Brexit, Trump and What We’ve Failed To Learn From the 1930s

Perhaps dark undercurrents rest beneath every society, waiting for a depression or a demagogue to unleash them.

Jane Miller

Donald Trump greets supporters at a rally on August 21, 2015, in Mobile, Ala. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Who were the 43.9 percent of German voters who voted for Hitler in 1933, and who were the 47.5 percent of voting Americans who elected Trump on November 8? And who, for that matter, were the 52 percent of British voters who voted us out of the European Union in June? They can’t all have been resentful, gullible, white, middle-aged men. In both cases, it turns out, a good many were women; and then there were the abstainers. Alan Bullock, one of Hitler’s biographers, blames the German Right, who forsook a true conservatism” when they backed Hitler to be chancellor. Could the same be said of the American Republican Party? Did they do enough to stop Trump? There’s no question that David Cameron here in the U.K. called the referendum in order to hold off his troublesome right wing, unleashing the chief Brexiters — and those greediest for power, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove — to lie to the discontented and make-believe that leaving Europe would solve their genuine travails.

These are dark days, and I can only hope that my invoking of the ’30s is hyperbolic.

I fear that most of the Trump and Brexit voters share, among other things, apparent ignorance, amnesia, or both, about what happened to Germany and then to the whole of Europe between 1934 and 1945. And perhaps those of us on the other side have too blithely assumed that the poisons of racism, class hatred, and misogyny had at least been addressed and partly contained by the post-war settlement in Europe and the civil rights movement in America. Perhaps these lethal feelings and ideas lurk permanently and vigilantly in the sewers beneath even the most civilised societies, and need only a depression and a demagogue to let them out.

Bullies have usually been bullied themselves and laughed at. A British journalist interviewed Hitler in 1934 in Berlin. Don’t forget,” Hitler reminded him, how people laughed at me 15 years ago when I declared that, one day, I would govern Germany. They laugh now, just as foolishly, when I declare that I shall remain in power.” Trump’s problems with his hair and his hands hint at some such ancient laughter he is unable to forget.

These are dark days, and I can only hope that my invoking of the 30s is hyperbolic. But I don’t think it is. Here, a government tasked with negotiating us out of Europe in order to regain British sovereignty” is prepared to ignore Parliament as it does so. The Right has failed, but so have we on the Left. Were we romanticising the working class and our involvement with it, whether politically or in our work as teachers or writers? Or did we simply fail to see how the destruction of almost all manufacturing in this country and the deliberate undermining of Trades Unions during the Thatcherite 80s would require a new politics and a deeper understanding of the changes that have transformed working-class life, particularly in the north?

Many of us heaved a sigh of relief in 1997, when Tony Blair and New Labour won the election. Our relief was short-lived, however: New Labour did not concern itself much with the effects of unemployment, inequality or new technologies.

Then there was the recession in 2008, echoing the Great Depression of the late 1920s, that provided the soil and the oxygen for the growth of fascism in the 1930s. Are we coming close to a moment like that now? We’re told here that we must listen to people’s worries about immigrants and refugees, and we do — and, for the most part, these worriers come from communities that have little experience of either but use them as a pretext for blame and explaining what is wrong with life.

The European Union wasn’t perfect: often top-heavy, insensitive, bureaucratic. But it was not the cause of poverty, injustice and inequality in this country, any more than the presence of workers, students and asylum seekers from Europe or elsewhere is the cause of what is not functioning here. Nor are Mexicans nor Muslims nor women nor disabled people nor LGBT people the cause of America’s difficulties. A great many Americans voted for someone who told them the opposite and that he would change their lives. They, like those who voted for Brexit, have been disastrously misled. 

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Jane Miller lives in London, and is the author, most recently, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and Afterthoughts (2016), a collection of her In These Times columns and interviews.
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