Contemporary America is modeling the worst of Depression-era Germany

“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain quipped, “but it often rhymes.” No two eras are the same, but analogous circumstances can produce comparable results.

Conditions in contemporary America bear a disturbing resemblance to those in Weimar, Germany, and have evoked a disturbingly familiar response from a sizeable segment of the population.

A pervasive climate of fear characterized both eras. The Great Depression hit Germany so hard that by 1932, 30 percent of its workforce was unemployed. While the U.S. has not experienced that kind of shock, the COVID pandemic, inflation, rising prices and irrational fear of growing diversity have contributed to generalized anxiety. 

In both eras, populism, a belief that elites indifferent to the concerns of ordinary people governed the country, flourished. Demagogues played on fear and anger to gain power.

These leaders posed as both the embodiment of the popular will and the saviors of their people. They stoked the fires of discontent and claimed they alone could quench the flames. 

Adolf Hitler remains the archetype of the populist demagogue. A man of modest origins who rose to power through the democratic process, he then destroyed democracy, insisting he alone would fix Germany’s problems. 

Donald Trump has borrowed more than a few chapters from that playbook. His Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement appealed to a segment of the electorate who lacked the education and skills necessary to compete in a rapidly changing, high-tech economy. He also promised to restore the privileged place of Euro-American Christians, especially straight white men who felt persecuted. 

Trump no longer has the populist playing field to himself. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) has soared in popularity among some conservatives, adding anti-woke ideology to the MAGA agenda.

Trump wannabes sit in Congress and control state houses and governors’ mansions across the country. 

Fear-mongering demagogues always need scapegoats. Hitler had the Jews, and the MAGA crowd has immigrants, Muslims, LGBQT+ people — anyone who does not fit its narrow definition of American identity. 

Racism goes hand-in-hand with scapegoating. The Nazis blamed the Jews for Germany’s economic woes, but they also considered them racially inferior and targeted them for elimination (aka, genocide) along with the disabled, the mentally ill, and the “chronically asocial” (a catchall term that included homosexuals and others designated misfits). 


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