Is America about to suffer its Weimar moment, culminating in the collapse of its republican institutions? Our democracy may be far more rooted than that of Germany’s first republic, which fell in 1933 to Adolf Hitler, but there are disturbing similarities.
A polarizing would-be despot as national leader, rising anti-Semitism, an out-of-control upper bureaucracy, a politicized media and education systems, an economically stressed middle class, widespread dalliance with extremist ideologies and the rise of armed militant groups. America’s descent to authoritarianism is far from pre-ordained, but the reality remains that it could happen here, and perhaps already is.
As happened in Germany, we are seeing the collapse of any set of common beliefs among Americans. Before the first votes are case in 2020, “the majority of Americans already believe that we are two-thirds of the way to being on the edge of civil war. That to me is a very pessimistic place,” says Mo Elleithee, the executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.
In Weimar Germany, the prospects of civil war were greater by far, as the institutions of the young Republic were never fully accepted by the old monarchist elites, the military, the industrialists or the far left, notably the Communists. In comparison, American institutions may be battered, but have more than 200 years of “street cred”; even far left politicians like the members of the socialist “squad” still try to wrap themselves in the American flag rather than wave their own symbol, as occurred in Germany, where Nazis waved the swastika and Communists their Die Rote Fahne.
Yet there are still disturbing parallels, for example in the often lenient treatment for violent protesters whether on the streets or on the campuses. When Bavarian judges gave Hitler a light sentence for his 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, they treated treason against the republic as a minor offense. Nazism was particularly strong at the universities, which became a powerful base for the party, and supplier of its specialists, commanders and scientists. In Germany, as here, anti-republican sentiments were not confined to the “deplorables” but were also widely shared, as historian Frederic Spotts has detailed, by many painters, poets, filmmakers and sculptors—at least those not Jewish or openly communist. Many creatives were thrilled by Hitler’s dream that “blood and race will once more be the source of artistic intuition” as an inflation-devastated generation lost faith in the values of compromise, responsibility and justice. The parallels with the assault on free speech and discussion on our campuses are disturbing.
In America, too, respect for the main institutions of our society—corporations, banks, Congress, the presidency, religion, the media, academia—has declined over decades. Only 10 percent of Americans feel that the federal government is suited to meeting the challenges before it; 40 percent feel it is totally incapable, a percentage roughly twice that in 1970. These feelings are strongest, significantly, among the younger generation. Recent revelations about the Afghan conflict, and the military’s systematic lying about it, are not likely to boost confidence.
Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that respect for the basic folk ways of our republic has disappeared, even at the highest levels of society. President Trump, with his all-too-evident lack of knowledge of how the system works, is a classic authoritarian personality who identifies those who oppose him, like the media, as “enemies of the people.” Some fear that Trump is weaponizing the courts to go after opponents in the bureaucracy and the military, just as Hitler and other dictators once did.
But if Trump is nauseating and dangerous, so too are his critics. From the moment of his election, a large part of the entrenched establishment—in the military, the court systems, the FBI and CIA as well as large parts of the old GOP establishment—have sought to violate their oaths so they can undermine his rule. Even the foreign policy establishment has been weaponized against the current administration to wage “war by other means” against a sitting President.
Despite claiming to be the protectors of “American values,” many progressive politicians now display their contempt for constitutional norms by calling for “packing” the Supreme Court, eliminating the electoral college and even overhauling the Senate to favor more populous urban states. Calls by leading Democrats for establishing “states of emergency,” particularly to address climate issues, eerily reprise similar practices towards the end of Weimar, which helped set up the logic for the Hitler dictatorship.
Germany’s descent into Nazism was propelled by theories that defined nationhood entirely as a function of race. Weimar’s lifting of restrictions on groups like Jews, and tolerance for other groups like gays and gypsies, were widely seen as dissipating “German” culture. The electrifyingly open culture of Weimar Germany in the ’20s—its breakthroughs in movies, music, fashion, gender roles and architecture—still astound us, but as historian Peter Gay suggests, this was “a precarious glory. A dance at the edge of a volcano.”
Whether here or in Weimar Germany, racial obsessiveness is a dagger aimed at the central premise of democracy, the notion that all citizens are equal and should be treated as individuals. America’s history is largely defined by the continual struggle to expand basic rights to outsider groups, starting in the 19th Century with Irish, Jews, Germans, Poles, Italians and hosts of other Europeans and later to African-Americans as well as non-whites from Asia and Latin America.
This often painful racial progress now is being squandered. Donald Trump is no Adolf Hitler, in belief or political effectiveness, but his sometimes vicious comments about Muslims and Hispanics have been seized upon by white nationalists as justifying their racist point of view. Trump’s mistaken refusal to fully denounce the alt-right activists at Charlottesville’s 2017 “Unite the Right” rally displayed a terrifying ignorance, and perhaps a wink and nod towards their agenda.
Perhaps in response, Trump’s opponents also seem determined to “play the race card.” This is most evident in the racial identitarianism in vogue in the media and on many college campuses, where schools have held a “Day of Absence” asking white students to leave campus and where African-American activists now demand separate living places.
Perhaps most shocking, as occurred in Weimar, American campuses have become hotbeds of anti-Semitism, often promoted by pro-Palestinian groups. A look at public opinion in America shows that older, conservative Republican voters have the highest estimations of both Jews and Israel. In contrast, the most negative views of both Zionism and Jews are found among the key constituencies of the progressive left: minorities and the young.
City College Distinguished Professor of History Eric Weitz has described the “proletarianization of the middle class” as one of the precipitating causes of the rise of the Nazis. Germany’s middle ranks were pummeled first by the great inflation of the early 1920s that undermined savings and bankrupted many small businesses. Even during the recovery of the mid-1920s, many felt threatened by large corporations, chain stores and an increasingly militant working class. When the Great Depression hit, many feared that they would soon join the property-less proletariat.
The Depression set the stage for the final battle between the Nazis and the Communists. The Communists, following Stalin’s orders, refused to work with liberals or Social Democrats, and offered only a Soviet model largely unacceptable to the aspiring middle class. For most middle-class Germans, as one Nazi spokesman put it, “only National Socialism still had the strength to drag the mired cart out of the muck.”
The contemporary American middle class has not suffered close to the inflation disaster inflicted on their German counterparts in the 1920s, much less anything approaching the misery of the Great Depression. But the middle orders here have shrunk for at least a generation; according to Pew, their share of households dropped from 61 percent in 1971 to 52 percent in 2016, while the ranks of both rich and poor expanded.
Today a majority of American parents now think their children will do worse than them while most young people, according to Deloitte, agree their future under the current system will be sharply limited.A Pew poll finds that 43 percent of millennials feel positively about the word “socialism” compared to just 14 percent of people over 50. Like their German counterparts in the 1930s, many young people, convinced the system is not working for them, search out extreme solutions, including on the right. Among white youths, Trump beat Clinton and could win this constituency again in 2020.
The coming presidential election could exacerbate these divides to the breaking point, particularly if groups on each side decide to “crash” the rallies of the other in search of confrontations. There is today, as in Weimar Germany, what one scholar calls a “perverse alliance” between extremists who share little but an intolerance of others and a disdain for constitutional norms.
A progressive win next year, carrying with it economic and environmental policies that might devastate the country’s heartland, would accentuate the paranoia and even militarization among the Trump base. They may well see an unsuccessful election, set amidst a totally partisan impeachment, as part of a relentless attempt to overthrow the results of the 2016 contest. They would resent progressive moves to ban fracking that would cause enormous economic pain in places like Texas (where the practice has produced as many as 1 million well-paid jobs), West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Dakota.
Trump himself suggests we might see some violence during and after the election, an assertion highlighted by the once prestigious, now reliable resistance mouthpiece, The New Republic. After all, Trump supporters are more likely to have guns, military and police training. “I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough, until they go to a certain point,” he says. “And then it would be very bad, very bad.”
It’s also easy to see the consequences of a Trump victory. There will be mass protest marches, as in 2016, that could easily turn violent. The specter of ideological groups battling things out in the streets is all too evocative of the violence that undermined the Weimar Republic. In fact, the Antifa movement here traces its roots to the communist brawlers Antifaschistische Aktion during Weimar who lost the battle on the streets to the Nazis. Later on, they cooperated with the Orwellian state in eastern Germany.
As respect for conventions and institutions weaken, belief in a common American identity and our political system disintegrates, the specter of what followed Weimar looms.