Are we wrong to reduce Mein Kampf to a commentary on the Trumpish Age? I think not, though this question places itself before me and the page every time I write another one of these articles, which are really more like diary entries than formal essays. There is probably no other way for us, the people living and working and politicking today, to approach Hitler’s autobiography except as a commentary on our own present. Sometimes, there is a narcissistic motivation in our reading of the present in the past, or the past in the present, but we will be free of this prejudicial error in the case of Mein Kampf, provided that two conditions are met:
- We do not believe the political state of America in the year 2019 is any more “important”, for lack of better word, than the political state of Germany in the year 1925.
- We promise to revisit Mein Kampf twenty years from now and discover what it says about America
Come to think of it, the most recent Houghton Mifflin edition of Mein Kampf, the only one readily available in American bookstores, was published twenty years ago. Its release must have inspired at least one historian to write a contemporary interpretation, possibly by contrasting the widespread poverty of early-twentieth-century Germany with the ubiquitous wealth of late-twentieth-century America. Wealth is still omnipresent in America today, but poverty is, too, and the coexistence of these extremes has come to define our cultural schizophrenia.
Hitler recognized a comparable dynamic in the Germany of his time, and the elemental hypocrisy of a society that tolerates it. “The environment of my youth consisted of petty-bourgeois circles,” he recalls, “hence of a world having very little relation to the purely manual worker.” His affluent upbringing shielded his eyes from the upper classes’ excesses and the lower classes’ struggles, but his ignorance ended in adulthood, when he was forced to make his own way. Many of us who grew up in the abundant luxury of late-twentieth-century America, who were pacified and pampered by its artificial riches, have been traumatized by our inability to sustain that degree of comfort in our working lives.
Modern politicians see this problem as a generational divide, melancholically observing: “Our kids don’t expect to enjoy the same quality of life as their parents.” It’s very strange how they portray our pessimism as a fear of a future problem, as if we are not already failing to reach the standards set for us in youth. Perhaps they believe there is still time for us to make up the distance, but if so, then there is ample time for us to backslide, as well. We don’t fear we will never be rich; we fear we will someday be poor. Hitler described this latter anxiety as “the fear of a social group, which has but recently raised itself above the level of the manual worker, that it will sink back into the old despised class, or at least become identified with it.”
As the children of affluent parents, we do not have personal experience of “the level of the manual worker”, but we did grow up hearing an infinite number of stories of how our great-grandparents rose from rural poverty to realize their own version of the American Dream. We internalized their success as our own, and we learned to share their definition of the American Nightmare as the loss of that financial security and socioeconomic status. In the United States, where wealth is a virtue and poverty a sin, the lower classes personify the unforgivable latter. Consequently, we developed some measure of disrespect for the lower classes, a condescending judgment which may have been subconscious, but which was no less potent for that.
Indeed, the subtlety with which this reinforcement was achieved testifies to the creative genius of American propagandists. They taught us not to despise the poor, as they have taught us to despise religious and racial minorities, but to fear them as though destitution were an infectious sickness. We learned to dread, and therefore to suppress, “the repugnant memory of the cultural poverty of this lower class” and “the frequent vulgarity of its social intercourse”, to copy Hitler’s description. Yet, although we were too cowardly to name the bogeyman, our contempt for him thrived, perhaps even sustained us through all of our other anxieties and struggles.
We couldn’t find the courage to voice our contempt for the lower classes until Trump, an obscenely wealthy capitalist, ran for president. Oddly enough, it wasn’t Trump who spoke ill of the indigent, but his countless critics in government and the press. Chief among them was Hillary Clinton, who may have articulated a distinctly bourgeois disgust when she spat on “the basket of deplorables”. Was she condemning racists, or was she condemning people who become racist because they can’t receive a proper moral education in the economic culture fostered by the state, fostered by powerful people like her? Was she scolding the impecunious who have been abandoned by the very system she herself designed?
Of course, her disdain for the lower classes is one of the few bigotries still acceptable in American society. Days before the general election of 2016, Julian Assange explained how the establishment media sought to discredit Trump’s message by associating him with the wretched of the earth: “He represents American white trash, deplorable and irredeemable … the rednecks … There’s a fear of seeming to be associated in any way with that, a social fear that lowers the class status of anyone who can be accused of somehow assisting [Trump], including by criticizing Clinton.” The attempt to pressure, stigmatize, and shame Trumpeters as racists or sexists has always been clear, but this analysis by Assange suggests that we object less to their moral failings than to their socioeconomic inferiority. The middle class preserves its pride by distinguishing itself from the working class, of which the impassioned loathing for Trump’s supporters is but one example.
Why are we so concerned about a class that has no cultural representation, and which lacked even the semblance of political representation before the rise of Trump? As Hitler noted, we are terrified of falling back into the midst of the “old despised class”, but what would retrograde socioeconomic movement entail? Would we adopt the behaviors and characteristics of the lower classes? If such is our fear, then we should acknowledge that the decadence, vulgarity, and stupidity of American culture was evident long before Trump ran for office, and it is dangerous to believe we will become urbane in his absence. Are we afraid of being ruled by the unlearned, as if only the lower classes can be ignorant and blind? Even if these classes were to take control of our political machinery—a scenario which is plainly paradoxical—still the bourgeois or middle-class fear is exposed as the fear of “losing control”, even though this control is largely illusory. Yet, as Assange observes, “if you look at how the middle class gains its economic and social power, it makes absolute sense.”
The problem is not the lower classes ascending to the highest branches of government and directing the ship of state. A cursory glance at the catastrophic condition of the American Empire confirms that incompetent leadership is hardly without precedent. The problem, for lack of better word, is that some of the domestic victims of the Empire are finally speaking out. Hitler viewed the similar crisis facing Germany through the prism of an employer’s abusive relationship with his employee. “As long as there are employers with little social understanding or a deficient sense of justice,” he observed, “it is not only the right but the duty of their employees … to protect the interests of the general public against the greed and unreason of the individual.” Can you imagine a more striking contrast to Trump’s shameless panegyrics to the holy virtue of capitalism? The nature of an appeal to the common man has come into question, as the self-proclaimed redeemer inevitably contributes to the strength of the state of which he spoke so critically before.
The oligarchs fear Trump’s promises of political and cultural revolution—not because he has the means to keep them, but because his failure to fulfill them may give rise to something truly volatile and unpredictable. Trump may not have been viable politically if Obama hadn’t been such a titanic disappointment, but what will emerge in Trump’s dispiriting wake? Hitler warned of the menace posed by “unworthy employers who do not feel themselves to be members of the national community as a whole. From the disastrous effects of their greed or ruthlessness grow profound evils for the future.” If we cannot or will not correct our fundamental flaws, then we will never accomplish anything more significant than the removal of the current symbol of those flaws. We know Trump is the symbol; our task is to move past the insignia.