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Facing Down Trump’s Demagoguery: Lessons From Weimar Germany

Only a universalized resistance across a united progressive front will be able to stand up to right-wing populism.

Part of the Series

Donald Trump is not the first authoritarian demagogue who could take power and undermine constitutional government in the US or Europe. Right-wing authoritarian populists have often grabbed power during economic crises, particularly in Western societies suffering national decline and severe racial divisions or culture wars.

The classic example is Weimar Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s. The Nazis were one of many far-right movements in Weimar — and Hitler was only one of many hyper-nationalist demagogues stoking the flames of economic discontent and promising to restore Aryan racial supremacy and make Germany great again.

For progressives who want to (1) fight Trump’s dangerous messages and (2) win the long-term struggle for justice and democracy, there are vital lessons to be learned from the failure of Weimar progressives.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

First, the German Left splintered and failed to create strong coalitions. The Social Democrats and the German Communist Party — both large parties of Labor — made little efforts to work together or to organize and coordinate closely with many of the remarkably progressive Weimar urban feminist, gay and civil rights movements. Much of the blame falls on the Communists, who decided to take their marching orders from Stalin, believing that the collapse of the German economy would lead to a Communist revolution. But the Social Democrats were also responsible, aligning themselves with conservative parties and aristocratic landed elites — and supporting repression of Far Left movements while failing to reach out to and make concessions to either the Communists or the movements.

Had the Social Democrats and Communists formed a common bloc, working in a strong coalition with progressive urban cultural movements, they would have controlled the majority of Parliament and might have kept power. The lesson here is that we must wrestle with the potential ways in which the Democratic Party, the Sanders supporters and our major social justice movements might work together, building a coalitional front that can push back against the dangers posed by Trump, promote the aims of the Sanders “revolution,” and help unite or “universalize” Left grassroots movements in a long-term effort to create a systemic transformation of militarized, racialized, patriarchal capitalism.

Second, to build a united front, all types of progressives must grapple with the real threat of a Trump victory and of a broader right-wing populist ascendancy, with or without a Trump victory. The German Left — as well as the German corporate and landed gentry Establishment — never took Hitler seriously, dismissing Far Right movements and believing Hitler had no large popular base. Likewise, many US progressives cannot imagine that Americans would embrace Far Right populism and elect an overtly racist demagogue such as Trump.

The Weimar Left and the German Establishment wildly underestimated the Far Right and Hitler’s resonance during a massive economic crisis with a public with authoritarian tendencies. They lost touch with the working and lower middle class, especially the rural or small town population, who felt they were losing not just their jobs but their country and culture. They also never believed Hitler could gain so much support in his pursuit of genocide.

The US Left and the US Establishment may be making a similar mistake about Trump and today’s Far Right populism. On the one hand, Trumpism resonates strongly with some economically disenfranchised white workers who, like the Weimar culturally conservative workers, fear loss of both their jobs and their honored racial status in their nation. Moreover, recent surveys and social-psychological studies show that the authoritarian cultural currents in Weimar are prevalent in large sectors of the US white working class and middle class conservative movement, creating fertile ground for an authoritarian bully like Trump.

Trump does not seem to be joking about the changes he proposes, nor could he be controlled easily if in power. Trump as president would heighten institutional racism throughout the country and sabotage many constitutional rights, even with congressional resistance, using executive power already being concentrated in the presidency.

The second Weimar lesson, then, is this: take right-wing populism and Trump’s magnetic resonance with large sectors of the American public very seriously. This is a lesson reinforced not just by Weimar but by the Brexit vote in the UK. Progressives must understand how and why Trump connects with millions of Americans — and then move to undercut resonating ties.

This leads to a third lesson: the need for a massive shift in the Democratic Party and a resurgence of progressive movements to solve the economic crisis and address the sense of national decline perpetrated by the Establishment itself. The Weimar Left, especially the Social Democratic Party, largely disconnected from grassroots urban progressive cultural movements, had no transformative vision or energy. It was an exhausted, reformist party offering no economic or social solutions. The Communists didn’t even try, as they promoted collapse.

The Democratic Party in the age of Clintons, disconnected from social movements, has aligned with the corporate and military establishment. While Bernie Sanders resonated far and wide because of his urgent message of “political revolution” and democratic socialism, Hillary Clinton has only begun to — at least in rhetoric — embrace the importance of structural change. But to win, she has to take Sanders more seriously and respond not only to his demands but also to the demands of the civil rights, Black liberation, peace and environmental movements. One approach is to promote a massive green public investment agenda to begin solving the jobs and environmental crisis, while cutting the military budget and taxing the rich to meet educational, health and job-creation priorities, while also addressing the crises of racism, sexism, mass incarceration and civil liberties.

If she fails to campaign on this united front agenda, and our movements do not force her to do so, Clinton will suffer the fate of the German Social Democrats. Trump will ride the anti-Establishment anger and angst into the White House and right-wing populism will take over the nation.

We must universalize our activism from single-issue silos to a long-term coalition for liberation and universal rights

A careful look at Clinton’s current proposals offers a glimpse of hope. She has begun to integrate some of Sanders’ demands about free college education, more expansive funding of social needs, confronting institutionalized racism and mass incarceration, stronger anti-fracking and higher solar and wind production, a higher minimum wage, and reversing Citizens United. Sanders’ supporters, now linking or “universalizing” with other social justice movements, must push her much further. The concern is not only about Trump; it is also necessary to mobilize sustainable democracy movements that can defeat new cycles of right-wing populism and create a real political revolution.

Clinton and the Left movements face considerable challenges in building a true popular united front. Clinton’s proposals tend to be means-tested and polarize the working classes against professional and middle classes; her set-asides for particular groups in programs like her College Compact pit groups against each other.

Clinton must adopt a universalizing posture supporting universalizing programs and entitlements, such as expanded social security and health care for all. These bring the working and middle classes together, and reflect the agenda of universalizing movements seeking cross-class and cross-identity coalitions.

The movements must push Clinton to adopt these Left-oriented designs, which do not take working class, people of color or social movement support for granted and universalize resistance. More broadly, movements must openly and forcefully criticize Clinton’s penchant for intervention abroad (e.g., in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan), the stultifying incrementalism of her domestic reforms regarding inequality, corporate trade agreements, and union rights, and her failure to deliver solutions to institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, mass incarceration and denial of immigrant rights.

This connects with the fourth Weimar lesson: the need to address personal fear about national decline, racial conflict and national or terrorist enemies. Hitler and right-wing movements stoked all these fears. They saw the anxiety and anger and redirected it at the non-Aryan Enemy within and without. They were masters of the politcs and propaganda of emotion.

The Weimar Left collapsed not only because of its abject policy failures on the economy and in meeting social needs, but also because of its inability to speak to deep emotions of fear and anger, particularly those stirred up by right-wing populists.

The lesson here is to redirect fear to the real causes of public suffering and to identify clearly who are the enemies of the people. The united front must clearly indict the corporate and military Establishment that is battering both workers and the nation, showing how both Establishment and right-wing populists are using racism, immigrant-bashing and sexism to refocus anger on the most powerless people. Progressives must embrace the zeitgeist of anti-Establishment feeling on both Left and Right. It must make clear how big money, racism and militarism abroad and at home are dividing Americans and degrading their economic and social prospects.

Having been a leading figure of the Establishment for 25 years, it is virtually impossible for Clinton to embrace the anti-Establishment moment and lead a progressive populism. The united front must do the work that she cannot. Sanders speaks forcefully to anti-Establishment emotions and highlights anti-Establishment policies that can meet many universalized public needs. And social movements have deep roots in communities and have built the foundations for an emotional as well as universalizing policy response to Establishment power.

Our grassroots social movements are central to transformation. We are already seeing their resurgence, from Black Lives Matter to large-scale environmental and climate change movements ( and anti-fracking) to anti-corporate and anti-Wall Street movements (Occupy and its successors) seeking democratic socialism. Many are beginning to recognize the need to coalesce and universalize their resistance against the ruling order, in concert with a progressive political and electoral agenda symbolized by Bernie Sanders.

The lessons of Weimar are stark. Without universalizing resistance across a united progressive front, we could easily see the rise of Trump and the entrenchment of right-wing populism. We must meld together movements and progressive politics. And we must universalize our activism from single-issue silos to a long-term coalition for liberation and universal rights.

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