July 12, 2009
It was common on the left to intimate that George W. Bush was like Hitler, a remark that would drive the National Review crowd through the roof but which I didn’t find entirely outrageous. Bush’s main method of governance was to stir up fear of foreign enemies and instigate a kind of nationalist hysteria about the need for waging war and giving up liberty through security.
|In Nazi Germany there is no field of business activity in which the State does not interfere.|
Hitler is the most famous parallel here, but he is hardly the only one. Many statesmen in world history have used the same tactics, dating back to ancient times. Machiavelli wrote in his Art of War advice to the ruler: "To know how to recognize an opportunity in war, and take it, benefits you more than anything else."
But what’s the point of studying Hitler’s rise to power unless it is to learn from that history and apply the lessons? One lesson is to beware of leaders who come to power in troubled times, and then use foreign threats and economic crises to bolster their own power. Unless we can draw out lessons for our own times, history becomes nothing but a series of dry data points with no broader relevance.
Certainly Bush used 9-11 to consolidate his power and the neoconservative intellectuals who surrounded him adopted a deep cynicism concerning the manipulation of public opinion. Their governing style concerned the utility of public myth, which they found essential to wise rule. The main myth they promoted was that Bush was the Christian philosopher-king heading a new crusade against Islamic extremism. The very stupid among us believed it, and this served as a kind of ideological infrastructure of his tenure as president.
Then it collapsed when the economy went south and he was unable to sustain the absurd idea that he was protecting us from anyone. The result was disgrace, and the empowering of the political left and its socialistic ethos.
The talk of Hitler in the White House ended forthwith, as if the analogy extended only when nationalist ideology is ruling the day. What people don’t remember is that Hitlerism was about more than just militarism, nationalism, and consolidation of identity politics. It also involved a substantial shift in German domestic politics away from free enterprise, or what remained of it under Weimar, toward collectivist economic planning.
Nazism was not only nationalism run amok. It was also socialism of a particular variety.
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