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Preventing 2017 America from becoming like 1934 Germany: A watchlist

January 15th, 2017, 7:30am by Sam Wang


In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has an excellent piece pointing out the true threats to U.S. democracy, which transcend partisan concerns. As patriotic Americans, can we recognize these threats, separately from policy outcomes we like or dislike? What bright-line events would be difficult to remedy by sitting passively until the next election?

He advises that policy concerns are simply normal politics:

Many programs and policies with which progressive-minded people passionately disagree will be put forward over the next few years. However much or strongly one opposes them, they are, like it or not, the actual agreed-on platform of a dominant national party….One may oppose these things—and one should, passionately and permanently—but they are in no sense illegitimate….They are also reversible by the same laws and rules and norms and judicial and, perhaps most of all, electoral processes that created them. If we want gun control, we need to get more people caring about it and more people in more places voting for it; we cannot complain because people who don’t want gun control don’t give it to us.

But, he continues, threats to American institutions are more serious.

Assaults on free speech; the imprisoning of critics and dissidents; attempts, on the Russian model, likely to begin soon, to intimidate critics of the regime with fake charges and conjured-up allegations; the intimidation and intolerance of even mild dissidence (that “Apologize!” tweet directed at members of the “Hamilton” cast who dared to politely petition Mike Pence); not to mention mass deportations or attempts at discrimination by religion—all things that the Trump and his cohorts have openly contemplated or even promised—are not part of the normal oscillations of power and policy. They are unprecedented and, history tells us, likely to be almost impossible to reverse.

These possibilities are reminiscent of my previous note, What Actions Are Shared To All Fascist Movements? And this discussion would not be complete without a reference to Stephen Walt’s essay in Foreign Policy, “10 Ways to Tell if Your President is a Dictator.”

I’ve been wondering what would be likely, bright-line indicators that institutions are collapsing. The depredations will be hard to keep up with, but it might be good to have a checklist before the inauguration.

  1. Taking sides with a foreign power against domestic opposition (this already happened, but is worth a re-mention).
  2. Detention of journalists.
  3. Loss of press access to the White House.
  4. Made-up charges against those who disagree with the government.
  5. Use of governmental power to target individual citizens for retribution.
  6. Use of a terrorist incident or an international incident to take away civil liberties.
  7. Persecution of an ethnic or religious minority, either by the Administration or its supporters.
  8. Removal of civil service employees for insufficient loyalty or membership in a suspect group (e.g. LGBT, Muslim, and other groups).
  9. Use of the Presidency to incite popular violence against individuals or organizations.
  10. Defying the orders of courts, including the Supreme Court.

Some are listed by Gopnik. Can you think of more?

Of course, it is certainly possible that very few of these events will come to pass. That would be by far the best outcome. After all, Trump is a historically unpopular President-elect – the least popular in the history of modern polling. That could hold him back. And I would be delighted if none of these events came to pass.

However, it seems wise now to lay out a worst-case scenario, and be ready for it. As Gopnik says, it is time for the political left and right to make common cause:

So we need to stiffen our spines and broaden our embrace, grasp tightly but reach out far. The conservatives who see Trump for what he is and are shocked by it—and there are many, though not as many as there should be—should be welcomed….The best way to be sure that 2017 is not 1934 is to act as though it were. We must learn and relearn that age’s necessary lessons: that meek submission is the most short-sighted of policies; that waiting for the other, more vulnerable group to protest first will only increase the isolation of us all. We must refuse to think that if we play nice and don’t make trouble, our group won’t be harmed. Calm but consistent opposition shared by a broad front of committed and constitutionally-minded protesters—it’s easy to say, fiendishly hard to do, and necessary to accomplish if we are to save the beautiful music of American democracy.”

The right sidebar contains useful links that may help you in this regard.

Tags: President · U.S. Institutions

17 Comments so far ↓

  • Jakob Boman

    It is a scary list… However, you have one major advantage over Germany 1934, all your institutions are older and more rooted than what was the case in Germany. I hope and pray that your system is strong enough to withstand Trump…

  • Some Body

    I live in Israel, a country where we’ve marked almost every item on the checklist (perhaps even all of them, without the “almost”), and we’re still being hyped as a democracy in good standing, for some reason. The strategies listed have been tried, and failed miserably, even made things worse. The US does have some advantages Israel never enjoyed (e.g., younger generation trending liberal, not nationalist; no major ethnic conflict to turn people against one another; the state does not identify as inherently privileging one ethnic group over others), but still, the more elites (or, more precisely, perceived elites) protest and scream about democratic principles, the easier it is to dismiss these protests and rally masses around the regime.

  • Emigre

    I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Wang that is prudent “to lay out a worst-case scenario, and be ready for it”. So what can we learn from the history of Hitler and the Weimar Republic in 1933 that enables us to spot impending trouble for our democracy? The previously cited articles by Paxton already (http://election.princeton.edu/2016/12/21/what-actions-are-shared-to-all-fascist-movements) established the boundaries. However, if one looks at specifics then it appears that the current situation here is quite distinct from 1933.
    Eric Weitz, writing on Bill Moyer’s site opines ”Yes, Weimar Germany ended badly, horribly so. But the America of today bears little similarity to Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s. America is a society ripped through by gaping inequalities, but it is hardly in a state of economic collapse. … But the conservatives had made Hitler and the Nazis salonfähig, as one says in German. Colloquially in English, that means “acceptable in polite society.” That is the real lesson from Weimar Germany and the real danger – when traditional or moderate conservatives throw in their lot with radical conservatives. …. In America today, the major threats do not come from abroad. They lie within, from those who claim to believe in democracy yet undermine its substance by deploying great wealth in the political process and devaluing the diversity of American society. And the danger comes especially from those who perhaps should know better, but make anti-democratic, radical conservatives salonfähig. That is the real lesson to be taken from Weimar Germany”. http://billmoyers.com/story/weimar-america/

    My addition to the checklist:
    Tell-tale Sign #1: Will Trump be allowed to use emergency powers?
    What helped to turn the tide in 1933 was Article 48 of the constitution of the Weimar Republic because it allowed the President to take emergency measures without prior consent of Parliament (Reichstag). Although the US Constitution does not expressly grant the President additional powers in times of national emergency some have used them: Abraham Lincoln and F.D. Roosevelt did, and Harry Truman tried but failed: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/emergency_powers

    Tell-tale Sign #2: What role will the FBI play under Trump?
    Ever since Edgar Hoover, according to President Harry S. Truman, transformed the FBI into his private secret police force, this agency’s loyalty to democratic principles has been questioned. Truman stated: “we want no Gestapo or secret police. The FBI is tending in that direction”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._Edgar_Hoover.

    50 years later Senator Bob Graham had this to say about the 9/11 Congressional Investigation report: “The Saudi government without question was supporting the hijackers who lived in San Diego… The agencies from CIA and FBI have suppressed that information, so American people don’t have the facts.” http://www.ibtimes.com/911-link-saudi-arabia-topic-28-redacted-pages-government-report-congressmen-push-release-1501202

    Now we have the Comey affair and the additional question put forth by Paul Krugman: “Did the Trump campaign actively coordinate with a foreign power? Did a cabal within the F.B.I. deliberately slow-walk investigations into that possibility?” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/16/opinion/with-all-due-disrespect.html

  • ArcticStones

    And I think it unlikely that the US Mint & Treasury will ever issue this Black Lady Liberty gold coin – or the other planned coins in the series featuring Asian, Hispanic or Native American Lady Liberties.

    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38622886

  • ArcticStones

    I have a suggested addition to the list:

    The use of NGOs (sic) to carry out extra-judicial intimidation and reprisals against Trump’s perceived opponents.

    By NGOs here, I mean:

    1) the alt-Reich organizations that have reared their screaming heads since Trump first launched his campaign, and…

    2) Trump’s 20 million (!) Twitter followers, many or whom are just waiting for their march orders.

    In other words, the Trump Administration need not have its fingerprints on the most heinous actions. These will be unofficial and “unsanctioned”.

  • Kevin G

    I would add:

    1) Attempting to purge career employees in law enforcement and intelligence agencies (like the FBI, CIA, career Justice Dept employees, etc.) of people perceived to not be sufficiently loyal to Trump

    2) Attempting to purge career civil service employees who have beliefs contrary to Trump/Pence’s agenda (re: climate change, environmental protect v. exploitation, LGBT rights, etc.)

    3) Attempting to purge the government of “undesirables” (Muslims, LGBTs, “socialists,” etc.)

  • Stuart Levine

    Wikipedia has a good definition for demagogue. While a demagogue is somewhat different from a despot, there is a good deal of overlap. Look here for “Methods of Demagogues.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demagogue#Methods_of_demagogues

  • Janet

    Thanks for continuing the conversation on what markers to look for in regards to Trump, etc. My mother was raised in Nazi Germany, so seeing this shift in our democratic norms is something that is scary.

    Things I believe to also look for:

    Use of bully pulpit to target individuals, companies, institutions. separate it from the “government” since its only something President has use of.

    Use of press and social media, like Fox, Infowars, Breitbart to promote a false narrative (as we experienced in election and now). Hitler was very skilled at creating a propaganda engine and limiting Germans to one propagandized radio station/news.

    Use of rallies (like Hitler’s) to incite violence and spread of false information. Hitler was very skilled at attracting the uneducated and young to do his will. The rallies seem to consciously emulate this strategy.

    Use of a “youth corps” to manipulate youth and spy on parents. This was very powerful tool of Hitler’s to ensure identification of potential traitors.

    Continued discrediting of institutions like IC, press, etc. so as to pass legislation restricting their activities, reorganizing (like IC), penalizing unfairly.

    Legislative changes that expand executive powers.

  • James Scaminaci III

    I would add another. Right now, there are brave advertisers that use adverts with mixed-religion characters and mixed-race characters. When you see those types of advertising reducing in number or disappearing, you will sense a change in the corporate zeitgeist as they accommodate Trump.

    I would add more specifically, violence against religious or racial minorities that is not investigated by the federal government.

    I would add the national media not standing together to protect the First Amendment.

    I would add Trump or his White House spokesman giving preference to fringe media at press conferences, thus elevating them.

    I would add the “rally around the flag” when other countries isolate us because of Trump’s policies or pronouncements.

  • LondonYoung

    I would watch for the exclusion of honestly elected officials from participating in government.
    Hitler started in 1933 by excluding the communists and thus gaining voting control in the Reichstag.

    Imagine if an attempt had been made to confirm Merrick Garland by refusing to seat 1/3 of the senate. What would that invite next as retribution?

    • Jack

      This was just been done in North Carolina, by the Republican legislature removing powers from the newly elected Democratic governor. It was done by the Michigan Republican governor, by appointing Republican “emergency managers” and removing all powers of local elected officials.

    • LondonYoung

      The North Carolina stuff does look pretty bad.

      The Michigan stuff is just their municipal bankruptcy process – but it brings up an excellent point:
      States like Illinois and New Jersey are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy – what will the Feds do when New Jersey can’t pay its police? A key part of Hitler’s rise to power was repudiating Germany’s WW1 debts …

  • Greg Hullender

    Two more that I’m watching for are:

    1) Replacing the upper ranks of the military (who serve at the president’s pleasure) with men personally loyal to Trump.

    2) Defying the orders of courts, even the Supreme Court.

  • azlib

    I am not optimistic. The Right has been trending towards authoritarianism for some time now. The general silence over Trump’s outrageous actions is telling. Trump has already cutting off media access and threats against the Intelligence Community are also telling. Jason Chaffetz’s threats against Federal Ethics investigators amount to another partisan bullying incident. And certainly Comey and the FBI’s actions during the campaign are another data point.

    I am heartened that the Senate Intelligence Committee appears to be taking action to investigate Russia’s interference and the FBI’s role in the campaign. We will see how the Trump administration responds. That will be a big tell.

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