“I became more and more convinced that in the early days of National Socialism these considerable groups outside the Party did not begin to realize the danger of the whole Hitler business until it was too late. To many of them the fact that they were losing all personal liberty, the freedom of the press, all chance of meeting in conferences to discuss things, never really came home until the mischief was done. When the truth did at length dawn on them they were at first paralyzed and quite uncertain as to their right course of action.”
~ Darkness Over Germany: A Warning From History
I’m not gonna lie. This has been a hard couple of weeks for me on the writing front.
I have started and restarted this article several times. Each time I became so upset, or fearful, or both that I took to my bed… literally. There’s just no other way to say it, and it must be said.
But let me start with a question: Are you as scared as I am?
It’s easy to look back over my life and realize that I have made too little of the word fascism. If I’m honest it’s a word I have used too frequently. Sure, I was selective most of the time: “What a fascist.” “That’s like fascism.” “Reagan… what a fascist.” I used the term to highlight real wrongs or totalitarian-like policies. But now that we need to talk about it for real, I fear that I will sound trite or that you might assume I am being dramatic.
I am not.
Everything that is happening today in our country – the dismantling of our systems of governance, the attacks on free speech and any media that is not Fox News, the creation of a federal police force controlled solely by our president, and yes, the attack on black and brown people as the enemy of “real Americans” – are quickly wrapping us all into a straight jacket. That is how fascism works.
It’s not that you wake up one day and the entire world has transformed overnight. It’s how we wake up every morning and vacillate between not wanting to turn the news on and not being able to turn it off. No matter what time of day or night, so many shocking and horrifying things are happening that we feel completely overwhelmed.
This has been Trump’s approach from the beginning.
I can recall thinking during his first year in office that the speed with which his administration was dismantling pollution regulations, giving away our national forests, taking voting and housing rights off the books, and giving away the commonwealth to a very small number of billionaires was a textbook example of the fire hose method. You just throw so many different violations and outrages at a populace all at once that they become overwhelmed. Then they feel powerless: Where to start? Which petition do I sign? Who should I give money to? How can I fight this tide when I am working overtime just to hold on to a job that pays me less, but demands more every day? This is our dilemma.
So, in an effort to learn from history and find solutions, I’ve been reading about Germany. Not World War II stories, but the early days. I’ve been trying to find lessons that can help us understand how the Nazis were able to consume Germany so completely. How did so many German people buy into Hitler’s rhetoric so thoroughly, launch a second world war, and help carry out his final solution? Do we, as Americans, really have anything in common with that country back then or am I just being hyperbolic?
So far, this is what I found: Americans today and the Germans of the 1930’s have a lot in common. And yes, Trump is using Hitler’s playbook as well as his symbols. There are many examples I could point to, but that would quickly turn this article into a book. So, I’m going to focus the next four articles on the most obvious and relevant to our current situation: unemployment, propaganda, an independent police force and Trump’s current moves toward totalitarian rule.
Simply pointing out the problem is not all I want to focus on, however. There are plenty of other writers doing that. We need solutions and strategies that can help us now and into the future. Therefore, I will also do my best to highlight some remedies. Let’s start today with a reality no one can deny.
“All over Germany, the unemployed wandered down the old grand avenues… One half of the population, without work and outside the normal rhythms of society, watched the other half.” ~Hitler’s First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich by Fritzsche, Peter, Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2020
Unquestionably, unemployment and hunger led hundreds of thousands of people directly into the Nazis Party. The Great Depression wrecked havoc with economies all over the world. But in Germany, where things had been desperate since the first world war, unemployment ravaged society. After WWI, their economy spiraled downward and even before the crash in 1929, 1.25 million people were unemployed. By the end of 1930 the figure had reached nearly 4 million, 15.3 per cent of the population. In January 1933, over 6 million people were unemployed, which is why one of Hitler’s primary goals was full employment.
Unemployment and hunger go hand in hand, of course. When people are starving, they are capable of doing things that may previously have been unimaginable – even to themselves. Take a video about one of Hitler’s maids I saw recently. Having grown up in the countryside, she was still young when they plucked her from her world and off to the Bavarian Alps. There she served the Nazi elite at Berghof, Hitler’s villa. One comment from her interview has haunted me, especially since March when the pandemic drove U.S. unemployment above 30%.
“Now everyone is admiring the lowly country girl. ‘It was simply amazing. When we went for coffee, people would look at us and say: ‘Look! Berghof girls are sitting there. They would cook especially for us. I remember the first thing I ate there, rice with eggs and mushrooms. It was the first time in my life I wasn’t hungry.’ ~ Elizabeth Kalhammer
It isn’t hard to imagine what it must have been like to be so hungry. All you have to do is picture the people living under virtually every overpass in Oakland, California or the new tent town in Minneapolis’ Powderhorn Park. The Bay Area’s homeless crisis had been escalating even before the pandemic. In addition to national disparities, it was fueled by a split economy: those with tech jobs who drove the cost of housing into the stratosphere and too many of the rest who simply could not afford a home anymore, whether working or not. The same dynamic has been playing out across the country, and not just in large cities.
America is huge. You could fit the land mass of Germany into the United States more than twenty-seven times. Our sheer size allows the magnitude of economic disintegration to hide in plain sight. When we trip over it, we imagine that the plight of the people we drive by on San Francisco’s Market Street or sleeping in their RVs in a small town Wal-Mart parking lot are unique to the area. The reality is much harder to comprehend. It’s a sign of an economy in collapse.
Like Germany of the 1920’s and 30’s, the number of Americans without work has remained high since the last crash. Real unemployment hit an all-time high of 35.4% at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic. But even before April, it’ been outrageously high. In fact, 20% – 23%+ of American workers have been unemployed since March of 2009. That’s about 39,800,000 people in 2009 and approximately 40,500,000 at our pre-pandemic height in 2014. The numbers are much worse than we generally hear on the news because not everyone without work is reported in the official federal statistics.
Understanding the difference between the official reports and real unemployment is critical. It explains the difference between the rosy picture painted in the press and what most Americans are actually experiencing. Yes, the stock market has continued to soar. But unless you make most of your monthly income in the stock market, things never got better after 2007. They probably got worse — if not for you personally then for someone in your family. Certainly, it’s remained bad for a couple of households on your block.
The real numbers are shocking, especially when you look at the extensive period of time. For more than a decade, a huge percentage of adults of working age have become permanently unemployed. Add to this another 22 million underemployed Americans and we are looking at over 30% adults of working age who were not earning what they wanted before the coronavirus hit. This is why so many people in America are homeless even though they go to work every day.
You can see the impact of chronic underemployment in other housing trends as well. Take the RV movement. While 6.6 million people were applying for first time unemployment benefits last March, well over a million Americans were already living in RVs, converted vans, tiny homes and their cars. Yes, there are people who choose RV living because they like the outdoors better than being stuck at home. I have an aunt and uncle who spent several years on the road full time and loved it. However, I can tell you from lots of personal research, that cost of living is a primary driver for the vast majority of those who take to the road as an adopted lifestyle. Just check out any blog, article or YouTube video about living on the road or in a tiny house and you will find loads of comments like this one from a young couple with a small baby:
“Our RV pays for itself in one year. What we paid for our first RV ($11,500) is less than one year of rent in Austin, Texas (and way less than a full year of rent in most other cities across the country!).”
~ Heath | 29 Reasons Living in an RV is Better Than Living in a House
When I look at the difference between real unemployment and the official rate, I see the gap that created the Trump nation.
When I look at the difference between real unemployment and the official rate, I see the gap that created the Trump nation. Broadly speaking, 40 to 45 million people (working age between 15 – 64 years old) have had no income, nothing to do and nowhere to go every year for the last ten years. That’s over 30 million more than you hear about in the official reports or the nightly news.
In depression-era Germany, the vast majority of unemployed were young, able-bodied men. This was pre-television, of course. No internet, no gaming. So even before homelessness, they spent years wandering hungry and aimless. Millions walked through towns and cities like Berlin in ever-growing waves and changed what it felt like to live there. ~ Peter Fritzsche
“Frustrated by bureaucrats, threatened by police and eyed suspiciously by passersby, Berlin’s unemployed tramped lonely circuits through the city. ‘At first you take a lot of long walks, just to get out of the house,’ reported Hans, a nineteen-year-old. ‘You leave early and keep yourself out of view.’ The sense of being expelled was widespread.” ~ Peter Fritzsche
It was easy to inspire a hungry and largely idle group of young men that they had been wronged, because they had. They were jobless and hopeless due to economic events and forces that they had no control over. The Nazis held thousands of rallies and events in every town and hamlet during those years. They created a place for people to go. And almost everyone was hungry. So in just the same way that our salvation army serves lunch in exchange for a sermon, the Nazis served goulash. Then these bored and aimless people heard a message filled with rage.
The next step was not that difficult. On a continent where Jewish people had been blamed for the starvation brought on by virtually every famine over several hundred years, Nazi propaganda targeted Jews, gay people, professional women and everyone else who did not agree with them.
Since his election, President Trump has employed the same strategy. He loves making appearances and giving rage-filled speeches. He’s keeping people agitated — pushing hate against a common enemy as a solution and a return to an idealized past. One in which I was superior, large (i.e. demographically dominant) and in charge.
Joining the Nazi party meant having a purpose and something to do. As their power grew, they offered jobs to loyalists and a clean brown shirt. Then Hitler used organizing for the SA and war preparation to employ hundreds of thousands of people.
The same thing has been happening in the United States.
Well before Trump ran for office, white supremacist organizations have focused on unhappy veterans, college students and infiltrating police departments. Today, young boys are often barraged by similar propaganda online. Recruiting on college campuses has increased dramatically.
Our president didn’t start this movement, but his covert (and more recently overt) support of civil war monuments, their KKK defenders, Nazi ideology and white supremacist activities parallel Hitler’s message to crowds of disenfranchised men. First he united them around a shattered identity and shared ideology. Next, they were unleashed on the populace and gangs of Nazi thugs became increasingly violent. Many of them were later employed by the S.A. If you have listened to my latest podcast with Teressa Raiford about Trump’s Secret Police in Portland, you know that the same thing is happening right now in our country — a subject I will address in greater detail in part III of this series.
Massive unemployment is what happens when our economic system, capitalism, implodes. This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, our economy has had a downturn every seven of the last 50 years. Even as far back as 2018, the current (pre-covid) economic crisis was anticipated in the business press.
We have been indoctrinated with the idea that layoffs are an inevitable consequence of a downturn. But is that true? Do all countries allow their economies to be hit with the double-whammy of lost revenue, lost jobs and the longer recovery periods that this decision produces? No, they do not. Layoffs happen by choice and by design.
Layoffs are not inevitable. Nor do they lead to the best economic outcomes for a capitalist country.
There are plenty of examples of capitalist economies using different strategies to protect people as well as profits. Most recently, the pandemic has provided a new opportunity to observe these policies in action. Across Europe, tens of millions of people have been helped by shorter work programs funded by the government — programs that are designed to keep people fed in the short term and employed over the long haul:
In most countries, the programs already existed before the arrival of COVID-19, (and were) in place to allow employers to temporarily reduce output in a downturn without firing workers, but they have been radically expanded to deal with the virus. In France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom, it was estimated recently that over 20% of the workforce was on one of these plans.
Take Germany, for example, where a leader grounded in science was able to react quickly and competently to the pandemic when it first broke out. Chancellor Angela Merkel led a move to expand their Kurzarbeit (short work) program. It kept millions of people and families out of the kind of economic crisis that is now threatening millions of Americans with homelessness:
Instead of leaving employers to lay off workers en masse during hard times, and then have the workers apply individually for unemployment benefits, the German government subsidizes employers’ payrolls directly. Workers at a given firm or business agree to all work fewer hours, to spread what work remains among the whole staff instead of having some people laid off. But through government subsidies, they continue to receive a sizable share of their usual pay, as high as 87%, even if circumstances have them working few hours for the time being. When the economic crisis passes, they return to work full time, without the upheaval of losing a job and filing for unemployment on their own.
By contrast, President Trump’s approach has been to print trillions of dollars and hand nearly all of them over to large corporations with little transparency or oversight. Now, millions of people are stranded without unemployment insurance and the president (plus congress) failed to reinstate the $600 per week that was keeping many from losing their housing too. Most of those unemployed due to the pandemic shut down were already living hand to mouth, so the loss of that small income is catastrophic. According to one recent survey, 61% of participants who lost their job due to the coronavirus could not come up with $500 in cash without selling personal belongings.
The original stimulus package could have done so much more to protect average Americans hit hardest by the pandemic and consequent shut down. Instead, President Trump and his Republican senate worked overtime to belly up to the bar and give trillions to the wealthiest people whose coffers are already overflowing from his tax cuts:
…the $2 trillion bill that Congress passed treated corporations like people and people like things–with no provisions for a permanent living wage, paid sick leave for all or health insurance for the uninsured. It leaves out the majority of homeless, undocumented immigrants, the disabled and anyone too poor to have to file taxes. It only places a four-month moratorium on eviction filings. It does not include rent freezes nor large-scale debt forgiveness.
It sounds simplistic to say that we need to reverse the flow of money back from corporations to the commonwealth. But that is the crux of the problem.
It sounds simplistic to say that we need to reverse the flow of money back from corporations to the commonwealth. But that is the crux of the problem. A commonwealth is a traditional English term for a political community founded for the common good… or “common well-being”. There have been many versions of democratic and socialist governments organized around this idea, but at its heart it means prioritizing the well-being of all citizens to maintain a healthy economy.
In the United States, we have been indoctrinated with the idea that it is too expensive (or too socialist) to support policies that ensure the common good. Particularly since the Reagan era, we have seen politics shift further and further away from the common good and toward big business. The argument has always been that only the free movement of capital could ensure the common good. But in reality, by removing the mechanisms that kept businesses from sucking all the capital out of the economy, common welfare has been left in the dust of capital flight. With it went the jobs and resources that former generations relied upon to earn a livelihood and keep a roof over our heads.
This is not just a political idea. I’m talking real money. It might not feel like it to me or you or any average American these days, but the truth is that we are still an enormously rich country. It’s just that the vast majority of that wealth is held (and therefore managed) by a shockingly small number of people.
Corporate leaders and their Republican allies have done an excellent job of making taxes sound like a dirty word. But in essence taxes, when used wisely, are about the common good. They are an essential mechanism for ensuring that the wealth we all contribute to and build together keeps us all going. Without these mechanisms, a downward spiral is inevitable. As our jobs go, so goes our ability to purchase – and here is the irony. Once enough income is taken out of the hands of working people and retained by the very few wealthy investors at the top, collapse is inevitable because no one has money to spend to keep it all going. On the way down, as so many people see their dreams of a secure future disappear, outrage and social collapse rises first.
I am not excusing anyone’s behavior. Having lived with the burdens, stress and fears that come with white supremacy all my life, I have no choice but to fight its rise in every way I can. What I am saying is that strengthening institutionalized racism will not “Make America Great Again”. It is not a solution that will work. Not even for white Americans who Trump is organizing to turn against the rest of us.
Blaming and targeting other people who are falling to the bottom with you does not reduce unemployment. It won’t put people back to work and it won’t protect white Americans from loosing their jobs or their homes. There’s simply too little left in the economy to make that happen.
As we head into the presidential election, this is the discussion that needs to happen within families and among friends. It’s not easy, but it’s a conversation I try to have with my own white relatives because we cannot afford to keep the peace at the dinner table anymore.
Yes, we have a right to feel outraged. Nearly all of us are losing out — big time. As the coronavirus engulfs our nation, even those of us who are still employed risk our lives just by going to work. It is outrageous.
For America to survive this pandemic and get back to work, all of us have to be working, buying and paying our bills. This is the only solution that works. It serves everyone’s self-interest. That is why Germany is doing all that it can to keep its citizens off the unemployment rolls. They learned from history. Targeting any group doesn’t strengthen the economy. It eats it’s heart out.
Contrary to the popular mythology, it didn’t work for Hitler either.