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Thursday, March 02, 2017

The 1930s and the 2010s - Politics and Economics

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.


Bozon said...

I agree with much of this.

I think that the election of Trump does not, itself, represent the failure of democracy itself, although I do think it is more or less doomed anyway; but that is another story...

One can even make a very good case that Trump's election is a desperate, but very democratic, though futile, lunge by the electorate toward a way out of the long term betrayal of the petrified two party system and those controlling it for only the elite at its top, a betrayal which you also in the past have acknowledged.

All the best

tmaus said...


Good Afternoon, I stumbled on this blog recently after reading Strauss-Howe. I find it all very interesting.

I just don't know how I am supposed to take a comparison of Trump and Republicans to Hitler and the Nazi Party seriously. Where are my brown shirts breaking up DNC meetings? My uniforms? My call for absolute power given to one man?

I have enjoyed the previous posts, but I found this one tasteless and off base. You risk looking no better than some of the more vanilla analysis around, and frankly this post is contradictory to some of your previous mentions of presidents who took power during fourth turnings. Why compare Trump to Hitler when FDR is so tastefully applicable and more realistic to the situation at hand?

Again, all the best and with great respect,
A New Reader

Unknown said...

Have you read Peter Turchin's "Ages of Discord"? He proposes a 100 year or so cycle of societal integration and then disintegration based on working class wage levels and elite political jockeying. His cycles would apply not only to US today (as this book does) but in his other books to German, Roman and French political cycles.
Morley Winograd

Energyflow said...

You seem quite obsessed with putting American republicans in some way in comparison wth german nazis. Caveats aside it seems suspicious. Anyone and everyone knows that a conversation ends with a comparison of your opponent to hitler. Words like feminazi and similar have been invented by opposing groups to smear other side. Essentially nazi now means totalitarian intolerant. This could apply to MSM treatment of alt right, Trump, etc. Yesterday a professor was injured escorting a speaker from a university speaking engagement.at Middlebury college. Leftwing intolerance is growing. You are pouring oil into the fire. Censorship is growing by ad boycotting, google putting links on 1000th search page, etc. MSM stories are selective perception. Trump's trips are expensive, Obama was uncriticized. Trump groped, Clinton raped and it appears that many Clinton opponents are murdered conveniently by robbers or similar. The DNC has become a criminal enterprise led by a mafia clan in te name of hypocritical creeds. Borgias were better. Bernie should start a new party from scratch.

I don't know if one could call this civil war or not. 1968 atmosphere of civil disobedience against older generation's values is perhaps a comparison but also Mccarthy repression of the 50s. The turmoil is apparent. In the 30s and
earlier since 19th century people fought for their right to organize unions.Many died in the fight. The masses are impoverished, indebted and the rich, utilizing the parasitic politicians, divide and conquer along cultural lines. A pure class war, color blind, culture blind, irreligious would never work. Such a movement could work in Jappn or Korea perhaps where people are all same. As it is the propagandists have easy pickings. Koch brothers proclaim global warming a left wing hoax to deprive country boys of pick ups by subway riding New Yorkers and Soros pays hoodlums from the hood to smash up conservative speeches. The two groups are best buddies in the background, perhaps golfing togethr, hobnobbing on yachts, while the country goes down the drain. Was Hitlr also just a tool of banker's, speculators and industrialists who perhaps got out of control? But history isn't written that way. He started as a socialist antisemite, german nationalist, ended as a demagogue imperialist war monger. This trope is repeating itself throughout the West with islam replacing judaism but socialist nationalism is standard. Until the gini curve representing income distribution gets back to 70s levels the billionaire's divide and conquer strategy will continue leading to a fratricidal civil war in country after country.Islam in Western Europe is being used and latinos/blacks in USA,. Secularism vs. Christianity or Islam vs. Western values(judeo christian enlightenment). The more confusion the better as individuals get rich off the dying civilization. The game is dangerous, riding a tiger.

David Kaiser said...

Thank you Morley for the suggestion.

Tmaus and Ed Boyle: I was as clear as I could be about the exact comparison I was making. Both Trump and Hitler are complete outsiders who were elected (more or less) as head of a major nation by taking advantage of the weakness of the establishment and appealing to victims of economic change. We know how Hitler's ocnstituencies fared under his rule and I see no reason not to ask the same question about the Donald.

Gloucon X said...

Dr. Kieser, I think you and your readers would like the article “I Remember When Appalachia Wasn’t Trump Country” by Charles Peters in the March 4th New York Times. He gives a good capsule view of the attitudes towards the working class that became mainstream under FDR and continued into the mid 60s. Fits in well with your characterization of the period. His view on what happened to change that former status quo seems well thought out and nuanced.

Thanks for continuing to post good historically grounded essays.

Ed Boyle said...


Historical fair comparison made by you with many intersting facts. Much of world went throgh similar economic transitions then but germany was forced by vengeful war winners to pay debts so democracy failed. Since the war we have expanded our search for the next hitler, trying to prevent his rise, be it soviets, Iran, sadaam hussein, castro, now Putin, creating conditions for a new war just like West did against Germany last time in shortsighted vindictiveness of french, british versailles treaty. The wealthy project the shadow of their own guilt for the evil they have caused at home and abroad on Putin, Trump to avoid dealing with their own sins. Nato expansion, coups, regime changes against legitimate govts. across the world are all boomeranging in anti americanism. Americans break treaties always, like with indian tribes. They only work deceptively in self interest. This is the perception outside of Western Europe, Japan, a lack of trust.

Meanwhile sitution is getting worse in America according to linked article. 20 million ex convicts shut out of public life. Opioid epidemic by medicaid recipients causing shorter life expectancy. Falling work participation rates for males and females, who sit stoned full time in front of screens by the millions. Growth stagnating permanently. This while we fight evil abroad at a trillion per annum in defense costs and focus on rich getting richer instead of taking care of own citizenry, infrastructure, etc. There is no reason for a govt. to exist for a small rich, influential minority. The majority has been sorely neglected and are turning against those in charge. These are revolutionary times. Just preaching about poor minorities, while they are jailed in ever higher numbers and get poorer, while ignoring the majority as racists or expensive, overpaid with a preference for minority illegal or H1-B immigrants is priming oneself for a Let them eat cake' guillotining moment. When the students and minorities wise up to the propaganda not giving them a better life but just having them as useful idiots then a grand majority of 90% will turn against the wall street/MSM/ corporate /beltway uppper 0,5%. This is why there is such fear of a real market crash, global bubble bursting. The situation is very serious with china, japan, europe, USA with unpayable debts private, public business. Situation is pretty hopeless macro.

Unknown said...

"The Nazis were disproportionately young; Trump supporters are disproportionately old"

Does this have to do with the fact that Hitler was a 'Nomad', while Trump is a 'Prophet' (for lack of a better term)? 21st Century populists in the West seem to lean toward the Baby Boom generation, as seen with Brexit, etc.

I am interested in your thoughts about how Missionary Generation ideals and values shaped the WWII crisis... Have you written on this before?

Great reading. As a big fan of Strauss Howe Theory, I am hooked!