The RNC Is a Disaster—So Why Can’t I Sleep at Night?

tags: Hitler, election 2016, Trump, GOP Convention

D.D. Guttenplan is The Nation's Editor-at-Large.

... So why can’t I sleep at night? It’s not just the jet lag. Or FiveThirtyEight’s masterpiece of back-handed terror in a single headline: “Election Update: Clinton’s Lead Is As Safe As Kerry’s Was In 2004.” Talk about non-reassuring reassurances!

Actually, I think my insomnia stems from my bedside reading: a thick, heavily annotated work of academic sociology first published in 1982 titled Who Voted for Hitler? In its pages, author Richard F. Hamilton takes on the conventional view of the Nazi Party’s rise to power—that Hitler’s electoral success stemmed from a “panic in the middle class” brought on by the depression and the threat of “economic marginality”—and reduces it to smithereens. “Sometimes the facts that everyone knows prove to be the least known,” he writes.

Instead, Hamilton shows how all of Germany’s traditional parties “had taken…directions that made them unattractive to important segments of the electorate.” But where previous historians credited “the fear that dominates a social group which has only just risen above the level of manual laborer”—the quote is from Mein Kampf­—for Hitler’s appeal, which they assumed was chiefly to lower-middle-class and marginalized voters, by carefully analyzing vote counts and mapping the results against German census data, Hamilton shows that the Nazis’ actual base of support lay among the better off, with their share of the vote rising with income. By themselves, the rich and the upper-middle classes in Weimar Germany were not numerous enough to win an election. Hitler also drew considerable support from rural and small-town voters, from young people drawn into politics by the Nazis’ command of political theater—and from older voters who had dropped off the rolls until the Nazis gave them a chance to vote against a political system they viewed as illegitimate and corrupt.

I was particularly haunted by Hamilton’s answer to the question: “What does a Conservative voter do when his first choice candidate is removed from the race?” The Nazis, after all, never won a majority. Indeed, in the last two free elections held in Germany, the party’s share of the vote actually declined, from 37.3 per cent in July 1932 to 33.1 per cent that November. (The Socialist share also went down, from 21.6 to 20.4 per cent, while the Communists increased their vote from 14.3 to 16.9 per cent). It was the failure of the left to unify—and the moral collapse of German conservatives who thought they could “control” Hitler—that opened the door to the Nazis. And the terror in the wake of the Reichstag fire screened their seizure of state power. “Almost all of [the] Conservative support,” Hamilton writes, “went to an extreme candidate, to Adolf Hitler.” ...

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