How Democracies Die

Leo Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. So too with failed democracies. There is no one route to the dissolution of the open society, but the patterns are familiar, whether in ancient Athens, the Roman Republic or the collapse of the democracies in Italy and the Weimar Republic in Germany that led to fascism. The ills that beset Germany and Italy in the 1930s are sadly familiar to us—an ineffectual political system, a retreat by huge sectors of the population into a world where facts and opinions are interchangeable, the seizure of national economies by international banks, and global finance capital that has forced larger and larger segments of society into a subsistence existence, obliterating hope for the future. We too suffer from an epidemic of nihilistic violence, one that has included mass shootings and domestic terrorism. There is a rapacious and out-of-control militarism. Betrayed citizens, as in the 1930s, harbor an inchoate hatred for a ruling elite that is mired in corruption while it mouths empty platitudes about liberal, democratic values. There is a desperate yearning for a cult leader or demagogue who will exact vengeance on those who have betrayed us and usher in a return to a mythical past and lost glory.

This is not to equate Donald Trump with Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. Nor is it to say that we endure the severe trauma that afflicted Germany after World War I, with its 1.7 million war dead and millions more wounded physically and psychologically. Weimar’s street violence and brawls, usually between the armed wings of the Nazi Party and the communists, were widespread and resulted in numerous fatalities. The economic crisis after the 1929 crash was catastrophic. By 1932 at least 40% of the insured German workforce, 6 million people, were out of work. Germans during the depression that followed the crash often struggled to get enough to eat. But we ignore our many similarities to the 1930s at our peril.

The business elites in Italy and Germany saw the fascists as buffoons, just as Wall Street views Trump and his enablers as an embarrassment. But the capitalists would rather have Trump as president than a reformer such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. The primacy of corporate profit, as in fascist Germany and Italy, makes the business elites willfully complicit in the destruction of democracy. These capitalists are oblivious to the danger their consolidation of wealth and power poses to democracy. They ram through tax cuts for the rich and austerity programs that exacerbate the despair and rage that fuel extremism. They make war on organized labor, suppressing wages and abolishing benefits.

At the start of the Trump administration, the traditional ruling class, much like its counterparts in Germany and Italy, held the naive belief that being in power moderates extremist leaders, or that extremists can be controlled by the “adults in the room.” It did not work in Germany or Italy; it has not worked in the United States. Politics, as in fascist Italy and Germany, has been replaced with spectacle and political theater. There is an unbridgeable gulf between rural voters—largely Nazi supporters in the Weimar Republic and largely Trump supporters in the United States—and the urban electorate. Vast parts of the population, beset by despair, have severed themselves from a fact-based world and embrace magic, conspiracy theories and fantasy. The military and the organs of state security are deified. War criminals are seen as patriots unjustly persecuted by the detested deep state and the liberal class. The norms, decorum, courtesy and mutual respect that are essential to a functioning democracy are replaced by vulgarity, insults, incitement to violence, racism, bigotry, contempt and lies. These ills of today’s United States mirror the political and moral rot of Italy and Germany on the eve of fascism.

The historian Fritz Stern, a refugee from Nazi Germany, told me that in Germany there had been “a yearning for fascism before the word ‘fascism’ was invented.” He warned about the mortal danger to our democracy from our bankrupt liberalism, which abandoned working men and women and refused to accept its responsibility in creating the fertile ground for fascism by scapegoating others—the most recent example being the Democratic Party attempt to blame Russia for Trump’s election.

Stern saw in our spiritual and political alienation—given expression through cultural hatreds, racism, Islamophobia, a demonization of immigrants and personal resentments—the seeds of an American fascism. This fascism, he said, found its ideological expression in the Christian right.

“They attacked liberalism,” Stern wrote of the German fascists in his book “The Politics of Cultural Despair,” “because it seemed to them the principal premise of modern society; everything they dreaded seemed to spring from it; the bourgeois life, Manchesterism [laissez-faire capitalism], materialism, parliament and the parties, the lack of political leadership. Even more, they sensed in liberalism the source of all their inner sufferings. Theirs was a resentment of loneliness; their one desire was for a new faith, a new community of believers, a world with fixed standards and no doubts, a new national religion that would bind all Germans together. All this, liberalism denied. Hence, they hated liberalism, blamed it for making outcasts of them, for uprooting them from their imaginary past, and from their faith.”

The U.S. Republican Party, replicating the fascist parties of the 1930s, is a personality cult. Those who do not bow obsequiously before the leader and carry out the leader’s demands are banished. The institutions tasked with defending morality, especially religious institutions, have failed miserably in the United States just as they failed in Italy and Germany. A Christianized fascism champions Trump as an agent of God while the traditional church refuses to denounce evangelical right-wing extremists as heretics and impostors. As the German social democrat Kurt Schumacher put it, fascism makes a “constant appeal to the inner swine in human beings.” It mobilizes “human stupidity,” what the writer Joseph Roth called “the auto-da-fé of the mind.”

Benjamin Carter Hett, in his book “The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic,” writes, “Thinking about the end of Weimar democracy in this way—as the result of a large protest movement colliding with complex patterns of elite self-interest, in a culture increasingly prone to aggressive mythmaking and irrationality—strips away the exotic and foreign look of swastika banners and goose-stepping Stormtroopers. Suddenly, the whole thing looks close and familiar. Alongside the viciousness of much of German politics in the Weimar years was an incongruous innocence; few people could imagine the worst possibilities. A civilized nation could not possibly vote for Hitler, some had thought. When he became chancellor nonetheless, millions expected his time in office to be short and ineffectual. Germany was a notoriously law-abiding as well as cultured land. How could a German government systematically brutalize its own people?”

Hett and other historians including Stern, Ian Kershaw, Richard J. Evans, Joachim E. Fest and Eric Voegelin have detailed how the willful destruction of democratic norms and procedures in Germany was usually done in the name of expediency or fiscal necessity. By 1933 the Nazis and the communists together held a slim majority of seats in the parliament, or Reichstag. They were deadlocked on every major issue, with the exception of declaring an amnesty for their imprisoned supporters. This “negative” majority made governing impossible. German democracy seized up. The socialist leader Friedrich Ebert, president from 1919 until 1925, and later Heinrich Brüning, chancellor from 1930 to 1932 and allied with President Paul von Hindenburg, had already begun to rule by decree to bypass the fractious parliament, relying on Article 48 of the Weimar constitution. Article 48, which granted the president the right in an emergency to issue decrees, was what Hett calls “a trapdoor through which Germany could fall into dictatorship.” Article 48 was the equivalent of the executive orders liberally used by President Barack Obama and now Trump.

Congress, in some ways, is even more dysfunctional than the Reichstag was. The German communists, at least, fought on behalf of workers. The Republicans and Democrats in Congress are antagonistic on the issues that do not count, united in their support for the corporate state and against the working class. They annually approve vast expenditures for the military and intelligence agencies to fuel the endless wars. They back austerity measures, trade agreements and tax cuts demanded by corporate power, accelerating the assault on the working class. At the same time, the courts, as was the case during fascism in Germany and Italy, are being stacked with extremists.

The Nazis responded to the February 1933 burning of Reichstag, which was probably carried out by the Nazis themselves, by using Article 48 to push through the emergency presidential decree “For the Protection of People and State.” It instantly snuffed out the democratic state. It legalized the imprisonment without trial of anyone deemed to be a threat to national security. It abolished freedom of speech, of association and of the press along with the privacy of postal and telephone communications. Few Germans understood the full ramifications of the decree at the time, much as Americans failed to fully understand the ramifications of the Patriot Act.

The Democratic-controlled House impeached Trump for two relatively minor constitutional violations. It left untouched the far more damaging violations that were normalized during the Obama and Bush administrations. Illegal wars, never declared by Congress as demanded by the Constitution, were launched by George W. Bush and continued by Obama. The U.S. public endures blanket government surveillance in direct violation of the Fourth Amendment. Torture and kidnapping and imprisoning terrorism suspects in black sites, along with targeted assassinations, now including senior foreign leaders, have become routine. When Edward Snowden provided documentation that our intelligence agencies are monitoring and spying on nearly every citizen and downloading our data and metrics into government computers where they will be stored for perpetuity, nothing was done. Obama misused the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force to erase due process and give the executive branch of government the right to act as judge, jury and executioner in assassinating U.S. citizens, starting with the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and, two weeks later, his 16-year-old son. Obama also signed into law Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, in effect overturning the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the use of the military as a domestic police force. Obama and Trump have violated clauses of treaties ratified by the Senate. They violated the Constitution by making appointments without seeking Senate confirmation. They bypassed Congress by abusing executive orders. These are very dangerous bipartisan tools in the hands of a demagogue. This steady corrosion of democracy, as in Germany and Italy, opened the door to fascism. The blame lies not with Trump but the ruling political elites who, as their predecessors did in the 1930s, abandoned the rule of law.

Peter Drucker, who was working in Germany as a journalist during Weimar, astutely observed that fascism succeeded in spite of the chronic lies spread by the Nazis, not because of them. The rise of Nazis, not unlike the rise of Trump, took place in the face of “a hostile press, a hostile radio, a hostile cinema, a hostile church, and a hostile government which untiringly pointed out the Nazi lies, the Nazi inconsistency, the unattainability of their promises, and the dangers and folly of their course.” Drucker, in a remark we should interpret as a grave warning, noted that no one “would have been a Nazi if rational belief in the Nazi promises had been a prerequisite.” As Hett writes, such hostility to reality translates “into contempt for politics, or, rather, desire for a politics that was somehow not political: a thing that can never be.”

“The people are tired of reason, tired of thought and reflection,” the left-wing playwright Ernst Toller wrote of Germans in the Weimar Republic. “They ask, what has reason done in the last few years, what good have insights and knowledge done us.”

When ruling elites are unable to protect the rights and needs of citizens, or no longer interested in doing so, they become disposable. An enraged public sees any political figure or political party willing to attack and belittle the traditional ruling elites as an ally. The more crude, irrational or vulgar the attack, the more the disenfranchised rejoice. Lies and truth no longer matter. This was the appeal of the fascists. It is the appeal of Trump. Democracy was not extinguished in 2016 when Trump was elected. It was slowly strangled to death by the Republican and Democratic parties on behalf of their corporate masters.

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