As a historian specializing in the Holocaust, Nazi Germany, and Europe in the era of the world wars, I have been repeatedly asked about the degree to which the current situation in the United States resembles the interwar period and the rise of fascism in Europe. I would note several troubling similarities and one important but equally troubling difference.
In the 1920s, the US pursued isolationism in foreign policy and rejected participation in international organizations like the League of Nations. America First was America alone, except for financial agreements like the Dawes and Young Plans aimed at ensuring that our “free-loading” former allies could pay back their war loans. At the same time, high tariffs crippled international trade, making the repayment of those loans especially difficult. The country witnessed an increase in income disparity and a concentration of wealth at the top, and both Congress and the courts eschewed regulations to protect against the self-inflicted calamities of free enterprise run amok. The government also adopted a highly restrictionist immigration policy aimed at preserving the hegemony of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants against an influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants. (Various measures barring Asian immigration had already been implemented between 1882 and 1917.) These policies left the country unable to respond constructively to either the Great Depression or the rise of fascism, the growing threat to peace, and the refugee crisis of the 1930s.
Today, President Trump seems intent on withdrawing the US from the entire post–World War II structure of interlocking diplomatic, military, and economic agreements and organizations that have preserved peace, stability, and prosperity since 1945. His preference for bilateral relations, conceived as zero-sum rivalries in which he is the dominant player and “wins,” overlaps with the ideological preference of Steve Bannon and the so-called alt-right for the unfettered self-assertion of autonomous, xenophobic nation-states—in short, the pre-1914 international system. That “international anarchy” produced World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Great Depression, the fascist dictatorships, World War II, and the Holocaust, precisely the sort of disasters that the post–World War II international system has for seven decades remarkably avoided.
In threatening trade wars with allies and adversaries alike, Trump justifies increased tariffs on our allies on the specious pretext that countries like Canada are a threat to our national security. He combines his constant disparagement of our democratic allies with open admiration of authoritarians. His naive and narcissistic confidence in his own powers of personal diplomacy and his faith in a handshake with the likes of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un recall the hapless Neville Chamberlain (a man in every other regard different from Trump). Fortunately the US is so embedded in the international order it created after 1945, and the Republican Party and its business supporters are sufficiently alarmed over the threat to free trade, that Trump has not yet completed his agenda of withdrawal, though he has made astounding progress in a very short time.
A second aspect of the interwar period with all too many similarities to our current situation is the waning of the Weimar Republic. Paul von Hindenburg, elected president of Germany in 1925, was endowed by the Weimar Constitution with various emergency powers to defend German democracy should it be in dire peril. Instead of defending it, Hindenburg became its gravedigger, using these powers first to destroy democratic norms and then to ally with the Nazis to replace parliamentary government with authoritarian rule. Hindenburg began using his emergency powers in 1930, appointing a sequence of chancellors who ruled by decree rather than through parliamentary majorities, which had become increasingly impossible to obtain as a result of the Great epression and the hyperpolarization of German politics.
Because an ever-shrinking base of support for traditional conservatism made it impossible to carry out their authoritarian revision of the constitution, Hindenburg and the old right ultimately made their deal with Hitler and installed him as chancellor. Thinking that they could ultimately control Hitler while enjoying the benefits of his popular support, the conservatives were initially gratified by the fulfillment of their agenda: intensified rearmament, the outlawing of the Communist Party, the suspension first of freedom of speech, the press, and assembly and then of parliamentary government itself, a purge of the civil service, and the abolition of independent labor unions. Needless to say, the Nazis then proceeded far beyond the goals they shared with their conservative allies, who were powerless to hinder them in any significant way.
If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell. He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could. As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more. Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments. Systematic obstruction of nominations in Obama’s first term provoked Democrats to scrap the filibuster for all but Supreme Court nominations. Then McConnell’s unprecedented blocking of the Merrick Garland nomination required him in turn to scrap the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations in order to complete the “steal” of Antonin Scalia’s seat and confirm Neil Gorsuch. The extreme politicization of the judicial nomination process is once again on display in the current Kavanaugh hearings.
One can predict that henceforth no significant judicial appointments will be made when the presidency and the Senate are not controlled by the same party. McConnell and our dysfunctional and disrespected Congress have now ensured an increasingly dysfunctional and disrespected judiciary, and the constitutional balance of powers among the three branches of government is in peril.
Whatever secret reservations McConnell and other traditional Republican leaders have about Trump’s character, governing style, and possible criminality, they openly rejoice in the payoff they have received from their alliance with him and his base: huge tax cuts for the wealthy, financial and environmental deregulation, the nominations of two conservative Supreme Court justices (so far) and a host of other conservative judicial appointments, and a significant reduction in government-sponsored health care (though not yet the total abolition of Obamacare they hope for). Like Hitler’s conservative allies, McConnell and the Republicans have prided themselves on the early returns on their investment in Trump. The combination of Trump’s abasement before Putin in Helsinki, the shameful separation of families at the border in complete disregard of US asylum law (to say nothing of basic humanitarian principles and the GOP’s relentless claim to be the defender of “family values”), and most recently Michael Cohen’s implication of Trump in criminal violations of campaign finance laws has not shaken the fealty of the Republican old guard, so there is little indication that even an explosive and incriminating report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller will rupture the alliance.
But the potential impact of the Mueller report does suggest yet another eerie similarity to the interwar period—how the toxic divisions in domestic politics led to the complete inversion of previous political orientations. Both Mussolini and Hitler came to power in no small part because the fascist-conservative alliances on the right faced division and disarray on the left. The Catholic parties (Popolari in Italy, Zentrum in Germany), liberal moderates, Social Democrats, and Communists did not cooperate effectively in defense of democracy. In Germany this reached the absurd extreme of the Communists underestimating the Nazis as a transitory challenge while focusing on the Social Democrats—dubbed “red fascists”—as the true long-term threat to Communist triumph.
By 1936 the democratic forces of France and Spain had learned the painful lesson of not uniting against the fascist threat, and even Stalin reversed his ill-fated policy and instructed the Communists to join democrats in Popular Front electoral alliances. In France the prospect of a Popular Front victory and a new government headed by—horror of horrors—a Socialist and Jew, Léon Blum, led many on the right to proclaim, “Better Hitler than Blum.” Better the victory of Frenchmen emulating the Nazi dictator and traditional national enemy across the Rhine than preserving French democracy at home and French independence abroad under a Jewish Socialist. The victory of the Popular Front in 1936 temporarily saved French democracy but led to the defeat of a demoralized and divided France in 1940, followed by the Vichy regime’s collaboration with Nazi Germany while enthusiastically pursuing its own authoritarian counterrevolution.
Faced with the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the US election and collusion with members of his campaign, Trump and his supporters’ first line of defense has been twofold—there was “no collusion” and the claim of Russian meddling is a “hoax.” The second line of defense is again twofold: “collusion is not a crime” and the now-proven Russian meddling had no effect. I suspect that if the Mueller report finds that the Trump campaign’s “collusion” with Russians does indeed meet the legal definition of “criminal conspiracy” and that the enormous extent of Russian meddling makes the claim that it had no effect totally implausible, many Republicans will retreat, either implicitly or explicitly, to the third line of defense: “Better Putin than Hillary.” There seems to be nothing for which the demonization of Hillary Clinton does not serve as sufficient justification, and the notion that a Trump presidency indebted to Putin is far preferable to the nightmare of a Clinton victory will signal the final Republican reorientation to illiberalism at home and subservience to an authoritarian abroad.
Such similarities, both actual and foreseeable, must not obscure a significant difference between the interwar democratic decline and our current situation. In his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis portrayed a Nazi-style takeover in the US, in which paramilitary forces of the newly elected populist president seize power by arresting many members of Congress and setting up a dictatorship replete with all-powerful local commissars, concentration camps, summary courts, and strict censorship, as well as the incarceration of all political opponents who do not succeed in fleeing over the Canadian border. Invoking the Nazi example was understandable then, and several aspects of democratic decline in the interwar period seem eerily similar to current trends, as I have noted. But the Nazi dictatorship, war, and genocide following the collapse of Weimar democracy are not proving very useful for understanding the direction in which we are moving today. I would argue that current trends reflect a significant divergence from the dictatorships of the 1930s.
The fascist movements of that time prided themselves on being overtly antidemocratic, and those that came to power in Italy and Germany boasted that their regimes were totalitarian. The most original revelation of the current wave of authoritarians is that the construction of overtly antidemocratic dictatorships aspiring to totalitarianism is unnecessary for holding power. Perhaps the most apt designation of this new authoritarianism is the insidious term “illiberal democracy.” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary have all discovered that opposition parties can be left in existence and elections can be held in order to provide a fig leaf of democratic legitimacy, while in reality elections pose scant challenge to their power. Truly dangerous opposition leaders are neutralized or eliminated one way or another.
Total control of the press and other media is likewise unnecessary, since a flood of managed and fake news so pollutes the flow of information that facts and truth become irrelevant as shapers of public opinion. Once-independent judiciaries are gradually dismantled through selective purging and the appointment of politically reliable loyalists. Crony capitalism opens the way to a symbiosis of corruption and self-enrichment between political and business leaders. Xenophobic nationalism (and in many cases explicitly anti-immigrant white nationalism) as well as the prioritization of “law and order” over individual rights are also crucial to these regimes in mobilizing the popular support of their bases and stigmatizing their enemies.
Trump has shown unabashed admiration for these authoritarian leaders and great affinity for the major tenets of illiberal democracy. But others have paved the way in important respects. Republicans begin with a systemic advantage in electing senators and representatives, because the Democratic Party’s constituency has become heavily concentrated in big states and big cities. By my calculation every currently serving Democratic senator represents roughly 3.65 million people; every Republican roughly 2.51 million. Put another way, the fifty senators from the twenty-five least populous states—twenty-nine of them Republicans—represent just over 16 percent of the American population, and thirty-four Republican senators—enough to block conviction on impeachment charges—represent states with a total of 21 percent of the American population. With gerrymandering and voter suppression enhancing even more the systemic Republican advantage, it is estimated that the Democrats will have to win by 7 to 11 points (a margin only obtainable in rare “wave” elections) in the 2018 elections to achieve even the narrowest of majorities in the House of Representatives.
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Trump supporters at a rally in Charleston, West Virginia, August 2018
In the five presidential elections of the twenty-first century, Democrats have won the popular vote four times. Two of these four (2000 and 2016) nonetheless produced Republican presidents, since the Electoral College reflects the same weighting toward small, more often Republican states as the Senate. Given the Supreme Court’s undermining of central provisions of the Voting Rights Act (Shelby County v. Holder), its refusal to take up current flagrant gerrymandering cases (Gill v. Whitford for Wisconsin; Benisek v. Lamone for Maryland), and its recent approval of the Ohio law purging its voting rolls (Husted v. Randolph Institute), it must be feared that the Court will in the future open the floodgates for even more egregious gerrymandering and voter suppression.
The unprecedented flow of dark money into closely contested campaigns has distorted the electoral process even further. The Supreme Court decision declaring corporations to be people and money to be free speech (Citizens United v. FEC) in particular has greatly enhanced the ability of corporations and wealthy individuals to influence American politics. We are approaching the point when Democrats might still win state elections in the major blue states but become increasingly irrelevant in elections for the presidency and Congress. Trump’s personal flaws and his tactic of appealing to a narrow base while energizing Democrats and alienating independents may lead to precisely that rare wave election needed to provide a congressional check on the administration as well as the capture of enough state governorships and legislatures to begin reversing current trends in gerrymandering and voter suppression. The elections of 2018 and 2020 will be vital in testing how far the electoral system has deteriorated.
Another area in which Trump has been the benefactor of long-term trends predating his presidency is the decline of organized labor. To consolidate his dictatorship, Hitler had to abolish the independent unions in Germany in a single blow. Trump faces no such problem. In the first three postwar decades, workers and management effectively shared the increased wealth produced by the growth in productivity. Since the 1970s that social contract has collapsed, union membership and influence have declined, wage growth has stagnated, and inequality in wealth has grown sharply. Governor Scott Walker’s triumph over public sector unions in Wisconsin and the recent Supreme Court decision striking down mandatory public sector union dues (Janus v. AFSCME) simply accelerate a process long underway. The increasingly uneven playing field caused by the rise in corporate influence and decline in union power, along with the legions of well-funded lobbyists, is another sign of the illiberal trend.
Alongside the erosion of an independent judiciary as a check on executive power, other hallmarks of illiberal democracy are the neutralization of a free press and the steady diminution of basic human rights. On these issues, often described as the guardrails of democracy against authoritarian encroachment, the Trump administration either has won or seems poised to win significant gains for illiberalism. Upon his appointment as chancellor, Hitler immediately created a new Ministry of People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels, who remained one of his closest political advisers.
In Trump’s presidency, those functions have effectively been privatized in the form of Fox News and Sean Hannity. Fox faithfully trumpets the “alternative facts” of the Trump version of events, and in turn Trump frequently finds inspiration for his tweets and fantasy-filled statements from his daily monitoring of Fox commentators and his late-night phone calls with Hannity. The result is the creation of a “Trump bubble” for his base to inhabit that is unrecognizable to viewers of PBS, CNN, and MSNBC and readers of The Washington Post and The New York Times. The highly critical free media not only provide no effective check on Trump’s ability to be a serial liar without political penalty; on the contrary, they provide yet another enemy around which to mobilize the grievances and resentments of his base. A free press does not have to be repressed when it can be rendered irrelevant and even exploited for political gain.
The very first legislation decreed by Hitler under the Enabling Act of 1933 (which suspended the legislative powers of the Reichstag) authorized the government to dismiss civil servants for suspected political unreliability and “non-Aryan” ancestry. Inequality before the law and legal discrimination were core features of the Nazi regime from the beginning. It likewise intruded into people’s private choices about sexuality and reproduction. Persecution of male homosexuality was drastically intensified, resulting in the deaths of some 10,000 gay men and the incarceration and even castration of many thousands more. Some 300,000–400,000 Germans deemed carriers of hereditary defects were forcibly sterilized; some 150,000 mentally and physically handicapped Germans considered “unworthy of life” were murdered. Germans capable of bearing racially valued children were denied access to contraception and abortion and rewarded for having large families; pregnant female foreign workers were often forced to have abortions to prevent the birth of undesired children and loss of workdays.
Nothing remotely so horrific is on the illiberal agenda, but the curtailment of many rights and protections Americans now enjoy is likely. Presumably marriage equality will survive, given the sea change in American public opinion on that issue. But the right of businesses and individuals to discriminate against gays is likely to be broadly protected as a “sincerely held religious belief.” Chief Justice John Roberts’s favorite target, affirmative action, is likely to disappear under his slogan that to end racial discrimination, one must end all forms of racial discrimination. And a woman’s right to abortion will probably disappear in red states, either through an outright overturning of Roe v. Wade or more likely through narrower rulings that fail to find any “undue burden” in draconian restrictions that in practice make abortion unavailable. And equal protection of voting rights is likely to be eroded in red states through ever more insidiously designed voter suppression laws and gerrymandering once the Supreme Court makes clear that it will not intervene to curb such measures.
The domestic agenda of Trump’s illiberal democracy falls considerably short of totalitarian dictatorship as exemplified by Mussolini and Hitler. But that is small comfort for those who hope and believe that the arc of history inevitably bends toward greater emancipation, equality, and freedom. Likewise, it is small comfort that in foreign policy Trump does not emulate the Hitlerian goals of wars of conquest and genocide, because the prospects for peace and stability are nevertheless seriously threatened. Escalating trade wars could easily tip the world economy into decline, and the Trump administration has set thresholds for peaceful settlements with Iran and North Korea that seem well beyond reach.
It is possible that Trump is engaged in excessive rhetorical posturing as a bargaining chip and will retreat to more moderate positions in both cases. But it is also possible that adversarial momentum will build, room for concessions will disappear, and he will plunge the country into serious economic or military conflicts as a captive of his own rhetoric. Historically, such confrontations and escalations have often escaped the control of leaders far more talented than Trump.
No matter how and when the Trump presidency ends, the specter of illiberalism will continue to haunt American politics. A highly politicized judiciary will remain, in which close Supreme Court decisions will be viewed by many as of dubious legitimacy, and future judicial appointments will be fiercely contested. The racial division, cultural conflict, and political polarization Trump has encouraged and intensified will be difficult to heal. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, and uncontrolled campaign spending will continue to result in elections skewed in an unrepresentative and undemocratic direction. Growing income disparity will be extremely difficult to halt, much less reverse.
Finally, within several decades after Trump’s presidency has ended, the looming effects of ecological disaster due to human-caused climate change—which Trump not only denies but is doing so much to accelerate—will be inescapable. Desertification of continental interiors, flooding of populous coastal areas, and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, with concomitant shortages of fresh water and food, will set in motion both population flight and conflicts over scarce resources that dwarf the current fate of Central Africa and Syria. No wall will be high enough to shelter the US from these events. Trump is not Hitler and Trumpism is not Nazism, but regardless of how the Trump presidency concludes, this is a story unlikely to have a happy ending.