With capitalist Donald Trump and socialist Bernie Sanders leading by double digits in some early polls of announced presidential candidates, you have to wonder if either of them could actually win. That outcome seems unlikely unless the American public's dissatisfaction with the ineffectiveness of its hopelessly partisan government reaches the nuclear stage and voters decide to figuratively blow it up. That's a remote possibility, but it's enough to entice some people into comparing America's malaise today with the exasperating conditions after World War I that led Germans to embrace Nazi leadership.
In fact, Sanders, who is Jewish, alluded to Nazi Germany in explaining why he is running for president. "A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932," Sanders said in a June 11 interview with the Christian Science Monitor. "He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including 6 million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important."
Actually, Hitler didn't win an election in the same sense that an American president must come out on top in a direct vote. In a parliamentary system such as Germany's, the party that wins the majority of legislative seats forms the government. Hitler's party failed to do that in 1932, but they orchestrated a behind-the-scenes coup that forced President Paul von Hindenberg to appoint Hitler chancellor. Hitler then used that position to concentrate his power and become Germany's supreme leader, or führer.
Sanders' point is valid, however, in that the Nazi party had to win enough seats in the Reichstag, the German parliament, to be in position to manipulate Hitler's ascension to power.
Before anyone gets it twisted, let me stress that I'm not saying that either Sanders or Trump is like Hitler. But some Americans today are as frustrated with Washington as the Germans were after World War I with their government's inability to effectively address inflation, unemployment, high taxes, and other economic issues. Looking for a scapegoat, many Germans jealously blamed the Jews, who as a people did not appear to be suffering as much. Some rants in today's America vilifying Latino immigrants come awfully close to having a similar tone, but calling for forced deportation isn't the same as marching people into death camps.
Post-recession America isn't the same as post-World War I Germany. If anything, the U.S. economy looks good, despite the recent stock market correction. Unemployment is down, most of our soldiers have come home from war zones, and gasoline is cheaper than it has been in years. But Congress is unable to pass a salt shaker without making it a partisan issue, and its behavior is being emulated by too many state legislatures, including Pennsylvania's. Too many people still feel economic uncertainty. Too many face unaffordable health care costs. Too many don't believe the future will be better than the past. They want their faith in America restored, and they don't think a typical candidate for president like Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton can do that. Trump and Sanders can be called a lot of things; but typical, I don't think so.
Harold Jackson is editorial page editor for The Inquirer.