Contemporary America is modeling the worst of Depression-era Germany
“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain quipped, “but it often rhymes.” No two eras are the same, but analogous circumstances can produce comparable results.
Conditions in contemporary America bear a disturbing resemblance to those in Weimar, Germany, and have evoked a disturbingly familiar response from a sizeable segment of the population.
A pervasive climate of fear characterized both eras. The Great Depression hit Germany so hard that by 1932, 30 percent of its workforce was unemployed. While the U.S. has not experienced that kind of shock, the COVID pandemic, inflation, rising prices and irrational fear of growing diversity have contributed to generalized anxiety.
In both eras, populism, a belief that elites indifferent to the concerns of ordinary people governed the country, flourished. Demagogues played on fear and anger to gain power.
These leaders posed as both the embodiment of the popular will and the saviors of their people. They stoked the fires of discontent and claimed they alone could quench the flames.
Adolf Hitler remains the archetype of the populist demagogue. A man of modest origins who rose to power through the democratic process, he then destroyed democracy, insisting he alone would fix Germany’s problems.
Donald Trump has borrowed more than a few chapters from that playbook. His Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement appealed to a segment of the electorate who lacked the education and skills necessary to compete in a rapidly changing, high-tech economy. He also promised to restore the privileged place of Euro-American Christians, especially straight white men who felt persecuted.
Trump no longer has the populist playing field to himself. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) has soared in popularity among some conservatives, adding anti-woke ideology to the MAGA agenda.
Trump wannabes sit in Congress and control state houses and governors’ mansions across the country.
Fear-mongering demagogues always need scapegoats. Hitler had the Jews, and the MAGA crowd has immigrants, Muslims, LGBQT+ people — anyone who does not fit its narrow definition of American identity.
Racism goes hand-in-hand with scapegoating. The Nazis blamed the Jews for Germany’s economic woes, but they also considered them racially inferior and targeted them for elimination (aka, genocide) along with the disabled, the mentally ill, and the “chronically asocial” (a catchall term that included homosexuals and others designated misfits).
Although white supremacists have flocked to the MAGA banner, the movement’s leaders prefer coded to overt racism. They oppose affirmative action, claiming to favor a “color blind” society, and object to schools engaging with the ugly legacy of slavery, dismissing efforts to do so as promoting white guilt.
Having conjured up images of a pervasive threat, demagogues promise to counter it with firm measures. Contrary to popular belief, the Nazis did not gain a plurality of seats in the 1932 Reichstag election with an antisemitic campaign. Instead, they promised law and order and full employment.
Law and order have figured prominently in recent American elections. Conservative candidates promise to “take the handcuffs off the police and put them on the criminals.” A recent poll for the Chicago mayoral vote revealed that crime and policing topped the list of voter concerns.
One of the most disturbing aspects of populism is its embrace of lies and conspiracy theories. Truth is not what can be objectively verified but what the leader declares it to be.
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it,” Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels declared, “people will eventually come to believe it.”
For the Nazis, the big lie was the “stab in the back” myth, the mistaken notion that Germany had not lost the First World War but that its army had been sold-out by Jews, communists and other traitors at home.
Trump’s big lie is that he won the 2020 election, which Democrats stole from him through widespread voter fraud. Two years after Biden’s victory, 61 percent of Republicans continue to believe this falsehood.
Promulgating the big lie depends on muzzling institutions that tell the truth. As soon as they came to power, the Nazis censored newspapers, radio and cinema. They removed noncompliant educators and burned books they found objectionable. Trump and other MAGA candidates cannot employ censorship, but they have excoriated what they describe as the “lamestream” media, a term coined by former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) in 2009. They label unfavorable coverage, no matter how factually based, as biased against them.
Kellyanne Conway, a Trump adviser, defended inaccurate statements by press secretary Sean Spicer as “alternative facts.”
The tendency of Americans to get their news from outlets that reinforce what they already believe makes selling lies much easier. A 2022 poll revealed that 69 percent of Republicans find Fox News credible, even though the network faces a defamation lawsuit for promoting the big lie. However, there are signs the lawsuit is having an impact: A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows 65 percent of Americans, including 41 percent of Republicans, believe Fox News should be held accountable for revelations made during the case.
Conservatives do not burn books as the Nazis did; they ban them. Where they have gained a majority on library and school boards, MAGA supporters have removed volumes from shelves and banned them from classrooms.
From July 2021 to June 2022, school districts banned 1,684 titles. Books with protagonists or prominent characters who are LGBTQ+ or people of color comprise the largest group of banned titles. Texas and Florida with their MAGA governors lead the way in this war on free expression.
Not content to go after elementary and high schools, DeSantis has targeted public universities. A Florida education bill seeks to prevent the use of state and federal funds to support diversity, equity and inclusion programs. It would also ban certain courses and majors dealing with race and gender.
The United States is not yet where Germany was in 1933. Once in power, the Nazis quickly transformed populism into fascism. American democracy has proven more durable. The Jan. 6 insurrection failed, and the 2022 midterm elections occurred peacefully and with almost no controversy.
We should not, however, become complacent. A recent survey found that 20.5 percent of Americans believe that violence to achieve a political objective was sometimes justifiable. Nearly 12 percent expressed a willingness to use force to restore Trump to power.
As anthropologist Alexander Laban Hinton warns us in his new book, “it can happen here.”
Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University and the author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”
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