Leslee Kulba- Over the last four years, strange things have happened in America’s political scene.
Lifelong Democrats have joined the Trump Train while lifelong Republicans quit the party, “because they hate his hair,” Rush Limbaugh will say. More alarmingly, as people leave the parties they joined, whether by birth or by study, they quickly adapt the values of their new homes.
Never-Trumper conservatives can now be seen supporting abortion as better than four more years of the parallels they see to Nazism. The left says Trump wants a totalitarian regime, and they’re ready to march. Surely, there are a million options better than the totalitarianism feared by the left and the civil war feared by the right.
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, so Antifa can’t be criticized too harshly for threatening to march for human rights. Second-guessing the survival instinct, it could be asked how marching turned out for other groups in history, and what other ideas might bring a better outcome.
Then, third-guessing it, one could quote historian AJP Taylor’s, “The only lesson of history is that there are no lessons of history.” History is a game of mastermind, with all kinds of opponents trying to outmaneuver each other; but the skill level of each person, and the level to which they’re inclined to engage it for which purposes, is always a mystery. It is not atypical for the underdog party to scream about rights while those in power suddenly realize rights are overrated.
Already, we’ve seen a decline in individual rights in this country, with government snooping being a major category of the offenses. More and more restrictions are placed on where members of the press may go, the Little Sisters of the Poor had to sue to keep their faith and not support abortions by funding them, statesmen walk on eggshells lest they utter the latest word that has been turned into a dog whistle by enterprising civil liberties lawyers, etc.
Government has also blobbed over the sides of its assigned role of protecting rights into governing aesthetics, providing for more than the general welfare, and taking on so many roles formerly handled by the for-profit, private sector, it has had to “privatize” general government services by contracting out for things like the storage and retrieval of all the data it’s collecting on law-abiding citizens.
As Cullen Murphy points out in Are We Rome?, which was written during the Bush 43 administration, Rome fell long before the 476 AD date typically memorized in history classes. It just took a while to run the ship into the ground. The “glorious” empire, in a sense, was a zombie of the noble republic. Wrote Cullen, “Empires destroy liberty – always have, always will.”
Cullen argues that among the hundreds of reasons given for the fall of Rome over the years, “maintaining a distinction between public and private responsibilities – and between public and private resources” ranked high. Another reason was government getting itself involved in so many things around the world, each with their own feedback loops.
Libertarian pundits have been saying for decades that the country is already a welfare state, so it’s not honest to talk about the Constitutional Republic as limited government protecting the rights of its citizens.
Then again, Cullen also admits, “Any argument can be taken too far.”
Returning to the question of what are we doing now to prevent totalitarianism, from either the right or the left, from clutching what’s left of America with its evil grip, last year, Benjamin Carter Hett published The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic, and it could almost be titled, Are We Nazi Germany? The parallels Hett draws look almost as if he is reading today’s papers and looking for parallels in the fall of the Weimar Republic.
The purpose of the book was not to relitigate the atrocities of a madman, but to probe in a modern light how on earth a democracy, in the general sense, would allow an authoritarian to rise to power. Before proceeding, it is important to reiterate citizens on the left and the right feel the other party is trampling what they consider to be their rights. The left denies the right the traditional right of conscience, to not bake the cake, to preach all verses from the Bible, to bear arms to protect against authoritarian regimes; and the right denies the left postmodern rights like subsidized abortions, government housing, and free healthcare.
And that sets the stage in Berlin following World War I. Berlin was progressive, liberal and libertine. Communism was seeping over from Russia. It was, wrote Wilhelm Stapel, the “cesspool of the Republic.” There were concerns in the rural parts of the country, or among most of the population, that the German way of life was being up-ended. So, in one sense, the cultural ecosystem was ripe, in tension, and looking to government to restore things to the way they were.
Then, there was the political angle. Hett points out that politicians will always be politicians. They say what they have to to get votes. They triangulate into the big issues not addressed by the other candidates and stir up issues if they have to. The Weimar Republic had its problems and its politics. Hett argues democracy will always have its ugly underbelly of, “the necessary deal-making, favors, compromises.” Thus, “defenders of the Republic often seemed like little more than defenders of a corrupt system;” and Hitler came across to the masses as an apolitical leader.
Then again, Hitler was not a self-made man. He was supported by the establishment. This is not to say those in power wanted Hitler to rise to the top; instead, like puppeteers, they used his ambition and charisma to forge new coalitions, to get more votes, to further the conservative agenda.
Sometimes, he was used as a tool, engaged for revenge or other spiteful purposes, and sometimes the best-laid machinations totally backfired. Through it all, these leaders were often less interested in the welfare of their countrymen than they were in creating a political climate to throw the levers of power their way, even if it meant subjecting the whole country to hyperinflation.
General Kurt von Schleicher was one actor who received a lot of spotlight from Hett. Working behind the scenes, Schleicher was a kingmaker, exercising all the powers conspiracy theories have ascribed to Karl Rove or Valerie Jarrett. Schleicher was a political strategist, whose arts in the consolidation of power for conservative interests included the formation of coalitions.
This, in turn, might include predicting public response to changes in legislation, like the lifting of the SA (stormtrooper) ban, and plotting how to frame and funnel any unrest for political gain. And, for all his cold calculations, Schleicher, Hett believes, let pride, vengeance, and other emotions stand in the way of stopping Hitler.
Another important actor was Hitler’s propagandist Joseph Goebbels. When, at first, people didn’t take Nazism seriously, because Hitler was a firecracker sure to spin himself out of control in short order, Goebbels said any publicity is good publicity. An early technique was to start tavern brawls and blame them on the Communists. “This propaganda often scaled the heights of absurdity – but it also worked,” wrote Hett.
Then, once Hitler did get the chancellorship, he turned more authoritarian than expected. The Reichstag fire, which Hett believes was started by Hitler’s cronies and used as a false flag against the Communists, was in short order used to justify giving government emergency powers.
The Reichstag Fire Decree, “suspended the civil liberties contained in the German constitution, legalizing the imprisonment without trial of anyone the regime deemed a political threat and effectively abolishing freedom of speech, assembly, and association, confidentiality of the post and telegraphic communications, and security from warrantless searches.’ It also gave the government to replace any federal administration.
As in the United States today, Germans had a sense that the rule of law was breaking down. The law is only as good as the people are willing to uphold it. Hess noted, “It did not occur to [any] framer of the Weimar Constitution that an opponent of democracy could be elected to the presidency and might then try to subvert the system. Still less did anyone imagine that parties hostile to the democratic system would form a majority of the Reichstag.”
Another challenge to holding politicians’ feet to the fire is their notorious penchant for lying. “Adolf Hitler lied all the time,” wrote Hett, and he quoted glowing explanations by contemporary writers trying to get a grip on how he got away with so much balderdash.
Among them was Hitler’s own explanation of why his big lies were so credible, and it reads like nonsense. Part of it has to do with people accepting that most of us do lie from time to time, and another part has to do with people not believing somebody could get away with as many colossal whoppers as Hitler did in the days before news outlets employed real-time fact checkers.
Hitler, reportedly, discovered from an early age that he had a “gift for “whipping an audience into a frenzy with a display of his own intensely-felt anger.” Wrote Hett, “He convinced thousands who heard him speak that he, and only he, offered a path to salvation, not because he was logically persuasive, but because of the intense conviction with which he offered simple solutions to bewildering problems.” And, if people weren’t going to fall for the lies, Hitler had a bulldozer personality that wasn’t going to suffer resistance.