It's Beginning to Look a Bit Like 1932

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

In the midst of a national crisis, Republican Senator David Reed (PA) announced: "If this country ever needed a Mussolini, it needs one now." If you missed that statement, or if David Reed's name doesn't ring a bell, you are forgiven. He made this chilling observation in 1932.

Reed wasn't grandstanding. As the Great Depression continued to grow worse and as the nation staggered under the suffering it caused, Reed cast his eyes toward a dictator because his own colleagues on Capitol Hill seemed collectively paralyzed and ineffectual. "Leave it to Congress," Reed continued, "we will fiddle around here all summer trying to satisfy every lobbyist, and we will get nowhere. The country doesn't want that. The country wants stern action."

Looked at from nearly 85 years later, Reed was on to something. While the roots of our current political polarization are undoubtedly complex, that polarization is manifested most regularly and with the most significance in Congress. There, partisan intransigence leads to anger which leads to legislative stalemate which leads to more intransigence, anger and stalemate.

You can thank Newt Gingrich for all this. Congress has always had its share of reckless and polarizing figures but when Newt Gingrich was elevated to the speakership in 1995 he was more than happy to sacrifice the functioning of Congress on the altar of his intense partisan goals. After all, rather than compromise with Democrats he shut the government down when he didn't get what he wanted.

Which brings us to the Bacchanalian festival of fear and loathing we are calling the Republican primary. The scorched earth politics of Republican congresses -- and Republicans have been in control of the House for 16 of the last 20 years -- have created the soil out of which Donald Trump grows. Just as in 1932, Americans want our politicians to address important issues and just as in 1932 Congress is apparently not up to the task. Donald Trump, by contrast, promises to take care of business, and his crowds go wild.

Trump's comments about Muslims have emboldened at least a few timid mainstream journalists to accuse him of demagoguery. Fair enough, but in fact he differs only in style from most of the other Republicans running for the presidency. Trump wants to bar Muslims entering the country; Jeb Bush only wants to let Christians in. The very definition of a distinction without a difference.

Trump may or may not prove to be as appealing a demagogue as Mussolini, but as Republican candidates try to ape him more and more it brings into sharp focus that the political dysfunction in which we are now trapped has largely been created by the Republican party. As long-time political analysts Thomas Mann (Brookings) and Norman Ornstein (American Enterprise Institute) concluded in a Washington Post essay: "The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understandings of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." They wrote that in 2012 and since then things have only gotten worse.

Though Mann and Ornstein didn't quite come out and say it, their characterization of the Republican Party matches almost any definition of a fascist regime. Ideologically and programmatically the GOP now has more in common with the right-wing fringe parties of Europe than they do with the British Tories or the French UPM. The xenophobia, the angry, fulminating nationalism, the war-mongering, and the resort to demonizing all political opposition make the 2015 edition of the GOP a lot like France's far-right National Front and England's UKIP. Demagogues like Trump come with this territory. "Weimar America," Roger Cohen called it recently in the New York Times.

Before you dismiss the "f" word as hyperbolic and insist that it couldn't happen here, remember that in 2012 GOP candidates for the House of Representatives garnered 48 percent of the total votes cast in House races while winning a substantial majority of House seats. In other words, the party that has moved "this far from the mainstream" making it "nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country's challenges," as Mann and Ornstein put it, is already adept at turning electoral disadvantage into political power.

It's also worth remembering that the kind of liberal democracy with which Americans have governed themselves is not an historical inevitability or a fait accompli. Liberal democracy, which the West assumed as a foregone conclusion after the Cold War, disappeared from Russia a decade and a half ago, never really got off the ground in any number of countries, and is in retreat in Hungary and perhaps now in Poland too.

In 1932 more Americans than we probably want to acknowledge were attracted to some form of fascism or totalitarianism. The American Liberty League, for example, was founded by a clique of wealthy and prominent businessmen in 1934 and it advocated for a fascist state in the U.S. modeled on Il Duce's Italy. But in the 1930s neither major party chose to put these sympathizers at the center of its electoral agenda. The politics of the GOP today seems a little more reckless and dangerous by comparison.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His most recent book is Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.