The United States is nearing a crossroads that has already been traversed by Germany. The defeat of Germany in World War I led to the creation of the Weimar Republic from 1918-1933 until the Nazis seized power and shut down the functioning of a democratic republic. Historians generally agree there was no one cause for the decline and fall of the Weimar Republic before the Nazi horror. But they generally agree that several key factors existed that seem eerily familiar in light of the attack on the U.S. Capitol in the heart of the federal government.
The economic dislocation of the Great Recession is similar to the economic and social dislocation caused by the Great Depression of 1929 in Germany. Though certainly not as significant as the Great Depression, the economic recession of 2007-2009 led to the radicalizing social and economic discontents of “Occupy Wall Street” and the Tea Party. This is compounded by one additional wild card against us that the Weimar Republic didn’t face: COVID-19. The long-term economic inequality caused by the Great Recession is still not clear, but it will be significant. This economic and social disruption is the soil in which authoritarianism grows best.
A common adage of historians is that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The myth that Germans didn’t lose World War I but were “stabbed in the back” by Jews and Social Democrats rhymes with the conspiracy theory that Trump was robbed of the election. Somebody else had to be responsible – whether Democrats, undocumented immigrants, George Soros, etc. The leader, whoever it is, could never lose. That is an article of quasi-religious faith for a true believer: Somebody else must be blamed for a loss. The leader may be honest in believing this self-delusion or become so when they see no significant opposition. During the era of Italian Fascism, there was a slogan that literally said that Mussolini is always right.
Following the attack on the Capitol last week, the cowardice and short-sighted craftiness of so many of our politicians is analogous to the behavior of Weimar politicians whom Hitler held in contempt. It is hard for me to accept that the public spirit of earlier generations – the generation that faced down the peril of Gen MacArthur and the communist witch hunt of Senator Joe McCarthy – is so sparse nowadays. But there it is for all to see on our TV screens.
At any time before the Weimar Republic fell, Germany’s conservative politicians and their liberal colleagues could have put the country above party in uniting to slap the upstart Nazis down. They had a common interest. Hitler was neither a conservative nor a right-wing politician. He was a radical demagogue ready to destroy both sides to satisfy his delusional destiny. Had Weimar politicians acted more like statesmen, they could have avoided the slow slid into the abyss.
In light of this history, a bipartisan Congress should censure the president for his instigation of the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The Senate censured Senator Joe McCarthy for his unseemly attacks on colleagues and his brazenly fabricated charges of possessing a list of card-carrying Communists. True, a censure is the least that can be done, but the country is too politically divided to agree on any other path.
The 25th Amendment never contemplated the kind of problem we have. Impeachment would come too late for a Senate certain not to render a judgment of conviction. The best we can hope for in this less-than-courageous generation of professional politicians is a censure. In a well-functioning democratic republic, social ostracism by a united nation would follow censure, and be enough of a reprimand and warning. But admittedly, such a prior social cohesion no longer exists. Our democratic republic is not functioning well, and there may not be enough moral outrage for even a slap on the wrist.
But something must be done to signal to others – whether extremist rightists or extremist leftists– that enough is enough. An attack on the heart of our democratic republic is not acceptable and should be rewarded with swift imprisonment of the insurrectionists and public censure of those who instigate it. The question is not whether Trump technically committed a criminal offense in giving a Mark Antony-style speech that shrewdly incited but did not directly order an attack on the Capitol.
Has the country shrunk so low that it demands criminal culpability before a president can be censured? In the past, conduct unbecoming of a president warranted impeachment and resignations. If our politicians cannot even agree on the minimal act of a censure then we must rely on the adage sometimes attributed to the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck: “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.” Our only hope then is that God will not desert us in our folly.
Don’t say a version of Weimar couldn’t happen here. It could.
Michael J. Polelle
Michael J. Polelle is an emeritus professor of law from the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law. He was a Fulbright scholar in Germany from 1959-1960. He is also the author of two novels, The Mithras Conspiracy (2019) and American Conspiracy (2021). His pen name is M.J. Polelle and his website is www.mjpolelle.com