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How Democracies Die

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Leo Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. So too with failed democracies. There is no one route to the dissolution of the open society, but the patterns are familiar, whether in ancient Athens, the Roman Republic or the collapse of the democracies in Italy and the Weimar Republic in Germany that led to fascism. The ills that beset Germany and Italy in the 1930s are sadly familiar to us -- an ineffectual political system, a retreat by huge sectors of the population into a world where facts and opinions are interchangeable, the seizure of national economies by international banks, and global finance capital that has forced larger and larger segments of society into a subsistence existence, obliterating hope for the future. We too suffer from an epidemic of nihilistic violence, one that has included mass shootings and domestic terrorism. There is a rapacious and out-of-control militarism. Betrayed citizens, as in the 1930s, harbor an inchoate hatred for a ruling elite that is mired in corruption while it mouths empty platitudes about liberal, democratic values. There is a desperate yearning for a cult leader or demagogue who will exact vengeance on those who have betrayed us and usher in a return to a mythical past and lost glory.

This is not to equate Donald Trump with Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. Nor is it to say that we endure the severe trauma that afflicted Germany after World War I, with its 1.7 million war dead and millions more wounded physically and psychologically. Weimar's street violence and brawls, usually between the armed wings of the Nazi Party and the communists, were widespread and resulted in numerous fatalities. The economic crisis after the 1929 crash was catastrophic. By 1932 at least 40% of the insured German workforce, 6 million people, were out of work. Germans during the depression that followed the crash often struggled to get enough to eat. But we ignore our many similarities to the 1930s at our peril.

The business elites in Italy and Germany saw the fascists as buffoons, just as Wall Street views Trump and his enablers as an embarrassment. But the capitalists would rather have Trump as president than a reformer such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. The primacy of corporate profit, as in fascist Germany and Italy, makes the business elites willfully complicit in the destruction of democracy. These capitalists are oblivious to the danger their consolidation of wealth and power poses to democracy. They ram through tax cuts for the rich and austerity programs that exacerbate the despair and rage that fuel extremism. They make war on organized labor, suppressing wages and abolishing benefits.

At the start of the Trump administration, the traditional ruling class, much like its counterparts in Germany and Italy, held the naive belief that being in power moderates extremist leaders, or that extremists can be controlled by the "adults in the room." It did not work in Germany or Italy; it has not worked in the United States. Politics, as in fascist Italy and Germany, has been replaced with spectacle and political theater. There is an unbridgeable gulf between rural voters -- largely Nazi supporters in the Weimar Republic and largely Trump supporters in the United States -- and the urban electorate.

Vast parts of the population, beset by despair, have severed themselves from a fact-based world and embrace magic, conspiracy theories and fantasy. The military and the organs of state security are deified. War criminals are seen as patriots unjustly persecuted by the detested deep state and the liberal class. The norms, decorum, courtesy and mutual respect that are essential to a functioning democracy are replaced by vulgarity, insults, incitement to violence, racism, bigotry, contempt and lies. These ills of today's United States mirror the political and moral rot of Italy and Germany on the eve of fascism.

The historian Fritz Stern, a refugee from Nazi Germany, told me that in Germany there had been "a yearning for fascism before the word 'fascism' was invented." He warned about the mortal danger to our democracy from our bankrupt liberalism, which abandoned working men and women and refused to accept its responsibility in creating the fertile ground for fascism by scapegoating others -- the most recent example being the Democratic Party attempt to blame Russia for Trump's election.

Stern saw in our spiritual and political alienation -- given expression through cultural hatreds, racism, Islamophobia, a demonization of immigrants and personal resentments -- the seeds of an American fascism. This fascism, he said, found its ideological expression in the Christian right.

"They attacked liberalism," Stern wrote of the German fascists in his book "The Politics of Cultural Despair," "because it seemed to them the principal premise of modern society; everything they dreaded seemed to spring from it; the bourgeois life, Manchesterism [laissez-faire capitalism], materialism, parliament and the parties, the lack of political leadership. Even more, they sensed in liberalism the source of all their inner sufferings. Theirs was a resentment of loneliness; their one desire was for a new faith, a new community of believers, a world with fixed standards and no doubts, a new national religion that would bind all Germans together. All this, liberalism denied. Hence, they hated liberalism, blamed it for making outcasts of them, for uprooting them from their imaginary past, and from their faith."

The U.S. Republican Party, replicating the fascist parties of the 1930s, is a personality cult. Those who do not bow obsequiously before the leader and carry out the leader's demands are banished. The institutions tasked with defending morality, especially religious institutions, have failed miserably in the United States just as they failed in Italy and Germany. A Christianized fascism champions Trump as an agent of God while the traditional church refuses to denounce evangelical right-wing extremists as heretics and impostors. As the German social democrat Kurt Schumacher put it, fascism makes a "constant appeal to the inner swine in human beings." It mobilizes "human stupidity," what the writer Joseph Roth called "the auto-da-fe' of the mind."

Benjamin Carter Hett, in his book "The Death of Democracy: Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic," writes, "Thinking about the end of Weimar democracy in this way -- as the result of a large protest movement colliding with complex patterns of elite self-interest, in a culture increasingly prone to aggressive myth-making and irrationality -- strips away the exotic and foreign look of swastika banners and goose-stepping Stormtroopers. Suddenly, the whole thing looks close and familiar. Alongside the viciousness of much of German politics in the Weimar years was an incongruous innocence; few people could imagine the worst possibilities. A civilized nation could not possibly vote for Hitler, some had thought. When he became chancellor nonetheless, millions expected his time in office to be short and ineffectual. Germany was a notoriously law-abiding as well as cultured land. How could a German government systematically brutalize its own people?"

Hett and other historians including Stern, Ian Kershaw, Richard J. Evans, Joachim E. Fest and Eric Voegelin have detailed how the willful destruction of democratic norms and procedures in Germany was usually done in the name of expediency or fiscal necessity. By 1933 the Nazis and the communists together held a slim majority of seats in the parliament, or Reichstag. They were deadlocked on every major issue, with the exception of declaring an amnesty for their imprisoned supporters. This "negative" majority made governing impossible. German democracy seized up. The socialist leader Friedrich Ebert, president from 1919 until 1925, and later Heinrich Bruning, chancellor from 1930 to 1932 and allied with President Paul von Hindenburg, had already begun to rule by decree to bypass the fractious parliament, relying on Article 48 of the Weimar constitution. Article 48, which granted the president the right in an emergency to issue decrees, was what Hett calls "a trapdoor through which Germany could fall into dictatorship." Article 48 was the equivalent of the executive orders liberally used by President Barack Obama and now Trump.

Congress, in some ways, is even more dysfunctional than the Reichstag was. The German communists, at least, fought on behalf of workers. The Republicans and Democrats in Congress are antagonistic on the issues that do not count, united in their support for the corporate state and against the working class. They annually approve vast expenditures for the military and intelligence agencies to fuel the endless wars. They back austerity measures, trade agreements and tax cuts demanded by corporate power, accelerating the assault on the working class. At the same time, the courts, as was the case during fascism in Germany and Italy, are being stacked with extremists.

The Nazis responded to the February 1933 burning of Reichstag, which was probably carried out by the Nazis themselves, by using Article 48 to push through the emergency presidential decree "For the Protection of People and State." It instantly snuffed out the democratic state. It legalized the imprisonment without trial of anyone deemed to be a threat to national security. It abolished freedom of speech, of association and of the press along with the privacy of postal and telephone communications. Few Germans understood the full ramifications of the decree at the time, much as Americans failed to fully understand the ramifications of the Patriot Act.

The Democratic-controlled House impeached Trump for two relatively minor constitutional violations. It left untouched the far more damaging violations that were normalized during the Obama and Bush administrations. Illegal wars, never declared by Congress as demanded by the Constitution, were launched by George W. Bush and continued by Obama. The U.S. public endures blanket government surveillance in direct violation of the Fourth Amendment. Torture and kidnapping and imprisoning terrorism suspects in black sites, along with targeted assassinations, now including senior foreign leaders, have become routine.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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6 people are discussing this page, with 9 comments  Post Comment


Mohammad Ala

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Thanks Chris Hedges for your time in writing this article.

We agree.

We are living in a difficult time in present history.

Submitted on Tuesday, Jan 14, 2020 at 4:35:13 PM

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Walt Gelles

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"This steady corrosion of democracy, as in Germany and Italy, opened the door to fascism. The blame lies not with Trump but the ruling political elites who, as their predecessors did in the 1930s, abandoned the rule of law."

--Trump IS a prime actor in the drift toward fascism. His actions, laws, provocations, appointments, and executive orders corrode democratic values and institutions. A lot of the blame does lie with him. As Paul Street aptly put it, Trump is an "aspiring fascist strongman." Trump is the closest thing America has produced to the fearmongering racist demagogue who becomes president in Sinclair Lewis's novel "It Can't Happen Here". It could happen here.

Submitted on Tuesday, Jan 14, 2020 at 7:54:57 PM

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Thanks for this good comment.

Submitted on Tuesday, Jan 14, 2020 at 8:16:00 PM

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Thank you for your comment.

Trump and his coterie of fellow warmongers are itching to start a war with Iran. So is Israel. Trump and Netanyahu both face impeachment or indictments at home; a war would be a good diversion to boost their popularity as well as to grab oil and force Iran to keep using petrodollars ("Petrodollar Warfare: The Common Thread Linking Venezuela and Iran", click here). Any government that contemplates moving away from the US petrodollar system which props up the US Empire is targeted for regime-change, attack, or invasion (Libya destroyed by criminals Obama/Hillary; Iraq destroyed by Bush/Cheney; Venezuela; Syria; now Iran).

I think there's a good possibility that Trump and/or Netanyahu will carry out a "preemptive" military strike against Iran, especially targeting Iran's Fordow nuclear enrichment site which is buried deep inside a mountain. To do this, the US would have to use the Boeing-made Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a 30,000-pound "bunker-buster bomb". After Trump assassinated Soleimani, he tweeted "IRAN WILL NEVER HAVE A NUCLEAR WEAPON!" Bombing the Fordow site with MOP could throw up tons of radioactive debris. An alternative, which Senator Lindsey Graham favors, would be to bomb Iran's nonnuclear infrastructure such as oil refineries, in order to crush the Iranian economy and disrupt its nuclear program. This is madness.

Trump is not done with Iran and could once again, soon, lead the world to the brink of WW3. His MAGA-hat-wearing supporters would probably cheer him on, on their way to The Rapture.


Submitted on Wednesday, Jan 15, 2020 at 6:35:18 AM

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John Jonik

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Submitted on Wednesday, Jan 15, 2020 at 6:02:55 AM

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From the roof of the White folk's House, Trump can see terrorists in Canada. Building a tall beautiful snow fence to keep out terrorists is a no-brainer. There's dozens of Embassies in Canada, filled with rapists, communists, and evil people who may want to compete with Trump re: pu$$y grabbing. Canadian terrorists leave huge divots on Trump's greens.

Colonizing Canada is a great idea. Canadians have American envy so bad, they try to act like Americans. They drive on the right side of the road, and they swiped America's telephony Country-Code!

Canada is the perfect place to build homeless reservations, just like clearing Indians from prime real estate.like Manhattan Giving homeless people polio infected blankets is a gift that Trump gives well.

Submitted on Wednesday, Jan 15, 2020 at 9:04:36 AM

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Susan Lee Schwartz

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Wanna see how? yesterday the Dow reached 30,000 while millions are food insecure, and cannot get health care or save a penny.

This is How a Civilization Collapses

What Does a Civilization That's Beginning to Collapse Look Like? This, Here, Now "The lie that was capitalism, in truth, produced just the opposite of what it promised people. The prole never became a capitalist. The capitalist never became a civilized and democratic person. Everyone did not have a better life. Worst of all, the winners were not the noble and just. They were, and are, the indecent and obscene, the disgraceful and the predatory the Trumps of the world. Hence, quite naturally, there are fewer and fewer people who believe in the foolish and childish lie of capitalism anymore. Now, once upon a time, before the great war, that would have been cause for rejoicing. "The glorious socialist revolution is here, now that capitalism is falling!!" cried the Marxist-Leninists. But they were wrong. The last time capitalism fell, it produced fascism, genocide, ruin, and world war, before it produced social democracy. And that is what is happening all over again, now too. Those who are falling, but expected to rise, are taking what they were told was rightfully theirs by force, because they cannot have it through consent.

the winners of capitalism, are vicious predators. They are the ones who raise the prices of life-savings drugs by thousands to profiteer upon his grief, who make him crowd fund insulin, who sell his kids bulletproof backpacks, who deny him the basics of a decent life, whether retirement, a pension, healthcare, or dignity. Capitalism exploit and uses him like he is an animal he is not a human thing to it at all. It is no great surprise, then, that he has given up on capitalism but what is he turning to instead? Fascism, authoritarianism, and extremism. Let us take America as the canonical example. The average American lives paycheck to paycheck, unable to muster $1000 for an emergency, perched right at the edge of perpetual ruin. One lost job, one unpaid bill, one step away from disaster falling into homelessness, impoverishment, and disgrace, which can easily last a lifetime. And he lives that way until his dying day because he will never retire.Is that because he is not virtuous and noble? Because he is sinful and lazy, indolent and slothful? Of course not. He works longer and harder hours than his parents and grandparents and yet in real terms, he earns less, saves less, and is more indebted."

Submitted on Thursday, Jan 16, 2020 at 6:00:22 PM

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Susan Lee Schwartz

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The Rule of Law Is Crumbling Further Each Day Under Trump

It happens when the Rule of Law becomes subject to the rule of an autocrat who wants to scrap the laws . . Trump actually approves of corruption. Trump sought to eliminate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bans U.S. companies from bribing foreign officials. "It's just so unfair that American companies aren't allowed to pay bribes to get business overseas," Trump says, according to the book. "We're going to change that."

He is lawless. He want to use executive privilege to forgbid testimony and evidence, and thus to escape the trial of the Senate..which is embedded in the Constitution. Senator McConnell has made his intentions plain: This will be a show trial, designed to quickly dismiss the serious charges against the President. He has rejected Senator Schumer's request to call critical witnesses with 1st-hand knowledge, including the acting White House chief of staff and the President's national-security advisor at the time. McConnell complained that calling these witnesses is a pathway "to get to guilty."

Lawless.

In Trump's Washington, the rogue actors are the real players and the experts are increasingly irrelevant -

This week's hearings revealed a president circumventing and enfeebling his traditional diplomats and foreign policy specialists. Instead the president has turned the U.S. government into a version of the Trump Organization, full of wheeler dealers inside and outside the official ranks who exist to do his political bidding.

Lawless:

Our president is embroiled in multiple lawsuits, some of which have made it to federal courts and even the Supreme Court. Yet cases that seem of the utmost importance for our democracyregarding Trump's financial records, congressional subpoenas, and morehave either made it sloooowly through the judicial system or just generally been punted by high courts. It's not that justice has to be sluggish (remember how quickly Bush v. Gore was litigated), so what explains the courts' special treatment of Trump? Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick examine the likely sinister intentions behind this stonewalling.




Submitted on Thursday, Jan 16, 2020 at 6:10:18 PM

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Lance Ciepiela

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After 9/11 the American People somehow became immediately suspected of some wrong doing by the president and congress with their immediate passage of The Patriot Act, "eviscerating America's Civil Liberties", and with their #AUMF2001 and #AUMF2002 authorizing the president to launch preemptive wars on anyone, anywhere, on his say so alone, even on 'false pretenses, and even though they never had investigated who was really responsible for all the explosions ("explosives used say Commissioners) bringing down the World Trade Center on 9/11 and knocking a small hole in the Pentagon wall. #HeightenedRisk.

Submitted on Thursday, Jan 16, 2020 at 8:10:55 PM

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