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1933 May Be Closer than We Think

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, effectively ending the Weimar Republic, the nation’s second attempt at democracy. On January 20, 2017 Donald Trump was inaugurated President of the United States effectively ending….well, what exactly?

Immediately after Trump’s ascension to office many political commentators sought to fill in this blank with comparisons to the ill-fated Weimar Republic. Historians and other academics rejected the analogy as too facile. They pointed out that, unlike the United States, Germany had little experience with democracy. It had lost a major war and suffered a draconian peace settlement. Its economy had also been buffeted by rampant inflation, high unemployment and finally a Great Depression. Moreover a large share of its population believed in conspiracy theories, including the infamous “stab in the back” legend that blamed the nation’s defeat in World War I on internal enemies such as Socialists, Communists and Jews.

While contingent events leading to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the election of Donald Trump might seem to differ beyond the point of comparison, two and a half years of the latter’s presidency now force us to look deeper below the surface. Increasing cultural, social and political continuities between Weimar and America should give us serious concern in assessing the fate of these two democracies as part of an analogous historical phenomenon.

The sociologists Rainer Baum and Frank J. Lechner characterized pre-Hitler Germany as a “nation of moral strangers.” It was a country whose people could neither agree about the nature of a good society nor the social relations and community that that social order entailed. Germans generally divided into three closely bounded and often incompatible social and cultural milieu: liberal, social democratic and authoritarian corporatist. 

From an American perspective the seemingly most unique of these milieu was the authoritarian corporatist, or what the historian Mack Walker characterized as the German mentality of hometowns. Hometowns, according to him, were communities of webs and walls that could be both physical and cognitive in character. The webs consisted of integrated and hierarchical social status groups or corporations, such as craftsmen, merchants, financiers and local government officials in cities and towns, and peasants and small farmers in the countryside. These groups earned their legitimate place in society through extensive training and socialization. They shared solidary, often in-bred and exclusionary values in opposition to liberal individualism and socialist collectivism and were considered “rooted” like no others in the nation’s social fabric. The walls, in contrast, protected against those elements of society who were “rootless” and “disturbers” of the hometown community. They consisted primarily of the working class and the Jews, but also included immigrants, criminals and social deviants.

Hometown mentalities in the United States historically flourished in the ante-bellum South, with its belief in the principles of social honor and white superiority, its exclusion of millions of non-white slaves and its staunch opposition to Northern economic and political liberalism. The Civil War and Reconstruction were supposed to have brought an end to such particularistic and racist visions of the good society. But notions of the glorious lost cause of southern independence, underlying today’s overt and covert white nationalism and nativism, have proven that American webs and walls continue to flourish in our collective psyche. They exist literally in terms of building a physical barrier along our border with Mexico designed to keep out “rootless” and therefore dangerous immigrants. They also continue to exist mentally in the recent words of a President who can, without apparent penalty among his supporters, blithely tell women of color elected to the House of Representatives to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”

The Weimar Republic tried to reconcile the values of liberalism, socialism and hometown corporatism in a single constitution. It proved to be a spectacular failure. In the words of Otto Kirchheimer, a contemporary jurist and political scientist, the effort resulted in a “constitution without decision,” one that did not contain “any values in whose name the German people can be in agreement.”  By its very nature, it did not encourage true democratic compromise and reconciliation among interested parties, but only winning and losing based on the political strength of competing social milieu, each seeking to impose its own worldview and material interests on its opponents.

In the United States our own revered Constitution is showing similar signs of cultural and ideological strain and conflict. Although it did not include socialist values, it did try to reconcile liberal and hometown visions of a good society in a great compromise over the existence of slavery. Its very federal foundations were designed to protect the hometown aspirations of a white nationalist South, by giving each state in the Union two senators regardless of population, creating an electoral college to elect the President and preserving the right of individual states to oppose federal authority through the so-called reserved powers clause of the Tenth Amendment. The result has been a thwarting of a democratic interpretation of the popular will of the people, most recently through the election of two Republican presidents receiving fewer votes than their opponents and the prospect of it happening again in 2020.

In fact, the supporters of hometown values in the United States—be they Donald Trump, the Republican Party or right-wing media commentators—have come to the same conclusion that their predecessors in the Weimar Republic reached. Under a liberal constitution they can neither win nor maintain political power. Even in the Reichstag parliamentary elections of March 1933, with National Socialists in power and the full force of the state’s coercive powers behind their campaign, Hitler could only garner 44% of the national vote.

Two factors in particular enabled the victory of hometown values and the destruction of liberal and social democratic ones in the Weimar Republic, and may yet do so in the United States. The first was the power and prejudices of the courts. Despite the socialist-democratic revolutions of 1918/19, very few judges from the German Empire were replaced. Educated in a hometown milieu and usually staunch opponents of parliamentary democracy, they exploited the process of legal and constitutional review to undermine democratic practices and procedures at both the national and state levels of government.  They defined endemic domestic terrorism as the stepchild of the left and ignored radical right-wing terrorism against the Republic as the legitimate outrage of national patriots. Even when Adolf Hitler staged a violent uprising in Munich in November 1923 against the Republic and was convicted of treason, he spent a mere 264 days of a five year sentence in the relative comfort of Landsberg prison, where he composed Mein Kampf.

No one understands more fully the lesson of the judiciary in the Weimar Republic in preserving hometown political power than the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. He has made it his primary mission to eradicate the “liberal bias” of the federal court system.  He spectacularly violated accepted Senatorial practices by refusing to even meet with, let alone hold a hearing on, Justice Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court. Since then he has been assiduously pursuing the appointment of extremely conservative, mostly white and male judges to the federal bench. According to a recent review in The Nation, Mitch McConnell has been able to confirm to date 123 federal judges, including 41 to the federal court of appeals, compared to only 19 circuit-court judges during a similar period under President Obama.  These appointments were 78 percent male and 81 percent white, with an “unsettling number of them” having “earned their stripes as partisan think-tank writers, op-ed columnists, or even bloggers.” The vetting for most of these nominations has been through the ultra-conservative Federalist Society, while in March 2017 the more professional liberal American Bar Association was denied by White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn II its previous special access to background information on judicial candidates prior to their nomination. Right-wing critics of the ABA have always chastised it for its “liberal” biases.

The second factor contributing to the victory of hometown values in the Weimar Republic, which eventually morphed into the “blood and soil” and Volksgemeinschaftof the Third Reich, was the expansion and use of the office of the President. Nothing enables an untrammeled misuse of executive power more than a compliant court system and an impotent legislature. Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution granted the President the right to take emergency measures in times of crisis and national emergency. While the Reichstag could rescind an emergency decree, it never did so. By the time of the economic Depression of the early 1930s its impotence as a legislative body had become a stark reflection of a German nation of “moral strangers.” It proved virtually incapable of agreeing on anything and ultimately consisted of a majority of elected parties staunchly opposed to the continued existence of democracy. As a political force it became totally irrelevant in the face of the expanding executive rule by the President and the Chancellor he appointed. In 1932 the Reichstag met for only 13 days in total, passing only five laws in the entire year.

Donald Trump, in his more than two years in office, has been busy crafting an American version of Article 48. He has discovered the possibility of governing without legislative approval. His tools have been the executive order, the declaration of a national emergency and the extension of executive privilege. He has steadfastly ignored subpoenas for members of his staff and government to testify before the House of Representatives. Legislative efforts to reign in his executive proclivities have proven futile in a badly fractured Congress, with the Republican led Senate determined to deflect all efforts to hold the President and his staff publicly accountable. While Democrats have been able to seek succor in the courts to some degree, that opportunity is withering and dying as Mitch McConnell perfects his reshaping of the Federal judiciary in a hometown image.

On February 27, 1933, the Germany Reichstag, the physical symbol of country’s democracy and the rule of the people, burnt to the ground. Hitler immediately blamed Communist agitators and used the national crisis as a springboard to dismantle the Republic. In short order he assumed virtual dictatorial powers by means of legislative Enabling Decrees, interned Communist leaders and members in concentration camps, excluded Jews from public service, outlawed trade unions and banned all remaining political parties except for National Socialism. By the summer of 1933 the Third Reich could no longer be deterred.

What might prove the tipping point for American democracy almost ninety years later? It could be a severe economic crisis, a war with Iran, another massive terrorist attack or simply the fact that in 2020 President Trump refuses to leave office after adverse election results, claiming that the outcome was rigged by unspecified “outsiders” seeking to destroy hometown America. Would the ideologically refashioned Federal courts, especially the Supreme Court, stand in his way? The Supreme Court has already intervened in the outcome of one presidential election in its Bush v. Gore decision halting the recount of ballots in Florida. Would the present Court, with its growing penchant to ignore standing legal precedent, be willing to go even further this time around? And would a badly fractured Congress be able to act effectively, or would our democracy simply dissolve in a stalemate as it did at the close of the Weimar Republic?

To some, these questions might seem at best hypothetical, and at worst illusionary. But the mere fact that they can now be seriously entertained in terms of the historical precedent of Germany’s Weimar Republic should give us pause. In today’s United States of America, 1933 may be closer than we think.