Political science pop quiz.Who is the gravedigger of American democracy?
Christopher Browning, renowned Holocaust scholar; and my liberal friends Richie and Larry; are no doubt cursing me for giving Trump any cover. And for good reason. They’re convinced, among other historically minded people on the left, that life in the (dis)United States today is frighteningly similar to 1925-1930’s Germany. And I agree.
Here’s a summary of Browning’s argument with excerpts from his October 2018 New York Review of Books essay, “A leading Holocaust historian just seriously compared the US to Nazi Germany”.
As Vox explains, Browning warns that democracy in the US is under serious threat, in the way that German democracy was prior to Hitler’s rise — and really could topple altogether.
Vox’s Beauchamp explains:
“Browning’s essay covers many topics, ranging from Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy — a phrase most closely associated with a group of prewar American Nazi sympathizers — to the role of Fox News as a kind of privatized state propaganda office. But the most interesting part of his argument is the comparison between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Paul von Hindenburg, the German leader who ultimately handed power over to Hitler.”
Props if you identified Mitch McConnell as the gravedigger. Could the nerdy Kentuckian really be that dangerous? Beauchamp again:
“McConnell, in Browning’s eyes, is doing something similar to Hindenburg— taking whatever actions he can to attain power, including breaking the system for judicial nominations (cough cough, Merrick Garland) and empowering a dangerous demagogue under the delusion that he can be fully controlled.”
Do conservatives have the necessary self-awareness to take this critique seriously? Beauchamp:
“Now, as Browning points out, ‘Trump is not Hitler and Trumpism is not Nazism.’ The biggest and most important difference is that Hitler was an open and ideological opponent of the idea of democracy, whereas neither Trump nor the GOP wants to abolish elections.
What Browning worries about, instead, is a slow and quiet breakdown of American democracy — something more much like what you see in modern failed democracies like Turkey. Browning worries that Republicans have grown comfortable enough manipulating the rules of the democratic game to their advantage, with things like voter ID laws and gerrymandering, that they might go even further even after Trump is gone.”
How does one maintain meaningful, personal friendships with people who support McConnell and Trump when our democracy is under serious threat in the ways Browning convincingly illustrates? The vast majority of people do it by avoiding any discussion of politics, but it’s too late for that for me because my friends and I have been locking political horns for decades.
My successfully balancing the two is less important than us avoiding Germany’s fate.
I highly recommend reading all of Beauchamp’s summary and all of Browning’s original essay if you know someone who has a subscription to The New York Review of Books or if you can access it through a university library or interlibrary loan.* And of course, it’s important to remember that Browning isn’t the only scholar highlighting these historical parallels. See also. . .
A Scholar of Fascism Sees A Lot That’s Familiar With Trump
The rise of American authoritarianism