Here in the waning days of American empire, we can now watch the left and right engage in actual physical clashes on TV—a phenomenon unseen in the US in decades, at least in presidential contests. The alarming resemblance of current events in the US to the last days of the Weimar Republic in Germany—just before Adolph Hitler rose to power, when brown-shirt fascists fought leftist activists in the streets—is disturbingly evident.
Of course history never repeats itself exactly. But historical patterns do recur, and human types do cluster in familiar categories. And the similarity between the US in the 21st century and Weimar Germany extends beyond the mob violence taking place at Donald Trump rallies in the past few days, and has been noted before.
In a 2012 essay in Salon, “Weimar America,” Robert Cruikshank outlines four ways America was already repeating the patterns of the Weimar Republic:
- Austerity programs. “Cuts to wages, benefits and public programs” in Weimar Germany, and which the US has been witnessing since the 1970s, both in government and in the private sector. This has given rise to much of the voter anger that has brought “insurgents” like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to the fore in the 2016 election;
- Attacks on democracy, which Cruikshank attributes in 1932 Germany to a dysfunctional government forcing an unpopular chancellor to rule by executive order (sound familiar?), and counter-reaction from big business and the fascist right, obstructing any progressive legislation. In the US today, the government is “owned” by the banks, as Senator Dick Durbin once frankly admitted; Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United favor corporations over people; and the more business-friendly GOP has launched multiple efforts at every level of government to restrict voting by the poor, elderly, minorities and others who would be more likely to favor the common good over private property.
- Enabling of extremists. “Well before Hitler was made chancellor in 1933,” Cruikshank writes, “leading conservatives and business leaders had concluded that their interests would be better served by something other than the democratic system established in 1919. During the 1920s, they actively supported parties that promoted anti-democratic ideologies…Nazis were just one of many extremist groups they supported.” If the Koch brothers, who financed the rise of the Tea Party, and other billionaire conspirators in the overthrow of American democracy exposed in Jane Mayer’s new book, “Dark Money,” come to mind, it’s a natural inference.
- Right wing and corporate dominance of the media. US media in the 21st century are far more concentrated in corporate hands than German media of the 1930s, and they have interlocking boards of directors with the financial, energy and defense industries. They are the final arbiters of what is allowed to be viewed in the mainstream, and what banished to provincial information ghettoes where it can be safely contained. If the media didn’t want Donald Trump to be a phenomenon, he wouldn’t have received as much attention as he has.
The visible decay of American politics is the ultimate parallel to Weimar. The fact that two of the most unpopular politicians in America are the front runners in the 2016 presidential race tells you everything you need to know about the final breakdown of republican government in the modern cradle of Western democracy. We are in the terrifying position that, at this point, we are in uncharted waters, and virtually anything can happen.
Unfortunately, except for Bernie sweeping both the primaries and the general election, few other prospects for the near future offer much comfort (and even a Bernie victory terrifies the commie-hunters). If either of the current front runners ends up winning in November, America faces at least four years of grief.
If Trump can arouse enough of America’s latent authoritarian impulses to attain the triumph of his personal will, we face a rollercoaster of dangerously narcissistic whims and international embarrassments, and at worst, a natural alliance between a Mussolini-wanna-be and an already conservative and bellicose military and security establishment who have been waiting all their lives for a commander-in-chief who will “take off the gloves.” The problem now is that violence and disruption raise the “fear” factor in American society, and events of that nature ultimately favor Trump. Authoritarianism feeds on fear.
A Hillary Clinton victory may not be much better for America. Her long history of support for and encouragement of intervention and regime overthrow abroad explain why she is a favorite of the military and their defense contractor friends. And her easy laughter about Qadafi’s particularly brutal death in Libya goes a long way to explain why the public hasn’t embraced the warm-hearted portrait of Hillary that her friends go to such lengths to paint. But the most horrifying prospect of another Clinton presidency is the dreary, endless and inevitable congressional investigation of virtually every facet of her term as Secretary of State and its relation to the Clinton Foundation. And we can only hope that the First Gentleman behaves himself, or it will be a real zoo.
Ironically, one other prospect may be the most terrifying of all. And that is, no matter who wins the presidential race—Hillary, Trump, or even Bernie—things will pretty much go on the same way they have, and the status quo will be protected. And this momentary surge of bloody-minded excitement about what is really just an elaborate puppet show—staged to dazzle the rubes with the illusion of democracy—will be just another in a never-ending series of breaking news events presented to give the masses yet another reason to go to work and pay their taxes and live in perpetual debt to their corporate masters, because that’s what really keeps America great.
What if fascism has already won?