Our shared heritage with Nazi Germany

Summary: American discussions tend to end in references to Hitler or NAZIs. That’s usually described as an oddity, when in fact it results from deep structural factors in American society that have roots in 1930s Germany — and that still shape our future. That should be obvious, yet is too disturbing for us to see. Perhaps events in the next four years will remind us of this heritage, and its dangers. (A version of this was posted in 2013.)

“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 100%.
Godwin’s Law, formulated by Mike Godwin in 1990.

1936 German poster
1936 German poster.

Godwin formulated his Law as a description of an oddity of internet discussions. Since then it’s become normative — a behavior to be condemned or mocked. In fact it is a reflection of so many aspects of modern American society with roots in 1930s Germany. That should not surprise us. Germany played a central role in western religion, philosophy, and science. Which adds another disturbing note — its people so quickly fell into evil. If it happened to them, might it happen to us as well?

These matters are too disturbing to contemplate, so we suppress them. But we can do so only imperfectly, so these insights surface anyway. Hence Godwin’s Law.

What are the roots of Nazi Germany in our America? Nazi Germany was the first nation to break through from traditional modes of western society into modernity. During and after WW2 the West followed Germany into a world with a new morality, plus new physical and political technologies. The list of NAZI breakthroughs we have copied is long; here is a sample.

  • Eisenhower built our autobahn (interstate highways), for the same reasons the Third Reich did. We drive compact cars derived from Volkswagens, the people’s car ordered by Hitler in 1934.
  • Our military uses technology developed by the NAZIs. Some examples are wire-guided missiles (one of which hit the battleship  HMS Warspite in 1943), infra-red night vision systems, ballistic and cruise missiles, jets, and rocket-propelled aircraft.
  • We use military tactics pioneered by the NAZIs, such as our maneuver war methods (descended from their WWI stormtroopers and WWII blitzkrieg) and strategic bombing of civilians.
  • The NAZIs normalized both pre-marital sex (a benefit of Hitler Youth membership) and out-of-wedlock childbirth.
  • The NAZI’s ran the first anti-smoking campaign (30 years before the US did), funded research about the effects of smoking, and in 1941 banned smoking in public places.
  • Nazi Germany was the first nation to aggressively implement feminism. By 1939 a larger fraction of German’s women worked for pay than in any European nation except France. The Nazi trade union, the Arbeitsfront, was proud of raising women’s wages to those of men in many industries. “Five years of Nazi rule in some ways did more for professional women than a decade of feminist pressure in the Weimar Republic” (from Feminist Movement in Germany).
  • Perhaps their greatest long-term influence: the NAZI party introduced modern propaganda techniques, which became the basis for political tools used in WWII, the Cold War — and today.
  • We wear Hugo Boss suits, for the same reason as the SS did (the NAZI’s contribution to fashion might be one of their long-term contributions to the world). We wear Adidas footwear, as did the Wehrmacht.

In so many things Hitler was not wrong, just early. Some of these innovations we applaud; some we prefer not to see. Some we see in our future.

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The new industrial revolution hits retail: prepare for mass firings.

Summary: The new industrial revolution will have its greatest effect on industries that have large imbalances. Like retail, after decades of overbuilding stores. Lots of jobs will be destroyed. Watch closely, other industries will be hit with similar shocks.

Hayley Petersen at Business Insider points to the next wave of the industrial revolution: “The retail apocalypse has officially descended on America” —

“Thousands of mall-based stores are shutting down in what’s fast becoming one of the biggest waves of retail closures in decades. More than 3,500 stores are expected to close in the next couple of months. Department stores like JCPenney, Macy’s, Sears, and Kmart are among the companies shutting down stores, along with middle-of-the-mall chains like Crocs, BCBG, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Guess.

“Some retailers are exiting the brick-and-mortar business altogether and trying to shift to an all-online model. For example, Bebe is closing all its stores — about 170 — to focus on increasing its online sales, according to a Bloomberg report. The Limited also recently shut down all 250 of its stores, but it still sells merchandise online. …Sears is shutting down about 10% of its Sears and Kmart locations, or 150 stores, and JCPenney is shutting down about 14% of its locations, or 138 stores. …

“The real-estate research firm Green Street Advisors estimates that about 30% of all malls fall under those classifications. That means that nearly a third of shopping malls are at risk of dying off as a result of store closures. According to many analysts, the retail apocalypse has been a long time coming in the US, where stores per capita far outnumber that of any other country.”

Petersen understates the situation for retail stories, overlooking the inevitable bankruptcies (Sears might be the next to go). As a modern business reporter, she mentions the effects on businesses but not the large-scale firings when those stores close. How many might lose their jobs?

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How the Left lost but can win again

Summary: So far the Left has talked of forming a resistance to Trump, a first step to pushing back the power of the 1% and rolling back the GOP’s gains in State and Federal governments. But they have shown little interest in building the broad coalition needed to do so. Here is a brief recap of how the Left got here, and how it can reform to win.

“United we stand, divided we fall.”
— From Aesop’s fable, “The Four Oxen and the Lion“.

Hand shake in alliance

The response was fascinating to my post The Left becomes a cult rather than gather support to oppose Trump. Most validated my observations about the Left. Contempt for workers, factionalism, in-group jargon (my favorite: I’m a “performative centrist“) — and a remarkable drop from the high intellectual standards formerly commonplace on the Left.

What went wrong?

The 1% has grown powerful since their renaissance began in 1964. Worse, as many people warned, American workers have drifted from the Left to Right as the Left shifted its focus from economic growth and income redistribution to them to the priorities of social justice warriors (starting the bathroom wars during the campaign was almost suicidal). Thomas Frank wrote several books about this, most recently Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? Also see Michael Hirsh’s “Why Trump and Sanders Were Inevitable: It was only a matter of time before we had a populist backlash to 30 years of flawed globalization policies that both parties embraced” in Politico Magazine, February 2016.

Most on the Left prefer not see the overlap in views of Trump and Sanders. Also see this insightful report by Working America: “‘Front Porch Focus Group’ Explores Appeal of Trump’s Right-Wing Message to working-class voters.”

All of this appears to have had little effect on the Left. The response to Trump’s election has been to double-down on failed tactics — obsession with the rumors about a Trump-Putin conspiracy plus lots and lots of name-calling.

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The GOP might impeach Trump, changing our politics forever – for the better

Summary: President Trump might spark a change in our politics both unexpected and (as it will seem afterwards) inevitable, making our 18th century constitutional regime more similar to modern parliamentary systems. If he continues to act wildly and weirdly, the Republicans in Congress might impeach and remove him — putting the solidly far-Right Mike Pence at the helm. Trump would be the first President removed by Congress, but not the last. The occasional impeachment of Presidents would make Congress the Federal power center the Founders intended it to be.


A long-time concern of constitutional lawyers and political scientists has been the fundamental instability of presidential governance systems, like that of the USA. How are deep and irreconcilable conflicts between Congress and the President resolved? Worse, what happens if we get an incompetent President after he loses the confidence of Congress, the public, and perhaps even senior executive branch officers? Especially at a time of national crisis, the result could be disastrous — with no obvious remedy. For example, see “American democracy is doomed” by Matthew Yglesias at VOX.

In the early 1980s Bruce Ackerman (Prof Law, Yale) began to study the process of constitutional change in America. He found an informal method of evolution other than the formal processes specified in the Constitution, which he called “higher lawmaking” (summary here). After the great crises of the Civil War, the Great Depression, and WWII — America’s political regime bears little resemblance to its form during Washington’s administration. The Trump years might create its next great test.

Much of America’s social change since WWII results from elites’ recognition that they can break the informal social norms that govern their behavior. Doctors can practice medicine as a business and become rich. CEOs can arrange corporations to pay themselves fantastic sums and so become plutocrats. Elected representatives can arrange to become almost permanent fixtures, retiring wealthy.

All of these changes seemed impossible before they happened, until they realized that the social norms that constrained them were just paper shackles. In the next few years Congress might realize that they can impeach a President at will, drastically changing the structure of US government to more closely resemble the parliamentary governments used by almost all other republics (for good reason few nations have copied our odd structure). Trump might force this break in precedent; its effects will change America’s government forever.

To better understand this, let’s turn to someone from a nation with a longer history and who sees the Constitution more clearly (distance gives perspective, allowing a dispassionate analysis). He shows that the Constitution’s 175 words about the impeachment process give Congress a powerful tool with few limits, limited mostly by Americans’ customs — which can change.

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A example of climate activists at work that shows why they lost

Summary: Here is a first-person account of a small but telling incident in the climate policy wars, showing how the methods used by climate activists won battles, but lost the war. Their political power could destroy opponents, but doing so did not convince a majority of the US public. Now Republican gains have closed the door for action by the Federal government and most states, at least for the foreseeable future. The effects could be unfortunate.

“Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
— Attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson.

An Inside Look at the Politics of Climate Science

By Professor Roger Pielke, Jr.
Presented at the University of Florida, 17 March 2017.
Posted with his generous permission.


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The Left becomes a cult rather than gather support to oppose Trump

Summary: Much will depend in the next four years on America’s ability to resist Trump. The Left could play a large role, but its response so far suggests that it will not be able to. Two recent articles show why this seems likely. Also, see the fascinating rebuttal posted at Lawyers, Guns, and Money!

Left Wing politics

People often characterize a political movement by looking at the odd and foolish among them, and examine their reactions to events for insights to the movement’s core beliefs. That’s foolish. Instead look to the best of them. For examples on the Left, look at Lawyers, Guns, and Money. See Erik Loomis’ (Asst Prof of History at the U or RI) essay “Dumbasses of America“, which illustrates why the Left has lost so much of its influence in America, and might be unable to effectively resist Trump.

“The genre of “let’s talk to idiotic white voters who support Trump even though he will decimate their lives” is already more stale than bread baked on November 8. However, it does lead to the occasional special anecdote that truly sums up the stupidity of many white people.

Many of these “idiotic white voters”, or their parents, voted for Democrats in the past — and can again in the future. Turn to another post to see what the Left finds objectionable in them: “Trump Voters. Again.” by Beth Spencer (aka vacuumslayer, an an artist). She comments on “I’m a Silicon Valley liberal, and I traveled across the country to interview 100 Trump supporters — here’s what I learned” by Sam Altman. Here are the excerpts from the interview, and Spencer’s comment.

“You all can defeat Trump next time, but not if you keep mocking us, refusing to listen to us, and cutting us out. It’s Republicans, not Democrats, who will take Trump down.”

Spencer: “In other words, “we’ll vote for someone we dislike and even find unfit for office out of spite.” INCREDIBLE.” Is it incredible that people will not vote for a party whose key people mock them and refuse to listen to them? No, it is not incredible. It quite natural. It’s politics.

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Martin van Creveld advises Trump to not repeat Obama’s errors & invade Syria

Summary: Martin van Creveld warns Trump against taking his generals’ advice and invading Syria, repeating Obama’s mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan. History show that his odds of success are low.

Lessons learned

Are You Listening, President Trump?

By Martin van Creveld.
From his website, 16 March 2017.

Re-posted with his generous permission.

Fifty-six years ago, President Kennedy entered office eager to show how weak his predecessor, Eisenhower, had been and how brave and decisive he himself was. He sent his troops to Vietnam, and the rest is history.

Two months ago, President Trump entered office eager to do the same in respect to his predecessor, President Obama. To do so, he has hit on the brilliant idea of sending more American troops to Syria. In response, President Assad of Syria has told him that such troops, deployed without his permission, would not be welcome. Also that, over the last seventy years or so, almost every time Western, specifically American, troops went into the so-called developing world they failed to achieve their objectives. In quite a few cases the outcome was to open the gates of hell, as the Koran put itAs the following, extremely partial, list of their failures shows, Assad is right.

1944-1948. A few hundred active “terrorists” hound the British out of Palestine, leading to the establishment of the State of Israel.

1946-1954. French troops are defeated in Indochina, leading to Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian independence.

1948-1960. British troops fail to hold Malaya and end up by withdrawing from the country. Thanks to a masterpiece of propaganda, the Brits make most of the world believe that they had actually won the war. But this does not prevent Malaysia from becoming independent state. {See details here.} Read more