Friday, October 05, 2018
Yes, it is happening here. And we are helping them do it. Again.
Please read this sobering assessment of our current moment by Christopher R. Browning, historian of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany and Europe between the two world wars. It's important.
He draws some very uncomfortable parallels and also explains some important differences which are unfortunately not at all comforting.
In the 1920s, the US pursued isolationism in foreign policy and rejected participation in international organizations like the League of Nations. America First was America alone, except for financial agreements like the Dawes and Young Plans aimed at ensuring that our “free-loading” former allies could pay back their war loans. At the same time, high tariffs crippled international trade, making the repayment of those loans especially difficult. The country witnessed an increase in income disparity and a concentration of wealth at the top, and both Congress and the courts eschewed regulations to protect against the self-inflicted calamities of free enterprise run amok. The government also adopted a highly restrictionist immigration policy aimed at preserving the hegemony of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants against an influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants. (Various measures barring Asian immigration had already been implemented between 1882 and 1917.) These policies left the country unable to respond constructively to either the Great Depression or the rise of fascism, the growing threat to peace, and the refugee crisis of the 1930s.
Today, President Trump seems intent on withdrawing the US from the entire post–World War II structure of interlocking diplomatic, military, and economic agreements and organizations that have preserved peace, stability, and prosperity since 1945. His preference for bilateral relations, conceived as zero-sum rivalries in which he is the dominant player and “wins,” overlaps with the ideological preference of Steve Bannon and the so-called alt-right for the unfettered self-assertion of autonomous, xenophobic nation-states—in short, the pre-1914 international system. That “international anarchy” produced World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Great Depression, the fascist dictatorships, World War II, and the Holocaust, precisely the sort of disasters that the post–World War II international system has for seven decades remarkably avoided.
In threatening trade wars with allies and adversaries alike, Trump justifies increased tariffs on our allies on the specious pretext that countries like Canada are a threat to our national security. He combines his constant disparagement of our democratic allies with open admiration of authoritarians. His naive and narcissistic confidence in his own powers of personal diplomacy and his faith in a handshake with the likes of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un recall the hapless Neville Chamberlain (a man in every other regard different from Trump). Fortunately the US is so embedded in the international order it created after 1945, and the Republican Party and its business supporters are sufficiently alarmed over the threat to free trade, that Trump has not yet completed his agenda of withdrawal, though he has made astounding progress in a very short time.
A second aspect of the interwar period with all too many similarities to our current situation is the waning of the Weimar Republic. Paul von Hindenburg, elected president of Germany in 1925, was endowed by the Weimar Constitution with various emergency powers to defend German democracy should it be in dire peril. Instead of defending it, Hindenburg became its gravedigger, using these powers first to destroy democratic norms and then to ally with the Nazis to replace parliamentary government with authoritarian rule. Hindenburg began using his emergency powers in 1930, appointing a sequence of chancellors who ruled by decree rather than through parliamentary majorities, which had become increasingly impossible to obtain as a result of the Great Depression and the hyperpolarization of German politics.
Because an ever-shrinking base of support for traditional conservatism made it impossible to carry out their authoritarian revision of the constitution, Hindenburg and the old right ultimately made their deal with Hitler and installed him as chancellor. Thinking that they could ultimately control Hitler while enjoying the benefits of his popular support, the conservatives were initially gratified by the fulfillment of their agenda: intensified rearmament, the outlawing of the Communist Party, the suspension first of freedom of speech, the press, and assembly and then of parliamentary government itself, a purge of the civil service, and the abolition of independent labor unions. Needless to say, the Nazis then proceeded far beyond the goals they shared with their conservative allies, who were powerless to hinder them in any significant way.
If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell. He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could. As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more. Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments. Systematic obstruction of nominations in Obama’s first term provoked Democrats to scrap the filibuster for all but Supreme Court nominations. Then McConnell’s unprecedented blocking of the Merrick Garland nomination required him in turn to scrap the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations in order to complete the “steal” of Antonin Scalia’s seat and confirm Neil Gorsuch. The extreme politicization of the judicial nomination process is once again on display in the current Kavanaugh hearings.
One can predict that henceforth no significant judicial appointments will be made when the presidency and the Senate are not controlled by the same party. McConnell and our dysfunctional and disrespected Congress have now ensured an increasingly dysfunctional and disrespected judiciary, and the constitutional balance of powers among the three branches of government is in peril.
Whatever secret reservations McConnell and other traditional Republican leaders have about Trump’s character, governing style, and possible criminality, they openly rejoice in the payoff they have received from their alliance with him and his base: huge tax cuts for the wealthy, financial and environmental deregulation, the nominations of two conservative Supreme Court justices (so far) and a host of other conservative judicial appointments, and a significant reduction in government-sponsored health care (though not yet the total abolition of Obamacare they hope for). Like Hitler’s conservative allies, McConnell and the Republicans have prided themselves on the early returns on their investment in Trump. The combination of Trump’s abasement before Putin in Helsinki, the shameful separation of families at the border in complete disregard of US asylum law (to say nothing of basic humanitarian principles and the GOP’s relentless claim to be the defender of “family values”), and most recently Michael Cohen’s implication of Trump in criminal violations of campaign finance laws has not shaken the fealty of the Republican old guard, so there is little indication that even an explosive and incriminating report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller will rupture the alliance.
I'm afraid he's right. If we are counting on this group of Bizarroworld GOP "leaders" to sober up and save the country we really need to think again. They are all-in on Trumpism. Every day that passes, every partisan battle, only has them digging in their heels more forcefully.
But the left needs to take a serious look at history as well, recognize the true threat we are facing and start acting accordingly:
But the potential impact of the Mueller report does suggest yet another eerie similarity to the interwar period—how the toxic divisions in domestic politics led to the complete inversion of previous political orientations. Both Mussolini and Hitler came to power in no small part because the fascist-conservative alliances on the right faced division and disarray on the left. The Catholic parties (Popolari in Italy, Zentrum in Germany), liberal moderates, Social Democrats, and Communists did not cooperate effectively in defense of democracy.
In Germany this reached the absurd extreme of the Communists underestimating the Nazis as a transitory challenge while focusing on the Social Democrats—dubbed “red fascists”—as the true long-term threat to Communist triumph.We have sincere and deep disagreements within the left and center-left coalition. But the reflexive lifting of internecine fights to a higher level of importance, the blaming, the distancing, the unwillingness to see the more immediate threat to everyone, even in light of babies being taken from their mothers at the border or the cozying up to authoritarian dictators and disrespecting allies, is very worrying. This happened before and it did not end well.
By 1936 the democratic forces of France and Spain had learned the painful lesson of not uniting against the fascist threat, and even Stalin reversed his ill-fated policy and instructed the Communists to join democrats in Popular Front electoral alliances. In France the prospect of a Popular Front victory and a new government headed by—horror of horrors—a Socialist and Jew, Léon Blum, led many on the right to proclaim, “Better Hitler than Blum.” Better the victory of Frenchmen emulating the Nazi dictator and traditional national enemy across the Rhine than preserving French democracy at home and French independence abroad under a Jewish Socialist. The victory of the Popular Front in 1936 temporarily saved French democracy but led to the defeat of a demoralized and divided France in 1940, followed by the Vichy regime’s collaboration with Nazi Germany while enthusiastically pursuing its own authoritarian counterrevolution.
This is not 2006. It's not even 2016. Just as the establishment center-right needs to bring every bit of power to bear to resist this illiberal regime, people on the left need to let go of their past grievances with the Democratic Party and look to the future. As imperfect as it is and has been, it remains the only means of state power available and that is not something we can afford to leave on the table. Likewise, it's not useful to turn away or humiliate apostates who are willing to fight their own former allies. The defenders of democracy need all the help they can get in this emergency. Everyone can settle all their accounts when (if) the crisis has passed.
I urge you to read the whole thing as he also illustrates what he sees as the 21st-century differences having to do with a new level of sophistication in which modern illiberal right-wing regimes no longer have to deploy paramilitaries in the streets or take over the press. They seemed to have learned from the past even if the left has not. Simply using their state power to distort the democratic process and their private power to delegitimize the information stream they can accomplish much of what previous authoritarians did through demonstrations of authority and outright violence.
That is not to say that violence will be avoided:
The domestic agenda of Trump’s illiberal democracy falls considerably short of totalitarian dictatorship as exemplified by Mussolini and Hitler. But that is small comfort for those who hope and believe that the arc of history inevitably bends toward greater emancipation, equality, and freedom. Likewise, it is small comfort that in foreign policy Trump does not emulate the Hitlerian goals of wars of conquest and genocide, because the prospects for peace and stability are nevertheless seriously threatened. Escalating trade wars could easily tip the world economy into decline, and the Trump administration has set thresholds for peaceful settlements with Iran and North Korea that seem well beyond reach.
It is possible that Trump is engaged in excessive rhetorical posturing as a bargaining chip and will retreat to more moderate positions in both cases. But it is also possible that adversarial momentum will build, room for concessions will disappear, and he will plunge the country into serious economic or military conflicts as a captive of his own rhetoric. Historically, such confrontations and escalations have often escaped the control of leaders far more talented than Trump.
He doesn't mention it, but we also have a simmering conflagration in the middle east and on the Indian sub-continent, nuclear weapons and a president who is outright encouraging the whole world to arm up as quickly as possible.
What could go wrong?
This piece is meant to alarm. It should. We are all watching this unfold on a day to day basis, many of us stressed out and upset, aware that this is a very scary historical inflection point. Something has gone very wrong and we aren't quite sure how to deal with it. I will just point out that the world may end up being lucky that the worlds only superpower produced the demagogic authoritarian Donald Trump instead of someone who was either more intelligent and competent or more malleable in the hands of an alt-right manipulator like Steve Bannon. That is small comfort, though. Incompetent imbeciles are often more dangerous than efficient geniuses.
digby 10/05/2018 02:00:00 PM