Before and since Trump’s election victory, a number of commentators have drawn parallels between the rise of Donald Trump and the circumstances of 1930s Germany (one brief post on this went viral after a Clinton supporter retweeted it). Many also have felt the subsequent need to qualify and/or clarify their statements (as, indeed, the above poster did).
And while a direct comparison between Trump and Hitler is almost certainly misguided, not least because, as one editorial for the Washington Post noted, it depreciates Hitler, there are, I believe, some salutary comparisons to be made between the circumstances that gave rise to each. So at the risk of doing what most historians caution against — history repeating and all that jazz — I’m going to explore some striking points of similitude between the milieus that gave rise to Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump.
A once-great nation that feels its power and influence is on the wane
Pre-WWI, Germany was arguably the most powerful and advanced (economically, politically, militarily, perhaps even culturally) nation in Europe, if not the world. Fast-forward 10 years and the ravages of war (and peace) had left it a husk of its former self and its position in world geopolitics had been eclipsed by its wartime opponents. On top of this, the nation was officially, and alone, saddled with the guilt of causing a war that any historian now knows — and probably many politicians and world leaders at the time knew — had myriad and complex causes.
[Rundle: the liberal centre that destroyed the world]
At the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, America was arguably the most powerful and advanced (economically and militarily, at least) nation in the world. So much so, that some commentators felt that with the defeat of communism, the world (and, furthermore, history itself) had arrived at its logical end-point. By extension, America stood as the quintessence of this liberal democratic, capitalist terminus. These triumphalist pundits assumed that, a la James Bond, all nations wanted to be like America, or if you couldn’t do that, be with America. But fast-forward 10 years and 9/11 shatters this cosy assumption — not only was it clear that there were people and nations who did not want to be America but, more radically, they fundamentally hated America and its self-possessed democratic, capitalist presumption. But probably more significantly for America’s domestic political scene, the 2000s and 2010s witnessed America’s economic dominance increasingly challenged by China.
Burgeoning economic instability and inequality
The hyperinflation of the early 1920s and, more severely, the Great Depression of 1932-33 led to a widespread feeling of economic vulnerability in Germany. Both events hit the poor and working classes especially hard. Contrary to some misconceptions about the Great Depression, certain wealthy segments of the population were actually able to do quite well out of the economic instability, leading, as this graph shows, to a dramatic expansion of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
A similar scenario has unfolded in the United States over the past 10 or so years. As has been well documented for some time, manufacturing and other traditional working class jobs have been decimated during this time. The global financial crisis of 2008 only exacerbated this trend and, as with the Great Depression in Germany, allowed for a widening of the wealth gap, albeit not as precipitately (see this graph and many others like it). It was those areas that felt this economic decline most acutely — the rust-belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa — that marked the real gains for Trump; especially Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which hadn’t voted Republican since Reagan.
Disillusionment with centrist solutions to the above
Both Germany and America gave centrist policies and politicians a chance to address the above grievances. In the 1920s, Germany was led by a series of centrist political parties and coalitions known collectively as the Weimar Republic. Although urban centres like Berlin had their own experiences of the “roaring twenties” (but, as in other developed nations, the ’20s really only “roared” for the relatively well-off), for the vast majority of Germans the Weimar Republic became synonymous with economic uncertainty and political turmoil.
[Usury suspects: media gumshoes have fingered five main culprits for Trump’s win]
Similarly, for the last six-and-a-half years, America has been led by the very centrist government of President Barack Obama. Obama’s administration has proven a disappointment to even many who started out as ardent supporters. The hope for genuine change that came with his presidency dissipated over time and his administration ultimately proved incapable of providing a solution to those deep-seated feelings of political and economic emasculation.
Some might say that in both instances these centrist governments were set an improbable task, which was made impossible by domestic political obstructionism. But at the end of the day, the veracity of such a claim is largely irrelevant. Perception is often what is most important in politics and both the Weimar and Obama governments were perceived by large swathes of the population to be basically ineffectual.
The resort to mavericks from outside the political establishment
In both Germany and America, voters eventually resorted to maverick candidates from outside the political establishment to confront these trenchant and profound frustrations. While it’s clear that these mavericks offered simple, sloganistic solutions and scapegoated minorities, again, this is not what’s most important. The crucial thing is that Hitler and Trump were not of the establishment that had proven not only ineffectual at redressing these frustrations but, arguably, presided over an exacerbation of them. Thus, and as many commentators are now pointing out, a vote for Trump (and Hitler) was not necessarily a vote in favour of the man or even his policies but was, rather, a vote against being forgotten and left behind by the political establishment.
Furthermore, this is why it’s wrong-headed to stereotype these voters as stupid or racist. Some, of course, might be either or both, but the above frustrations were felt in a very real way by a great number of reasonable, clear-thinking people. After all, even the eminently reasonable and moral Reverend Martin Niemöller, who is thought to have authored one of the more famous quotes to come out of the Nazi period, voted for the National Socialists in the 1933 election.
Support from traditional conservative elites
In 1933, the National Socialists won 44% of the vote in Germany, well short of the majority required to govern. They were only able to assume government with the aid of a willing coalition partner, the German National People’s Party (DNVP). The DNVP received its support from traditional conservative elements within the population — monarchists, national industrialists, supporters of the Pan-German League etc. — who hoped to use Hitler to further their own reactionary, conservative agenda. As it turned out, the reverse actually occurred.
Trump has been denounced by a number of prominent members of the conservative elite in America (but, then again, so was Hitler, particularly from within the diplomatic and intelligence communities), but has also maintained the support of many popular figures from within the conservative political establishment, like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (for a full list, see here). Whether these members of the American conservative elite are hoping to do the same as those in Germany had hoped — that is, ride on the coattails of the popular outsider maverick in order to advance their own agenda — is impossible to guess. Indeed, it will be interesting to wait and see how the relationship between Trump and the conservative establishment plays out.
Where to from here?
As a historian, the future is not really my bag, but I would like to strongly stress that I’m not suggesting that Trump is about to institute a fascist-style government in America. There are enough dissimilarities between the two situations as to make that highly improbable (e.g. Trump doesn’t have the support of a paramilitary organisation in the way that Hitler was able to command 400,000 Brownshirts in 1932).
A final observation to finish with …
A final point on why so few people expected a Trump victory … This is a little more speculative but I’d like to submit that the Trump election victory (and the equally “surprising” Brexit before it) should actually be filed under — and my Marxist friends will crucify me here — “working-class revolution”, albeit of a rather subdued or “lite” form. Revolutions are made possible when the political and economic elite are ignorant of (wilfully or otherwise), or sufficiently disconnected from, the hopes and aspirations of a significant proportion of “the masses”. This also explains why revolutions are so often so unexpected. Hillary Clinton is hardly Marie Antoinette but her policies of “more of the same centrist dissembling” may have sounded a lot like “let them eat cake” to the unemployed car worker in Michigan.