Welcome to the Weimar America


I now know how a few lonely liberals (in the old meaning of the word) must have felt in Germany, circa 1932.

Oh, don’t worry, I don’t believe that after November America will become some sort of Trump Reich or a socialist people’s republic. Contrary to what some of the more panicked and hysterical partisans on both sides believe, democracy and freedoms won’t come to an end, crushed by the advent of an ugly dictatorship. ildouche

Trump is no Hitler (or, as some wits have it, Il Douche) and Hillary is no radical; either would do stupid and harmful things to their country and the world while in office (maybe even very stupid and very harmful), but I firmly believe that the United States is strong enough to survive them, and thus luckier than the interwar Germany was.

But as Marx, who amongst all the failed prophecies had a few shrewd things to say, once claimed, “history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce”.

Welcome to the 2016 farce. And farce it is, but let’s all be thankful that it won’t be a tragedy.

I see three broad – if inevitably superficial – similarities between the pre-1933 Weimar Republic and today’s America:

Political polarisation – As William Butler Yeats wrote in the aftermath of World War One in his famous poem “The Second Coming”:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

The sensible centre – and the centre-right and the centre-left – seem to be in the doldrums. They have delivered a lot, but they have not delivered enough; rightly or wrongly the expectations have outstripped reality. So we see an increasing polarisation of the electorate between a sort of a national(istic) socialism and a sort of an international socialism. Neither variety is Marxian. Trump’s is protectionist and interventionist and anti-globalisation and anti-free trade. Ironically, it channels anger against similar targets as did German fascism – Jews, globalists, financiers, big capitalists and big socialists. Equally ironically, Hillary’s version bears a much closer resemblance to Trump’s caricature and to the fascists’ nightmare than to the 1930s old-style socialism and social democracy. The Democrat Party has become a party of plutocracy relying on the votes of the rabble; they are now the party of rootless cosmopolitans and ruthless money-makers paying sop to the working classes and substituting identity politics for social conscience. It is a battle, to borrow Hillary’s insulting terms, between “the deplorables” and (incorrectly attributed) “the losers”. Meanwhile, the middle drifts, over-taxed and disenfranchised.

Economic instability – what the Great Depression has done for Germany, the Great Recession is doing for the United States, as well as (in varying degrees) the rest of the Western world. While the going was good, everyone kept going; when the system stumbled, previously muted disillusionment and anger have bubbled to the surface. Eight years into an economic crisis that never really ended, we are mired in the Great Malaise. Capitalism of old seems discredited to many on the left, but also many of those who consider themselves right. There would not be Trump without the GFC. Hillary – and even more so a credible, undamaged Democrat candidate – would be much more formidable electorally without it too.

Cultural decadence – I’m not a social conservative strictly speaking, and certainly not a member of Religious Right, so I’ll leave it to others who are better qualified to bemoan the decline of public and private mores in our society. Journalist and historian Harrison Salisbury has once said of Berlin in the 1920s that “no place in the world was so creative and decadent, so despairing and exhilarating”. OK, so we’re actually getting a worse deal here than the Weimar republic: decadence without creativity and despair without exhilaration. Germans had Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, we have Kim Kardashian. The fact that the present days can hardly be seen as a golden age of the arts and not even a golden age of the popular culture, just adds to the perception of weakness and decline. We are drowning in trash, vulgarity and excess; no doubt, in part, a reflection of how we collectively feel.

As Otto Friedrich wrote, “Santayana was probably right in his much-quoted aphorism that those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it… It’s probably just as true that people who cannot forget the past are condemned to misunderstand it… And Hegel was probably just as accurate when he wrote that the only thing we learn from history is ‘that people and governments never have learned anything from history’.”

There is no Weimar America really, and that’s a good thing, and there won’t be Reich America either, and that’s an even better thing. The present will continue to confound and mock us in ever new and inventive ways. And in this instance at least we will beat on, boats against the current, borne forth ceaselessly into the future.