“Progressive Kristallnacht Coming?”

Wall Street Journal Headline

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?

Tom Perkins, January 24, 2014, in the Wall Street Journal

Thomas James Perkins was born in 1932, a year before Adolf Hitler came to Power in Germany and six years before the Nazis escalated their persecution of the Jews to mass murder during Kristallnacht (Crystal Night, the Night of Broken Glass, so-called after the array of broken glass from Jewish synagogues, storefronts, and homes), November 9-10, 1938.

Today, Perkins is an octogenarian multi-millionaire (not a billionaire, he insists), a very successful venture capitalist living in his $multi-million San Francisco penthouse, when he’s not living in one of his other $multi-million homes like his mansion in Marin County or his Elizabethan mansion in England (that once belonged to Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and that Perkins reportedly has for sale).

Tom Perkins is no ordinary venture capitalist. Perkins is personally worth $8 billion dollars, and Kleiner Perkins [Perkins was a founder] is also one of the oldest, largest and most respected VC firms in Silicon Valley. It is no exaggeration to say that Perkins personally played a key role in catalyzing the modern American venture capital industry. In sum, this is not a guy who went off his meds and now rants at the world on street corners,” wrote Joshua Cohen in the Times of Israel.

His January 24 letter to the editor published in the Wall Street Journal provoked a wave of media ridicule, rebuttal, and hostility that prompted him to write an apology to the Anti-Defamation League for his choice of words. On January 27, Perkins was doing a Bloomberg TV exclusive, apologizing for using the word “Kristallnacht” and pitying himself as a messenger who’d been shot (“as the messenger I have been thoroughly killed by everybody”), but mostly he expressed strong reaffirmation of his message:

Read the message…. I regret the use of that word [Kristallnacht]. It was a terrible misjudgment. I do not regret the message at all… Any time the majority starts to demonize any minority, no matter what it is, it is wrong and dangerous. No good ever comes from it…. The letter said what I believed. And I believe we have to be careful that we do not demonize anybody and that we don’t demonize the most creative part [of society, the rich].

He presented attractively on TV: mild-mannered, thoughtful, coherent, and responsive to the questions he was asked. But he wasn’t asked why he thought it was all right to demonize “progressive radicalism” as the “descendant” of a deliberate Nazi mass atrocity. He wasn’t even asked directly what he meant by “progressive radicalism.” He wasn’t asked if he had ever protested against the demonization of any other minority besides “the rich.”

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.”

– Tom Perkins, 2014, in the Wall Street Journal

He did not apologize for, much less disown this opinion with which he started his letter. He was not asked to explain how the Nazi government of his childhood could be compared to the anti-government protestors of his old age. He was not asked how “the rich” (including George W. Bush’s grandfather) who supported the Nazis into power had somehow become victims even though “the rich” in America mostly compete with each other to own the party in power in the United States.

“I, like many, have tried to understand the 20th century, and the incomprehensible evil of the Holocaust. It cannot be explained. Even to try to explain it is questionable. It was evil,” Perkins told Bloomberg TV, before he explained what led him to use “Kristallnacht” in his comparison of Occupy demonstrators to German Nazis:

I used the word because, during the Occupy of San Francisco by the Occupy Wall Street crowd, they broke the windows in the Wells Fargo Bank. They marched up through our automobile strip. They broke all of the windows in all of the luxury car dealerships. I saw that. I remember that the police just stood by. I thought: this is how that began. That word [Kristallnacht] was in my mind.

Nazi analogies are a common irrelevance in American political discourse, and have been for decades (Godwin’s law, also known as Godwin’s law of Nazi Analogies, was framed Mike Godwin in 1990: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1 in 1.”).

In that sense, Perkins is merely reflecting a mindless zeitgeist, to which he was exposed in more extreme form as a director (now retired) at the News Corporation (which owns Fox News). [The same day the Journal published Perkins letter, Free Republic posted a more deeply paranoid piece titled “The Konservativ Kristallnacht is here” online.]

They were obviously father and son, with the same tall, athletic build. They were so handsome that they could have made money modeling, if anyone could afford to hire them. The aura of money seemed to float around them.

Tom Perkins, 2006, in his novel Sex and the Zillionaire

Perkins, who in 1972 was a founding partner of Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital partnership, denied that his choice of words implied any anti-semitism:

“This is not the case. My late partner [Eugene Kleiner] was from Austria and fought in the U.S. Army. We became the deepest of friends during our long association, and he taught me ‘never imagine that the unimaginable cannot become real.’ He was never comfortable with the extreme political currents in America. He never took our demonization for granted. He would have understood my letter, and would have agreed.”

His former firm, on the other hand, did not agree. Kleiner Perkins tweeted on January 24: “Tom Perkins has not been involved in KPCB in years. We were shocked by his views expressed today in the WSJ [Wall Street Journal] and do not agree.” Others echoed this sentiment, as summed up by the New York Times three days later.

One of the harshest and most powerful assessments came from venture capitalist Mark Suster’s blog:

This is not a mere gaffe that people won’t remember in 3 years. Perkins will forever be associated with greed, insensitivity and lack of historical context. If it were my firm I would rebrand as Kleiner….

We have too much inequality in our country. It’s not just a matter of fairness or morality it’s a matter of good economics. Having a highly functional middle class is good policy for long-term economic growth. Having a fair society in which lower income families have a shot at social mobility is essential for our security and well being.

On Bloomberg TV, Perkins hinted at some agreement with that opinion: “I am friends with [California Governor] Jerry Brown. I voted for him. I will vote for him even though he raised my taxes 30%. He tells me the number one problem in America is inequality. And that’s probably and possibly true.”

But Perkins has a different answer to the problem: “It’s absurd to demonize the rich…. I am your classical self-made man…. I think the solution is less interference, lower taxes, let the rich do what the rich do, which is get richer. But along the way, they bring everybody else with them.”

The “classical self-made man,” with degrees from MIT and Harvard, turns out to be a cliché of conservative pseudo-economics, a pale cliché at that, who echoes Reaganomics but votes for Jerry Brown.

Here’s Tom Perkins’ letter in its entirety. Author Daniel Steel is his ex-wife.

“Progressive Kristallnacht Coming?”

Regarding your editorial “Censors on Campus” (Jan. 18): 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. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.