Historian Christopher R. Browning (who is professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) just published a provocative essay on the suffocation of democracy in the United States, drawing comparisons between current American politics and the politics of interwar Germany.
Browning explains that, “As a historian specializing in the Holocaust, Nazi Germany, and Europe in the era of the world wars, I have been repeatedly asked about the degree to which the current situation in the United States resembles the interwar period and the rise of fascism in Europe. I would note several troubling similarities and one important but equally troubling difference.”
The essay argues that President Trump administration’s policies of isolationism and the undermining of democratic institutions reflect patterns from interwar international relations, the waning of Weimar democracy, and the rise of National Socialism (Nazism) in Germany.
Interestingly, instead of comparing Adolf Hitler and President Trump, Browning draws a direct comparison between President Hindenburg and Mitch McConnell. Browning points out that “Paul von Hindenburg, elected president of Germany in 1925, was endowed by the Weimar Constitution with various emergency powers to defend German democracy should it be in dire peril. Instead of defending it, Hindenburg became its gravedigger, using these powers first to destroy democratic norms and then to ally with the Nazis to replace parliamentary government with authoritarian rule. Hindenburg began using his emergency powers in 1930, appointing a sequence of chancellors who ruled by decree rather than through parliamentary majorities, which had become increasingly impossible to obtain as a result of the Great Depression and the hyperpolarization of German politics.”
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Browning claims that “If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell. He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could. As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more. Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments.”
However, Browning finds that the current Republican authoritarianism in the United States is very different from early twentieth-century fascism in Italy and Germany in several ways. “The domestic agenda of Trump’s illiberal democracy falls considerably short of totalitarian dictatorship as exemplified by Mussolini and Hitler,” according to Browning.
Browning’s essay entitled “The Suffocation of Democracy” is published online in The New York Review of Books (and will appear in the 25 October 2018 print edition).