Few would dispute that 2020 has ushered in enough challenges to make 2016 look like “the good old days.” The one positive aspect for many will be the chance to vote out Donald Trump from the presidency in November. While no panacea, having someone competent and qualified would be preferable to the status quo. Of course, there are no illusions that Joe Biden will do anything but preserve the old order that brought us to the current crises, but for the sake of so many vulnerable groups already suffering, and given the limits of the two-party system, defeating Trump must be done.
True enough, but we must be aware of the inevitable right-wing backlash that could push the United States toward fascism or further into it. A useful exercise in doing so lies in comparing the modern U.S. to that of the Weimar Republic (the German state between the two World Wars). While pointing out the parallels between the two has become trite, I argue that it goes beyond genuflections on political polarization in the U.S. today but also into our social and economic lives. The U.S. is not just a nation divided by conflicting values; we are also witnessing major institutions fail in real time, causing ordinary people to confront a clean break with the present and a severe lurch to the right or to the left, toward conservative counterrevolution or to radical progress.
United in Nationalism
The German Empire formed in 1871, unifying abundant autonomous minor princedoms in existence for centuries. While these small states had confederated in the past, there was no singular German identity connecting them until the 19th century, when romantic nationalism spawned Pan-Germanism, the dream of German-speaking people united in a sovereign state. This period also gave rise to the Sonderweg, meaning “special path.” At the time, German nationalists believed their nation had threaded the needle between retaining a centralized, traditionalist autocracy (as Britain and France had failed to do) while also quickly industrializing and reaching a high standard of living (unlike tsarist Russia). Thanks to these advantages, the nationalists argued, Germany would defeat her enemies, establish undisputed hegemony over Central Europe, and expand into the Slavic states to the east part of a Drang nach Osten (Drive to the East). Obviously, these ideas would influence Adolf Hitler and his later attacks on Poland and the Soviet Union during World War II. Nazi Germany would craft Generalplan Ost (the Master Plan for the East), calling for the ethnic cleansing of Slavs from captured territories and the “rebirth” of these areas via colonization by German settlers. From its inception German culture promoted the realization of destined superiority and dominance, and it was in the pursuit of this dream that Germany inflicted unprecedented horrors on the world.
The U.S. too has its “Manifest Destiny,” but its genocide is well in its past, in its origins. The forced relocation, deception, and massacre of Native American peoples by European settlers and later the U.S. government and its pioneers are a widely known aspect of our history, even if it does not feature widely in the public discourse. The Sonderweg has its U.S. twin in “American Exceptionalism,” the belief the we are unique among countries for our foundation on the principles of individual liberty, republican government, and diverse peoples assimilating into a single, superior culture (e pluribus unum). The ascension of the U.S. to the status of sole global superpower, the wealthiest and most powerful country in history, would support this view, much as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was validation of German transcendence over the hitherto dominant power on the European continent, France. The equivalent conflict in U.S. history would be the 1898 war with Spain, a campaign manufactured by the sensationalist U.S. media and designed to spread U.S. imperialism through the acquisition of Spanish territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific islands, establishing the U.S. as a true empire with foreign possessions it had no intentions of assimilating. This notion that greatness and glory were inevitable and somehow cosmically mandated set both Germany and the U.S. onto roads that became rails, leading to militarization, centralization, and long periods of dominance followed by abrupt collapse, the rise of totalitarianism, and total war.
“Stabbed in the Back”
In 1905 the Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm II visited Morocco in a bid to dispute French dominance over Morocco. Germany had pursued the acquisition of overseas territories to rival the huge French and British empires, and while it did gain some colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania, these were minor holdings compared to the sprawling and lucrative French and British possessions. At the 1906 Algeciras Conference a summit of European leaders affirmed French hegemony over Morocco, resulting in Germany losing prestige. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the Great War between Germany and the Allied Powers, humiliated Germany by imposing harsh reparations and disarmament, as well as stripping the country of its colonies. Additionally, Germany had to agree to a War Guilt clause that further sullied its reputation. Germany in the 1920s suffered not just from the ruin and ravages of war but also a national despair over their perceived disgrace. Rather than looking within themselves at their ideals and customs, Germans decided to blame their embarrassment on external enemies.
German nationalists refused to accept the defeat of the “superior” German military; its legacy was the famous military strength of 18th century Prussia. They asserted the German army was undefeated in the field. According to them, Germany lost because it was betrayed. This Dolchstoßlegende (stabbed-in-the-back) theory helped fuel the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, as Jews were among those groups blamed for sedition and treason. Other enemies included social democrats, communists, and anarchists who wanted to tear down much of what conservative Germans considered their proud heritage, including the figure of the Kaiser. While it was Hitler who would seize power, the restoration of Wilhelm II as an absolute monarch was the aspiration of many German conservatives in the 1920s and 1930s. It was not so much the man they wanted, but what he represented: a symbol of German excellence for Germans to rally behind. As fate would have it, Hitler stepped into that role instead, exploiting the national trauma to implement the extremely jingoistic and ethno-centric doctrine of National Socialism.
While Nazis have had a remarkable resurgence in U.S. politics, they remain marginal figures. Extreme jingoism and white supremacy, however, have been part of the U.S. identity since its establishment. The U.S. first made war on the indigenous population and later against its Latin neighbors. While World War I technically involved the U.S., it was World War II that produced the military-industrial complex that makes up such a substantial portion of the U.S. budget and economy. Since 1945 the U.S. has intervened militarily around the planet to reinforce its hegemony in increasingly unilateral wars, at the great expense of its international reputation. It was the Vietnam War where U.S. imperialism received its first real interrogation. U.S. nationalists, however, had their own version of the “stabbed-in-the-back” legend, with the military “prevented” from winning the war by weak Democrats and anti-authority social movements. More recently, Barack Obama was regularly criticized for his “apology tour” to Muslim countries, with the regular implication Obama himself was a covert Muslim and, by right-wing logic, not loyal to the U.S. Trump has furthered anti-Muslim discrimination with his attempts to ban travel from several Muslim countries, in addition to vilifying undocumented migrants from Central America (many fleeing countries destabilized by U.S. foreign policy) and rounding them up for inhumane detainment. Even though white Christians have constituted the U.S. ruling class throughout its history, this class has routinely blamed its shortcomings and ills on ethnic minorities and dissidents.
A Shock to the System
For a brief period in the 1920s, the Weimar Republic enjoyed prosperity, a time of jazz clubs and neon signs, dizzy intoxication to elude the freshly concluded nightmare. This golden age imploded with the stock market crash of 1929. Instead those boats once lifted by a rising tide wrecked on the shores of financial panic. Public trust in institutions—the government, big business, the media—plummeted across Germany. The people, especially the German middle class, gave up their newfound liberal republican ideals and chose National Socialism as a bold solution to their problems. In 1930, the Nazis saw their number of seats in the federal legislature increase from 12 to 107; in July 1932 they won 123 more seats, but still fell short of the 305 needed for a majority. Hitler did not become Chancellor of Germany until 1933 but clearly most of the German populace had embraced Nazi values as their own well before that, with all this historically entails. The fact that they were seeking radical solutions to an unprecedented crisis does not mitigate what that generation of Germans must be held accountable for, but it places into context why Germans would be willing to support the aspirations of the Third Reich, even if there was initial hesitation as Hitler steered Germany to war. The early victories of the war brought with it not stoicism but wild celebration before Stalingrad preceded a reversal of fortunes. After the war, Germany as a unified state ceased to exist, a deliberate deprivation of sovereignty, to undermine German nationalism. This had a lasting impact on German culture, resulting in the suppression of nationalist sentiments (until recently, with the rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland party).
In the modern U.S., the government actively props up the economy, with the central bank now directly purchasing corporate debt in the form of bonds, thus preventing the need for “bailout” legislation. Wall Street is now subsidized without any regulation. This “welfare for the rich” does not trickle down to the middle and working classes, who face growing unemployment and institutions straining to meet the crises. Even with mortgage payments and student loan repayments suspended, even with the stimulus checks issued earlier in the year, the perils of joblessness are arriving for more people. In a country where not just employment but a living wage can be hard to come by, and where adequate health care is tied to having a job that provides it, the people will naturally feel aggrieved and dissatisfied. For those groups like Black Americans who were already suffering great repression, indeed since the inception of the U.S., it did not take them long to reach breaking point, as they frequently have before.
The failure of the U.S. to come to terms with its history of race relations is one cleavage that will worsen and erode national stability, as systematic racism looms large over our history in such complexity and depth, the “peculiar institution” so inimitable in the world and yet also so disregarded in the white consciousness. Joined now with this ticking time bomb is the deliberate mass dispossession and exploitation of the working class, their little labor protections increasingly undermined, their compensation ludicrous given the national wealth they produce. It would be remiss not to mention the victims of heteronormative masculinity, as well as those straight or queer Black and Brown women who must live at the intersection of patriarchal persecution and racial subjugation. Those who therefore only speak of a “Black uprising are omitting that schisms of social, economic, political, and cultural dimensions are now rising to the surface in U.S., with each crack widening with every tremor, tearing us apart.
The Death of Caesar
Monarchists and other reactionaries in Weimar Germany yearned for the restoration of the Kaiser, not out of affection for Wilhelm II, but instead for the symbolic power he characterized as the living manifestation of a single state authority. It is not truly Caesar himself that is important but the idea of Caesar, the all-conquering hero, the benevolent dictator, the director of national destiny. Hitler as Führer was not Hitler as Kaiser, then, but as a once-in-a-millennium genius, a nationalist Messiah figure. If reactionaries are unable to turn the clock back, to reestablish the symbolic Caesar, they will support a real one, who promises not restoration but revolution. For Germany, that revolution was Hitler’s Reich and its attempt to realize its “special path” via non-conservative means.
While often unexpressed in any meaningful way, many German elites in civilian life and in the military opposed Hitler’s aggressive foreign policy and his implementation of the Holocaust, but it should be pointed out that their misgivings stemmed from skepticism of priority or execution, not with the racist philosophy behind them both. Albert Speer and Heinz Guderian may have had their publicized differences with Hitler, but certainly not enough to absolve them for their culpability in crimes against humanity. They, as much as the most ardent Nazis and undisputed architects of the Holocaust, possessed a nationalist spirit that drove them to hate and murder. Knowledge alone, however, is cold comfort; a Caesar figure helps to absolve the guilt that follows from those crimes that come with empire-building. Nationalist chants of “For King and country!” and “God save the Emperor!” are mantras, declarations meant to inoculate or cure those who bloody their hands in their construction by destruction. The ends therefore justify the means. At the Nuremburg Trials, however, the defense by Nazi war criminals that they were “just following orders,” i.e. working toward a higher purpose by following Hitler as an absolute dictator, did not spare them from judgment, even if the shade of their skin color spared them from the hangman’s noose, unlike for their Japanese counterparts.
Trump is not Hitler, but he is a Caesar figure, and this is obvious in how many of his ardent supporters see him: brazen and outspoken, energetic and driven, unafraid of the elitist “liberals” and “globalists” threatening U.S. independence and our “way of life.” They hoped that his election would overthrow the “deep state,” the clandestine “shadow government” of bureaucrats who run the country and the world. This populist distrust of U.S. leaders, many of whom indeed come from an extremely privileged upper class, finds expression in the infamous Pizzagate and QAnon conspiracy theories. If Trump loses in November, his followers will not see this as humbling, but as the martyrdom of their hero, the repudiation of their believed redemption. Trump’s defeat will not mean the demise of far-right politics, but instead the redirection of conservative passions away from the ballot box and to armed revolt. It is worth remembering that our first civil war started not with the U.S. expelling pro-slavery states from its ranks, but by those pro-slavery states opting for war instead of accepting an abolitionist U.S. president.
The second civil war may be sparked not because of the election of a new Lincoln but because of the repudiation of the worst U.S. president since Andrew Jackson. Trump himself is immaterial; he never had the ingredients to be a mediocre president, much less an exceptional one. His downfall, however, will signal to the right-wing elements in the U.S., already so terrified of the changing culture around them, that their days are indeed numbered. To expect them to go quietly into that good night is foolish. We must all recognize that defeating Trump is not the goal, but rather the defeat of the reactionary forces he represents, and the building of a new and better society.