If it’s an election year it must be time to revisit the tragic fate of the short-lived Weimar Republic. Critics of the Republican presidential convention’s allegedly “dark” tone see even more reason to worry that American democracy is somehow on the brink.
Weimar was the 14-year experiment in German democracy that was undermined by political extremists, and the carcass on which Adolf Hitler built his deadly dictatorship. Weimar is the analogy of choice for those seeking an example of an elected government subverted from within, the type of cautionary tale that enables democracy’s critics to say “I told you so.”
Weimar comparisons and Hitler analogies are a long-standing tradition in American politics, going all the way back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. The Internet Age gave us Mike Godwin’s eponymous law that “as an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1.” These days Donald Trump takes most of the fire, and to a lesser extent “Hitlary” Clinton. Just to show this is not exclusively an American phenomenon, the Brexit referendum in the UK has raised the specter of a “Weimar Britain” or Europe facing another “Weimar moment.”
Trump and the rest are in good company. In 1980 during Ronald Reagan’s national political ascent, former Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips theorized in a column that establishment politicos had driven frustrated voters out of the mainstream and the “electorate was ready to turn to a demagogue.” He noted that in the “Weimar Republic … more than a few of the same circumstances prevailed.” That same year Gloria Steinem studied up on Weimar and said that in light of Reagan’s rise, “what I read did not encourage me. It frightened me. It truly frightened me.”
The skittish Steinem returned to the Weimar analogy last December when she slammed Donald Trump for his political views and reminded everyone that “Hitler was democratically elected — in a low voter turnout.” However, this is wrong on both counts. German voter participation increased in the early 1930s, as previously marginalized voters were mobilized by extremists on both sides. And Hitler was not elected German Chancellor, but was appointed by President Paul von Hindenburg. The Nazi Party’s best electoral showing in a relatively free and fair election was 37%.
Raising the specter of a Weimar America has more than a whiff of elitism. It implicitly suggests we are on the verge of mob rule, that the unwashed masses will choose in their lack of wisdom a leader who reflects their irrational prejudices. They then will support the overthrow of the Constitution by some unstated means. At its base is an essential contempt for the people, their concerns, their judgment. It is a fear of too much democracy.
But for the analogy to make sense the United States would have to be as politically fragile as Weimar. The contrasts are important. The Weimar period lasted fourteen years, where the United States has existed over two centuries. Major political parties in Germany denounced the Weimar constitution as illegitimate from its creation in 1919, while the U.S. Constitution is considered fundamental and legitimate by the vast majority of Americans. Germany had no strong democratic tradition; American democracy stretches back to the Colonial period. The Weimar economy was hamstrung by war reparations, hyperinflation, massive unemployment, and the Great Depression. Granted the U.S. is currently going through some economic bad times, but they aren’t Weimar-bad.
Those fearing an American echo of the collapse of Weimar show little faith in the collective wisdom of their countrymen. And they exhibit no confidence at all in the strength of our Constitution and the American political culture. For all its many problems, the United States is not on the brink of collapse. We are electing a president, not a dictator.