‘Weimar America’? The Trump Show Is No CabaretRoundup
tags: fascism, Nazism, Weimar Republic, Donald Trump, German history
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was previously a professor of history at Harvard, New York University and Oxford.
“Life is a cabaret, old chum,” sang Sally Bowles in the musical based on Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories.” I suspect the movie version of “Cabaret,” which won Liza Minnelli the Oscar for best actress, is the nearest older Americans ever got to the Weimar Republic.
Still, it’s not a bad place to start, if you want to talk Weimar and its relevance to Donald Trump’s America.
From the camp decadence of the Kit Kat Klub to the chilling rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” by the blond Hitler Youth in the beer garden, “Cabaret” provides the essentials: a diseased democracy, swept away by the irresistible temptations of ethnic nationalism, political violence and demagogy.
The problem with Weimerica is that we’ve imagined it too many times. Roger Cohen beat Sullivan to the punch with a New York Times column in December 2015. “Welcome to Weimar America,” wrote Cohen. “Welcome to an angry nation stung by two lost wars, its politics veering to the extremes, its mood vengeful, beset by decades of stagnant real wages for most people, tempted by a strongman who would keep all Muslims out and vows to restore American greatness.”
In March 2016, the historian Eric Weitz argued that the real lesson of Weimar was the danger that arises “when traditional or moderate conservatives throw in their lot with … anti-democratic, radical conservatives,” rendering them respectable — or, as the Germans would say, salonfaehig.
Note, however, that Weimerica is not an especially left-wing idea. Shortly after Trump’s election, Rod Dreher made the argument in the American Conservative that the pathologies the U.S. shares with Weimar were as much cultural as economic. It is more as a Catholic conservative than as a former Obama fanboy that Sullivan abhors Trump.
Nor is Weimerica an idea confined to American commentary. British and Russian scholars have drawn similar analogies. And it would not be difficult to find multiple examples of the same analogy in the journalism of the 1970s.
Yet no amount of repetition will erase the enormous differences between the U.S. today and Germany 90 years ago. Not many people are left who remember the original Weimar Republic, born in 1919 after the revolutionary ouster of Kaiser Wilhelm II and condemned to death 14 years later with Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. Last week, I asked one eminent American who was born in Germany in 1923 what he thought. It was a parallel that had crossed Henry Kissinger’s mind more than once in the turbulent times of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His view today: Americans are “nowhere near as alienated from their democratic system” as Germans in the 1920s.
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