalition of disaffected voters has put a dangerous man, leading a dangerous movement, in charge of a leading nation. While I continue to believe that our danger is the lesser of the two, it remains real enough. And Trump's inability to deliver on behalf of the men and women who elected him will only increase that danger.