I have often wondered what it must have been like to be a citizen of the European continent in the 1930s. Sure, you could still vote in elections. But increasingly, Europeans had to choose between voting for fascists like Hitler and voting for communists like Stalin. It was a nightmarish choice.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that Donald Trump is a new Hitler or Hillary Clinton is a new Stalin. At least, for America’s sake, I hope they aren’t. (Only time will tell.) But certain characteristics of both major-party candidates this year are ominously un-American, reflecting more 1930s Europe than the America we want to remember.
I think this is why so many Americans are distressed about the election this year. They sense something dramatic has changed, and not for the good. More than ever, they have to choose not just the less-evil, but the worst evil—whom to vote against.
Most Americans have vague or no recollections of what went on in Europe in the 1930s. But I was born in the late 1930s, and I feel that what happened “over there” has shaped America for the worse during my lifetime. Thus my nightmares about the coming election. Consider:
Trump: He promises to “make America great again.” (“Deutschland uber alles,” anyone?) He rants against immigrants and Muslims and conniving foreign nations like Mexico and China. (Jews and gypsies get a pass this time.) He is a bully. He promises hope to those who have been left behind economically and socially. He attracts huge and very devoted crowds at his rallies. He has no coherent program, at least yet—you have to believe in him as a great leader.
Whom does he remind you of, at least vaguely?
Clinton: She is secretive to a fault, perhaps paranoid in her pursuit of power. There are hints of hidden illnesses, so reminiscent of Uncle Joe. An unhidden lust for money at any cost. Considering “two for the price of one” (Bill and Hill), there are the key operatives who conveniently die when in disfavor. They do not hesitate to use the Justice Department, and especially the IRS, to persecute opponents. She runs a tight operation, as secretive as she is personally, and has an ideological platform for totally transforming America.
Whom does she remind you of, at least vaguely?
Again, let me be clear. I do not think Trump has a holocaust in mind; he is just an opportunist using “the other” both domestically and abroad to gain power. And I do not think Clinton has the stamina for sustained great purges and great gulags. Yes, she has a lust for power, but she has even more lust for getting rich through politics. She can be bought, and has been, constantly.
It is these characteristics, however, that are so disturbing. They build on what has come before, but suggest a revolutionary escalation. Every president during my lifetime has added to the power of the American empire and the deep state, but now we seem to be at an unprecedented and transformative junction.
In 1930s Europe, the opposition to totalitarianism disappeared. For whatever reasons we wish to ascribe to them, the “classical liberals” who believed in limited government and peace were never able to achieve power. The great intellectuals of the Austrian School of political economy, like Mises and Hayek, became refugees from both fascism and communism.
In 21st-century America, this classical-liberal tradition was carried on by the Ron Paul movement. Paul waged a valiant fight for the ideals that once made America exceptional, but by this late date he was a voice in the wilderness in the political environment of perpetual war and a police state. The hard evidence is that he never had the support of even 10 percent of American voters, and now with his retirement the political movement centered on his leadership has disappeared. (The intellectual movement, thankfully, is prospering under the leadership of the Mises Institute.) We are left politically with the distressing choice of 2016—a limited (for now) version of the choices that Europeans faced in the 1930s, pitting “right” against “left,” but both of them totalitarian.
There is no way that someone with my political disposition could have voted in the early 1930s for the communists—that way led to open and total destruction of Western civilization. So could I have taken a chance with the fascism that had not yet unveiled its worst characteristics, hoping at best for a refuge like Franco Spain, where, after a horrible and inevitable civil war, some semblance of European civilization remained intact? Or would I have just not voted? Or fled?
Fast forward to America in 2016. At this point, my choice seems to be between a buffoon and an evil woman. But there are those haunting characteristics of the two candidates that point at what may be coming.
I know I cannot vote for Clinton, but do I take a chance with Trump? Yes, he is disgusting personally, but at least he offers some chance of preserving some semblance of constitutional governance—we would still have free speech and the Second Amendment in relatively good shape. Yes, increasing civil strife is inevitably on the horizon, as the militarism budget and entitlements increasingly crowd out the welfare goodies now expected by much of the population. But, at least, there is some hope that “our side” could prevail in some tattered form.
Or do I flee? Lucky or insightful Europeans of the 1930s could flee to England, then America. But what options are available to Americans as things get worse? Panama, as the redoubt of the hemisphere’s wealthy (like Switzerland in Europe)? Costa Rica, as a fairly close refuge of peace and neutrality (like Sweden in Europe)? Some Caribbean island too small and unimportant to be noticed by the empire? (Are you prepared to be a modern Robinson Crusoe?) Or maybe Canada, where just being less belligerent than the United States may be the best we can hope for? But how can we be sure that any of these will not end up like Norway or Hungary—occupied?
At any rate, most Americans (myself included, probably) will not consider these options, just as most continental Europeans in 1930 did not consider their flight options until it was too late.
This is why I am having nightmares as November 8 approaches.
David Franke was a founder of the conservative movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He is currently writing his magnum opus on the trajectory of conservatism and American politics during his lifetime.