The Kindertransport Association (my grandfather and his brother were on the kindertransport) recently asked, “Could a Nazi-type takeover of our Federal government happen in America. Why? Why not? Could it happen in Western Europe?” My response made the front page of their newsletter:
History teaches us that society is always at risk of losing its freedom and descending into tyranny because there are always people who wish for and actively seek to rule over others and profit at their expense.
With the separation of powers and checks and balances, western civilization has created systems, best exemplified by the United States Constitution, designed to prevent demagogues from gaining power. However, when people think the political system no longer functions properly, they will demand change, thinking that “anything else will be better than this.” At this point, a demagogue may convince them that he will fix the nation and bring prosperity to all with relative ease. These demagogues tell the people that all they need to do is vote for him and their problems will be solved.
Demagogues seeking to take over the government create or find an enemy to attack and blame. The demagogue informs the public that it is not their fault the economy is bad, they lost in a recent war, or that they are poor. Instead, it is somebody else’s fault. Hitler’s blamed Germany’s problems on both the communists and capitalists, with the Jews supposedly supporting both groups. Julius Caesar blamed the Roman Senate. The Communists in Russia blamed both the Czar and the democrats. With the recent economic weakness and increased partisanship in the United States and Western Europe, there has been a lot of blame bandied about, especially by politicians looking to win election.
Weak economies, a wide disparity between rich and poor sparking class warfare rhetoric, and the perception of a broken political system open the door for an eloquent demagogue to trick the people into voting for him, increasing his power, and paving the way for him or his successor to become a tyrant.
So it is possible for a Nazi-type takeover in the United States or Western Europe? Most certainly. In fact, we have already seen something similar happen just recently in Venezuela, which had been a prosperous western-style nation until the late 1980s when an economic crisis and political corruption paved the way for Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian socialism.
Fortunately, the Founding Fathers of the United States created a system specifically designed to prevent one man or faction from gaining too much power. Western Europe has largely copied that system, with some alterations. Additionally, our long tradition of liberty is not one that people will throw away lightly. However, an eloquent demagogue promising peace and prosperity at no expense amid economic and political chaos may, at times, be able to overthrow the delicate political, economic, and social system we have. This happened in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, ancient Israel, Russia in the 1910s, Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 1930s, and Venezuela in the 1990s, to name just a few of the most notable examples.
Only through eternal vigilance against demagogues, their false promises, and their scapegoating of minority groups can we prevent Nazi-type takeovers in the United States and Western Europe.
Michael E. Newton, KT3
— Michael E. Newton is the author of the highly acclaimed The Path to Tyranny: A History of Free Society’s Descent into Tyranny. His newest book, Angry Mobs and Founding Fathers: The Fight for Control of the American Revolution, was released by Eleftheria Publishing in July.