A history of the Donald Trump moment

Donald Trump’s rise is usually twinned with the other shock of the year, the Brexit, but historians have been quick to draw comparisons with the America of the 1930s


US president-elect Donald Trump. Photo: AFP
US president-elect Donald Trump. Photo: AFP

Donald Trump’s stunning ascent to the White House has left everyone searching for explanations. How could it have happened? What next?

Trump’s success is usually twinned with the other shock of the year: Brexit. Never one for modesty, Trump himself predicted that his victory would amount to “Brexit times ten”. Analysing the causes and consequences of these extraordinary developments is going to keep us busy for a while.

Historians have weighed in early on—not least because the parallels seem obvious.

Indeed, comparisons with the 1930s trip off the tongues of commentators: global economic crisis and dislocation; the rise of demagogues in democratic polities; the ensuing turn towards protectionism and war. But how apt are these analogies?

Most professional historians would point out that right-wing politics in the 1930s was quite different from what is now on offer. The term ‘fascist’ does scant justice to the variety of forms that the right took back then. Scholars of fascism also insist that rather than trying to distil the ideological core of these regimes, it is more useful to understand the context that enabled their rise. Typically, they point to the growth of paramilitaries after World War I, the perceived ideological threat from Soviet communism, the sense of overwhelming crisis and group victimhood.

Not surprisingly, historians are leery of drawing any straightforward comparisons with the 1930s. Nevertheless, they tend to largely agree about the consequences of the policies pursued during that decade. Protectionism worsened the depression and resulted in a decisive reversal of globalization. The upshot was another world war.

Some historians have pushed back against the notion that there are no meaningful comparisons to be made. Mark Mazower has pointed out that the actual parallel lay in the weakness of liberal democracy then and now.

The real question was not why someone became a fascist, but why they lost faith in the democratic system with its checks and balances.

The answer, he suggests, lay in extreme partisanship, de-legitimization of parliaments as corrupt facades, politicization of the police and judiciary: in short, the crisis of institutions.

Put this way, the comparison with our situation is illuminating—though many of the democracies that succumbed to the radical right had been around for barely a decade, while the US is ostensibly the world’s oldest democracy.

Niall Ferguson has argued that the right analogy is not with the 1930s but with the two decades following the financial crisis of 1873. Although contemporaries referred to it as the “great depression”, it was nowhere as severe as the crisis of the 1930s.

Rather, this period saw a gradual but continuous fall in prices—not unlike what’s been happening for the past few years. This led to the rise of the “Populist” movement with demagogic and charismatic leaders like Denis Kearney. Very like Trump, the populists sought to stop immigrants on racial grounds, demanded protectionism, railed against the financial and political elites and their policies. While they failed to capture the White House, they did manage to force the government to restrict immigration and raise tariffs.

Germany, France and others followed suit. Ferguson notes that the 1880s, unlike the 1930s, did not slide into international conflict. Reversal of globalization during that period did not lead to war. Much the same, he claims, is likely to happen under Trump.

The analogy with the depression of the late 19th century holds in many ways. But Ferguson’s use of it also shows the dangers of applying “lessons” from the past, especially to predict the future. It is a useful reminder that history teaches us no “lessons”—only historians do.

The period after 1896 was actually the heyday of the first age of globalization. Prices rose steadily between 1896 and 1913.

As more countries flocked to the gold standard, international financial flows touched unprecedented heights. World trade went from under $8 billion in 1896 to over $18 billion in 1913—even adjusting for inflation, it doubled. International immigration, too, soared as millions left the poorer parts of Europe and Asia for the New World. This wave of globalization ebbed only with the onset of World War I.

The only tenable point that can be made by comparing the 1880s and the 1930s is that global integration and great power conflict do not go together. But contrary to the standard liberal assumption, this is not because global interdependence has a pacifying effect on ties between major powers. Rather, great power cooperation allows countries to focus on the absolute gains from global integration.

Conversely, great power tension forces countries to pay more attention to the relative gains accruing to countries from globalization. For these disparities in economic gains could translate into different levels of military power or political influence.

The latter can be seen in our own time from the US attempt to undercut China’s competitiveness by negotiating new regional trade pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Trump’s impact on the global economy, then, is not just about his raising tariffs or curbing immigration. Much will turn on how he deals with major powers like China and Russia.

Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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