A HAUNTING thought will not leave me. It is prompted by the uncanny echoes of the aftermath of the world-wide economic crash of 1929 and the one that our generation experienced in 2008. Let me explain.
This is what happened after the Wall Street crash of 1929. In Germany, a populist nationalist leader was elected, promising massive public works — planting forests, and building hospitals and schools — to create jobs. He ushered in protectionist policies to shield the economy from foreign competition. And he began the scapegoating of minorities. Jews were sacked, and their jobs were given to non-Jews. Women were sacked, and their jobs were given to men. Within ten years, the world was at war.
This is what has happened since the global financial crash of 2008. In the United States, a populist nationalist leader has been elected, promising massive public works — rebuilding highways, bridges, airports, schools, hospitals — to create 25 million jobs (News, 11 November). He threatens to usher in protectionist policies, this week reiterating on his first day in office his promise that the US would quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. The denigration of minorities — Mexicans, Muslims, and even women — were constants in his election campaign; last week, he repeated that he would “immediately” deport two million undocumented immigrants.
All this was greeted with cries of “Hail Trump” this week at a white-supremacist rally, in Washington DC, run by the alt-right movement, one of whose backers, Stephen K. Bannon, has been named as senior adviser and chief strategist to the President-elect. The leader of the rally hailed the group’s “psychic connection” with Donald Trump, and claimed that there was a “a realistic chance” of its policies being implemented by the new President.
The man whom he has appointed to be his national security adviser, General Mike Flynn, has described Islam as a “malignant cancer” and a “political ideology” that “hides behind this notion of it being a religion”. Will the world be at war by 2018?
Perhaps it is too apocalyptic to set Mr Trump alongside Adolf Hitler. But there is alarm among thinkers who are normally known for more measured language. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams wrote in the New Statesman this week: “We have seen elsewhere how extremists have been elected with the optimistic collusion or tolerance of those who believe that such people can be ‘managed’ in office; and we have seen them discover, bitterly and too late, their error.” The force of Mr Trump’s personality, combined with his limited grasp of complex issues, will create a most damaging climate, Dr Williams concluded.
The hope must be that, in office, Mr Trump proves to be as much a pragmatist as a populist. Already he has rowed back on his pledge to jail his opponent Hillary Clinton. He has announced that he would keep elements of President Obama’s affordable health-care for the poorest people. And his massive infrastructure initiative now looks as if it will not be genuine public works, so much as a series of tax breaks for construction-sector investors. Such crony capitalism is, perhaps, the best that we can expect from Mr Trump. But, as history suggests, it could be a great deal worse.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester. www.paulvallely.com