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New Deal or Nazism? Historical Comparisons to Trump's Performance as a Leader in Crisis

In times of crisis, effective leadership is more crucial than ever. As President Trump struggles with the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, including the filing of more than ten million new unemployment claims in late March and crucial shortages of equipment like effective masks and ventilators, the ways other leaders responded to the Great Depression offer lessons both inspirational and cautionary for the present. Although Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler operated in two very different political cultures, their first 100 days in power offer a sobering reminder of the consequences of decisions pursued by leaders in crisis. 

By late 1932, the Depression was several years old. One of every four workers in the USA was unemployed, in Germany one of every three. But in early 1933 Hitler and then FDR came to power, both remaining in office until they died in 1945. Historian Robert Dallek insists that FDR’s First Inaugural Address of March 4, 1933 displayed “a masterful use of language to ease current fears and encourage positive thinking about the future.” The new president declared, “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.” And he indicated that he would ask Congress to convene in a special session to act upon his proposals. 

Following the speech he proceeded, in the words of historian David Kennedy, “to act with spectacular vigor.” For advice he relied on a wide variety of sources, including some in academia. By the time Congress’s special session ended on June 16, he “had sent fifteen messages to Congress and had in turn signed fifteen bills into law.” 

Among other results, these actions guaranteed bank deposits (earlier bank defaults had left depositors poorer than ever), set up a national relief system, aided farmers, and created jobs through such new programs as the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC employed hundreds of thousands of young men (more than three million in the next decade) to work on conservation and beautification projects in such areas as national parks. “No less important,” writes Kennedy, “the spirit of the country, so discouraged by four years of economic devastation, had been infused with Roosevelt’s own contagious optimism and hope.” 

Aiding FDR were his interactions with the media and public. On 8 March he held a press conference. Dallek writes, “ His engaging manner routinely disarmed the journalists, and as early as the end of the first conference, in an unprecedented expression of appreciation for his effectiveness in drawing the country back from the brink of disaster and the civility he showed the press, the reporters applauded his performance.” To continue interacting with the press, he meet with them regularly, holding 80 more press conferences during the remainder of 1933--far more in his first year than any subsequent president. 

On March 12, FDR spoke on the radio for about twenty minutes in the first of his more than 300 presidential fireside chats. Some 60 million Americans, about half of the country’s population, listened in--historian Jill Lepore has written that during his subsequent summertime fireside chats, “people said that . . . you could walk down a city street, past the open windows of houses and cars, and not miss a word.” She adds that “he spoke on the radio with an easy intimacy and a ready charm, coming across as knowledgeable, patient, kind-hearted, and firm of purpose.”

For the rest of his first presidential term, FDR continued in a like manner with his New Deal policies. The results of the 1936 presidential election—FDR won 46 out of 48 states--testify to the citizens’ approval. 

Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany at the end of January 1933, a little over a month before FDR became president. Although, unlike Roosevelt, he at first had to contend with another executive authority, President Paul von Hindenburg, it was Hitler who dominated. Historian Peter Fritzsche’s new book, Hitler's First Hundred Days, provides a timely analysis of that period, most of which occurred concurrently to FDR’s first Hundred Days.   

Prior to the Great Depression Hitler’s Nazi Party had been a small one. In the summer elections of 1932, however, it won 230 out of 608 seats, making them by far the largest of many parties in the Reichstag. Although the miseries of the Depression, certainly helped the Nazis’ rise, Fritzsche stresses other factors which aided them. For example, he often quotes letters of Elisabeth Gebensleben, wife of a conservative deputy mayor in a Saxon town. Fritzsche states that “the crowds of unemployed Communists who gathered in city streets . . . frightened Elisabeth most, and “middle-class Germans shared . . . [her] fears.” By 1932, she had concluded that “only Hitler’s National Socialists could protect Germany from the Communists.” 

Fritzsche also indicates that Hitler and the Nazis “mined the recent past in a different way.” They emphasized an idealized pure German community and depicted the Weimar Republic, established in 1918, as an alien institution. Many Germans accepted their views on “community, nation, and race” and their methods of making Germany great again.

Fritzsche further points out “the Nazis resolved the paradox of promoting national unity by dividing the country. They did so by promulgating a binary worldview,” a we-vs-they approach: “pitting patriotic Germans against subversive Communists, Aryans against Jews, the healthy against the sick, the Third Reich against the rest of the world.”

In late February, Hitler blamed a Reichstag-building fire on German communists and convinced Hindenburg to sign an emergency decree, supposedly to protect Germany against communist violence. It indefinitely suspended due process of law, while also serving as an excuse to persecute communists. In Reichstag elections in early March 1933, the Nazi vote increased to 44 percent of the total. The communist vote declined, and none of their deputies, fearing arrest, took their seats in the new Reichstag. Soon afterward, Hitler established a new Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Later that month, using threats and promises, Hitler convinced Reichstag deputies to agree to the Enabling Act, which transferred legislative power to Hitler and his cabinet and allowed him to suspend parts of the Weimar constitution. In addition, the Nazis appointed officials who helped them take over federal states like Prussia and Bavaria, as well as local governments. 

Furthermore, as Fritzsche writes, the Nazis “dismantled the trade unions, coordinated many of the institutions of civic life, and promulgated laws denying German Jews equal rights as citizens.” On May 10, the 101st day of Hitler’s chancellorship, Nazi students organized the burning of “unpatriotic” books. The fact that German unemployment eventually began declining, partly as a result of German rearmament, concerns Fritzsche less than the motives of Hitler and his supporters.

Fritzsche succinctly explained the contrast between FDR and Hitler in an interview:

Roosevelt’s 100 days were an imaginative and improvised effort to restore confidence and put Americans back to work through government legislation. . . . Hitler’s 100 days were to consolidate power around his party, which then spoke for the nation at large. . . . Roosevelt spoke in an inclusive voice, especially when he addressed Americans in fireside chats; Hitler divided Germans into friends and foes, and promised a final reckoning with enemies. Hitler and his conservative allies wanted to smash the Weimar Republic, not save the fiscal or economic ship of state. 

Like FDR and Hitler dealing with the horrors of the Great Depression, Donald Trump now also confronts a great crisis. FDR eased people’s fears, generally spoke the truth, acted with vigor, sought to cushion people from absolute economic calamity, sought advice from creative and varied sources, spoke with an “inclusive voice,” had good relations with the press, and came across on the radio as “patient, kind-hearted, and firm of purpose.” Hitler’s main concern, as Fritzsche tells us, was not improving the conditions of the German people, but strengthening his own power by dividing “Germans into friends and foes” (communists, Jews, defenders of the Weimar Republic, etc.). Which previous leader sounds the most like Trump?

To date, Trump has eased few people’s pandemic fears. Truth has long been an alien planet to him. Two recent articles, Frank Rich’s “Trump Lies His Way Through a Pandemic” and James Fallows’ “Trump Is Lying, Blatantly,”indicate that truth remains an alien concept to him. 

He has not acted with vigor. Recent reports suggest an Obama-era National Security Council document intended as a pandemic response playbook has gone unread. Meanwhile, as Fallows stated on March 17, for weeks Trump had “been mocking the virus threat—at rallies, in tweets, and in press remarks. [“We have it totally under control,” he said during a Jan. 22 interview.”] But both yesterday and today, he’d suddenly shifted to warning that the public-health and economic problems were real, and would remain so for a long time.” Such shilly-shallying has impeded bold actions and created increasing anxiety. Rather than relying on creative and varied reliable sources, Trump, fearing independent thinkers, has surrounded himself with yes-men (few women) and is becoming increasingly impatient with such truth-tellers as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984.  

Unlike FDR, Trump has seldom spoken with an “inclusive voice” and has poor relations with reporters. During a March 20 press conference, he told Peter Alexander of NBC, “you’re a terrible reporter” and accused him, as well as NBC and Comcast, of sensationalism. He also lamented, as he often has, “fake news.” At a March 21st conference, after a reporter asked him about a Washington Post story criticizing him for insufficient action on the virus in January and February, he stated that “the Washington Post covers . . . me very inaccurately. . . I think it’s a disgrace.” Trump’s  main form of communication, tweets, are divisive, rife with insults, and the opposite of FDR’s “patient, kind-hearted” fireside chats.  

On March 21, Peter Baker in the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Trump’s performance on the national stage in recent weeks has put on display” such traits as his “profound need for personal praise, the propensity to blame others, the lack of human empathy, the penchant for rewriting history, the disregard for expertise, the distortion of facts, the impatience with scrutiny or criticism.” In the same paper, the following day, David Leonhardt’s “How Trump Is Worsening the Virus Now” appeared. And on March 25, a conservative contributor to The Atlantic, Peter Wehner, wrote one of the most insightful and damning critiques to date of Trump’s coronavirus-crisis failings.

A March 18-22 poll on Trump’s handling of the crisis reflected a deep divide on the question between Republicans and Democrats. On March 25th the Trump administration and the U. S. Senate agreed on a $2 trillion relief package, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated the House of Representatives would soon add its approval. To what extent this package will help Trump’s popularity remains uncertain. Despite such uncertainties, however, Trump’s personality and actions heretofore in the present crises do not inspire confidence. In being narcissistic, primarily concerned with strengthening his own power, and in seeing the world through a we-vs-they lenses, Trump resembles Hitler more than FDR.