August 14, 2017


Weimar Germany and Donald Trump : How traditional and radical conservatives come to speak a common political language--that ultimately benefits the extremists (Eric D. Weitz, July 18, 2016, The Tablet)

Americans often say that the German people elected Hitler to power, but that is not accurate. The highest vote the Nazis received in a free election came six months before the seizure of power. In July 1932, the Nazis won 37 percent of the electorate. That represented a significant proportion of German voters, to be sure, but it was far from a majority. In a parliamentary system, as Germany was, 37 percent doesn't get you to power. In the next election in November 1932, their tally declined to 33 percent. In autumn 1932, it would have been reasonable to think that the Nazi wave had crested and that Hitler and the Nazi Party were on the decline. In fact, Hitler and his supporters feared as much. In the end, the conservative elite saved the Nazis from the political wilderness.

There was nothing inevitable or predetermined about the Nazi assumption of power. It was the result of a conscious political decision by traditional conservatives made in a time of crisis when Germany wallowed in depression and the political system lay paralyzed.

The conservative elite had its roots in the churches, Protestant and Catholic, and in the old tradition of state service in a monarchy and an authoritarian, lord-of-the-manor practice that they then carried over, helped along by the new industrial bourgeoisie, to Germany's highly productive industrial economy. These traditionalists hated the very idea of democracy, but they understood that there had to be limits to state power, and they shied away from rampant, excessive violence. They also understood that human beings are imperfect and prone to error and that the essential Nazi hubris was the belief in the perfectibility of the race.

Yet the traditionalists struck a deal with the Nazis on Jan. 30, 1933, one they reconfirmed many times during the 12 years of the Third Reich. The accommodation between traditional and radical conservatives began to take shape even before the end of World War I, before the Nazi party even existed. It was a bargain shaped by a shared political language.

Already in September 1918, two months before the signing of the armistice that ended the hostilities of World War I, 10 months before the proclamation of the Weimar constitution and the formal founding of the Republic, the infamous stab-in-the-back legend was underway. Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the two officers who led the Supreme Military Command and effectively ruled Germany dictatorially in the last two years of the war, shifted the blame for Germany's defeat away from the military (and themselves, of course). The army had remained upright and upstanding, the army had never been defeated in the field, so they claimed. Germany had been betrayed at home by socialists and the Jews; that was the only reason Germany had to sue for peace. [...]

Traditional conservatives were by and large genteel anti-Semites. In the Weimar period, they tended not to share the murderous tendencies of the Nazis (though that would change over the course of the Third Reich). But they didn't particularly like Jews, and they thought the Jewish presence in German public life overbearing and distasteful. Germany, in the common view of the Right, radical and conservative, faced an ├╝berfremdung, a flood of foreigners, Jews in particular, who exercised a degenerative influence on the German people and German society. The "Jewish spirit," the "Jewish threat to the national character," the "degenerative Jewish race," Jews as the embodiment of "finance capital" as opposed to productive German capital--all this marked the language that joined the traditional as well as the radical Right.

On the one side were Germans, supposedly rooted in place, exemplars of moral rectitude, intelligent and productive. Across the divide, beyond the pale, were Jews: lacking a state of their own, they were everywhere and nowhere, predators and exploiters who despoiled Aryans. The ultimate sin, which the Nazis propagated so effectively, was to associate Jews and communism, the rootless, cosmopolitan Jew with the place of the Soviet Union.

On all this the old conservative elite and the Nazis could easily agree, even though the Nazi solution to the problem would prove more far radical than anything the traditionalists had imagined.

Which brings us to the current right-wing populist surge all across Europe and the United States. Certainly, real grievances exist that have created support for the Right. As one report after another recounts, many communities have been hard hit by globalization. The factories rust away, the jobs available are low-level, low-paying service positions. Inequalities have risen everywhere, most obscenely in the United States. Even Germany has developed a two-tier labor market, one segment well-protected and well-paid, the other comprising temporary and part-time workers who have little access to the country's vaunted social welfare programs and high wages. In the United States, commentators have suddenly woken up to the fact that the elite in both parties is well-heeled, well-situated, and out of touch with the economic dislocation experienced by so many people.

And yet there exists the odd, uncomfortable fact that Western societies are notably well off, and many right-wing populists are by no means destitute. Even Denmark and Austria, each a paradise of comfort and well being, each harboring excellent school systems and extensive social welfare networks, have witnessed a right-wing surge. The much-touted report that the average Trump supporter earns $70,000 a year--not great, perhaps, but certainly not bad and significantly above the U.S. poverty level--marks further evidence that the discontent that feeds right-wing populism goes far beyond economics. In fact, economics is probably not the primary factor.

Instead, the right-wing sensibility in the Western world is largely cultural in nature. It is directed against those identified as foreigners, even when they are third-generation Germans, French, or Britons, whose families may have hailed from Turkey, Morocco, or Jamaica. Race is also a factor, but not exclusively so. Many of those deemed "foreign" are of darker hues than the native-born, but the Brexit vote was also directed against Poles, Lithuanians, and other Europeans who could travel and settle freely in Britain as citizens of other European Union countries. The surge in refugees coming to Europe in the past year and a half has certainly exacerbated the hostilities against foreigners, but the sentiment existed well beforehand.

Donald Trump and his European analogues express a deep contempt for foreigners, or those whom they deem to be foreigners. Sometimes the language is coded and comes across in polite terms. At other moments, it is virulent. The political language that they speak enables the creation of a broad-based right-wing populism. "Respectable" members of society in Poland, France, or the United States hear the coded language and nod their heads in approval, while those on the far right, prone to violence, respond affirmatively to the more virulent rhetoric.

Trump, like many other right-wing leaders, plays both sides of the rhetorical street (as Hitler did as well, and masterfully so). His comments about Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers, judges with Hispanic roots as biased, and Muslims as inherently dangerous display his open racism. He implies that only white men are upstanding citizens; only they can be objective and be trusted to implement the law. "America First," he rails, a seemingly reasonable slogan with which many people could agree. Trump seems blithely unaware of the tainted history of the term, which goes back to the isolationists, Nazi sympathizers, and anti-Semites of the 1930s and '40s. "Make America Great Again" is also code that plays well. Trump conjures up the 1950s, a wonderful decade for some in America, but certainly not for African-Americans, who remained subject to Jim Crow legislation and violence of the worst sort in the South as well as the North, nor for Hispanics, who suffered all kinds of discrimination.

In Europe right-wing populists advance a similar language. "Flood of Foreigners Means Genocide," runs one hyperbolic placard from the nationalist far-right political group PEGIDA, meaning, of course, the genocide of Germans. The name of the group is itself overheated and expressive of  its bedrock hostility to immigrants: PEGIDA stands for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamicization of the West. Closely associated with the group is the Identity movement, somewhat innocuous-sounding but situated on the radical fringe and demanding a state that promotes "German identity."

France's National Front evinces the same mix of polite, general slogans that many French men and women could support along with more bald-faced remarks openly hostile to immigrants, or, more accurately, those deemed immigrants even though many are second-, third-, and even fourth-generation citizens. "A national defense to protect France and defend the liberty of the nation," "Security, the first liberty," "For an effective justice," "[For] ecology [and] animal protection" are slogans drawn from the National Front program, and they could be espoused by almost any French political party. But the program also descends into more openly hostile and aggressive phrases, such as "Stop immigration, reinforce French identity."

Republicans in the United States continue to dance around Trump, many unable to decide whether their party should back such an obviously incapable, self-aggrandizing, and racist candidate for the presidency.

Posted by at August 14, 2017 1:28 PM