Two factors that historians and political scientists often cite to explain the rise of fascism are economic dislocation and loss of prominence on the world stage. For example, Germany lost World War I, compelling it to cede large amounts of its territory and its overseas colonies. During the period of the Weimar government, the nation experienced depression economics, hyperinflation, deindustrialization, and widespread unemployment. To link the economic and geopolitical factors together, we have the Treaty of Versailles, in which the war’s victors imposed massive reparations on Germany (draining money from the economy and eventually leading the government to deliberately and massively devalue its currency in order to make the payments lower in real-dollar terms (real-mark terms, I suppose), leading to runaway inflation, and the ceding of industrial areas from Germany to France.
Russia under Vladimir Putin is generally considered to be on the continuum of fascism, though not as extreme as the Third Reich – either full-fledged fascism, or some sort of fascism lite. During the 1990s, the Soviet Empire collapsed. Russia lost control of the rest of the Soviet republics, as well as its allies around the world. It was reduced from the status of a global superpower to, by the end of the decade, a regional power in decline. Economically, the post-Soviet pre-Putin saw its gross domestic product per capita decline by almost half, producing a situation so dire that life expectancy in Russia actually declined in the 1990s, not recovering to its 1990 level until well into the first decade of the 21st century. To tie the two factors together, one of the causes of this decline was the harsh shock therapy economic reforms imposed on the country by the west.
When looking at the two cases, we can see that the forces in Russia were similar in kind to those in Germany, but to a significantly lesser degree. Their economy declined, but not the levels of desperation during the worst of the Weimar years. They suffered a significant and damaging loss of international power, but nowhere as bad as the lass of a world war imposed on Germany. And as one might predict, the fascist government of Germany was proportionally more vicious at home and imperialistic abroad than the of Putin’s Russia. To date, anyway.
So, what about America? During the 1990s, with its Soviet rival defeated, the United States rose to a status that has been described as “sole superpower” or “hyperpower.” There was nowhere on earth that wasn’t in the American sphere of influence, and no nation or even combination of nations could hope to challenge us. Since 2001, however, we have been in geopolitical decline. The rise of China has created a peer, or perhaps near-peer, military and economic competitor. Russia has reasserted itself on the global stage. Militant Islamic groups conducted mass-casualty attacks on American soil. And those are just the wounds inflicted on us from outside. A series of self-inflicted wounds, from the invasion of Iraq to the debt ceiling debacle of 2011, have reduced our global standing in the political, military, and economic spheres. The spread of technology, media, and ideology have increased the capacity of substate organizations and small states to resist coercive actions by large outside powers. Where once our military could stop a close Russian ally in Eastern Europe dead in its tracks with impunity, or defeat and subjugate Iraq, today we see similar efforts in Syria and Iraq founder, and the American ability to influence events fade. It is important not to overstate things – our geopolitical “decline” has knocked us all the way back to a mere global superpower, like we were during the Cold War. Just as Russia’s global fall was less painful than Germany’s, ours has been of much lesser scope than Russia’s.
And then there is the American economy. The Great Recession was the most dramatic example of American economic decline, but the culmination of longstanding trends of wage stagnation and deindustrialization – at least on the jobs side – have hollowed out cities and entire regions. Again, it is important not to overstate the case. American unemployment in the recession peaked at 10% and fell steadily thereafter, to a level below 5% today. American economic troubles are comparable to our geopolitical troubles: most countries in the world would trade places with us in a heartbeat. Nonetheless, there has been decline.
Germany-Russia-America. Hitler-Putin-Trump. In hindsight, the growth of a less-severe form of fascism in the United States should not have come as this much of a surprise. And now that the jackboots have stepped across the threshold, people seeking to understand what is happening should acknowledge the parallels in both the causes and the likely results. Unfortunately, lingering bitterness over the Democratic primary has led some Democrats to overlook, or even renounce, the long-understood link between economic disruption and a growth in support for fascism. Hopefully, this will be a short-lived problem as time passes.