Last month (this blog moves veeery slowly) the President-elect’s “Chief Strategist” — or whatever — Steve Bannon rejected the term “white nationalist” opting instead for “economic nationalist” — or whatever:
“Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. [Andrew Breitbart is spinning in his grave– ed.] With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, iron works [I hear Trump used to host cocaine parties, — ed.], get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution – conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”
Thanks, in part, to the rather unfortunate 1930’s experience, I am very much an economic internationalist, globalist even. My biases are no secret. And as a very biased person I find the claim that the 30’s were “exciting” rather odd. Can we replicate this 80-year-old success story in the 21st century?
1. Ask an average American what comes to his mind when we talk about the “exciting” 30’s, he’ll inevitably mention bread lines. Being familiar with scarcity economy of the Soviet Union, I can assure you that yes, food lines are a fascinating part of social life. You never know when a fist-fight will break out, for instance, or who the sales lady is going to berate and why. I have no idea what it was like in the 1930’s US, however. Judging by the vintage photos Americans might just be a tad more civilized.
How likely are we to witness the emergence of Depression-era bread lines? The federal government had been in the business of subsidizing agriculture since the Great Depression; the size of the hand-outs to America’s farmers is now in the tens of billions. We produce more food than we can consume and historically we’ve been feeding our enemies, like the Soviet Union. We are not going to run out of food, it’s just a matter of passing it on to the plebes. Thanks to Barack Obama we have EBT so that the handouts to individuals can be distributed through privately owned groceries and a with pretense of dignity.
It looks like we are poised for Trumpulus and that the increased federal spending which crippled the US economy over the previous decade is here to stay. However, the incoming president is unlikely to get rid of federal programs that masks poverty. So, no, breadlines are not coming back.
2. Most inspirational rallies. Uh, who can forget Nuremberg! Immortalized by Leni Riefenstahl, one of the most celebrated filmmaker of her age, Nuremberg showed adoring, orderly crowds cheering Der Furher at a 1934 mass gathering. Can we see a revival of this type of mass events in the Western world?
The Nuremberg rally was attended by 700,000 Nazis and supporters. By comparison, the biggest rally in the United States is said to be the 2008 Obama event in St Louis that drew 100,000 attendees. Although the outgoing president once spoke to 200,000 people in Berlin, I have little doubt that the crowd was far less lockstepish than thier great-grandparents. I highly suspect most of them came to see whatever band was headlining that show, anyway.
Contemporary rallies lack the organization on display in Leni Riefenstahl’s film. Donald Trump rallies, for instance, were frequently marked by violence. Even when the neoNazis get together, a soccer-inspired street brawl is more probable outcome than an orderly march. Verdict: in contemporary Western world, at least, a replication of Triumph of The Will is unlikely.
3. Impressive parades. While Hollywood adored Leni, it completely ignored her equally talented and arguably just as morally warped Soviet counterparts. Much groundbreaking propaganda photography was produced in the 1930’s USSR.
Every state holiday (and there were many) Joseph Stalin observed parades from the Masoleum tribune. Army units came at the head of the procession, followed by marching athletes, workers, folk dancers children, children athletes– and what have you– from every corner of the vast homeland.
My town has 4th of July parades. It’s mostly happy people in vintage cars and Trader Joe’s handing out candy to tots. Cute.
4. Kristallnacht. Aryan blood was brooding with excitement on November 9, 1938. On that day, countless Jewish homes and public buildings were ransacked, 1000 synagogues burned and 7000 businesses destroyed by Nazi paramilitary forces and German civilians. The pogrom left hundreds, if not thousands, of German Jews dead and 30,000 were shipped off to concentration camps. Kristallnacht marked the beginning of the Holocaust.
Unfortunately, race riots happen in the United States with predictable regularity. However, they are highly unlikely to result in anything like the Final Solution. Instead, we have young black men with vague feeling of dissatisfaction and wounded pride burning and looting their own neighborhoods. The rioters might be egged on by powerful individuals who use the rioters’ desperate circumstances for their own political gain, but we don’t have a state apparatus dedicated to annihilating a minority. Our institutions are too strong and Americans are too good of a people.
5. Holodomor. Literally translated as starvationdeath from both Ukrainian and Russian, Holodomor was a man-made famine, a function of the Soviet collectivization of agriculture. In 1932, Stalin stepped up grain confiscation from peasants in the most fertile regions of Ukraine, Don basin, northern Caucasus and Kazakhstan. The idea was to force farmers into feudal-like collective farms, prop up the cities (USSR sold some of the grain and directed the funds towards industrialization) and to punish the areas that resisted the Bolshevik takeover a decade earlier. During that year, Ukraine had lost 4 million souls and the population of Kazakhstan had shrunk by 38%, with ethnic Russians soon overtaking the Kazakhs as the largest ethnic group in the “republic”.
Over the last quarter century, Ukraine made Holodomor raison d’etre of its independence. Good for them.
No country willing to accept economic aid from the United States will experience a famine today. Then again, Holodomor was man made, and there’s North Korea.
5. Awe-inspiring labor camps and purges. GULAG is Russian abbreviation for Main Administration of the Camps; it was set up shortly after Bolshevik revolution but the party didn’t really start until the 30’s. That’s when the Great Purge haunted, in no particular order, Soviet intelligentsia, government and party officials, peasants, military officers, persons with non-Russian sounding names, hapless jokesters and those in a wrong place at a wrong time. Although the exact number of victims is hard to calculate, historians estimate that up to 1.2 million Soviet subjects perished in the 1937-38 Terror and about 14 million went to GULAGS in the period between 1929 and 1953, Both criminals and “enemies of the people”. Over a million died in the GULAGS.
GULAGS today? Do we still have an embargo on Cuba?
6. Nothing highlights the geopolitical excitement of the 1930’s like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which split Europe between German and Russian spheres of influence. Presented as a “non-aggression pact”, it led to the Nazi-Soviet division of Poland, Soviet occupation of the Baltics, parts of Finland and Romania and German occupation of Czechia. The arrangement failed to thwart the war between Germany and USSR.
Germany today is contained within NATO and Eastern Europe is now under our nuclear umbrella. Under this arrangement, a direct Russian attack unlikely. Yet Donald Trump’s surrogate Newt Gingrich opined in July that “Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg” adding that the Baltic nations need to worry about our commitment to some of the NATO members’ defense. On the other hand, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Defense general James Mattis Appears to be a fan of the Baltic country, so the future of NATO and Central Europe does not seem to be in jeopardy.
7. If you got an impression that Europeans had all the fun in 30’s, consider the Rape of Nanjing. Imperial Japanese Army executed up to 300,000 of Chinese civilians and disarmed soldiers, tortured, raped and looted. Riveting!
Given how Japanese birth rates are through the floor, they are not likely to invade and slaughter anyone. In other parts of the world such things continue to happen: think Aleppo.
Exciting time, as you can see. Some of the excitement ended in 1942 on the shores of Volga.
Historical change can be hard to spot. In December 2014 my friends in Ukraine could not believe what was happening to their country. Looking back, of course, it all seems obvious: Ukraine was, and still is, a failed state. The self-proclaimed Leninist Bannon is wrong, however. We are not going to party like it’s 1938 any time soon. We are, in all likelihood, going to have a corrupt, wasteful presidency. Conservatism might just eviscerate. Divisions along the racial lines will only get worse. National debt will soar. International order will be checked by Trump’s real estate ambitions. Autocratic regimes will flourish. And so on. We are not about to experience a totalitarian nightmare on the global scale like that of the 1930’s and 40’s.