The Great Depression of the 1930s was devastating for the entire world, especially the United States. The agrarian economy of the early twentieth century produced a society that was probably much more self-reliant than that of today’s interconnected, information age. So, I’ve often wondered how 21st century Americans would cope with a similar economic catastrophe. Well, apparently, it’s here. Unemployment claims in the United States have soared to over 33 million and the percent of jobless may exceed the peaks that occurred in the 1930s.
I read an interesting article in The New Yorker recently that questioned if the coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout would cause this nation to become more progressive or more dystopian. It’s possible that we’re nearing that inflection point, so it stimulated my thinking, not only about the future and also about the early 1900s and another horrific pandemic.
World War I ended in November 2018, right in the middle of the first wave of the 1918-2019 flu epidemic that killed 675,000 Americans. The European conflict had cost the United States an estimated $22.6 billion and the death of over 116,000 American soldiers.
The victorious allies – heavily influenced by France where much of the fighting occurred – dictated the terms of the June 1919 Treaty of Versailles that disarmed Germany’s military and stripped it of territory and economic resources. Its most humiliating provisions forced this defeated nation to admit responsibility for the war and pay reparations of $33 billion ($504 billion today) in gold-backed German marks.
The treaty was strongly opposed by powerful Massachusetts GOP Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds vote for ratification in the U.S. Senate. It followed that the U.S. didn’t join the League of Nations in 1920 as President Woodrow Wilson had strongly advised. U.S. politicians didn’t believe that future involvement with Europe would be in America’s self-interests. Sound familiar?
Republican Warren G. Harding became president in 1921, promising a return to “normalcy.” He was backed by a Republican-controlled, isolationist-minded Congress.
But while Americans were enjoying the “roaring twenties” – notwithstanding the prohibition of alcohol – the German economy was in shambles and the German mark (without gold backing), was almost worthless. As a teenager, I did some work for a German couple who had lived in Germany before 1926. They talked about needing a basket full of paper marks to purchase a loaf of bread.
As the Great Depression completed its third year in November 1932, Americans threw out the Republicans who had controlled the government for almost a decade and elected Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, with a Democratic-controlled Congress. Thus, began eight years of enacting the “New Deal,” probably the most progressive legislation in the nation’s history. What followed was 30+ years of economic progress that greatly benefited all working-class Americans.
The depression, however, steered Germany in an entirely different direction. During the prior decade of humiliation and economic chaos, radical right-wing political organizations like the National Socialist Workers’ Party (Nazis) had gained power. They promised to reverse the oppression of the Versailles Treaty. The German government (Weimar Republic) had been totally destabilized by economic stagnation and unrest. The resulting rise of populism and nationalism paved the way for Adolf Hitler to seize power in 1933. What followed was massive military expansion and World War II, during which millions of combatants and civilians died.
Today, as the possibility of another global depression looms, populism and nationalism are on the rise again across the western world. Authoritarian, right-wing governments are threatening to completely replace democracies in Romania, Hungry, Poland, Turkey and Brazil. In the United States, long-established democratic norms are being trampled under President Donald Trump’s inept, authoritarian-styled leadership.
Even in 2019, this nation was experiencing 1920s-like income inequality. Now, thousands of cars line up at food banks in communities that were prosperous just three months ago. And this situation will only get worse as millions of jobless, cash-poor Americans struggle to pay their bills and buy groceries.
Congress is throwing trillions of dollars at these problems but one has to wonder how much of it will actually benefit the individuals and small businesses that are most needy. Still, many companies won’t survive, leaving their former employees desperately seeking jobs.
Trump-supporting white nationalists and swastika displaying neo-Nazis are taking advantage of the chaos and gaining national attention by opposing the stay-at-home orders of various – mostly Democratic – state governors. They’re encouraged by Trump who calls them “very nice people” and tweets, “Liberate Michigan”.
Right-wing, antigovernment militia organizations are also protesting, typically carrying military-styled assault rifles. There are likely more than 100,000 members of the 200+ radical militia organizations operating throughout the U.S. and a deep recession could dramatically swell their numbers.
It’s obvious that Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP will do anything to retain power. They’re stifling congressional oversight and crippling the Constitution’s separation of powers, while politicizing both the Justice Department and the courts. Frankly, I fear they are politicizing the rule of law.**
No question, the November election will decide America’s future. Will voters elect a president and Congress that preserve our democratic institutions and enact progressive legislation that helps working-class Americans escape the prison of income inequality? Or, will they choose the opposite direction by reelecting Trump and a Republican-controlled Senate that will help him add the shackles of authoritarianism?
I know how I will vote.
**DOJ just dropped the criminal case against Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Advisor.