The GOP primary and the conduct Donald Trump has many observers worried. His personal brand of politics, exhortations to violence, xenophobic comments, and appeal to authoritarianism lead some to fear that a GOP candidate with fascist characteristics is on the brink of being elected president. This is an outcome that we should all work to avoid but we should also take solace that the United States’s history is dissimilar to Germany’s where such tactics and rhetoric succeeded.
In the 1930’s when National Socialism rose to power in Germany the conditions were very different:
- The Great Depression was in full swing with attendant hyper-inflation. Waiting a few hours to buy bread could result in only affording one loaf rather than two. Prices were highly inflationary and unemployment exceeded 30%. Exacerbating these economic conditions, Germany was saddled with crippling reparations from its loss in World War I.
- Germany had a short history as a unified Democratic state. Germany only unified in 1871, sixty years earlier under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck. Previously, Germany had been a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities, duchies, and free states. The German government after unification had some parliamentary trappings but political power was highly concentrated and resided with the Kaiser and Prussian nobility. Following Germany’s defeat in World War I, this system was severely weakened and destabilized with the elimination of the Kaiser and reduction in power of the Prussian nobility.
- Revolution was a reality and in the air. Tsarist Russia succumbed to a Communist revolution in 1917 and the threat of Communist revolution in central Europe was common. Moreover, the threat of a hostile Russia concerned the German government and the people of Germany.
- Political violence was not uncommon. Italy had emerged as unified state at the same time as Germany. Revolutions in France and Russia as well as Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 were in the public mind.
The American experience of 2016 is vastly different.
- Even with the economic meltdown of 2003, Unemployment and inflation never reached similar levels.
- The United States has been a cohesive nation for over 200 years and we have maintained a freestanding federal republic with checks and balances between the branches of government. Over time, voting rights have been expanded along with civil rights of all citizens.
- The Civil War is our lone internal revolutionary struggle. Communism ceased to be an existential threat with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. Canada and Mexico do present neither a military nor an ideological threat to the United States. Moreover, the United States has not been defeated in World War.
- Political violence is culturally unacceptable. While there is a considerable amount of violence in American society, its use in political contexts is shunned as suggested by broad public reaction to violence perpetrated by anti-government groups.
While the United States is very different and quite resilient, we should not take its strength for granted. Its strength comes from its citizens.
It is up to us to declare that political violence and violent political rhetoric is unacceptable and intolerable wherever it manifests. Speaking out against those who would use such tools is our republic’s first line of defense against the ambitions of despots. Remaining silent is an unacceptable option.