Many people will wonder what historical parallels are best for modern America.
In particular, what historical events are reminiscent of the 6 January Trump Riot at the US Capitol. Frighteningly, the apparent parallels for those events include some of history’s worst bloodbaths and the fall of some Republics.
Unfortunately, ignorant Americans will ignore some of the most telling historical parallels and take the simple path of comparing everything to Nazi Germany. I think there are better historical analogies for the danger America faces than Hitler’s barbarism.
Four ominous parallels for modern America include Pinochet’s Chile, the Spanish Civil War, the French Revolution, and the Roman Republic. I will examine these frightening parallels in the order of the events I consider most appropriate.
Of all the blood-soaked tyrants of the 20th Century, General Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte was among the scariest. Pinochet was frightening because he was an apparently ordinary man who became a tyrant overnight.
Tyrants such as Lenin, Mao, Stalin, Castro, and Hitler were longtime radicals who advertised their plans. It surprised few people who knew Hitler or Lenin when their revolutions became bloodbaths. In contrast, Pinochet was an obscure army officer with no obvious interest in politics or political ambitions. Yet events turned Pinochet into a monster.
The situation that transformed Pinochet from staff officer to ruthless dictator will be frighteningly familiar to contemporary Americans. A polarized country with a radical populist president whose increasingly authoritarian policies frightened many citizens.
In 1973, that country was Chile, long considered Latin America’s model democracy, and the leader was Salvador Allende, a self-styled Marxist. Many Chileans hated and feared Allende because of his radical socialist policies. Similarly, US President Richard M. Nixon (R-California) wanted to get rid of Allende because of his friendship with Cuban dictator and Soviet puppet Fidel Castro.
In 1973, many Chileans did not consider Allende a legitimate president because he had not won a popular majority in the 1970 presidential election. Allende; however, ignored the critics and launched a radical program that including the nationalization of foreign assets in Chile. The nationalization enraged both Nixon and many Chileans.
By 1973, Chile was in chaos and the economy was collapsing because of American sanctions, food shortages, and strikes. The chaos led to ideological hysteria and open fighting between left and right.
Ironically, on 23 August 1973, Allende appointed Pinochet; who was considered apolitical, commander-in-chief of Chile’s army. Shortly afterwards, the lower house of Chile’s Congress, the Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution alleging the government was violating the nation’s constitution.
The resolution provided the rationale for a military coup. On 10 September 1973, Chilean conspirators told the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Nixon that a coup was imminent. The next day on 11 September 1973, the Chilean military attacked the government.
Allende locked himself in the Presidential palace in Santiago and refused to leave. Troops and tanks surrounded the palace, but Allende refused to surrender. In response, fighter planes fired rockets into the place and set it on fire.
With the presidential palace around burning around him, Allende reportedly shot himself with a rifle. Ironically, the rifle was a gift from Allende’s friend Castro. However, no Russian or Cuban soldiers appeared in Chile to protect Allende.
Pinochet became dictator and launched a reign of terror. Soldiers rounded up hundreds of leftists and began torturing and executing them. Death squads such as the notorious Caravan of Death traveled around the country killing detainees.
Disturbingly, one member of the Caravan of Death, was Luis Jorquera, a Catholic Priest who had been serving as an army Chaplain. Pinochet had soldiers who refused to join in the killing spree imprisoned and tortured.
Pinochet ruled as Chile’s dictator until 1990 and retired after citizens voted against him in a national referendum.
Ironically, Pinochet became one of the few dictators ever arrested or charged for his crimes. In 1998, Her Majesty’s Government placed Pinochet under house arrest in London, where he was undergoing medical treatment. The general stayed under British house arrest until 2000, while successfully fighting extradition to Spain to face charges of killing Spanish citizens.
In 2004, Chilean prosecutors charged Pinochet with several crimes and placed him under house arrest. On 10 December 2006, Pinochet died at age 90 without facing trial for his crimes.
Americans need to fear the Pinochet story because ideological hysteria fueled the 1973 violence in Chile and turned ordinary citizens into killers. Class hatreds played a role with the middle-and upper classes, fearing the working class.
All it took was one radical president; whose controversial government many people viewed as illegitimate, to turn Chile into a dictatorship. People saw Allende, as many Americans viewed former U.S. President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida), as both a savior and champion of the working class and a dangerous would-be dictator.
Allende was no dictator, but his chaotic administration paved the way for the real dictator and the militarization of politics. Notably, the Pentagon deployed tens of thousands of National Guard troops to Washington DC after the 6 January riot.
During the 20 January inauguration of President Joe Biden (D-Delaware) observers lamented the militarization of Washington. Rising’s Krystal Ball compares central Washington to the Green Zone; the fortress area of Baghdad where American officers lived during the Iraq War. The Intercept calls the District of Columbia a City under occupation.
Frighteningly, Rising’s Saagar Enjeti claims the Pentagon plans to station over 6,000 troops in the District of Columbia permanently. Thus, America could repeat the politicization of the military and the militarization of politics; the processes that led to dictatorship in Chile.
The Spanish Civil War
In the American imagination, the Spanish Civil War is Hemingway’s romantic struggle against fascism. In reality, the Spanish Civil War was an orgy of right-wing and left-wing violence that spawned a dictatorship.
There are frightening similarities between the situation that led to the Spanish Civil War and modern America, The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher observes. To elaborate, in 1936 history divided Spain between a conservative and devoutly religious rural population and a growing and increasingly liberal and secular urban population.
As in 21st Century America, the cultural divide in 1930s Spain played out along regional and ideological lines. Rural conservatives were on the right and urban liberals on the left. Another similarity was that rural conservatives feared the left was about to destroy traditional Spanish culture.
The cause of the Civil War was the establishment of the Spanish Republic and the end of the monarchy. Many conservative Spaniards viewed the monarch as the protector of their lifestyle and culture. Just as some modern Americans view Trump as their protector. Conservatives rebelled against the Republic because they saw it as a threat.
Another similarity was that extremists took advantage of the cultural divide to promote their ideologies. For example, Communists masqueraded as defenders of the Republic and Fascists as Catholic crusaders.
The Spanish Civil War itself began as a bungled coup attempt after the election of a leftist Popular Front government. Most of the army; which they recruited from rural areas, supported the coup. As in the 21st Century USA, government leaders refused to believe rumors of a coup attempt until it occurred.
Remember, the 6 January Trump riot was an attempt to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s presidency. However, I do not consider the Capitol riot a coup attempt because there was no military involvement.
The Spanish Civil War dragged on for three years because foreign governments became involved. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy backed the rebels or Nationalists with troops, munitions, and advisors. The Soviet Union offered similar support to the Republic.
The Spanish Civil War was incredibly brutal, with both sides forming death squads to kill unarmed enemies and the supporters of the other side. The situation was similar to Chile in 1973, except that both right-wing and left-wing death squads were active.
Catholic priests were both victims and combatants in the Spanish Civil War. Republican forces killed some priests, while other priests fought in the Nationalist armies and participated in atrocities. Ultimately, the better organized and more professional Nationalist Forces won the War.
The death toll from the Spanish Civil War is unclear, but modern historians believe around two million people died in the fighting. Another 150,000 to 200,000 died in the White Terror as victorious Nationalist commander Francisco Franco established his dictatorship in 1939 and 1940. The dictatorship lasted until Franco’s death in 1975.
The Spanish Civil War and Pinochet’s Chile are examples of what happens when ideological hysteria overcomes a country. In that environment, people fear each other and view their neighbors as enemies.
Frighteningly, America has such an environment of fear now. A 13-15 January 2021 CBS News/YouGov poll estimates 54% of Americans fear “other people in America and domestic enemies.”
Thus, the environment of fear that created Pinochet and Franco could develop in America. Remember, many ordinary Chileans stood by as the Caravan of Death did its grisly work because the Caravan’s soldiers were killing the people they feared.
The French Revolution
Many people will argue that Pinochet’s Chile and the Spanish Civil War are poor comparisons for America because Chile and Spain were far from great powers during those upheavals.
Chile was a poor country in a remote part of the world, while Spain was a bankrupt third-rate power with no international standing in the 1930s. Today’s America is still a superpower, the world’s largest economy (at least until 2028), and the world’s dominant military power.
Hence, the French Revolution could be a better analogy to modern America. France was the center of science, culture, and the arts in 18th Century Europe. France had the largest and most advanced army in Europe, a global empire, and a growing economy.
Yet France succumbed to one of the most destructive revolutions in Europe. One similarity between 18th Century France and 21st Century America is that both nations were being supplanted as global leaders by rival powers.
Great Britain replaced France as Europe’s wealthiest and most powerful nation in the late 18th Century, an event that caused many French patriots to support the revolution. Today, China could soon be richer and powerful than America. Notably, a British think tank the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) predicts that China will become the world’s largest economy by 2028.
The French Revolution broke out after a long period of economic and military decline in France. During that period, many French intellectuals; such as Voltaire admired Britain and wanted France to adopt British institutions.
18th Century France had some surprising similarities to modern America, including massive income inequality, a dysfunctional government, and a growing divide between rural and urban populations. In late 18th Century France, there was widespread frustration with the government’s inability to deal with the nation’s problems.
In late 18th Century France, the poor were getting poorer, the middle class felt squeezed, and the rich; including some members of the nobility and church leaders were, growing richer. One complaint in 18th Century France was that taxes singled out peasants while leaving the nobility untaxed. Today many Americans claim that the working class pays taxes while the wealthy do not.
It was a clumsy effort to reform the government by King Louis XVI that touched off the French Revolution. To explain, in 1789 King Louis XVI called France’s parliament the Estates General back into session for the first time in 174 years.
Louis XVI hoped the Estates General could enact a badly needed program of financial reforms that another legislature the Parlement of Paris was refusing to enact. Instead of enacting the King’s reforms, the Estates General began promoting a far-more radical program of reforms.
When the King refused to go along, the Estates General revolted, and declared itself the National Assembly of France. The Revolution had begun and would last for over a decade.
The French Revolution offers some similarities to the current American situation. For instance, the French Revolution combined culture war and wealth redistribution. To explain, one of the signature events of the French Revolution was the seizure of the property of Roman Catholic Church, which the government distributed to the middle class.
Another sometimes forgotten aspect of the French Revolution was the War in the Vendée, a guerrilla conflict between Catholic Royalist peasants and revolutionary troops. During the War in the Vendée, military death squads called Infernal Columns massacred tens of thousands of Catholic peasants. The body count from the War in the Vendée was so high, some historians label the conflict genocide.
One frightening aspect of the French Revolution was that most of France’s massive military industrial complex sided with the Revolutionaries. As in Pinochet’s Chile, the killing of civilians by the military became an accepted government policy.
In fact, Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power began with the notorious “Whiff of Grapeshot” on 5 October 1795 (13 Vendémiaire in Year 4 of the French Republican Calender). On that day, the future Emperor turned artillery on a Royalist mob in Paris, killing 300 people. The National Assembly, or Convention, rewarded Bonaparte for the Whiff of Grapeshot by promoting the ambitious staff officer to general.
Similarly, we can view the best known aspect of the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror as a culture war designed to purge traditionalists from French society. During the Reign of Terror, the Jacobian government killed thousands of nobles, clergy, and others viewed as loyal to the old order, including King Louis XVI himself.
The French Revolution should frighten Americans because it occurred in one of the world’s richest, most powerful, and most advanced societies. However, France was far from the world’s most powerful nation at the time of the Revolution, the British Empire had already supplanted it.
The Roman Revolution
There is a historic republic that was the most powerful nation in its corner of the world that underwent a bloody paradigm shift into a tyranny. That nation was the Roman Republic
By around 100 BCE, Rome had a complete dominance of the Mediterranean world. Rome had eliminated its only credible rival, Carthage, and begun conquering the successor states to Alexander the Great’s Empire.
A century of warfare weakened Rome’s Republican institutions by concentrating economic and political power in a small class of oligarchs. The oligarchs had complete control of the government and used their power to squeeze out the common people.
The result of this was growing poverty and income inequality that drove civil and political unrest. The income inequality sparked the formation of a left-wing populist party, the Populares which had an agenda of wealth redistribution by any means necessary.
In reaction to the Populares, the oligarchs formed their own party, the Optimates which was dedicated to protecting the wealth and power of the elite at all costs. One of the Optimate Party’s first actions the murder of the Populare founders the Gracchi brothers. Tiberius and Gaius Gracchi tried to seize some Opitimates’ lands and redistribute them to poor veterans.
The Gracchi brothers’ murders triggered eighty years of revolutionary upheaval and civil war. During that period rival Optimate and Populare leaders established tyrannies, murdered rivals, and destroyed all constitutional norms.
Both Optimate and Populare leaders claimed to fight for traditional Roman values. Each side demonized the other as anti-Roman and unpatriotic. Thus the Roman Revolution became a long culture war. Both sides were willing to violate all constitutional norms to achieve their goals, however.
A favored tactic of both factions was to hire gangs of thugs to terrorize opponents. Assassination and death squads were another feature of the Roman Revolution.
A deadly Roman innovation was proscription. Under proscription tyrants; such as Sulla and Octavian, would post lists of enemies along with prices. Hit men would read the list and hunt down the enemies to collect a bounty. Thus, the Romans privatized death squads and politicized crime.
The Roman Revolution is frightening because it lasted for almost a century. Rome underwent a multigenerational Reign of Terror, under which fathers would assume their fathers’ political vendettas and continue the slaughter.
The Roman butchery reached a climax when an ambitious Populare politician and general Julius Caesar marched his army of hardened professional soldiers into Rome itself. Caesar was not the first Roman general to invade Rome; the bloodthirsty Optimate Sulla had that honor, but he was the first to contemplate abolishing the Republic itself.
Caesar could never bring himself to go all the way and abolish the Republic. Instead, he tried to restore the Republic by having the Senate (upper house) function as normal. Optimate Senators repaid Caesars’ tolerance by lynching him in the Senate itself.
Caesar’s successor was his heir and nephew Octavian (later Augustus Caesar). Octavian who had grown up during the Revolution realized that the only way to survive was to abolish the Republic and eliminate all enemies.
In 27 BCE Octavian defeated his principal enemies; Cleopatra and Marc Anthony, and became absolute dictator. Over the next few decades, Octavian became Augustus Caesar, Rome’s first emperor.
Octavian ruled as an absolute dictator, but the Roman Republic continued to operate as political theater. The Senate met and debated, but Augustus made all the decisions. By the time of Augustus’s death in 14 AD, Rome was an absolute monarchy, however the political theater of the Republic continued for another century.
The story of the Roman Republic is frightening because the Romans believed they still had a democracy long after Octavian had abolished it. The Roman Republic died because all democratic institutions had become meaningless, instead the dictator or emperor ruled by decree.
One reason the Roman Revolution was so long and bloody was that Rome had no credible enemies. Hence, the Romans were free to kill each other without fear of foreign invasion. Another was that the conquest of the Mediterranean gave the Romans enormous wealth to finance continuous warfare with.
A cause of Rome’s decline into tyranny, that modern Americans need to examine is the Roman military industrial complex. In Rome, continuous warfare created an enormous military and a large class of professional soldiers with no loyalty to democratic institutions.
The weakness of Roman institutions meant soldiers were loyal to individual generals rather than the Republic. Thus, Caesar’s soldiers had no no qualms about killing Roman citizens.
One of the worst features of the late Roman Republic was the rise of a class of military entrepreneurs who profited from war. These entrepreneurs wanted more war because more wars led to more money for them. Frighteningly, the entrepreneurs ranged from individual soldiers selling their services to the highest bidder to corrupt generals offering “rent-an-army” services to ambitious politicians.
Roman’s military became privatized after the Populare general Marius created a private army training program based on gladiatorial schools. Consequently Marius replaced Rome’s middle-class citizen soldiers with working-class mercenaries with no loyalty to the Republic.
A major cause of chaos in the later Roman Republic was unemployed veterans whose only job skill was their military training. Unemployed veterans became the stormtroopers in Rome’s political wars.
Modern Americans will note that the Trump mob that entered the capitol on 6 January 2021 contained many veterans. In fact, the only notable Trumpist causality from that conflict was Ashli E. Babbit. The media has identified Babbitt as an Air Force veteran from San Diego.
How Will the American Lunacy End?
I think a long-term descent into tyranny as in Rome is improbable in America because the USA has a richer and potentially more powerful rival in the People’s Republic of China. I believe a more probable outcome in America is several years of hate-filled lunacy similar to the early days of Pinochet’s dictatorship or the Spanish Civil War.
As in Chile and Spain, foreign powers will make the havoc worse with money and manipulation. For instance, in Chile the CIA financed but did not lead the coup, while Fidel Castro emboldened the left with his meaningless support. In Spain, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States had various degrees of involvement.
The Germans and Soviets provided arms, training, airplanes, military advisors, and pilots while Mussolini sent an ineffective army. Stalin’s secret police, or NKVD, helped set up military death squads to show the Republican forces how to murder their enemies. Meanwhile, US oil companies possibly with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (D-New York) support provided Franco’s nationalist forces with oil.*
In the United States, there are allegations that the Russians and possibly the Chinese are interfering in the political process. For instance, Chainalysis alleges that somebody sent 28.15 Bitcoin (BTC) (worth $919,963.068 on 23 January 2021) to some people involved in the Capitol chaos. Where the Bitcoin came from is unknown, but there are claims its source was a late French computer programmer, whom the media refuses to identify.
I think history shows the best-case scenario for America is years of tyranny or semi-tyranny followed by the reestablishment of democracy. The worst-case scenario is a permanent dictatorship or oligarchy of some sort.
Americans need to be afraid because their country is changing beyond recognition. Only history will show American democracy can survive the paradigm shift of the 21st Century.
*See The passionate war: The narrative history of the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 by Peter Wyden for the story of American oil in Nationalist Spain.