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Fear of a 'Progressive Kristallnacht'

Renee Adams, left, posing with her mother Irene Salyers and son Joseph, 4, at their produce stand in Council, Va., July 12, 2013.
Renee Adams, left, posing with her mother Irene Salyers and son Joseph, 4, at their produce stand in Council, Va., July 12, 2013.
It's not unusual to find a persecution complex at the heart of conservative ideology, but over the weekend, billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins took this to a level that bordered on self-parody. The Wall Street Journal published a letter to the editor from Perkins with a headline that said quite a bit: "Progressive Kristallnacht Coming?"

Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its "one percent," namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the "rich." From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent.... This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent "progressive" radicalism unthinkable now?

As a rule, Nazi comparisons in domestic political debates are a bad idea, but they're generally accompanied by some ambiguity or caveat. Perkins, however, skipped the pretense and chose to be far more direct -- he actually believes there are meaningful similarities between a genocidal Nazi campaign and liberal criticism of America's most wealthy citizens.
After the WSJ published the letter, I kept waiting for a follow-up statement from Perkins, saying he'd been the victim of a cruel hoax. I hoped he'd say, "Someone got a hold of my stationary and wrote a letter that made me look ridiculous, but I certainly never wrote this."
But there was no such statement. Perkins apparently believes what he said and chose to deliberately share his perspective with the world.
It's tempting to think someone capable of amassing several billion dollars in wealth would be slightly more attuned to reality, but that does not appear to be the case. While I certainly can't speak for everyone on the left, my sense is the left believes the richest Americans can afford to pay more in taxes. Some rich folks may disagree, but to see such an agenda as similar to mass murder is more than a little disturbing. What would possess someone to make such a repulsive comparison -- in public, on purpose -- is something of a mystery.
But while Perkins has taken a line of thought to its most clownish extreme, it's part of a larger phenomenon.
Josh Marshall had a good piece over the weekend arguing that "we're missing the point if we see this as the gaffe of one aging, coddled jerk."

Because it's only a more extreme and preposterous version of beliefs that have become increasingly widespread in the wealthiest sectors of American society, especially since 2008 and the twin events of the global financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama. Let me state the phenomenon as clearly as possible: The extremely wealthy are objectively far wealthier, far more politically powerful and find a far more indulgent political class than at any time in almost a century - at least. And yet at the same time they palpably feel more isolated, abused and powerless than at any time over the same period and sense some genuine peril to the whole mix of privileges, power and wealth they hold. There is a disconnect there that is so massive and glaring that it demands some sociocultural explanation.

Quite right. I'm reminded of a 2011 piece in the Wall Street Journal from the CEO of Wall Street holdings company who was outraged -- President Obama  had made reference to "fat cats," which made this very wealthy man feel put upon.
In a way, it's comparable to a curious strain of political correctness. The more progressive talk about the concentration of wealth at the very top, tax rates, poverty, and stagnant wages, the more some of the very wealthy tell each other, "Oh my God, they may be coming to get us." If liberals would only stop talking about economic justice, maybe the richest among us wouldn't have their feelings hurt.
Paul Krugman added today, "Extreme inequality, it turns out, creates a class of people who are alarmingly detached from reality -- and simultaneously gives these people great power."
Postscript I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention that Perkins published a novel in 2006 called Sex and the Single Zillionaire. I'll confess I haven't read the book, but Julia Ioffe has a rather hilarious write-up of the "one-percenter romance novel."