People have been comparing Trump-land with Germany in the 1930s. I get it. A populist nativist with fascist tendencies is currently the President, supported by a range of racist white nationalist and supremacist groups. On a personal note, I happened to be reading Phillip Roth’s The Plot against America, which details the rise of a populist nativist with fascist tendencies in 1930s America, right at the time that Trump announced his campaign in 2015. I tend to read novels slowly; a few minutes in bed each night, and so the plot of the book played out against the backdrop of Trump’s ever-weirder and scarier campaign. The parallels were there, and like I said, I get it.
But…for me 1933 is the wrong parallel. In Germany in the 1930s, there were simply no corporate equivalents to Amazon, Expedia or Microsoft, lining up against German state racism. The conventional establishmentarian components of civil society were not condemning Hitler’s targeted policies against Jews and other minorities. There were no protests at deportation sites as there have been at airports across the US this week. And so whilst I don’t doubt Trump’s fascist tendencies, I do think that falling down the rabbit hole of 1930s Germany throws up a number of problems. It fails to help us understand what is happening at the moment, it leaves us struggling for ways to stop it, and it reinforces a historical frame of reference that erases helpful comparisons that might be drawn from outside of Europe, particularly with regards to struggles against European colonialism and White supremacism.
I believe that a much closer historical parallel with current events in the US would be South Africa at the end of the 1980s. It is no coincidence that Apartheid ended in the same period as the end of the Cold War. Whilst domestic opposition to the regime was of course vital in its demise, such opposition and civil disobedience had been a key component of domestic anti-Apartheid struggle for many years prior to 1990-1994. The big difference is that the end of the Cold War removed the geopolitical justifications deployed by the West in supporting an overtly racist regime. South Africa could no longer be seen as a ‘bulwark against communism’ in Africa; trade with and investment in such a regime, and ignoring that regime’s crimes, especially in the face of such widespread protest from within and outside South Africa, could no longer be justified on those similar grounds.
The result of all of this was a loose and to an extent unintended coalition of interests; social movements committed to the liberation of peoples of colour; elements of the State no longer able to prosecute the actions necessary to uphold an Apartheid regime; and very importantly, capital, whose owners saw that Apartheid, in a post-Cold War world, would not be good for business.
Of course the end result of this loose coalition was a victory for capital. The majority of non-White South Africans are unemployed; many live in impermanent housing and are regularly threatened with eviction. A small non-White minority have made a lot of money, and the White-European minority, those who owned productive capital in the first place, have not experienced a great deal of change in their material circumstances.
Fundamentally though, the end of Apartheid signalled a blow against White supremacism, the idea that light skin automatically equates with intellect and material privilege. And whilst the post-Apartheid reality has not lived up to that idea, the idea is no less powerful, particularly because it was an idea that so many people fought for. Donald Trump, alongside being a megalomaniacal misogynist, is also a White supremacist. One can be a White supremacist and still evince warmth towards people of colour, because racism works in generalities before projecting onto individuals. Hence ‘I’m not a racist, some of my best friends are Black, Muslim, Jewish, etc.’ So yes, Donald Trump’s daughter and son-in-law are Jewish. This means he can’t be a racist anti-Semite right? Wrong; because he still engages in generalised anti-Semitic tropes.
Opposition to him springs in part from opposition to his White, male supremacism, and as such a contingently more hopeful comparison with end-of-Apartheid South Africa rather than pre-Shoah Germany makes more sense to me, emotionally as well as analytically. As much as we are at the beginning of the Trump presidency, there is a strong whiff of the end of something too. Already, the component parts of the coalition of interests that ended Apartheid in South Africa are present in the US today, from the Amazons to the Expedias, to the State Department officials protesting Trump’s executive order on immigration, to the liberal components of civil society like the Sierra Club or the NAACP, to the radical social movements like Black Lives Matter, plus countless others. And like in South Africa, if successful, this loose and contradictory coalition will most likely deliver most for the interests of capital, for institutional and societal racism in the US did not begin with Trump’s election, and higher incarceration rates, nor police brutality against African Americans and other Americans of colour are likely to end when the curtains come down on this Trump presidency. Nonetheless, and with all of that in mind, an end to Trump, or a constitutional curtailing of his most egregious racism and misogyny, would remain significant.
Donald Trump could start World War Three and invalidate any hope that one might draw from reorienting our points of comparison away from Europe, and towards an anti-colonial, and anti-White supremacist moment. However, given what we can know at this moment in time, I believe that comparisons with 1930s Germany reinforces a Eurocentric historical gaze that fails to deal more fully with Trump’s White supremacism, and the rare coalition of interests that have emerged as a response. Given the limitations of the post-Apartheid regime in South Africa, hope might be the wrong word to use in this context. Rather, I think what the comparison gives us is a time-bound and highly contingent model of resistance. It is not the only one (not least we might consider the US’s own 1960s civil rights movement), but it is one worth taking note of.