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Historian Wonders: Is Joe Biden “a Speed Bump on the Fascists’ March to Power”?

Historian Benjamin Carter Hett on Jan. 6 as Trump’s Beer Hall Putsch — and how to reclaim democracy from fascists

By CHAUNCEY DEVEGA, Salon, MAY 26, 2021
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On Jan. 6, Donald Trump’s Big Lie about a stolen election turned kinetic, and inspired an attempted coup against American democracy. At the very least, Republicans aided and abetted Trump’s coup attempt and the attack on the U.S. Capitol, and some of them are likely co-conspirators in his plot. They have pledged to prevent an independent investigation into the events of Jan. 6, and are continuing their assault on democracy by imposing a new form of Jim Crow-style apartheid across the county. Their goal: winning and keeping power by preventing Black and brown people and other key Democratic constituencies from exercising their right to vote.As part of their commitment to overthrowing America’s multiracial democracy, the Jim Crow Republicans continue to amplify and weaponize Trump’s Big Lie. Public opinion polls and other research have repeatedly shown that this disinformation propaganda strategy is highly effective. Trump’s cult members remain in thrall to their Great Leader and eagerly await his return by any means necessary, legal or otherwise.The past is not always a perfect prologue. But when the past echoes so loudly in the present one would be wise not to ignore it. History’s bell is ringing loudly in the Age of Trump in America.In a recent essay for the Los Angeles Times, historian Benjamin Carter Hett explored the frightening resonances between Adolf Hitler’s attempted coup in Germany in 1923 (what has come to be known as the “Beer Hall Putsch”) and Trump and his followers’ coup attempt this past January:

Hitler learned his lesson: A sophisticated modern state could not be overturned by a violent coup led by outsiders, against the police and the army. He realized he would have to work within the system.

Over the following decade, this is exactly what he did. The Nazis ran in elections until they were the largest party in Germany’s parliament, gridlocking legislative business. Even more insidiously, the Nazis worked to infiltrate crucial institutions like the police and the army. In 1931, Berlin police responded incredibly sluggishly to a massive Nazi riot in the center of the city. It turned out senior police officials silently sympathized with the Nazis and had colluded in hobbling the police response.

Hitler grew steadily more attractive to business and military leaders who saw him and his movement as their only salvation from the growing Communist Party. Early in 1933 they opened the doors of power to him. …

After the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, 139 Republican members of the House and eight members of the Senate, led by Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, came out of hiding to vote to object to the electoral college vote count. While a police officer lay dying, they supported Trump’s lie of a stolen election and embraced the insurrectionists’ cause.

Hett then engages in a particularly disturbing what-if scenario, one that has troubled many people familiar with the patterns of history:

Imagine the events of the past weeks and months if someone like Hawley had been the secretary of state in Georgia, or someone like retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn held a significant military command. Imagine what would have happened if the Republicans held majorities in both houses of Congress and could have overturned the electoral college results. Imagine if the courts had been more generously stocked with judges willing to entertain the Trump campaign’s ludicrous arguments.

Above all, imagine if the president had been a bit more competent, a bit more strategic, a bit more daring. Hitler, after all, was at least willing to be present at the violence his words inspired. He was also more persuasive in his dealings with important officials.

Ultimately, Trump’s coup attempt and the attack on the Capitol were little more than a trial run. With the Republican Party’s rejection of democracy, the events of Jan. 6 will not seem like an outlier or aberration for long. Instead, they offer a preview of how today’s Republican Party will respond when and if it loses future elections.

I recently spoke with Hett about the events of Jan. 6 and his concerns about the health of American democracy in the aftermath of that day. He is a professor of history at Hunter College and the City University of New York and the author of several books, including “Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation Into the Third Reich’s Enduring Mystery” and “The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic.” His newest book is “The Nazi Menace: Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, and the Road to War.”

In this conversation, Hett warns that American democracy is in crisis and that the Republican anti-democracy strategy is more dangerous to the future of the country than the singular events of Jan. 6. He also explores the similarities between Hitler’s use of the Big Lie and the way Donald Trump and his followers are deploying it today.

At the end of this conversation, Hett discusses the ways Joe Biden’s attempts to move the country past the horrors of the Age of Trump resemble German leaders’ efforts to reinvigorate democracy after World War II and deal with the Nazis still in their midst.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How are you making sense of America’s national amnesia and this deep desire to forget and move along from the events of Trump’s coup attempt and the attack on the U.S. Capitol?

It is terrifying. Perhaps only half of Americans want to forget what happened that day and to brush it away — but it’s a politically relevant half. I’m more worried about American politics now than I was several years ago. Even though Trump is no longer president, he has done great damage to the country. His legacy has been so damaging. Jan. 6 crystallizes it.

The Republicans have become thoroughly imbued by this spirit of denying obvious facts, believing in total fantasies and explicitly abandoning democracy if the results are not what they like. We are seeing this on the state level, where Republicans are putting in place laws that limit access to voting and even going so far as to give state legislatures ultimate authority over the vote. Who knows what is going to happen with the midterms next year? The outlook is not particularly good. This is a perilous time.

As a historian of modern Germany, what did you see when you watched the events of Jan. 6?

Jan. 6 looked like Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch. There are a number of similarities, both in the kinds of people who were involved, in the way it was organized, and how Trump’s followers who were attempting the coup are networked to some quite powerful people.

Another similarity between the events of Jan. 6 and Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, at least in the short-term, was failure. Hitler’s 1923 coup was just not going to succeed, because a modern state is a sophisticated and deeply entrenched entity. To overturn it, you must do it from the inside. Hitler’s forces were mostly outside the system. They did have some connections to powerful people on the inside, but not enough. You were not going to overturn the Berlin government from a Munich beer hall.

With the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, even if it had turned out even worse than what did occur, and had killed a lot more people, that in and of itself would not overturn American democracy. The troubling thing to me is what happens going forward, because now one of the country’s two main political parties, the Republicans, is pretty much openly against democracy. The Republicans have a great amount of institutional power. In a year and a half or so they may have control of both houses of Congress. In three more years, they may have control of the presidency. Imagine a President Josh Hawley? What a troubling thought.

As I see it, Trump’s coup attempt was a great success for the far right. Too many professional smart people and hope peddlers want to claim that it was a failure because many of Trump’s followers were arrested. Anyone who argues such a thing does not understand storytelling and the political imagination. The Trumpists and other neofascists won the presidency and were in power for four years. They left an indelible stain on American society. They now have the imagery of overrunning the Capitol to draw strength from. It was an impossible dream come true, and it happened in a very short amount of time.

There is a narrative they could take from Jan. 6 that is akin to what the Nazis did after the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. It became almost a triumphalist story of what they almost achieved. The Nazis who were killed in the firefight when they encountered police and soldiers were made into great martyrs of the movement. You are correct that Jan. 6 could be made use of in that way.

But I am still less worried about the Capitol attack than I am about who is going to be the next Republican candidate for president. Now, it may all come together. The far-right narrative of Jan. 6 could be a way for achieving a Republican presidency and control of Congress, and undermining democracy on the state level.

How do you locate the rise of Trumpism and American neofascism in a longer history?

It is possible that Joe Biden will be a speed bump on the fascists’ march to power. That is the optimistic way to see it, which is not an impossible outcome. The strategy that Biden is employing may whittle back just enough votes so that America has civilized outcomes from its near-future elections.

Biden has played his cards very well so far. Obviously what he’s trying to do is use the resources of the government to improve the lives of enough people, including the kinds of people who are solidly Republicans at the moment, with the goal of peeling some of them off — or at the least, keeping them from voting for more extreme Republicans.

The most optimistic scenario is that we will look back on this era with Trump in much the same way we look back on McCarthyism. It was a bad moment when our politics were scary, but sanity somewhat reasserted itself after a number of years.

What parallels do you see between Trump and the larger right-wing movement’s use of the Big Lie, as compared to the way Hitler and the Nazis used it?

There is a rather striking parallel between the two uses of the Big Lie. Hitler’s narrative about the end of World War I and Germany being “stabbed in the back” was not unique to him. It was common on the right.

The Big Lie has to ride on a bunch of little lies. The other aspect of it is that the Big Lie is believed by people who just really, really want to believe it. That’s what makes the Big Lie find fertile ground. The people who support Trump really want to believe that he did not lose the 2020 election. When Trump’s voice is then magnified by the right-wing media, and he’s saying that the election was stolen, those who really want to believe it are going to buy into the lie. They can choose to live in their own reality. There is an entire right-wing media ecosphere which creates that alternate reality.

White supremacy and other right-wing violence presents the greatest current threat to the country’s domestic safety and security. Can this violence be turned off? 

You cannot turn it off all at once. I believe you can gradually turn it down, like a burner on a stove. After World War II, the Germans had been through two wars in what was basically a generation. Almost any male under the age of 35 or 40, if they were still alive, had seen combat. Many millions of people are implicated in the Holocaust and other atrocities. The Germans also had 12 years of a dictatorship bombarding them with propaganda. That propaganda was internalized by much of the German public. In total, this is a very unpromising foundation for a democracy. To me, one of the amazing stories in human history is how, from that very unpromising start, within about a decade and a half a quite successful democracy had been created. How do you do that?

There are lessons here for the United States. Konrad Adenauer was Chancellor of Germany from 1949 to 1963. His strategy was basically to do everything possible to bring prosperity, on the theory that prosperity would take the edge off a lot of that violence and hate. It worked: The ’50s are still known today in Germany as the era of an economic miracle. That eventually brought a lot of people into the tent. There were still hardcore Nazis in the 1950s in West Germany. They did not like the government. However, they got jobs and a new car and a new TV and they were doing OK economically. That helped to tune down the violence.

The other part of Adenauer’s strategy was to draw a line under the past. There was a kind of implicit deal in his Germany towards ex-Nazis — including the worst of them — that if you put that behind you, if you give up violence and political extremism and come into the tent, we’ll forget what you did. After the West German government was put in control of its own legal processes, there were virtually no prosecutions of war criminals. The German government really let it go, and it worked. There was not the same narrative of Germany in the 1920s, where there was a democracy with a lot of enemies on the right who are outside the tent and who ultimately destroyed it.

Whether Joe Biden realizes it or not, in his own way he is following a similar strategy. I believe that is a strategy which may work.

Of course, the United States is not Nazi Germany, and America is also not Germany in the postwar years. That qualifier being noted, are there any lessons for Biden and the Democrats to be learned from de-Nazification, in regard to the neofascists and other illiberal forces who are trying to overthrow American democracy? 

I believe that the Adenauer model applies. It behooves the future of our democracy to try as much as possible to integrate such people somehow back into a non-authoritarian, non-fascist system. We should try to give them some kind of a path, so we can at least reduce the incentive for them to stop working so hard to subvert the country’s democracy.

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