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 Depression 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.
I’ve been trying to tell people, with varying degrees of success, that next year’s campaign is going to be—by far—the most ruthless and dishonest campaign that any living American has seen. Some people take me seriously. But most say something along the lines that it can hardly get any worse.
Oh yes it can. It can get a lot worse. And if you want to see how, watch this clip of Corey Lewandowski on Fox News Thursday night, via Josh Marshall’s Twitter feed:
Trump Advisor Lewandowski: Biden behind Steele Dossier; Comey, McCabe, Strzok and Page will all be on trial "March or April of the next year." pic.twitter.com/cDVU3rnYXd— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) May 24, 2019
Here’s the transcript, although you really have to study his face and eyes and hear his voice to get the full Weimar effect: “They should be fearful, and I’ll tell you why. The person who has gotten a pass on this so far is Joe Biden. Because I believe that the investigation which was launched came from somewhere inside the White House to greenlight Clapper, Comey, and Brennan to start this investigation into Donald Trump for no valid reason. We now know the State Department, we’ve seen the contemporaneous emails that were put into place after Victoria Nuland did a meeting with Christopher Steele, then notified the FBI this person had no credibility. But it continued. Because it came from the highest levels of the government.
“And Joe Biden has not answered what he knew and when he knew it of how this investigation began. And when Attorney General Barr and Mr. Horowitz release that report in approximately a month I think we’re gonna see additional criminal referrals, with McCabe getting another referral, Comey a referral, Strzok and Page, James Baker, possibly Bruce Orr, and other people we haven’t even meant [sic] as household names yet—but criminal referrals. And I think what we’re gonna see, Gregg, is in March or April of next year, Jamey Comey, Andy McCabe, Strzok and Page will be on trial for the crimes they have committed against the Fourth Amendment, against this president, and we can’t wait.”
“Gregg” was Gregg Jarrett, sitting in for Lou Dobbs; he added helpfully as Lewandowski was winding down that John Brennan and James Clapper were due for their time in the barrel as well.
But the second part of the rant was even more chilling. The plan here is to wait for the report from the Justice Department inspector general (that’s Horowitz) to hit next month, pry whatever passages they can out of that report to go on Pravda TV, and stitch together the appearance of a vast, deep state conspiracy to take Trump down.
Then wait again, this time for Attorney General Bill Barr to do his part. Trump’s announcement Thursday that Barr would be in charge of releasing the intel on the Trump campaign probe is a staggering development, something we’ve never seen the likes of. Barr, who already demonstrated he’ll cherry pick evidence on Trump’s behalf, can pluck out whatever evidence he wants and leave buried whatever evidence he wants to leave buried.
It’s almost beyond comprehension. Read this tweet from Evan McMullin, the former GOP Hill staffer and presidential candidate:
But with everything filtered through a state television network and no Republicans in Congress willing to utter a syllable of protest, there will be no accountability.
And then, next spring (what a coincidence, election year!), Barr’s Justice Department can bring indictments against James Comey, Andy McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page for—well, they’ll come up with something. And maybe John Brennan and James Clapper too.
Welcome, folks, to the first Stalinist show trials in the history of our country.
Justice has been miscarried in this country in a hundred different ways a thousand different times, usually with poor people, black people, or political radicals getting the short end of the stick. That’s not defensible, but it’s old hat, and it happens everywhere, not just in America.
What we have not seen in America, not even during the McCarthy era, is an orchestrated effort of this sort with the goal, if Lewandowski is to be believed, and I don’t see why he shouldn’t be, of sending political opponents to jail.
This is not Stalin’s Russia. They may not be able to pull it off. They may get an unlucky draw on the judge. A jury of Peter Strzok’s peers may determine he did nothing wrong.
But it won’t be for lack of trying. And if all goes to plan, the trials will stretch into the summer, into the fall, close to November. You can’t miss the point of that.
So take this seriously. On Friday, Trump accused Comey, McCabe, Strzok, and Page of “treason.” For investigating a presidential campaign. Treason is aiding an enemy during wartime. And is punishable by death. Trump used the word specifically to signal to his attack dogs that anything is fair game.
So yes, next year’s campaign will be a nightmare beyond the imagination of any novelist who has yet tried to capture and describe totalitarian, hall-of-mirrors horror, from Koestler to Orwell to Kundera or anyone else. They were all describing how a regime gets away with it in a totalitarian state. But these people will be getting away with it in a democracy.
This is the weekend we honor the men and women who’ve laid down their lives to keep that democracy breathing. Today, it is in serious danger of being suffocated. What would we say today to the men who stormed Omaha Beach; if they could speak to us and wanted to be reassured that the sacrifice they knew they were charging into was worth it, how would we tell them that the government they died to protect is now in the hands of at least some people who might well have fought on the other side? Contemplating that is the necessary patriotic gesture of this Memorial Day.