Trump, Berlusconi, Hitler and the Populist Moment

Roundup
tags: election 2016, Trump



Economist Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect.

Right-wing populists ascend when three toxic forces converge. First, the economy needs to be really lousy for most citizens. Check.

Second, the political system ceases to be able to solve problems and loses legitimacy with regular people. Check.

Third, some foreign menace causes people to seek shelter in a strongman. Check.

Other factors common to successful rightwing populists are these:

*They tend to be very good at breaking the rules of conventional political discourse, and at using mass media.

*They are not conservatives. They love to use big government to help the masses. More on that in a moment.\

*They are not accountable to politics as usual. Because of their direct rapport with the folk (or if you like, the volk) their rise suddenly destroys the influence of politicians whose stock in trade is the usual currency of politics -- money, trading favors, cutting deals. The populist doesn't need the pols because he has the people. (In the case of billionaires like Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi, they don't need political money, either, since they have their own.)

*They trigger cognitive dissonance. Once large numbers of people see a populist outsider as potential savior, it doesn't matter what they say, how much they contradict themselves, how crude they are, or how much their own previous life is at odds with their current role. This is all seen as anti-establishment crew.

In Berlusconi's case, Italy's instrument of populist anti-corruption rage was himself a corrupt billionaire. It didn't matter. Trump, the scourge of aliens who take American jobs, has imported hundreds. Water off a duck's back.

Hitler, calling for the golden-haired resurgence of a racially pure, nordic German Reich, was a swarthy Austrian. Das macht nichts (no problem). More importantly, Hitler was seen as the avenger of the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty and the economic destitution afflicting much of Germany. He vowed to make Germany great again (sound familiar?). That the particulars were an incoherent jumble didn't matter either. He was the man of the hour.

And here's the most interesting part. Until he blew it all on a reckless world war, Hitler delivered.

I've been reading a fascinating book by the German historian, Götz Aly, titled Hitler's Beneficiaries.

As Aly documents, Hitler expanded the German welfare state. His rearmament and public works programs ended mass unemployment. (Remember, Nazi was an abbreviation for national socialist.) Hitler recycled the plunder looted from Jews and later from countries the Nazis occupied -- to improve living standards of ordinary Germans. He probably could have gotten re-elected, had he not suspended free elections and civil liberties. Historian Aly's point is that ordinary Germans, as willing beneficiaries, were culpable.

This is not, of course, to excuse Hitler. Or to suggest that Donald Trump is a fascist. Not all rightwing populists are as extreme as Hitler.




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