Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler, and today's Republicans have very little in common with National Socialists. While Trump and Hitler are both demagogues appealing to a certain kind of nationalism, Trump is operating within a completely different context. Hitler rose to power because international capitalism had collapsed, while today, it is thriving, at least on its own terms. The first half of the twentieth century was an age of fierce national loyalty and numerically huge military establishments, while we live in a more globalist age with comparatively tiny militaries. Trump's hard-line, neo-Fascist supporters are a tiny group compared to the National Socialists, and they do not march in uniforms by the thousands every weekend. Hitler in 1935--the third full year of his rule--had transformed Germany to an extent undreamed of by Trump and his acolytes in 2019.
Yet the two men and their regimes have something important in common: they are fighting with history, and to some extent, with the same history. Both are fighting with globalization and its consequences--and in both cases, they are losing, rather than gaining ground. The steps they took or are taking to alter the course of history are not working--the problems that they focus on got, and are getting, worse. For Hitler the key problem was the accumulation of military power. For Trump the key problems are immigration and trade.
As I found 45 years ago researching my first book, Economic Diplomacy and the Origins of the Second World War, Hitler took a particular lesson from Germany's defeat in the First World War. The future of the world, he believed, belonged to superstates on the scale of the USSR, the British Empire, and the United States. Germany could only take its place among this company by radically expanding its territory to the east and securing critical resources, particularly in food and energy, that it had hitherto purchased on the world market. International trade had already fallen by 2/3 when Hitler came into power in 1933, and his regime continued to regulate it tightly, while stimulating the German economy with public works and rearmament. That in turn stimulated demand for foodstuffs and raw materials which Germany could not produce, leading by 1935 to shortages of both. In a temporary solution to the food problem, Germany bought very large amounts of grain from poor countries in Eastern Europe who had to accept German Reichsmarks, which had lost their value as an international currency, in payment. By 1939 Germany was also very short of labor. Germany was not yet ready for war with Britain, France, or the USSR, but war had become the only way to solve these resource problems and continue building up more armaments. To win wars, the Germans successfully used the blitzkrieg strategy against Poland and France, breaking through their front lines and bringing about a French political collapse in 1940. That in turn persuaded him to try the same strategy in 1941 against the USSR, gambling that a series of victories on the frontier would produce its political collapse as well. When the regime survived intact into the fall, while the German forces fell short of critical supplies, the strategy had failed. The German divisions that reached the outskirts of Moscow in early December 1941 had almost no functional tanks left. A Soviet counterattack drove them back, and by 1942 Hitler found himself in an all-out struggle with three economically superior powers. His defeat was only a matter of time.
Donald Trump isn't interested in military expansion, but something similar is happening to him regarding his signature issues of immigration and trade. He came into power determined to stop the flow of illegal immigrants over our sudden border, but after falling briefly, that flow has now increased and keeps increasing. I personally believe that this is a real problem for the US, certainly politically and perhaps economically as well, and that a carefully thought out plan to reduce immigration would not be a bad thing--a plan such as Barbara Jordan's commission worked out in the 1990s. Trump, however, is staking everything on his proposed wall and changes in our asylum procedures, and is getting nowhere. This week his frustration boiled over, and he overruled nearly all his senior advisers (except Stephen Miller) and announced an almost immediate new tariff on Mexico to force that country to stop the flow of migrants. This last step strikes me as about as realistic as Hitler's plan to destroy the USSR: I honestly don't know how Mexico could make this happen even its government wanted to. This has been too much for the Republican establishment in the Senate, but that will probably only encourage Trump. I am very concerned over what Trump and Miller might decide to do after this step clearly fails, as well.
Something parallel is happening on trade. While Trump rails about the trade deficit and crows about the supposed effects of his tariffs, the trade deficit continues to get bigger, thanks to our debt-financed economic expansion (that increases imports) and, by some accounts, to his tariffs, which are cutting demand for some of our exports. This does not seem to have affected Trump as profoundly as the surge in illegal immigration. Mere numbers, which he has blown off throughout his career, do not affect him as much as more people crossing the border. He was initially prepared to content himself, it seemed, with very limited changes to NAFTA and relatively small concessions from the Chinese. These however the Chinese refused to provide, and he is talking about increasing tariffs on them rather than reversing course as well. And this could again fail to do anything meaningful about the trade deficit, while disrupting more segments of the American economy, and putting him under more pressure to do something before November 2020.
The biggest danger that the Trump administration poses, in my opinion, is not authoritarian rule, but rather its attempt--in which most of the Republican Party joins, on many fronts--to govern a complex society in defiance of simple facts. This seems especially dangerous since Trump seems unable to re-evaluate his positions or reverse course. None of this is entirely new. Reaganomics also defied simple facts, and ballooned the federal deficit until a Democrat, Bill Clinton, got into office and got it under control. The Bush II administration got us into a series of disastrous wars, and allowed the mortgage boom almost to destroy the world economy, leaving Barack Obama to put it back together. Trump's administration, however--increasingly shorn of independent thinkers--has far less grasp of reality than either of those. That, not his unsuccessful attempts to get Robert Mueller fired before he finished his report, is the real danger that he poses to the United States and its political traditions.