Citizen Action Monitor

How the large-scale cultivation of untruth and irrationality work as a political program to destroy democracies

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 —

Benjamin Carter 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…”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.

Richard North Patterson

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.

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Collapse of Weimar Germany with Benjamin Hett, Interviewed by Chris Hedges, On Contact, February 22, 2020 (27:39 minutes)

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.

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America’s Pre-Fascist President by Richard North Patterson, HuffPost, February 8, 2018

[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 —

  • Hitler exuded contempt for reason.
  • He recast globalization as a conspiracy.
  • He identified all-purpose external enemies.
  • He cultivated a sense of victimhood.
  • He insisted that the media serve “the general good,”
  • and promised “legal warfare” against critics.
  • He stoked contempt for pluralism and political institutions.

Particularly insidious,

  • he saw Germans as a racial tribe, intellectually unequipped for critical thinking, who craved a leader with mystical powers.
  • Relentlessly he galvanized their anger and anxieties through rudimentary language that was flagrantly mendacious.
  • The greater the lie, Hitler believed, the easier to popularize: “I reduced [our political problems] to the simplest terms. The masses realize this and follow me.

Rhetoric alone could not bring Hitler to power

But Hitler could not rise on rhetoric alone.

  • The German people were profoundly divided by class, region, religion and income inequality.
  • Many despised the cosmopolites, global elites and politicians they associated with democracy.
  • A conservative political and financial class, dismissing Hitler as a showman, imagined they could control him for their own ends ― a tragic miscalculation that resonates beyond its time.

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 ―

  • a tribe menaced from without.
  • His most visceral fictions vilify non-whites.
  • An alien black president insinuated in our midst.
  • Apocryphal minorities voting illegally en masse.
  • Undocumented immigrants with fictitious crime rates.
  • A non-existent wave of Syrian refugees bent on terrorism.
  • Imaginary American Muslims celebrating 9/11.
  • And only Trump can “take our country back” from these insidious enemies.

Also menacing —

  • are foreigners bent on emasculating true Americans.
  • Job-stealing immigrants.
  • Europeans cheating us in trade deals.
  • Freeloading NATO “allies” sapping our public finances.
  • A malign global order enfeebling America with its siren-song of democracy, human rights and multilateral cooperation.
  • And only Trump will put “America First” ― an isolationist slogan from our nativist past freighted with ethnic animus.

Fascism makes the world more dangerous, empowering autocrats who diminish our common humanity

The fascist sensibility

  • makes the world more dangerous,
  • empowering autocrats to subjugate their citizens,
  • menace their neighbors,
  • vilify “the other”
  • and diminish our common humanity ―
  • until, as history demonstrates, their compulsions breed catastrophe.

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.

  • Gerrymandering congressional districts.
  • Attacking minority voting rights.
  • Exploiting a campaign finance system which advances plutocracy.
  • Weakening labor unions.
  • Stacking the judiciary with partisan ideologues.
  • Threatening the media and former intelligence officials.
  • Enshrining theocracy.
  • Immunizing kleptocracy.
  • Accelerating inequality.

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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