There is a striking parallel between the collapse of democracy in Germany’s Weimar Republic and what’s happening right now in Trump’s America.
No 2592 Posted by fw, February 23, 2020 —
“The discovery that the really large-scale cultivation of untruth and irrationality works as a political program. I really worry not only about where that brings us right now, but where that’s going to take us down the road when other politicians realize just how much you can lie and it will still work. The other point – and I think a parallel between that time and place and now – is the way in which what you might call the conservative establishment has calculated its relationship with the sort of more radical right-wing alternative that Trump represents, and that Hitler represented in Weimar by more, and how calculating that, you know, the establishment calculates that – Well this movement will float our boat. They will be the sort of electoral troops…” —Professor Benjamin Hett
Chris Hedges talks to Professor Benjamin Hett about the collapse of democracy in Germany’s Weimar Republic and its descent into fascism – and which features of the collapse may be applicable to the democratic experiment in America. Hett is professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; his new book is The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic.
Below is an embedded video of Hedges’ 27:39 minute interview of Professor Hett, including a 3-minute transcript of the introductory remarks.
Substituting for a full transcript of the interview, is a repost of my abridged review of Hett’s book by Richard North Patterson, the New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council On Foreign Relations. Patterson’s review, published by HuffPost, February 8, 2018, follows Hedges’ interview. It includes my added subheadings and text highlighting.
Here is my introduction to Patterson’s book review –
Richard North Patterson wastes no time in unleashing his damning condemnation of “Demagogue-in Chief” Trump: “For Americans, the singular presidency of Donald Trump impels a measured consideration of what fascism truly is ― and how it grows. For fascism does not supplant democracy overnight. Rather it advances step-by-step, nourished by denial and disbelief, until it overruns the safeguards protecting decency and freedom.” He then embarks on a thorough examination of the evidence in support of his claim that Trump is, in word and deed, an agent of fascism that is killing American democracy.
TRANSCRIPT TO THE OPENING THREE MINUTES
Chris Hedges — Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss how democracies die with Professor Benjamin Hett.
Benjamin Hett – The discovery that the really large-scale cultivation of untruth and irrationality works as a political program. I really worry not only about where that brings us right now, but where that’s going to take us down the road when other politicians realize just how much you can lie and it will still work. The other point – and I think a parallel between that time and place and now – is the way in which what you might call the conservative establishment has calculated its relationship with the sort of more radical right-wing alternative that Trump represents, and that Hitler represented in Weimar by more, and how calculating that, you know, the establishment calculates that – Well this movement will float our boat. They will be the sort of electoral troops…
Chris Hedges – 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 an ancient Athens, the Roman Republic, or the collapse of democracy in Italy, and the Weimar Republic in German that led to fascism. The ills that beset Germany and Italy in the 1930s are sadly familiar to us. A deadlock. An ineffectual political system. The seizure of national economies by international banks and finance capital that thrust larger and larger segments of society into a subsistence existence that obliterates hope for the future. An increase in nihilistic violence, including mass shooting and terrorism. A rapacious militarism and inchoate hatred for the ruling elite that is mired in corruption while it mouths empty platitudes about liberal democratic values and the yearning for a cult leader or demagogue who promises vengeance, moral renewal, and a return to a mythical past.
Joining me in the studio to discuss how democracies die is Benjamin Carter Hett, professor of history at Humter Collage and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and the author of The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic.
So let’s begin with the differences, because there are profound differences between them – Weimar and where we are now, starting just with the fact that the Weimar of the democratic system – the Weimar Constitution, which was passed in 1919, essentially only gave a 15-year window into democracy. The trauma of World War 1, which affected the entire society. The violence in the streets. Talk a little bit about how we’re NOT like Weimar.
[Repost of my abridgement of Richard North Patterson’s book review of Benjamin Hett’s book. To read the complete review, click on the above linked title.]
“Fascism advances step-by-step, nourished by denial and disbelief, until it overruns the safeguards protecting decency and freedom”
Given its terrible history, the term “fascist” is too often carelessly invoked. But fascism does not presuppose a holocaust. For Americans, the singular presidency of Donald Trump impels a measured consideration of what fascism truly is ― and how it grows. For fascism does not supplant democracy overnight. Rather it advances step-by-step, nourished by denial and disbelief, until it overruns the safeguards protecting decency and freedom.
Is Trump an agent of fascism?
Is Trump an agent of incipient fascism? Start with its historic cradle ― Europe in the 1920s and ’30s.
True, America’s democratic institutions are deeply rooted. But intelligent Germans and Italians dismissed the bigotry and unreason which overcame them ― their societies were too ancient, too civilized, to yield so easily. Until they did.
Both Germany and Italy nurtured the seeds of 20th century democratic decline, including demagogues who promised a return to greatness
How? Both countries nurtured the seeds of democratic decline. Social fissures. Groups that felt beset by inimical forces. Demagogues who promised to subdue those forces in exchange for unquestioning fealty.
Without even mentioning Trump, Hett’s book carries a troubling, intentional echo with the past
Particularly instructive is Benjamin Hett’s The Death of Democracy, a penetrating study of how Nazism overtook the Weimar Republic. Hett never mentions Trump; the societal parallels are, of course, far from exact. But his account carries a troubling ― and clearly intentional ― resonance.
A portrait of Hitler —
Rhetoric alone could not bring Hitler to power
But Hitler could not rise on rhetoric alone.
For while fascism slumbered after World War II, it did not die.
Fascism feeds on nationalism, nativism and ethnic grievance
But fascism feeds on nationalism, nativism and ethnic grievance. As historian Robert Paxton wrote, it is “an affair of the gut more than the brain,” breeding “an obsessive preoccupation with humiliation… and victimhood.”
Trump erodes fact and reason until his followers accept whatever message, however contradictory, at any given moment
Consider, then, Trump’s methodology and message. The glue bonding Trump to his base is a suffocating dishonesty which, in Orwell’s words, “demands… the continuous alteration of the past, and… a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.” Trump’s metronomic repetition of false narratives conjures a mounting dystopia, filled with antagonists he alone can defeat ― eroding fact and reason until his followers accept whatever message, however contradictory, his psyche demands at any given moment.
The fascist sensibility makes the world more dangerous, empowering autocrats to subjugate their citizens, menace their neighbors, vilify “the other.”
Trump’s message is eerily familiar ―
Also menacing —
Fascism makes the world more dangerous, empowering autocrats who diminish our common humanity
The fascist sensibility
In words and deeds, Trump, the “Bully-in-Chief” licenses mass cruelty
Perhaps the best synonym for “fascist,” Orwell wrote, was “bully.” In word and deed, Trump licenses mass cruelty. That the lawless sadism of family separation is so widely applauded by Trump’s followers augurs our devolution. Warns [Madeleine ] Albright, “There is… a tipping point where loyalty to one’s own tribe curdles into resentment and hatred, then aggression toward others. That’s when fascism enters the picture.”
Trump and his party are corroding the Constitution, dismantling democracy
It is tempting to suppose that our Constitution is impervious to corrosion. But already Trump, and his party, are curtailing democracy.
With frequent hints of one-party rule, Trump has freed Republicans to further their attacks on American democracy
These harbingers of creeping one-party rule free Republican legislators to subordinate principle to self-perpetuation. In Trump’s thrall, our supposedly independent Congress has become a shell, ceding its constitutional obligations as House Republicans further his attacks on our legal and intelligence institutions.
Trump’s motive is to conceal an authoritarian attack on American democracy.
Autocrat Trump seeks to place himself alone above the law
Here Trump’s enablers advance a claim of victimization redolent of fascism: that Trump’s ”civil liberties″ are threatened by political partisans bent on thwarting his followers’ will, and that even overt collusion with a foreign power would be a justifiable defense against the threat of his domestic opponents. In this Orwellian construct, Trump has absolute authority to conspire with Russia to subvert American democracy and to obstruct any inquiry into his actions. Such presidential conduct, they argue, is beyond prosecution or impeachment, placing Trump alone above the law.
Trump’s proto-fascist propaganda is working: a solid majority of Republicans believe the FBI is framing Trump
They deploy baseless McCarthyite attacks on Mueller; portray Trump’s own Justice Department as biased and demand investigation ― and even impeachment ― of those officials striving to maintain their independence. In tribal America, this proto-fascist propaganda is working: a solid majority of Republicans believe that the FBI is framing Trump. The nightmare scenario conjured by Norman Ornstein is not beyond imagining ― Trump fires Mueller, pardons himself and, as chaos ensues, attempts to declare martial law.
More likely, a supine Republican Congress and judiciary help Trump to evade accountability
More probable is that a supine Republican Congress and judiciary help Trump thwart accountability and, thus unbound, they further erode democratic norms. A Pew Research survey shows that only one in five Americans believe our democracy is working very well, while two-thirds want “significant changes.” As tribalism and income inequality deepen, Trump stands ready to help.
Fascism does not require a president for life, just a hollowed out democracy occupied by authoritarian political and economic elites
Fascism’s encroachment does not require a president-for-life. Sufficient is a “guided democracy” whose institutions, fatally hollowed out, are occupied by an illiberal cadre that holds increasingly unmediated political and economic power. That, sadly, requires less imagination ― for we have seen it before.
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