Is this the 1930s all over again?
No US president in living memory has approached office with such public uncertainty about his intentions as Donald Trump. The leading German Social Democrat Rolf Mützenich has spoken of a “conceptual vacuum” in the Middle East while UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura has warned that Trump’s liking for Russian President Vladimir Putin was encouraging Moscow’s aerial bombardment of eastern Aleppo, where an estimated 250,000 civilians are trapped.
Trump’s electoral win, following the referendum in Britain to leave the European Union and growing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment across Europe and parts of the United States, has sparked shock and fear. Pessimists draw parallels with the 1930s and the rise of fascism, including Nazism.
One Irish senator has called Trump a “fascist” and many politicians have criticised Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny for offering the president-elect a guarded welcome, no doubt mindful of the 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants in the United States.
Is there substance in the charge of fascism? Perhaps the surest parallels lie in Trump’s campaign. Like Brexit in the United Kingdom, this played on fears of immigrants, especially Muslims, whom many Americans link to the Islamic State (ISIS).
In the United States and Europe, the populist right has been ruthless. Social media provide tools for the likes of Steve Bannon — to be Trump’s strategy director in the White House — that were never dreamed of by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi propaganda chief, or Leni Riefenstahl, the talented film-maker whose striking images portrayed Adolf Hitler as decisive and noble.
In common with the fascist movements of the 1930s, Trump has made extravagant claims about creating jobs. He has vowed to double US growth, which has slowed since the 2008 financial crash, but his commitment to cut taxes contradicts his desire to reduce debt.
In the 1930s, fascist movements overcame similar inconsistencies by expressing contempt for experts. “All programmes are vain; the decisive thing is the human will,” Hitler proclaimed in 1933. The Nazis reduced unemployment — from 6 million in 1932 to less than 1 million in 1935 — first by public works and then through rearmament. Self-sufficiency was a core aim.
This is a parallel with today. The UK Independence Party, France’s National Front, the Dutch Party for Freedom and Trump all want to bolster the nation-state against multinational corporations, international trade deals and rising immigration. Hence one lesson from the 1930s might be that nationalism by its very nature brings countries into conflict.
In Austria, for example, fascists split into those wanting unification with Germany and the Italy-oriented Heimwehr. As war loomed in the late 1930s, the British Union of Fascists was undermined by its associations with Germany. This is not to say the far right could not cooperate, the clearest example being the 1936 Axis agreement between Germany and Italy. Hitler’s government showed pragmatism in the 1933 Haavara Agreement with the German Zionist Federation, envisaging the emigration of Jews to Palestine.
Does today’s Arab world see anything positive in the West’s far right? In the 1930s, fascism was taken as a model by Pierre Gemayel, who, after visiting the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, established the Lebanese Phalange party, advocating Lebanese nationalism that was pro-Western, suspicious of Arab unity and of Muslims and hostile to the Palestinian refugees who fled the creation of Israel in 1947.
The Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), founded in 1932, adopted a swastika-style symbol, but its first leader, Anton Saada, argued the party was not inspired by fascism in seeking the unity of Greater Syria against the West and the wider Arab world.
Like the European far right, the Ba’ath Party, formed in 1947, opposed materialistic communism, juggling a belief in national (Arab) ownership of resources with a commitment to private property. In 1981, Saddam Hussein arranged the publication of a book by his uncle and foster father Khairallah Talfah with the title Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies.
The fate of the SSNP and the Ba’ath Party might be a warning for anyone who seeks to learn from Trump. More than ever, issues from climate change to emigration and the Syrian war necessitate a coordinated, multinational response. They need the very internationalism the far right rejects.