America seems to be heading inexorably toward a Weimar moment, a slide toward political polarization from which it could be increasingly difficult to return. Weimar — that brief, brilliant and tragic German republic of the 1920s — was replaced by Hitler’s murderous regime in 1933.
Like Weimar, our politics are increasingly defined by violence, whether the Pittsburgh massacre, the mass mailing of bomb-laden parcels, dueling mobilizations on the border, the shooting of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise or, less lethally, the antics by unhinged partisans such as Maxine Waters. Respect for the basic folkways of a functional republic is vanishing, damaged by the angry narcissism of both President Trump and his often-hysterical media enemies.
So we end up with a spectacle surrounding funerals at a Pittsburgh synagogue, with the mainstream press virtually blaming Trump for the killings, even though he was no favorite of the anti-Semitic shooter. President Trump may be divisive, but he likely doesn’t hate Jews, particularly given he has children and grandchildren who are members of the tribe.
How democracies really die
Let’s start by stating that Donald Trump is no Adolf Hitler, and his increasingly cowed Republican Party no National Socialist clone. But his intemperance has widened gaps that were already gaping. And certainly, his prior, mistaken refusal fully to denounce the alt-right activists at Charlottesville displayed a terrifying ignorance about white nationalists and their agenda.
Yet, less obviously, the road to Weimar is also being paved by his opposition. Trump was elected legally, but from the beginning his opponents — including senior member of the Democratic Party — devalued his election and threatened his impeachment. By claiming to be the “resistance,” as opposed to the loyal opposition, they have set in play a tit-for-tat political war game that is becoming all too real.
In a democracy, norms of transcending partisanship matter. It was the refusal of the various parties in Germany, notes City University of New York historian Eric Weitz, to express faith in free speech and democratic norms that undermined that country’s democracy. In Weimar Germany, he notes, lack of faith in liberal principles infected many, if not most, of the top aristocrats, intellectuals, clergy, bureaucrats and industrialists — most eventually welcomed the authoritarian Nazis. “Democracy,” Weitz notes, “needs democratic convictions and a democratic culture.”
Following the left over the ledge
Unlike pre-war Germany, the right does not dominate the country’s corporate, media and technological establishment. These have, with a nudge from Trump, largely coalesced around the Democratic Party. Yet the movement of powerful and wealthy individuals has failed, as in the past, to moderate the opposition, but has instead become increasingly strident.
Some antics of the current “resistance” — notably the idea of harassing administration supporters with their families, the shouting down or banning of speakers, the brutal Antifa — reprises the tactics of the Communists in Germany, or the Red Guards under Mao. Like the Nazis, the Communists took to the streets and denounced democracy, adding to the atmosphere that allowed the Nazis to proclaim themselves the only real alternative to a Bolshevist coup.
Authoritarianism among the cultured and highly educated, who generally revile Trump, is nothing new. Many students today are indoctrinated in social justice but not civics. They are depressingly dismissive of the idea of free speech. Much the same occurred in Germany, where the university became something of a Nazi stronghold. Similarly, many artists backed Hitler’s efforts to “cleanse” German culture. In the first months of the regime, notes one historian, “testimonials of loyalty rained down upon it unrequested”.
Lucky it’s 1928, not 1933
Fortunately, we are still far from the conditions that created Weimar. We may be losing in Afghanistan, but this is nothing like the massive catastrophe that Germany suffered in the First World War. Powerful corporate interests dominate much of our economy, as they did in Germany, but even the tech oligarchs nominally support democratic norms. Our economy is actually humming, although that was true in Germany in 1928.
But things could get worse, no matter who wins in 2018 or 2020. Weitz describes “proletarianization of the middle class,” the drop in the status and security among the class that has been the natural bulwarks of a democracy, as one of the precipitating causes of Nazism. Most Americans have experienced stagnant or reduced wages since the 1970s, and their anger and disappointment could turn far worse if the economy, as seems inevitable, takes something of a nose dive.
Right now, the habits of liberal democracy are fading, not only here but in places like Brazil, across eastern Europe, Turkey and the Philippines. As standards are broken, from the White House and elsewhere, belief in republican norms is steadily being undermined. Our road to Weimar may be slower, and less precipitous than that of Germany, but the course is frightening clear.
“The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush,” the renowned educator Robert Hutchins once said. “It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment.”
This article first appeared at The Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA.