Commentary from Project Syndicate
Many leading Republican politicians who stand by Donald Trump, and even the multi-billionaires who fund their campaigns, may have private misgivings about the US president, just as the industrialists of Germany’s Herrenklub probably once despised Hitler. But with only a few exceptions, they continue to support him – and for similar reasons.
NEW YORK – On February 20, 1933, a secret meeting took place in Hermann Göring’s palatial residence in Berlin. More than 20 of Germany’s top industrialists, including Gustav Krupp, Friedrich Flick, and Fritz von Opel, listened to a speech by Hitler, who promised them that their assets would be safe under his rule. So they agreed to support the Nazi Party with over two million Reichsmark, an enormous sum that was almost enough to pay for the upcoming election campaign.
Few of these men, if any, were convinced Nazis. They were members of the German Herrenklub (Gentlemen’s Club), which was very conservative but not National Socialist. But, acting from narrow self-interest, they became Hitler’s enablers.
By doing so, they were accomplices in a criminal regime that was guilty of mass murder, and in the end the destruction of their country. Their own companies benefited greatly from slave labor. Thomas Mann called the Herrenklub the “trendsetter of misery.” This didn’t prevent Flick and others from enjoying flourishing careers after the war, following light prison sentences.
US President Donald Trump is not a Nazi dictator (though some of his closest advisers admire some of the ideas that inspired fascism and Nazism in the past). Yet he is a menace to the democracy he is supposed to protect. He continues to attack the free press and judicial independence, and encourages mob violence, including by neo-Nazis. Retweeting anti-Muslim videos posted by a British extremist is just the latest of his outrages.
Many leading Republican politicians who stand by Trump, and even the multi-billionaires who fund their campaigns, may have private misgivings about the dangerously erratic narcissist in the White House, just as the gentlemen of the Herrenklub probably once despised the vulgar upstart in his preposterous brown uniforms. But with only a few exceptions, the politicians continue to support him – and for a similar reason: their narrow self-interest in staying in power and making more money for their backers.
A prime example is the tax legislation recently rammed through the Senate. Once the bill is reconciled with the House version and Trump signs it into law, big business and the very rich will benefit at the expense of the poor and vulnerable. And, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, America’s financial health will suffer as well, with an estimated $1.214 trillion added to the deficit by 2027.
This should be seen as a betrayal of many Trump voters in the rural areas of relatively poor states and the Rust Belt cities of the Midwest, where people most need the federal government’s help to remain solvent and healthy. They are most likely to pay the price for enriching the very rich even further.
There are, of course, many differences between the US today and Germany in the 1930s. Leftist thinkers have often claimed that fascism was the last stage of capitalism. In fact, National Socialism and fascism were not especially friendly to liberal capitalism.
Nor were Nazism and fascism designed to benefit only an oligarchy. Big business thrived under both systems, to be sure, especially corporations that profited from mining and military spending. But, apart from persecuted minorities and dissidents, many ordinary people gained from government programs (not to mention the looting of conquered countries).
The industrialists who gathered around Hitler and Göring in 1933 were bought off by a murderous gangster regime. The same was true of the German officer corps. This was not the last stage of capitalism; Hitler used the capitalists for his nefarious ends.
The situation in the US under Donald Trump looks rather different. Trump used populist language in his campaign, stoking up popular resentment against the educated urban elites, including capitalists on Wall Street. And he continues to pander to the emotions of ill-educated white racists and others who feel left behind in the modern world, and blame their problems on liberals and unpopular ethnic and religious minorities.
But it is not yet clear who is using whom in Trump’s world. In their obsession with low corporate and personal taxes, and their loathing of organized labor and the federal government, rich donors, such as the brothers Charles and David Koch, or the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, appear to be manipulating Trump, rather than the other way around. In a sense, they, as much as Krupp or Opel (if not more so), represent a type of capitalism that is being untethered from all necessary restraints. This began long before Trump appeared on the scene. The process goes back at least as far as Ronald Reagan’s era of “supply-side” tax cuts and deregulation.1
In the short term, the wealthy and corporate America will probably do nicely. Stock markets may well continue their bull run for a while longer. But in the longer term, with deficits looming, international trade agreements torn up, and totally inadequate spending on vital infrastructure, education, and health care, things could turn out very badly. Enabling a president who is clearly a danger to democracy for the sake of immediate financial gain is unpatriotic and morally reprehensible. But it makes no economic sense, either.
Henry Ford was an anti-Semite who was happy to cooperate with Nazi Germany until 1942. He was also a leader of the America First Committee, which opposed going to war against Hitler. But he had one insight, which Trump’s business-first accomplices would do well to heed. “Fordism” meant that workers had to be rich enough to buy a car from his factories. Trump’s tax bill will leave millions of potential consumers far worse off. And that cannot be good for business.
About the Author:
Ian Buruma, Editor of The New York Review of Books, is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and Year Zero: A History of 1945.
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