John Marriott: The comparison with the 1930s should worry us all

We live in interesting times. You could go as far as say in dangerous times. Many thought that the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s would herald not only the ‘triumph’ of capitalism over socialism but also a new world order, the vindication of Bretton Woods where the eventual victors in the war against fascism sought to avoid the mistakes made after World War One.

Sadly that vision of the world was already falling apart by the time the Berlin Wall came down. Thanks to right wing economists such as Milton Friedman and politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan the post war consensus where governments tried to have control over the worst excesses of unbridled capitalism was morphing into the globalisation and the exploitation of low wage economies by multinational corporations and the use of tax havens which individual governments found difficult, if not virtually impossible, to counter. Indeed, by their lack of action and apparent willingness not to, in the immortal words of the Iron Lady, “buck the market”, many appeared to encourage it.

In many ways, as the late Yogi Berra famously said; “it’s déjà vu all over again”. The world today reminds me in many ways of the world my parents and grandparents knew in the 1930s. Back then, with world wide recession and massive unemployment, many people were questioning whether democracy was the answer and started to put their faith in the strong leader. In Europe that meant characters such as Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.

The failure of the democracies to stand up to Hitler in particular was a major reason why Europe slid into conflict in 1939. Thank goodness that America’s ‘strong man’, Franklin D Roosevelt, and our own Winston Churchill were there to hold democracy’s feet to the fire.

To compare what is currently happening on the other side of the Atlantic and other parts of the world with what happened in Italy, Spain and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s may seem far fetched to many; but there are similarities. I have to say that, judging by his actions since he became US President, the current incumbent does share many character traits with the dictators back then.

It is clear from his many tweets that President Trump doesn’t like to be crossed, because he appears to believe that he is always right. I wonder whether his reaction to the present thwarting of his immigration ban and others that will undoubtedly come if he continues in that vein, might be an attempt to gather even more powers to his office than the current US Constitution allows.

With a majority in both houses of Congress at least for the next two years he could have the weapons he needs to make this possible, especially if the protests continue. Whether he can convince career politicians on his own side to back him is a different matter. Time to stand and be counted, folks!

In March 1933 the Ermächtigungsgesetz (Enabling Act) was signed into force by German President Paul von Hindenburg. This act gave Chancellor Hitler, with, like President Trump, under 50% of the votes cast in the recent elections, plenary powers for four years, which, once the Nazis had destroyed the opposition, were renewed in 1937. We all know how it turned out. Like the career politicians in the Reichstag, who thought they could control Hitler, we are told that the US Congress will act as a counterweight to Trump. I sincerely hope so; but I am not convinced. At least in Washington we are only dealing with two parties unlike the six that made it to the Reichstag some 84 years ago.

Nobody is saying that we are on the brink of World War Three; but, in the words of the Commander in Chief, there are some ‘bad hombres’ out there – and I don’t just mean radical Islam. What about North Korea or even China, to name just two? Neither is likely to be cowed by any threats from the White House, from what I can see and the latter in particular would be no pushover in any conflict.

So, could the events during the fag end of the Weimar Republic in the 1930s when democracy around the world was being questioned, be repeated in a similar way across the Atlantic today? And let’s not forget what could happen in France, the Netherlands and, heaven forbid, in Germany later this year.

Many will say; “Of course not”; but can we be so sure? Many of us never thought that Brexit or Trump could possibly happen. How wrong we were. Many people appear to have bought the argument that the answers to the problems, both macro and micro, that we face, lie in the personality of the individual rather than the collective. The dice have been thrown. Who knows how they will fall in the next few years. Populism covers a multitude of sins.