The 2010s have resembled the 1930s in one critical respect: both experienced the collapse of old political orders around the western world. The laissez-faire capitalist order that had essentially ruled the United States since the Civil War fell victim to the Depression and gave way to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. In Germany, where the First World War had already destroyed the German empire that began it, the successor Weimar Republic--which put a new, shaky political structure on top of the same bureaucracies--also died during the Depression and gave way to Nazi totalitarianism. The Spanish civil war brought Fascism to Spain. The political systems in the powers that had won the First World War, Britain and France, survived the decade, although the French government lasted only until its defeat in 1940 and Britain under the wartime national government began to transform out of all recognition as well. In the Far East, the Japanese military and naval leaders terrorized the civilian government into submission, paving the way for the Second World War in Asia, while the Chinese state had to retreat into the interior to survive at all.
In today's west, the political elites that have governed the most important nations have lost the confidence of their peoples. This has happened most dramatically in the United States and Britain, of course, where two demagogues, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, have seized the reins of the leading conservative parties and won electoral victories of different sizes. The established parties in Germany are steadily losing ground, In France, Emmanuel Macron led a new majority party into power three years ago and is giving the best example anywhere in the West of a functioning democracy, even though some of his measures have aroused stiff opposition. Because the United States remains the world's leading democracy--albeit, at the moment, one of the least inspiring ones--developments here are still crucial at least to the rest of the western world. This week it has become clear that we have reached a turning point comparable to what Germany experienced early in the fateful year of 1938.
Gleichschaltung--roughly, "coordination"--was the German word the Nazis used to describe the way that they handled the established institutions of the Weimar Republic, whose constitution, as it happens, remained in force right up until the end of the Second World War. It began in government ministries and spread to state and local governments, educational and artistic institutions, and some major economic institutions. It did not involve wholesale purges of personnel. Instead, it installed Nazi leadership in various institutions (although not all of them), removed some dissident or Jewish personnel, and began adapting institutional goals to Nazi purposes. The bulk of officials fell into line. Meanwhile, for the first five years of his rule, Hitler, like Trump, benefited from an expanding economy. In neither case did the new leader deserve all the credit. The German recovery had begun in 1932, and the American one in 2010 or so. In addition, although both new governments presided over full employment, that hardly meant that everyone was happy, especially in Germany, where shortages of basic goods had become a big problem by late 1935.
Meanwhile, Hitler had established new institutions to handle domestic security and law enforcement. The SS and SA had created a network of concentration camps within months of his taking power, sending several hundred thousand political opponents into them for some months or years. In 1936, Hermann Goering's Four Year Plan had begun reshaping the German economy to meet the needs of rearmament for war. New bureaucracies began persecuting Jews, encouraging them to leave the country and eventually stripping them of citizenship. Trump has done nothing comparable. Even regarding immigration, where his treatment of illegals has some parallels with the Nazis' early policies towards Jews, he has relied on the ICE bureaucracy, although it has taken him some time to get leaders into power over ICE that share his views. And in Germany, until 1938, the key national security bureaucracies--the ministries of foreign affairs and the army--remained firmly in traditional hands, advising against overly dangerous moves and reassuring potential foreign enemies.
That changed in early 1938, when Hitler suddenly removed his foreign minister, the diplomat Constantin von Neurath, and the War Minister, General Werner von Blomberg and Army Commander Werner von Fritsch. The Nazis used more or less spurious accusations of personal misconduct to justify these moves. Neurath gave way to the Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop, a wine salesman whom Hitler had made Ambassador to Britain, and Hitler abolished the post of war minister and took over the supreme command himself. Relieved of any high-level opposition, Hitler proceeded to annex Austria and provoke the dangerous Munich crisis in the fall of 1938, enabling him to dismember Czechoslovakia and occupy most of it early in 1939. The Nazi-Soviet pact and the outbreak of European war followed later in that year.
Donald Trump, as I have written several times before, has much more in common with the Emperor William II of Germany that with Adolf Hitler. Unlike Hitler, he has no real ideology and no sweeping plans for the future. While Hitler saw himself as the leader of the Aryan race in a struggle for existence against other races, Trump sees himself as lonely and embattled, almost without any real allies. For this reason, Trump, unlike Hitler, has never been able to trust any man or woman with real independence and ability with serious responsibility. Trump in addition lacks any real grasp of national economics or international politics, whereas Hitler had some real insights into both. Trump spends his life trying to make his own views--his instincts and impulses--prevail against those of everyone around him. Since so many of his views fail to reflect reality, this struggle never ends, and becomes more desperate as time goes on. Like Hitler, Trump draws sustenance from a devoted mass following and from an adoring broadcast network. The real innovation of the Republican Party in general and Trump in particular has been to allow the opposition press to function while simply ignoring its views, except to turn it into a whipping boy. Active enemies apparently rally the base better than made-up ones.
It is now clear that Trump's control over the federal government has entered a new phase with two critical aspects. First of all, anyone with his own strong views about anything has left the administration some time ago. Mick Mulvaney is a shameless sycophant, and Mike Pompeo at State completely identifies with the President and labels anyone who challenges him as a Democratic plant. William Barr has put the Justice Department firmly in the President's corner, despite his recent attempt to sound independent. Richard Grenell, a very loose and partisan cannon as ambassador to Germany, has now become acting Director of National Intelligence, apparently to make sure that nothing reflecting badly the Trump Administration and its Moscow supporters leaks out. He has hired Kashyap Patel, a former staffer to Trump acolyte (and Ukraine co-conspirator) Devin Nunes, to "clean house" in the intelligence committee, according to a report. Robert O'Brien, the inexperienced national security adviser who replaced John Bolton, starts meetings on policy issues by handing out the presidential tweets on the subject and going from there. And White House staffer Johnny McEntree, a former personal aide to the President, is looking through the State and Justice Departments for disloyal political employees to replace. The federal government, in short, is looking more and more like the Trump organization--and we know how the great enterprises of that organization have turned out.
Trump, to repeat, is not Hitler. Hitler's complete Gleichschaltung of the German national security establishment led almost immediately to a hopeless attempt to conquer Europe at the risk of world war, which in turn led to the destruction and long-term partition of his country. Trump has no such plans, merely an overpowering need to feed his ego daily and persuade the world that he is indeed the smartest and most effective leader who has ever lived. Illegal immigrants are by far the largest group personally threatened by his policies, although his administration is also rolling back various protections for gay and transgender people. All of us, however, will suffer enormously from our government's descent into sycophancy and chaos. It now lies with the voters to save us in November. That is far from a hopeless prospect. Nearly every trial heat shows Trump losing to any of his major Democratic rivals. Polls in key individual states are also encouraging. The supposed unelectability of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic front runner, is not supported by the data at all. The question is whether enough of our fellow citizens care enough about maintaining a functioning democratic government to vote out the man who is destroying it. The survival of democracy here and elsewhere is once again the key issue of our crisis, just as in 1861 and 1932.