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.
Read the rest of the piece at The Daily Beast.
Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is now available to preorder. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin