To say that Hindenburg made one of the greatest blunders of the 20th century in attempting to use Hitler as a puppet in a Junker attempt to re-establish political hegemony would be an understatement. Hitler played his hand perfectly in manipulating the old Prussian elite as, the German people and the Weimar constitution itself, levying himself into a position of supreme power. The skilful propaganda of Goering, the emotive speeches of Hitler, the weakness of the Weimar constitution are all well known. The huge impact of the 1929 Wall Street Market Crash was also particularly felt in Germany, being so reliant on American loans and private business since the early 1920s, easing the way for a populist. These factors go a great way to explaining the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship that has come to epitomise evil, setting the benchmark by which perceived tyrants are judged. Even when not explicitly mentioned, the legacy of one man seems to haunt interpretation of the likes of Putin, le Pen or Trump.
“In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.”
If we are to thoroughly assess whether, as Andrew Sullivan, quoted above from New York Magazine, we may face seeing the US descend into a regime similar to that which Germany succumbed to in the 1930s, we must understand exactly how the destruction of liberal democracy and constitutional order was possible. If we look at Germany from this perspective, we may realise that we in fact have little to worry about.
The impact Hitler is often perceived as having an entire country seems utterly disproportionate to what one would assume a single man is capable of having. This is because it is. What is key to understanding the vast impact of Hitler is realising that he was not foisting personally held convictions and social beliefs upon a nation than stood for liberty and constitutionalism; the willingness of youth to suppress opposing political opinion in the street with violence demonstrates this. This was not a country that stood for religious toleration; this can be seen in the zealous demands for the persecution of Jews which Hitler, despite no prior conception, delivered at the 1934 Nuremberg Rally.
There were not simply momentary economic, class and social frustrations behind this intolerance and discrimination – factors which characterise contemporary racism and discrimination in the US. Nazi values didn’t simply hold weight with Germans because they feared losing work to an illegal immigrant, or because they felt left behind by an evolving economy. The legacy of anti-Semitism, as old as Christianity itself; the long-term development of socially conservative views, crafted in the autocratic Second Reich; the abject failure of the Weimar Republic to deliver Germany from the economic turmoil following 1919: these were the powerful and historically unique factors that primed Germans to support Hitler, in a quasi-ritualistic fashion. In short, it takes more than one individual taking advantage of short-term economic and social qualms to achieve tyranny. Hitler and Trump respectively must be understood not as individuals, but as parts of much wider movements. Whilst Trump may have supporters who seem to parallel those of Hitler, America has seen little, arguably none, of the civilian-initiated violence from the right that characterised the rise of the Nazis.
What we see in the US in the late 19th century teaches us a similar lesson, and provide further comfort. In order for the kind of popular violence that sprung up in Germany in the 1930s to repeat itself in the US, long term racial or religious prejudices must have a firm hold in a culture. Hit hard by the economic crash of 1873, Denis Kearny in California capitalised on economic qualms, running on a populist campaign evoking fears of Chinese labour. Whilst succeeding at achieving the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the movement he initiated could not compare to the intensity of racism intermingled with social and economic fears in the south. The days of Jim Crow in the south saw many terrifying acts of violence against African Americans, most famously lynching, the likes of which were not seen in California directed against the Chinese. What is more, whilst the Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese immigration for a decade, prejudice against the African American sustained a firm hold on high politics, at least into the 1960s.
What was the key difference? Cultural precedent. Chinese labour was a relatively new threat; there was no deeply rooted racial impulse that made cohabitation in the long term impossible, so in this instance, discriminatory policy fizzled out. The American south, on the other hand, was still rebuilding itself after a major conflict that was fought arguably entirely to defend a system of slavery that had defined its economy and culture based on racial hierarchy for decades. Even prior to the economic and social challenges to the south in the late 1800s US diplomat Charles Francis Adams claimed during the Civil War, “little hope for them [African Americans] in their eternal contact with a race like ours”, despite realising the major contribution of ex-slaves to the war effort. However, Adams was loyal to the Union who eventually made Emancipation an official war aim in 1863. Clearly then, not just in the south, and not just in the years of economic strain themselves, there was cultural precedent to the racism that would later manifest itself in the kind of anti-democratic, discriminatory policy many fear from Trump. This culture was why segregation and exclusionist policies became possible.
We needn’t fear a new age of tyranny, so much as several years of blunder. There is no strong cultural precedent behind anti-Mexican racism comparable to that towards African Americans in reconstruction-era USA, and thus we can understand Trump in America in the same way we understand Kearney in California: a populist taking advantage of a window of economic downturn, using a minority as a scapegoat, and coming up short upon achieving office. If we can take a single lesson away from all of this, it is that toxic cultures pose greater threats to democracy than individuals. Trump is a frustrating individual, not a democracy-threatening culture. Instead of fearing a modern American tyrant, it may be best to simply wait for this most recent historical buffoon to be consigned to the footnotes of the past.
Just sit back and be entertained by the constant negative covfefe.