Donald Trump’s success in the primaries and his rhetoric have sparked troubled meditations about an awakening of fascist impulses among his supporters. Bret Stephens has drawn an analogy with the Thirties, “the last dark age of Western politics,” and compared Trump to Benito Mussolini. On the left, Dana Milbank, in a column titled “Trump Flirts with Fascism,” wrote about a campaign rally at which Trump was “leading supporters in what looked very much like a fascist salute,” a scene New York Times house-conservative David Brooks linked to the Nuremberg party rallies.
Much of the rhetoric that links Trump to fascism or Nazism is merely the stale ad Hitlerum fallacy used by progressives to demonize the candidate. They did the same thing when they called George W. Bush “Bushitler.” This slur reflects the hoary leftist dogma that conservatives at heart are repressed xenophobes and knuckle-dragging racists lusting for a messianic leader to restore their lost “white privilege” and punish their minority, immigrant, and feminist enemies. As such, the attack on Trump is nothing new or unexpected from a progressive ideology whose totalitarian inclinations have always had much more in common with fascism than conservatism does.
What Auden called the “low dishonest decade” of the Thirties, however, is indeed instructive for our predicament today, but not because of any danger of a fascist party taking root in modern America. Communism was (and in some ways still is) vastly more successful at infiltrating and shaping American political, cultural, and educational institutions than fascism ever was. But the same cultural pathologies that enabled both fascist and Nazi aggression still afflict us today. These pathologies and their malign effects are more important than the reasons for Trump’s popularity–– anger at elites, economic stagnation, and anti-immigrant passions–– that supposedly echo the “waves of fear and anger” of Auden’s Thirties.
The most important delusion of the Thirties still active today is the idealistic internationalism that had developed over the previous century. A world shrunk by new communication and transportation technologies and linked by global trade, internationalists argued, meant nations and peoples were becoming more alike. Thus they desired the same prosperity, political freedom, human rights, and peace that the West enjoyed. Interstate relations now should be based on this “harmony of interests,” and managed by non-lethal transnational organizations rather than by force. Covenants and treaties like the Hague and Geneva Conventions, and institutions like the League of Nations and the International Court of Arbitration, could peacefully resolve conflicts among nations through diplomatic engagement, negotiation, and appeasement.
The Preamble to the First Hague Convention (1899) captures the idealism that would compromise foreign policy in the Thirties. The Convention’s aims were “the maintenance of the general peace” and “the friendly settlement of international disputes.” This goal was based on the “solidarity which unites the member of the society of civilized nations” and their shared desire for “extending the empire of law and of strengthening the appreciation of international justice.” Two decades later, the monstrous death and destruction of World War I should have shattered the delusion of such “solidarity” existing even among the “civilized nations.” Despite that gruesome lesson, Europe doubled down and created the League of Nations, which failed to stop the serial aggression that culminated in World War II.
But the League wasn’t the only manifestation of naïve internationalism. The Locarno Treaty of 1925 welcomed Germany back into the community of nations with a seat on the League of Nations council. Nobel Peace prizes, and wish-fulfilling headlines like the New York Times’ “France and Germany Bar War Forever,” were all that resulted. The Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928 “condemn[ed] recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce[d] it as an instrument of national policy” in interstate relations. The signing powers asserted that “the settlement or solution of all disputes or conflicts . . . shall never be sought except by pacific means.”
All the future Axis Powers signed the treaty, and they all soon shredded these “parchment barriers.” In the next few years, Japan invaded Manchuria, Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in gross violation of the Versailles Treaty, and Italy invaded Ethiopia. By the time Germany annexed Austria, and Neville Chamberlain’s faith in negotiation and appeasement handed Czechoslovakia to Hitler, all these treaties and conventions and conferences were dead letters, and the League of Nations was exposed as a “cockpit in the tower of Babel,” as Churchill suggested after the First World War.
However, such graphic and costly evidence showing the folly of “covenants without the sword,” as Hobbes put it, did not discredit this dangerous idealism over the following decades. Indeed, it lies behind the disasters of Obama’s foreign policy. Just consider his “outreach” to our enemies, his acknowledgement of our own “imperfections,” his reliance on toothless U.N. Security Council Resolutions, his preference for non-lethal economic sanctions to pressure adversaries, and his belief that negotiated settlements and agreements can achieve peace and good relations even with our fiercest enemies. All reflect the same failure to recognize that our adversaries in fact do not sincerely want to reach an agreement, for the simple reason they are not in fact “just like us,” and so they do not want peace and prosperity and good relations with their neighbors and the “world community.”
The catalogue of Obama’s failures is long and depressing. The “reset” with Russia and promise of “flexibility,” the empty “red line” threats against Bashar al Assad, the arrogant dismissal of a metastasizing ISIS as a “jayvee” outfit, the alienation of allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, the cultivation of the jihadist Muslim Brotherhood, the ill-conceived overthrow of Muammar Ghaddafi, and the rhetoric of guilt and self-abasement are just the most noteworthy failures. The nuclear deal with Iran, of course, is the premier monument to this folly. Yet despite the increasing evidence of its futility––Iran’s saber-rattling in the Gulf, capture of U.S. military personnel, genocidal rhetoric, and testing of missiles in blatant violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution–– Obama still clings to this internationalist delusion.
A recent article in The Atlantic on Obama’s foreign policy shows, despite his protestations of hardheaded “realism,” that he has not learned from his failures. Thus he still thinks that the vigorous use of force is usually an unnecessary and dangerous mistake, and that verbal persuasion and diplomatic engagement are more effective. He also still believes that “multilateralism regulates [U.S.] hubris” of the sort that George W. Bush showed when he recklessly invaded Iraq, and that American foreign policy has frequently displayed.
Obama’s delusional faith in rhetoric, especially his own, comes through in his rationale for the infamous 2009 Cairo speech: “I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting—problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity.” The idea that Obama’s mere words could start a “discussion” that would transform 14-century-old religious doctrines fundamentally inimical to liberal democracy, human rights, and all the other Western goods we live by, is a fantasy. Obama’s self-regard recalls Neville Chamberlain’s boast after his meeting with Hitler at Bad Godesberg that he “had established some degree of personal influence with Herr Hitler.”
Or consider Obama’s take on Vladimir Putin:
He understands that Russia’s overall position in the world is significantly diminished. And the fact that he invades Crimea or is trying to prop up Assad doesn’t suddenly make him a player. You don’t see him in any of these meetings out here helping to shape the agenda. For that matter, there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.
A “player,” in Obama’s foreign policy universe, is a leader who uses “smart power” like diplomacy and negotiated deals, and recognizes that the use of force will backfire and lead to costly “quagmires.” As Secretary of State John Kerry suggested, Putin is using outdated “19th century” instruments of foreign policy like military force in a world that presumably has evolved beyond it.
In contrast, a genuine “player,” as Obama fancies himself, attends summits and conferences, such as the useless climate change conference in Paris, and “sets the agenda.” And like his rationale for the Cairo speech, as the leader of the world’s greatest power, his rhetoric alone can be a force for change. Thus just saying that Syria’s “Assad must go,” while doing nothing to achieve that end, is still useful, and refusing to honestly identify the traditional Islamic foundations of modern jihadism will build good will among Muslims and turn them against the “extremists.”
Meanwhile, Putin and Iran fight and bomb and kill in Syria and Iraq, and now they are the big “players” in a region that the U.S. once dominated, but that now serves the interests of Russia and Iran. I’m reminded of Demosthenes’ scolding of the Athenians for refusing to confront Phillip II of Macedon: “Where either side devotes its time and energy, there it succeeds the better––Phillip in action, but you in argument.”
In other words, for Obama as for Chamberlain, appeasing words rather than forceful deeds are the key to foreign policy––precisely the belief that led England to disastrously underestimate Hitler until it was too late. And that same belief has turned the Middle East into a Darwinian jungle of clashing tribes, sects, and nations.
Obama wraps his foreign policy of retreat in claims to “realist” calculations of America’s security and genuine interests, and buttresses his claim by citing his strategically inconsequential drone killings. But such rhetoric hides an unwillingness to risk consequential action and pay its political costs. And it reflects a commitment to the internationalist idealism that gives diplomatic verbal processes an almost magical power to transform inveterate enemies into helpful partners. Europe tried that in the Thirties, and it led to disaster. That’s a much more important lesson from that sorry decade’s history than the lurid fantasies about fascism coming to America on the wings of Trump’s rhetoric.