Christopher Browning’s recent article in the New York Review of Books, “The Suffocation of Democracy,” offers an historical analysis of parallels between the current situation in the West and that of a century ago, when the people he has studied as a professional historian, went mad with paranoia and inaugurated a death cult that killed tens of millions of people the world over. People ask him anxiously: what parallels might there be for the rise of another Nazi party, a next Hitler? “The interwar period [1918-39] with all too many similarities to our current situation,” Browning asserts, “is the waning of the Weimar Republic.” The opening picture of Hindenburg and Hitler in that brief moment of transition from Weimar “democracy” to totalitarian fascism gives us the key: “If the U.S. has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell.” And if McConnell is the new Hindenburg, then, clearly, the new Hitler is Donald Trump.
It might strike serious historians as a bit strange to consider U.S. democracy today—however troubled—as beset by a fragility comparable to that of the Weimar Republic. After all, the Weimar Republic’s “democracy” was a brief and fevered respite in the 30-years’ war of the European 20th century. It needed only a very shallow grave in which to expire. To think that the world’s oldest democracy is as helpless before the forces of internally generated fascism as Weimar’s seems bizarre, to say the least. And given how often people have cried “fascist” in decades past, the exercise does have something of a boy-who-cried-wolf quality, a moral panic that, as Augustine said to Orosius, a knowledge of history should remedy.
It also betrays an almost Platonic pessimism about democracies—always-already unstable, volatile, self-destructive, preambles to tyranny—as if centuries of democracy in the United States had not developed mechanisms for resisting these kinds of authoritarian attacks, as well as ways of influencing peer groups to resist the pull of totalitarianism and its ideologically driven crimes against humanity. In a sense, Browning here applies the same argument he made about the Germans as Ordinary Men carrying out the slaughter of Jewish communities in Poland: We’re all ordinary men, capable of burying a democracy and welcoming totalitarianism. The early 20th-century Germans did it, so why not early 21st-century Americans?
Of course, the historian’s job is not only to compare but to contrast. What about all the differences between Hitler and Trump, Weimar “democracy” and America’s? Browning dispatches them out of hand. It does not matter, for example, that Trump’s relationship to journalists differs wildly from Hitler’s. “Total control of the press and other media,” he notes, alluding to Hitler, “is likewise unnecessary, since a flood of managed and fake news so pollutes the flow of information, that facts and truth become irrelevant as shapers of public opinion.” Trump #fakenews press = Nazi totalitarian press. You’ve seen one Lügenpresse you’ve seen them all. QED.
Having mobilized his ample historical knowledge in the pursuit of this parallel, Browning then admits, soto voce, how it’s somewhat absurd: “Nothing remotely so horrific is on the illiberal [Trump] agenda.” Indeed, Trump’s “illiberal democracy falls considerably short of totalitarian dictatorship as exemplified by Mussolini and Hitler.” Noted one critic, “[Browning] presents a wildly distorted account of the current state of affairs perched upon a caricature of the past.”
So if the two circumstances being compared are not even remotely similar, why compare them at all? Why engage in an elaborate analogy so poor that, just in order to maintain some intellectual integrity, you have to admit you don’t mean it?
The obvious if sad answer is that Browning’s article illustrates—embodies, really—Trump Derangement Syndrome, which is a secular version of Antichrist Derangement Syndrome. The only possible explanation for this historical meditation, whose argumentation would get a F (alas, B- on today’s inflated curve) in any class of historiography, is that it’s there to stigmatize Trump and make pariahs—fascists in the making—of anyone who legitimizes his exercise of power. “Hitler,” notes Bill Burr, “is the gold standard of evil; you want to call somebody evil, you call him the next Hitler.” And that’s what Browning has done here with Trump, at once openly (with a wink) and, given any standards of proportion, preposterously.
Were anyone seriously looking for a candidate for the next “Nazi-like” war machine planning to engulf the world in megadeath, it’s pretty clear who that candidate would be: global jihadis like those of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Boko Haram. The slightest open-minded glance at these organizations and their ideologies offers the full panorama of everything that has made Hitler and the Nazis “the gold standard of evil”—genocidal hatreds, death worship, paranoid megalomania, conspiracy theories projected onto apocalyptic enemies, millennial aspirations of world conquest, and apocalyptic dreams of exterminating the evil Jewish “other.”
The analogy is, as all, imperfect. Nazi Germany, after all, was a state with a professional military and a modern industrial economy with which to support and arm it, while the jihadi world is fractured, stateless, incapable of holding territory for long, and without conventionally significant, military-relevant, economic assets. On the other hand, Jihadi hatreds have marinated longer: far fewer German priests and ministers (if any) preached the genocide of the Jews from the pulpit in the manner of a profusion of jihadi preachers, the world over, including in the West.
Either way, the analogy teaches us we need to make certain that the jihadi world stays stateless and disempowered long into the future. It is a sign of how little we know about the problem, that they are not even on Browning’s radar when he thinks about the present, that we Western infidels have no idea how many Caliphaters dream of and preach the coming of a global Caliphate in this generation.
The only trace of the Caliphater issue in Browning’s historical reconstruction is their (unmentioned if small) presence among immigrant communities in Europe and the United States. If Trump is the new Hitler and McConnell the new Hindenburg, then those who oppose open immigration are the new Nazi deplorables:
Xenophobic nationalism (and in many cases explicitly anti-immigrant white nationalism) as well as the prioritization of “law and order” over individual rights are also crucial to these regimes in mobilizing the popular support of their bases and stigmatizing their enemies.
When Browning speaks of “explicitly anti-immigrant white nationalism,” he is not the historian, reporting the actual voices of those nationalists he describes; rather, he’s the polemicist, tagging them with the dog-whistle for “racist-fascist.” Actually, and especially in Europe, it is not generic anti-immigration attitudes but specifically anti-Muslim immigration attitudes that drive these allegedly “white nationalist” groups. Generic anti-immigration sentiment has larger and more varied causes, and their political currents are much broader than the “white nationalist” wing. They are not lost souls. For Browning, however, they’re the budding fascists of Eastern Europe, and, by extension, via Trump, the American politicians who have any role in legitimating that Hitler wannabe’s exercise of the presidency. (This is not to trivialize the problems of right-wing, white nationalism, just to caution against assuming everyone who fears immigrants is phobic and on the slippery slope to fascist rampage.)
Instead of Browning’s depiction of a fight between Weimar democrats (good) and surging fascists (bad), one might view it as a dispute between two legitimate groups within a civil society who disagree on how a nation, a culture, a civilization should deal with perceived enemies, some of them violent megalomaniacs, embracing a weaponized (‘nazi’) ideology, who want to take, and in a few cases have taken, power. No need here for ‘slippery slopes’ down which the zealots will eventually slide; they have long ago broken any and every barrier politically correct concerns might throw up.
This dispute pits, on the one hand, those who want to calm the zealots down somehow (ignore them?), and, on the other, those who want to resist them. If there actually is a parallel between what’s happening now, globally, and what happened in Europe 100 years ago (and that is itself dubious), it’s that, alas, Trump and his deplorables have the role of the new Churchill and his camp of belligerent Germanophobes.
By mis-identifying those who wish to confront a totalitarian enemy as the “real enemy,” the proto-fascist “right wing,” the “next Hitler,” Browning implicitly assigns the role of Chamberlain (“a man in every other regard different from Trump”), to the peace-seeking, Whiggish intellectual elite who know what behavior on our part “the arc of history” demands, that arc that “inevitably bends toward greater emancipation, equality, and freedom” [italics mine]. Of course, we know just how disastrously wrong Chamberlain was about Hitler, about the arc of history, about peace in his time. He is rightly a byword for folly. So why would Browning push a narrative that surreptitiously advances (mutatatis mutandis) Chamberlain’s agenda? Because it should have worked for Chamberlain? And therefore, this time, it will work for us?
Trump, deplorables, Nazis, xenophobes, white nationalists—they’re all the same, all ordinary men, potentially on the path to fascism, totalitarianism, genocide. In this analysis, Browning repeats what he did in his study of the first German battalions (not even Nazis) told to carry out orders to exterminate entire Jewish populations as the Wehrmacht headed nach Osten. There he played down the worst details—the sadism, the approval of German women, the rejoicing in and volunteering to kill—in order to appeal to the postwar zeitgeist by saying, “They were just ordinary men, just like you and me, reluctantly pressed into genocide. And now, ‘we’ are just like ‘them’, on the verge of fascist dictatorship.”
There is an apocalyptic flavor to Browning’s analogy with the end of Weimar. Like Joachim of Fiore and Marx, he places his (our) present time at a hinge, a turning in meta-history, and in the process he makes over a clever, opportunistic clown into a genocidal maniac. And like so many apocalyptic believers, his fear of total, imminent collapse and catastrophe draws him towards dualism: the good “us” and the evil, apocalyptic, “other.”
In this sense, Browning’s pejorative slang—xenophobia, white nationalism—and agenda-driven comparisons, actually serve to drive a greater wedge between Americans. When seen in light of a non-trivial “enemy of civilization” (in the worst traditions of Nazism), Browning pits those who prefer appeasement and those who prefer confrontation in the struggle against weaponized Caliphater hatreds. This enemy may not now constitute an existential threat, but most earnestly wishes that it did. So if the 1930s should have taught us anything, it’s to take these millennial zealots seriously, to read their material, to firmly oppose, not ignore them.
In this sense, Browning more resembles the propagandists of the 11th-century investiture conflict, the first ecclesiastics in the West to play with accusing Christian rulers—pope and emperor—of being the Antichrist. And in so doing, he internalizes the actual clash of (at least two) civilizations that his analogy completely ignores, to wit: “My enemies are my right-wing neighbors, the Republicans across the aisle, the unwoke (that is, those who do not understand the arc of history); my enemies are not the members of genocidal millenarian cults whose ability to inspire Muslims and even some infidels shows disturbing vibrancy, and who doubtless (were I to even bother thinking about it), rejoice at my self-lacerating folly.”