Many of you have read historian Christopher R. Browning‘s essay, The Suffocation of Democracy or at least Chauncey Devega’s interview with him about the essay on sites like Salon or Alternet. Many American readers will be very familiar with what follows. I found it helpful to set out these notes from Browning’s essay and I have (mostly) resisted temptations to intersperse them with any further commentary of my own.
Browning acknowledges broad parallels between what is happening in the United States today with her domestic and foreign courses in the 1920s, and even with 1930s Germany. But the differences are also stark, so stark and dramatic that it is easy to underestimate the seriousness of what is happening in the United States since Obama’s presidency and now under Trump. History rarely repeats, but it does echo and rhyme.
Comparing Foreign Policy
- US was isolationist; shunned League of Nations.
- High tariffs crippled international trade.
- Dramatic increase in “income disparity and concentration of wealth at the top”
- “Congress and the courts eschewed regulations to protect against the self-inflicted calamities of free enterprise run amok”
- Restrictionist immigration policy, bias against Catholics and Jews (Asians already banned by this time).
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.
I sat in school learning about those post WW2 structures understanding that they were designed to prevent the a repeat of the chaos of the 30s and 40s. I had naively assumed we all knew the reasons for them and would never think of abandoning them.
Gravediggers of Democracy
Hindenberg had been elected president in 1925 and given emergency powers to defend German democracy in the event of any crisis.
Enter the Great Depression and the “hyperpolarization of German politics”.
Hindenberg began appointing chancellors “who ruled by decree rather than through parliamentary majorities”, given the impossibility of forming ruling majorities in the fractured political landscape. Enter the appointment of Hitler.
The traditional conservatives believed they would by able to easily control the popular Hitler. And at the beginning they were getting all they could hope for and much more:
- military rearmament
- banning of the Communist Party
- the suspension 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.
Paul von Hindenburg had been given powers to protect democracy but abused them so that he saw the end of democracy in Germany.
Browning suggests some sort of analogy with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
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.
Result: judiciary can only be appointed when President and Senate belong to same party. Hence separation of powers (executive, judiciary, legislative) is in jeopardy.
Trump’s personal “idiosyncracies” do not detract from the benefits of his rule for those who have made their alliance with him:
- 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 . . .
Like Hitler’s conservative allies, McConnell and the Republicans have prided themselves on the early returns on their investment in Trump.
Inversion of Previous Political Orientations
Hitler and Mussolini were allowed to take power largely as a consequence of the virulent divisions of the leftist parties:
The Catholic parties . . . 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.
the democratic forces . . . had learned the painful lesson of not uniting against the fascist threat. . . . 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.”
We are familiar with the Trump lines of defence:
First: claim there was no collusion; the claim is a hoax
Second: collusion is not a crime; Russia’s meddling had no effect
Browning expresses his suspicion that if Mueller does find Trump guilty of criminal conspiracy many Republicans will implicitly or explicitly retreat to the third line of defence:
Third: Better Putin than Hillary
There seems to be nothing for which the demonization of Hillary Clinton does not serve as sufficient justification, and the notion that a Trump presidency indebted to Putin is far preferable to the nightmare of a Clinton victory will signal the final Republican reorientation to illiberalism at home and subservience to an authoritarian abroad.
But It’s Not the Same — No Need for a Totalitarian Takeover
Perhaps the most apt designation of this new authoritarianism is the insidious term “illiberal democracy.” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary have all discovered that opposition parties can be left in existence and elections can be held in order to provide a fig leaf of democratic legitimacy, while in reality elections pose scant challenge to their power. Truly dangerous opposition leaders are neutralized or eliminated one way or another.
And Trump has never hidden his admiration for those leaders.
No Need for State Control
Total control of the press and other media is likewise unnecessary, since a flood of managed and fake news so pollutes the flow of information that facts and truth become irrelevant as shapers of public opinion. Once-independent judiciaries are gradually dismantled through selective purging and the appointment of politically reliable loyalists. Crony capitalism opens the way to a symbiosis of corruption and self-enrichment between political and business leaders. Xenophobic nationalism (and in many cases explicitly anti-immigrant white nationalism) as well as the prioritization of “law and order” over individual rights are also crucial to these regimes in mobilizing the popular support of their bases and stigmatizing their enemies.
Add Electoral Distortions to Allow Tyranny by the Minority
With the Democratic Party’s constituency weighted in the big states and big cities.
- Each Democrat Senator represents ca 3.65 million;
- Each Republican Senator represents ca 2.51 million.
As for the coming mid-term elections offering some hope for change….
With gerrymandering and voter suppression enhancing even more the systemic Republican advantage, it is estimated that the Democrats will have to win by 7 to 11 points (a margin only obtainable in rare “wave” elections) in the 2018 elections to achieve even the narrowest of majorities in the House of Representatives.
The Supreme Court is not helping.
Given the Supreme Court’s
- undermining of central provisions of the Voting Rights Act (Shelby County v. Holder),
- its refusal to take up current flagrant gerrymandering cases (Gill v. Whitford for Wisconsin; Benisek v. Lamone for Maryland),
- and its recent approval of the Ohio law purging its voting rolls (Husted v. Randolph Institute),
it must be feared that the Court will in the future open the floodgates for even more egregious gerrymandering and voter suppression.
The unprecedented flow of dark money into closely contested campaigns has distorted the electoral process even further. The Supreme Court decision declaring corporations to be people and money to be free speech (Citizens United v. FEC) in particular has greatly enhanced the ability of corporations and wealthy individuals to influence American politics.
The 1970’s Turning Point
I think it happened in 1983 in Australia. I still “remember where I was” when hearing a Labor! government talk about the “need” for Australia to get in line with other countries and deregulate banking, labour relations, this and that and all the relative social and economic equality and securities we had had since the War. Sorry — I promised to keep my own commentary out of this post.
To consolidate his dictatorship, Hitler had to abolish the independent unions in Germany in a single blow. Trump faces no such problem. In the first three postwar decades, workers and management effectively shared the increased wealth produced by the growth in productivity. Since the 1970s that social contract has collapsed, union membership and influence have declined, wage growth has stagnated, and inequality in wealth has grown sharply. . . . The increasingly uneven playing field caused by the rise in corporate influence and decline in union power, along with the legions of well-funded lobbyists, is another sign of the illiberal trend.
No Need to Shut Down the Free Press
Upon his appointment as chancellor, Hitler immediately created a new Ministry of People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels, who remained one of his closest political advisers.
In Trump’s presidency, those functions have effectively been privatized in the form of Fox News and Sean Hannity. Fox faithfully trumpets the “alternative facts” of the Trump version of events, and in turn Trump frequently finds inspiration for his tweets and fantasy-filled statements from his daily monitoring of Fox commentators and his late-night phone calls with Hannity. The result is the creation of a “Trump bubble” for his base to inhabit that is unrecognizable to viewers of PBS, CNN, and MSNBC and readers of The Washington Post and The New York Times. The highly critical free media not only provide no effective check on Trump’s ability to be a serial liar without political penalty; on the contrary, they provide yet another enemy around which to mobilize the grievances and resentments of his base. A free press does not have to be repressed when it can be rendered irrelevant and even exploited for political gain.
It would be obscene to compare Hitler’s agendas with respect to race, homosexuality, mentally and physically handicapped persons, abortion and reproductive rights with what is happening today in the United States. Nonetheless, it does appear that we can expect to see ongoing discrimination against gays, an end to affirmative action programs, a winding back of abortion rights. Further,
And equal protection of voting rights is likely to be eroded in red states through ever more insidiously designed voter suppression laws and gerrymandering once the Supreme Court makes clear that it will not intervene to curb such measures.
History Sometimes Winds Backwards
How many of us still believe in the inevitability of progress towards greater emancipation, equality and freedom?
We began with reference to foreign policy. Once again we see the spectre of trade wars.
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.
And After Trump?
We will still have
- a highly politicized judiciary
- racial division
- cultural conflict
- political polarization
- voter suppression
- uncontrolled campaign spending
- growing income disparity
And decades hence?
Finally, within several decades after Trump’s presidency has ended, the looming effects of ecological disaster due to human-caused climate change—which Trump not only denies but is doing so much to accelerate—will be inescapable. Desertification of continental interiors, flooding of populous coastal areas, and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, with concomitant shortages of fresh water and food, will set in motion both population flight and conflicts over scarce resources that dwarf the current fate of Central Africa and Syria. No wall will be high enough to shelter the US from these events.
(To conclude with a comment gleaned from another article, capitalism will be responsible for ecological destruction, and only with that horrific consequence will capitalism itself likely finally end. Marx was hopelessly optimistic.)
Browning sees the next two elections, 2018 and 2020, as indicators of whether we can pull back before it’s too late.
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