Niall Ferguson: 'Weimar America'? The Trump Show Is No Cabaret
Life is a cabaret, old chum,” sang Sally Bowles in the musical based on Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories.” I suspect the movie version of “Cabaret,” which won Liza Minnelli the Oscar for best actress, is the nearest older Americans ever got to the Weimar Republic.
Still, it’s not a bad place to start, if you want to talk Weimar and its relevance to Donald Trump’s America.
From the camp decadence of the Kit Kat Klub to the chilling rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” by the blond Hitler Youth in the beer garden, “Cabaret” provides the essentials: a diseased democracy, swept away by the irresistible temptations of ethnic nationalism, political violence and demagogy.
America’s founding fathers knew their ancient and modern history. They understood very well the tendency for republics to slide into tyranny — hence Benjamin Franklin’s supposed reply to the anxious lady who asked him which form of government the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had decided on: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Yet no example known to Franklin’s generation could match the Weimar Republic as a warning from history. That is why, within a few years of its collapse in 1933, Americans had adopted Weimar as their very own nightmare scenario.
Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel and play “It Can’t Happen Here” launched the genre we might call “Weimerica.” Inspired by his wife Dorothy Thompson’s experiences as a foreign correspondent in Germany, and her observation of the ambitious and charismatic Louisiana Senator Huey Long, Lewis imagined the sudden collapse of the New Deal and the advent, under the dictatorial leadership of the bombastic Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, of an American Third Reich.
Windrip’s ideology, devised with the assistance of his Goebbels-like press secretary, Lee Sarason, is “The Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Men.” They form “a nationwide league of Windrip marching-clubs, to be called the Minute Men,” with a uniform suggesting “the pioneer America of Cold Harbor and of the Indian fighters under Miles and Custer,” and a five-pointed star as their swastika. The Constitution is swept aside, the free market replaced by a corrupt corporatism, the free press stifled. Darkness descends.
Weimerica has recurred in dystopian fiction: in Stephen King’s “The Running Man” (1982), Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985), Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” (2004) and Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” (2008). In each case, although the focus is on life in a fascist America, there is a version of the Weimar back story, for without the degeneration of the republic, the rise of the dictatorship is inexplicable. (For some reason, the Weimar syndrome rarely claims dear old Canada, which provides a bolt-hole for the U.S. resistance.)
So when my old friend Andrew Sullivan urged us last month “to be frank” about recent developments in American politics and admit that it is all “very Weimar,” he was adding to an 85-year-old tradition.
“The center has collapsed,” Sullivan wrote. “Armed street gangs of far right and far left are at war on the streets. Tribalism is intensifying in every nook and cranny of the culture. The establishment right and mainstream left tolerate their respective extremes because they hate each other so much.”
It's not the first time Sullivan has made the Weimerica argument. Six months before the 2016 election, he warned that “our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy” was leading “the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump” — and from there to tyranny.
The problem with Weimerica is that we’ve imagined it too many times. Roger Cohen beat Sullivan to the punch with a New York Times column in December 2015. “Welcome to Weimar America,” wrote Cohen. “Welcome to an angry nation stung by two lost wars, its politics veering to the extremes, its mood vengeful, beset by decades of stagnant real wages for most people, tempted by a strongman who would keep all Muslims out and vows to restore American greatness.”
In March 2016, the historian Eric Weitz argued that the real lesson of Weimar was the danger that arises “when traditional or moderate conservatives throw in their lot with … anti-democratic, radical conservatives,” rendering them respectable — or, as the Germans would say, salonfaehig.
Note, however, that Weimerica is not an especially left-wing idea. Shortly after Trump’s election, Rod Dreher made the argument in the American Conservative that the pathologies the U.S. shares with Weimar were as much cultural as economic. It is more as a Catholic conservative than as a former Obama fanboy that Sullivan abhors Trump.
Nor is Weimerica an idea confined to American commentary. British and Russian scholars have drawn similar analogies. And it would not be difficult to find multiple examples of the same analogy in the journalism of the 1970s.
Yet no amount of repetition will erase the enormous differences between the U.S. today and Germany 90 years ago. Not many people are left who remember the original Weimar Republic, born in 1919 after the revolutionary ouster of Kaiser Wilhelm II and condemned to death 14 years later with Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. Last week, I asked one eminent American who was born in Germany in 1923 what he thought. It was a parallel that had crossed Henry Kissinger’s mind more than once in the turbulent times of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His view today: Americans are “nowhere near as alienated from their democratic system” as Germans in the 1920s.
As a certified Weimar scholar (it was the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation) I can think of at least seven reasons why that is right.
Let’s start with political violence. Yes, we have seen too much of that in the U.S. this year, most recently in Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin. And yet there is a huge difference between the chaotic scenes we have witnessed in those and other locations and the German street battles of the early 1930s.
As a high proportion of adult German men had served in World War I, the paramilitary forces such as the Nazi Sturmabteilung and the Communist Rotfrontkampferbund were not only uniformed and (up to a point) disciplined, they were also competent at violence in a way that today’s Antifa and Proud Boy types manifestly are not. In the early years of the Weimar Republic, so-called Freikorps of demobilized but not disarmed soldiers essentially carried on the war on the Eastern Front. The Organization Consul, a right-wing paramilitary, was responsible for more than 350 assassinations of democratic politicians, including Finance Minister Matthias Erzberger and Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau.
Second, historians of the left have tended to argue that Hitler did not seize power but was handed it by Germany’s fundamentally conservative elites, who never accepted the revolutionary transition to democracy that had happened in 1918–1919. It is certainly true that by the early 1930s, there was substantial support for the Nazis in the military, the senior civil service and the universities.
Today’s American elites are quite different. You will look in vain for strong pro-Trump sentiment in the American officer corps and indeed in the military more generally. To an extent that is baffling, Trump has repeatedly expressed his contempt for martial values in general and distinguished American veterans in particular. We knew this already from his sneering at John McCain in 2015, but the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg vividly reminded us of it last week.
In the annals of all history, never mind German history, it is hard to think of a would-be tyrant intent on overthrowing a republican constitution who referred to the fallen in past conflicts as “losers” and “suckers,” and reportedly asked a war hero’s father, a member of his own cabinet: “What was in it for them?”
But then, as Matt Taibbi pointed out last week, Trump isn’t a would-be tyrant. He’s a renegade snake-oil salesman who discovered that the shameless self-marketing techniques he’d developed in real estate and reality television could be deployed to devastating effect in politics.
And if you think the generals hate Trump, they’ve got nothing on professional civil servants, who in turn have got nothing on university professors. Fact: Hillary Clinton got 91% of the votes in the District of Columbia in 2016. The numbers of Harvard, Princeton and Yale faculty members who voted for Trump must have been in the single digits, which perhaps explains why the Princeton Election Consortium thought Clinton had a 93% chance of victory on the eve of the election. It really, really wasn’t like this in Germany in 1932.
Here’s a third reason. Yes, the U.S. economy has suffered three recessions in the past 20 years, with unemployment exceeding 10% in two of them. But inflation has been so low that the Federal Reserve can’t hit a 2% inflation target.
Compare and contrast: The Weimar Republic suffered one of the worst hyperinflation episodes in all of financial history in 1922–1923. It then suffered one of the worst deflation episodes between 1929 and 1933. Unemployment rose to 24% in early 1932 and remained above 20% into 1933. Having destroyed the currency with rampant deficit finance and money printing in the early 1920s, policymakers felt unable to offset the external shock of the Great Depression in the ways that U.S. governments have been able to mitigate the effects of the financial crisis after 2008 and the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
Reason four why I don’t believe we’re Weimerica: Unlike almost every other democracy in the world, the U.S. retains the two-party system that it imported from Britain. The history of party politics in the Weimar Republic was just the opposite. Thanks to a system of proportional representation, there were multiple parties from the outset, and their number only increased in the wake of the hyperinflation. A total of 41 parties contested the May 1928 federal election.
This fragmentation in the mid-1920s was then followed by a terrifying consolidation of support for explicitly antidemocratic parties: the Nazis and the Communists. In July 1932, the two together won more than half the popular vote. One key to the Nazis’ success was that they mopped up support from most of the splinter parties of 1928.
Fifth: The Weimar constitution was very novel. It had been drafted in the revolutionary confusion of 1919 and had a number of serious structural weaknesses, notably Article 48, which allowed the directly elected president of the republic to rule by decree in an emergency, bypassing the parliament, or Reichstag. Say what you like about American politics, the Constitution of 1787 has stood the test of time and its defining feature remains the limits it places on the executive branch.
The sixth and perhaps most important difference between Weimar and the U.S. today lies in the international circumstances. The Weimar Republic came into existence because Germany lost World War I and the victorious Allies refused to negotiate with representatives of the old imperial regime, intent as they were on blaming the war on the kaiser and his ministers. That notion of “war guilt” was the basis of the vast reparations debt envisaged in the Treaty of Versailles and determined in the London Ultimatum of 1921. The legitimacy of all three elements of the new order — defeat, republic and reparations — was simply never accepted by a significant proportion of the German population.
By comparison, the U.S. today faces nothing more than the normal headaches of being the world’s biggest economy and dominant geopolitical power. As in the 1930s, many Americans dislike having to contend with problems in faraway places of which they know little. In their different ways, both Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, offered a retreat from the quasi-imperial ambitions of the neoconservatives in the administration of President George W. Bush. But the rise of China has made a retreat into isolationism less and less likely, even if that is Trump’s basic instinct.
Which brings us back, last but not least, to Trump, whose worldview and political style are so much closer to vintage American nativism and populism that I have the utmost difficulty understanding why any educated person would liken him to Hitler. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You don’t need the Weimar Republic to explain the appeal to many American voters of immigration restriction, tariffs and a culture war directed against a “globalist” elite — not to mention the loosest monetary policy in American history. That recipe is the essence of American populism. It has almost nothing in common with interwar German fascism, which was about racial persecution and ultimately annihilation, economic autarky and actual war (hence all the uniforms and jackboots).
That is not to say that we have nothing at all to learn from the Germany of a century ago. Among the authors of the Weimar constitution was Max Weber, the great sociologist. (He was one of those who favored a powerful presidency, perhaps imperfectly understanding the American system.) I have been thinking a lot this year about Weber’s vision of modernity — of a world “demystified” by the advance of science, of an economy liberated from the “cage” of the Protestant ethic, of business and government run on the “rational-legal” basis of bureaucracy, of academic life as a “vocation” that should be divorced from politics. The constitution Weber helped draft did not last long. His vision of modernity, by contrast, was largely fulfilled in much of the world in the course of the 20th century.
Increasingly, I think, we are leaving that Weberian modernity behind. In the new post-Weber world, magical thinking is eroding the supremacy of science, a version of the Protestant ethic of work and thrift has been reincarnated in East Asia, corporate and bureaucratic governance is yielding to charismatic leadership (think Elon Musk as much as Donald Trump), and academia is being politicized to death. But these are global trends. They have little, if anything, to do with Weimar.
Godwin’s Law (formulated by Mike Godwin in 1990) states that “as an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1.” In one of our vitriolic debates during the financial crisis — it was in Seoul in 2010 — Paul Krugman proposed “a macroeconomic version of Godwin’s Law: the first person to bring up the Weimar hyperinflation is considered to have lost the debate.” This did not prevent him, five years later, from bringing up the Weimar deflation of 1930-1932 to trample on arguments for austerity in Greece.
Krugman should have stuck to his own rule. Just as the eurozone crisis did not drive Greek democracy over the brink — on the contrary, Greece now has one of the best center-right governments in Europe — so, too, America seems likely to survive its latest brush with the Weimar analogy. Life, it turns out, isn’t always “Cabaret.” Whether the world as a whole can survive this new, post-Weberian era is another question.
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