Germany’s economic crisis of the 1930s led to the rise of far-right populism and the Nazi Party, fueled by the corporate and military establishment. An American version of this “Weimar Syndrome” could emerge as the far Right closes its grip on the Republican Party.
Contrary to common wisdom, the ascendancy of the Tea Party, Christian fundamentalist, militarist, anti-feminist, anti-immigrant and other racially-coded right-wing elements in the Republican Party – that could gain preponderant influence over the nation in a Romney/Ryan Administration – is not new. It is the most recent example of the “Weimar Syndrome,” where liberal and Left parties fail to solve serious economic crises, helping right-wing movements and policies – that lack major public support, but are groomed and funded by the corporate and military establishment – to take power.
These movements have sometimes created perilous right-wing systemic change. In the 1920s and early 1930s German Weimar Republic, the world witnessed the rise to power of far-right groups, supported by only a minority of the population, but aided by the conservative establishment. An American Weimar could emerge as far-right elements gain increasing dominance in the Republican Party. The corporate establishment, represented by Mitt Romney, feels dependent on their support and is willing to implement most of their agenda, despite Romney’s sprouting strands of moderate rhetoric since the first debate to reach beyond the hard core.
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The Weimar Syndrome involves the following elements:
1. A severe and intensifying economic crisis
2. A failure by majoritarian liberal or Left groups to resolve the crisis
3. The rise of right-wing populist groups feeling economically threatened and politically unrepresented
4. The decision of the conservative political establishment to ally with and empower these right-wing elements, as their best way to stabilize capitalism and prevent the rise of progressive movements against corporations or capitalism itself
The most dangerous Weimar right-wing populist movements in Germany were not anti-statist, a distinctively American approach, and were brutally violent. Moreover, they would never support a candidate offering conciliatory rhetoric to appeal to the unconverted. While thus different than US ultra-conservative elements in the Republican Party today, who do not pose now the same type of danger, they nonetheless offer alarming lessons for America today.
The disastrous defeat in World War I and the ensuing hyperinflation and collapse of the German economy spawned hundreds of far-right populist groups. The most famous Weimar populists were the Nazis, but in 1920s Weimar they were just one of many hyper-nationalist, militarist and “family value” fringe groups not taken seriously by either the conservative or social democratic German Establishment.
The Weimar populists were “Red State” rural and small town Germans, rooted in small business, a demographic much like the Tea Party. Their leaders expressed the insecurity and rage of these conservative traditional classes.
Rural and small town Germans felt threatened by the humiliating defeat in the Great War and Weimar’s crushing economic crises. Using racist demagoguery, the Weimar populists blamed both the military defeat and the economic crisis on Jews, the leading “traitors” concentrated in Berlin and other great cities. Under Weimar, big cities had become a cauldron of new movements for unionism, socialism and Communism, feminism and artistic experimentation.
The leading German liberal and conservative parties dismissed the Weimar right-wing populists as extremists and lunatics. By the early 1930s, though, the conservative corporate establishment viewed Hitler as the only alternative to a liberal or Communist takeover as the economy collapsed. German conservative elites correctly believed he would dispose of the Communists but erroneously calculated that they could contain Hitler himself. So they put him in power despite his electoral weakness and funded his militaristic solutions for the German crisis, which they thought would also save German capitalism.
Right-wing populists in the US also emerged in the Weimar era of the 1920s, involving Christian evangelicals such as Billy Sunday, as well as the Ku Klux Klan. They expressed anti-establishment religious revivalism and racist calls for restoring the traditional order and honor of the South. In the 1930s, the American Liberty League formed a Tea Party ancestor that opposed the entire New Deal as unconstitutional statism.
. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the United States underwent even greater division between a counterculture tied to a Left that saw the Vietnam War as emblematic of a flawed militaristic empire against a “silent majority” – a term coined by President Nixon to suggest a majoritarian right-wing America backed by the GOP establishment – committed to American glory, free market capitalism, traditional families, the virtues of hard work, and for some, white rights and Christian values.
By the late 1970s, the Silent Majority morphed – with aid from the Republican corporate establishment – into the populist “New Right.” The New Right groups embraced unrestrained capitalism as “Christian,” something which evangelical movements had seldom previously done. The American corporate elite found this version of populism – which they helped shape – palatable, especially when, like the German establishment during Weimar, it confronted a threat from the Left.
The 1970s New Right was a new generation of Christian fundamentalist populists emphasizing traditional values and free markets. In 1980, the New Right helped elect President Ronald Reagan and helped consolidate the Republican establishment’s hold on power, based on the odd marriage of big corporations and Southern right-wing populism.
For all the talk about how polarized the United States is now – with polarization between a minority conservative rural populace and a progressive urban demographic – a feature of the Weimar Syndrome – it was far more so from the late 1960s through the late 1970s. Then, there was a real Left that was undermining the latitude of the American military. Many within the younger generation were rejecting the capitalist consumerist society that they were supposed to inherit. Japan and Europe were showing signs of surpassing the United States economically. Some within the corporate elite, like David Rockefeller, felt it was essential to re-establish respect for traditional authority.
A few years before the rift of the late 1970s, much of the American corporate establishment would have seen the Christian Right as a “loony fringe,” but like the German elite of the early 1930s, they felt a need to find someone to return order and stability. Although many were previously suspicious of Ronald Reagan, they allowed him to become president. Hitler promised German honor would be restored and Germany would never again lose a war. Reagan made the same promise to America. The German business community thought they could contain Hitler. They were wrong. The American business community hoped they could control Reagan and it turns out they were correct. Reagan built a coalition between the corporate elite and the evangelical Right. He did not enact the programs of the fundamentalists, but he gave them lip-service as their perspective gained respectability. He re-centered the political spectrum as the real Left fell beyond the edge and liberalism, which previously had been the mainstream, became the “L-word.”
Reagan dissipated the crisis that he was brought into office to resolve, but his fiscal and military policies laid the seeds for the present economic catastrophe, the structural heart of a Weimar era. He doubled the government deficit as jobs and infrastructures were exported. Despite underlying instability, reflecting the beginning of the a long American decline, there appeared to be a surface return to normalcy, prosperity and patriotism and today, even some liberals remember his tenure nostalgically.
The Tea Party and the right-wing groups in the Republican Party and House, led by Paul Ryan, are the step-children of Reagan , the New Right and the latest incarnation of right-wing populism. They pose new challenges for the corporate establishment in the GOP. How they deal with the Tea Party and Ryan Republicans will shape a possible Romney administration.
Long-term decline increases the radicalism of right-wing populists and the political volatility of the population. The corporate and GOP establishment, represented by Mr. Romney, are betting the ranch that they can again contain the new Far Right populists. But they are increasingly dependent on them, as evidenced by the pick of Ryan as Romney’s running mate.
Romney insists that he, not Ryan, is the head of the Republican Party, and he is shape-shifting back to the image of moderation during his Massachusetts governorship. But a look at Romney’s endorsement of the Ryan budget, his electoral-season new marriage with the southern Evangelical, militarist and racist elements in the party, and his own “severely conservative” budget and policy suggest the real Romney, in characteristic Weimar fashion, has embraced the right-wing Ryan factions and chosen to empower them.
Anti-tax guru Grover Norquist said, “We just need a president to sign this stuff…. Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen.” Romney is willing. He has said would sign the Ryan budget, the document crystallizing all the Tea Party dreams of drowning the social welfare government in the bathtub.
He has spoken for a new hegemonic American militarism and proclaimed, “This century must be an American Century … [Obama] has chosen this moment for wholesale reductions in the nation’s military capacity … This conduct is contemptible. It betrays our national interest.” He has joined anti-immigrant forces by opposing the Dream Act, while attacking Obama as a “food stamp” president and thereby appealing to all the racially coded elements in the party. This is a corporate presidential candidate adopting through most of the campaign the Weimar strategy of embracing the most Rightist elements in the GOP, and only muting his “severe” conservative tone very late in the campaign to expand his base beyond true believers.
President Obama’s inability to lead the country, in FDR fashion, toward a New Deal that might solve the economic crisis, opens the door to a Weimar outcome. The corporate establishment fears even the weak populist tone that Obama has embraced during this election season, and sees both the long economic crisis and an Obama victory as eroding their power and potentially subverting capitalism itself.
The obvious lesson is that in periods of severe crisis and long-term decline, all bets are off. The establishment is risking not only the Republic, but its own survival. Only the progressive popular movements – mobilized by righteous anger at the plutocratic globalizing elites disinvesting from the nation itself as they embrace far-right nationalism and populism – can ward off a potentially disastrous repeat of the 1920s Weimar march into decay and barbarism.