The parallels between Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s and the United States today are inexact, certainly, but they’re cause for concern.
After World War I, Germany was a shambles. Unemployment was high, national morale low, the government ineffective. Hitler had initially made serious mistakes (he was thrown into prison at one point), but he was a brilliant and unscrupulous political strategist, and before too long he had risen to the top.
What’s easy to forget today is that millions of Germans loved Hitler. Not all of them, certainly. But he promised to make Germany great again, and the promises struck a deep chord. Indeed, if he hadn’t been an insane megalomaniac, if he had known when to stop, he probably would have succeeded.
We also tend to forget that, until the outbreak of World War II, Hitler was widely admired in the United States, especially by wealthy industrialists. Anti-Semitism was by no means confined to the Nazi Party: A newspaper owned by Henry Ford published the viciously anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and Ford himself apparently gave credence to it. So Hitler’s initial mistreatment of the Jews, before the existence of the concentration camps became known — denying them citizenship, prohibiting their marriage to non-Jews, confining them to ghettos, letting your goons beat them up for fun, all that — would not have been viewed as a reason to distance oneself from such a charismatic leader.
I have long suspected, though I’ve never read the theory anywhere, that Hitler’s rise to power was fueled in no small part by his mastery of mass media. He was the first world-class tyrant to arise after the invention and widespread adoption of radio and the public address system. The sound of his voice in mass rallies attended by thousands of people apparently had a hypnotic effect.
Working the technology to get your message across is nothing new. And it’s not clear that Americans today are any better at figuring out when they’re being lied to and manipulated by mass media than the Germans were in the 1930s.
Today the U.S. economy is in a shambles, national morale is low, the government is ineffective. Ordinary people feel powerless and frustrated. And megalomaniacs who crave total social control are arising to exploit the situation.
Today’s anti-Semitism is directed not at Jews but at Muslims. Latino immigrants also face serious discrimination. And the right-wing demagogues are keen to exploit racists’ primitive emotions. Why? Because fear and loathing are powerful motivators. If you can convince millions of voters that you understand and share their fear and loathing, that you have a program that will help rid them of what they hate, they’ll vote for you. In droves.
Faced with a well-financed, well-coordinated propaganda attack from the American Nazi Party (in all but name, that’s what we’ve got), the Democrats are floundering around. They’re about as effective as the Weimar Republic was in providing an alternative to Hitler.
The Democrats have no coherent political philosophy to offer, and no passion for their half-hearted, half-witted solutions to the nation’s deep problems. The Republicans’ political philosophy is insane, but it’s internally coherent and delivered with passion.
The Democrats have no coherent philosophy for a fairly simple reason: They accept millions of dollars in contributions from giant corporations. Any coherent philosophy that they might put forward would be antagonistic to corporate interests. So they’re hamstrung. A few individual Democrats make, from time to time, sensible statements, but as a political force they’re a farce. All they can offer is a slightly less reprehensible, slightly less catastrophic, slightly less vicious form of Republicanism.
And that’s not going to be enough. Because things are going to get worse, economically and environmentally. The worse things get, the more fear and loathing the American Nazi Party will be able to whip up, and the more seats they’ll be able to gain in Congress.
I’ve never actually read It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis. Maybe it’s time to do that.