Millions of Americans who believed Donald Trump would flame out months ago are suddenly realizing he could now be elected president. History offers some clear explanations of why Trump survived and may indeed become president. They also suggest what we must urgently do now.
Capitalist democracies periodically experience severe economic crises that shake the legitimacy of the system. But history suggests that such crises are less likely to yield a socialist revolution than to result in what happened during the meltdown of the German Weimar Republic in the early 1930s: a turn to an authoritarian leader who promises to “make the nation great again.”
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The history of the Weimar Republic suggests that turns toward authoritarianism do not necessarily happen because of an overwhelming shift of popular opinion to the right. Hitler never won more than 37 percent of a popular vote before he became chancellor — and German cities remained remarkably progressive and defiant of Hitler. Rather, the authoritarian political transformation occurred because the ruling elites acted to ensure that Hitler would gain power.
The German establishment, specifically President Paul Von Hindenburg, put Hitler in power. The German military, conservative corporate leaders and much of parliament supported Hindenburg’s choice. Despite periodic uncertainty about the consequences, and their anxiety about the unpredictability of Hitler’s temperament, these elites all helped create the Nazi nightmare that they had dismissed or denounced just a few years earlier.
There were four reasons why the German elites went along with this plan. A closer look at why could help explain why conservative elites today are largely coalescing behind Trump, are bankrolling his candidacy and will, with some exceptions, likely try to help him win.
First, the German establishment saw Hitler as the “lesser evil.” The greater threat was the left, including the Social Democrats and especially the Communists. Hindenburg had contempt for Hitler, much as many Republican leaders today initially despised and denounced Trump. But, in the end, they believed Hitler to be less of a threat than liberals and the left. He moderated his more outrageous fascist rhetoric and promised to operate within the constitution, reining in his Brown Shirt thugs.
Trump is also rebranding himself as the “lesser evil,” the only alternative to a continuation of the Obama betrayal of the United States. Trump is also pulling back from his proposals to deport all undocumented immigrants and ban all Muslims, while meeting with Republican leaders and offering conciliatory promises to behave presidentially as he pivots to the general election.
Second, Hindenburg and his conservative establishment counted on parliamentary politicians — from conservative and centrist parties — to rein in Hitler. They also saw Hitler as the “lesser evil” and believed that parliamentary rules would help them control him, even as some wavered in their confidence in the face of Hitler’s genocidal racist rhetoric and unpredictability. Many like Franz von Papen, a conservative party leader working closely with Hindenburg, believed he could outmaneuver Hitler and eventually replace him, as Hitler promised repeatedly to work within the parliamentary framework.
So, too, Republican congressional leaders and party members in the United States have convinced themselves that they can make deals with Trump, and keep him in the fold as he faces the realities of constitutional divided power. He knows the art of the deal and so do they.
The time for progressives to act is now, before another elite-orchestrated transition to a new authoritarian leader.
Third, Hindenburg and his colleagues underestimated the anger of the public at the political classes and the system itself. And they also underestimated Hitler’s charisma, mastery of the media and skill in speaking to the mainly rural “red state” Germans. Hitler gave voice to their humiliation about the collapse of the German nation and promised to eliminate those to blame. He would make Germany great again by restoring Germany to the Germans. Hitler’s message galvanized a growing percentage of the population as economic conditions worsened and as Hitler dominated the mass media. As Hitler’s public acceptance grew, the establishment felt he was the one who would calm anger at the system and restore legitimacy.
This, too, sounds familiar, as Trump’s media mastery, charisma and growing public support makes conservative political and economic elites feel they have to deal with him. He is becoming their best chance of tamping down the prospect of full-scale public challenge to their corporate system by their right-wing populist base, ironically a challenge more serious than any posed by Hillary Clinton, who embraces the corporate regime. In the end, he will carry out most of the establishment’s agenda while pacifying the pitchfork conservative populists.
Fourth, all the prior three factors grew out of the German conservative establishment’s belief in their own ability to control Hitler. Hindenburg regarded Hitler as the “little corporal” and felt that he was hardly capable of overthrowing the entire German military and national constitutional order. Establishment leaders believed that if Hitler gained popularity, it could tighten the military and parliamentary screws on him. They were sure that the public would ultimately choose their longstanding establishment over a bloviating upstart.
As the great majority of Republican leaders move to support Trump, the Republican and corporate establishment evince both the anxiety and uncertainty that Hindenburg began to feel, but also the ultimate confidence in their own invincibility. Nobody, not even an empowered Hitler, could truly imagine overthrowing the system that had made Germany one of the world’s greatest nations. US conservative elites share the same hubris.
Resisting Authoritarianism by Building Progressivism
The lessons are not reassuring, but the implications are clear.
In explosive moments — such as during the heated reaction to Trump’s overtly racist comments alleging that Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the US citizen of Mexican descent presiding over the Trump University case, is biased against Trump due to his racial heritage — Republican Party members can get into a crisis-ridden cycle of “endorse” and “un-endorse.” Some fear they might lose control of Trump, and that his bullying temperament does not permit restraint. Their fear is not of racism itself but of the possibility that Trump’s uncensored form of it would expose the disguised dog-whistle racial politics that have long marked Republican politics.
But, as with Hitler, such moments tend to pass. On June 7, 2016, at the end of the primary season, Trump said he would restrain himself and no longer speak of Judge Curiel, appearing to respond to warnings by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders. Most Republican Party officials quickly began to swing back toward confidence in their control, reaffirming their support of Trump even while urging him to cool his rhetoric and stick to his teleprompters.
There remains the small possibility that the conservative establishment would lose confidence in Trump and plan a coup at the convention against him, much as there were efforts to get Hindenburg to stop or reverse the appointment of Hitler.
But this remains unlikely, and the time for progressives to act is now, before another elite-orchestrated transition to a new authoritarian leader. The German Social Democrats and Communists failed to unite and failed to deliver an alternative to rebuild the German economy and build faith in democracy. That would have taken bold progressive movements and policy to reach the angry and fearful public.
Hillary Clinton will not deliver a strong progressive agenda that could reverse the inequality and wage stagnation fueling right-wing populism, and Bernie Sanders, who might, will not be nominated. The only acceptable alternative is to ensure that a progressive anti-system agenda speaking not just to progressives but also to some of the white, working-class Trump base will become a unifying force among grassroots social movements. That would weaken Trump’s appeal, strengthen Sanders’ leverage in the country and the Democratic Party, and force Clinton to go further and further left if she wants to be elected. At this moment, Sanders beats Trump while Clinton runs just marginally ahead of Trump.
Millennials, people of color and women — as well as dispossessed and insecure workers — are the only force that can stop Trump. Clinton is unlikely to deliver millennials and workers en masse without Sanders’ help, backed by a strong social grassroots movement for systemic transformation. To mount a strong opposition against Trump, progressives would need to build a united front. This is most likely to happen if Clinton allows Sanders to rewrite the Democratic agenda — crafted by Sanders’ appointees to the Democratic Platform Committee, such as Cornel West and Bill McKibben — as the quid pro quo for his giving his support to her candidacy and bringing the populist Democratic base with him. Then, progressives would have a chance of mobilizing millennials through an all-out social movement mobilization framed not as an effort simply to stop Trump and elect Clinton, but as an attempt to build democratic socialism.
The parallels between Weimar Germany and the United States today go much further than discussed here, but they carry the same lesson. Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.