The Suffocation of Democracy

Christopher R. Browning in The New York Review of Books:

As a historian specializing in the Holocaust, Nazi Germany, and Europe in the era of the world wars, I have been repeatedly asked about the degree to which the current situation in the United States resembles the interwar period and the rise of fascism in Europe. I would note several troubling similarities and one important but equally troubling difference.

If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell. He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could. As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more. Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments. Systematic obstruction of nominations in Obama’s first term provoked Democrats to scrap the filibuster for all but Supreme Court nominations. Then McConnell’s unprecedented blocking of the Merrick Garland nomination required him in turn to scrap the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations in order to complete the “steal” of Antonin Scalia’s seat and confirm Neil Gorsuch. The extreme politicization of the judicial nomination process is once again on display in the current Kavanaugh hearings.

One can predict that henceforth no significant judicial appointments will be made when the presidency and the Senate are not controlled by the same party. McConnell and our dysfunctional and disrespected Congress have now ensured an increasingly dysfunctional and disrespected judiciary, and the constitutional balance of powers among the three branches of government is in peril.

Whatever secret reservations McConnell and other traditional Republican leaders have about Trump’s character, governing style, and possible criminality, they openly rejoice in the payoff they have received from their alliance with him and his base: huge tax cuts for the wealthy, financial and environmental deregulation, the nominations of two conservative Supreme Court justices (so far) and a host of other conservative judicial appointments, and a significant reduction in government-sponsored health care (though not yet the total abolition of Obamacare they hope for). Like Hitler’s conservative allies, McConnell and the Republicans have prided themselves on the early returns on their investment in Trump. The combination of Trump’s abasement before Putin in Helsinki, the shameful separation of families at the border in complete disregard of US asylum law (to say nothing of basic humanitarian principles and the GOP’s relentless claim to be the defender of “family values”), and most recently Michael Cohen’s implication of Trump in criminal violations of campaign finance laws has not shaken the fealty of the Republican old guard, so there is little indication that even an explosive and incriminating report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller will rupture the alliance.

But the potential impact of the Mueller report does suggest yet another eerie similarity to the interwar period—how the toxic divisions in domestic politics led to the complete inversion of previous political orientations. Both Mussolini and Hitler came to power in no small part because the fascist-conservative alliances on the right faced division and disarray on the left. The Catholic parties (Popolari in Italy, Zentrum in Germany), liberal moderates, Social Democrats, and Communists did not cooperate effectively in defense of democracy. In Germany this reached the absurd extreme of the Communists underestimating the Nazis as a transitory challenge while focusing on the Social Democrats—dubbed “red fascists”—as the true long-term threat to Communist triumph.