US: A Long 1932 – Or More?
Reflections on the present-day challenges for the United States, the self-appointed beacon of “democracy.”
January 30, 2017
I still vividly remember a black-tie gala dinner in New York to which I had surprisingly been invited. The event took place during the darkest moments of the George W. Bush administration.
It was a time when even mainstream Republicans got quite incensed about the outright legal abuses and extreme legal stretches that occurred under the 43rd U.S. President of the United States.
Quite apart from overseas incidents like Abu Ghraib, the civil liberties of everyday Americans were being reduced at home, not least owing to pervasive monitoring techniques.
During the cocktail chatter with a small group of men — current and former U.S. ambassadors, generals and other high-ranking officials — I could not keep myself from saying that the United States seemed bound to live through a “long period of 1932.”
But, I added hopefully, that I could never see it cross the threshold to 1933. By that, I was referring to the precarious political constellation in Weimar Germany, just before Hitler’s seizure of power.
When I made that remark to the small group, I was (almost) expecting that one of them would take the red wine in his glass, spill it all across my face and white shirt and effectively eject me from attending the dinner itself.
What really happened was quite different. The general in the group, a former U.S. drug czar, stepped forward and gave me a big hug – something very unusual in such a setting, especially if one doesn’t really know each other.
“You know,” he said, “you’re expressing exactly what I have been thinking about in recent days. That’s a perfect analogy – we live in a long 1932 here in the United States right now.”
Except for the fact that, with the arrival in office of Donald Trump and the policies he has implemented just in his first week, I am not so sure any more. It very much seems as if the threshold to Weimar Germany’s 1933 has been crossed.
The challenge for the United States, the self-appointed erstwhile beacon of “democracy,” is to prove whether the country really has it in itself to stop the train of vitriol, denunciation and disregard for any checks and balances that Mr. Trump has displayed since moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It would be comforting to believe that it is just Mr. Trump and a small coterie of far-right ideologues, under White House Strategist and former Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon, who are at work.
But that is a false assumption. Seemingly mainline Republicans like White House Chief of Staff and former Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan or most of the picks for the Trump cabinet have an extreme agenda, too.
It is hard to know who is really originating which present and imminent abuses of power. In their years out of power, they have all been drafting extreme language bills and executive orders for years, like a Fantasy Football lineup.
The Republican careerists of this administration are way more ideologically inflexible than any careerist Republicans we have seen in prior administrations. And many of George W. Bush’s officials were seen as extreme already.
No fourth estate
It would be a mistake to assume journalists will provide an effective line of defense in the United States. Perhaps some of them will rise to the occasion.
But so many editors, producers and publishers seem very eager to go back to business as usual and to work with the administration. They are addicted to the ratings and profits they can generate. Or they are merely addicted to being in proximity to power, no matter what.
What about the courts?
The U.S. courts are far from an effective bulwark against the pattern of unconstitutional overreach that will become a Trump hallmark.
The courts are a patchwork of widely disparate viewpoints at every level. Rulings and affirmation on appeal are a matter of the luck of the draw with a specific judge.
This has always been true to some extent, but the history-altering mindset of U.S. courts has certainly been true since the highly politicized Bush v. Gore ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that installed George W. Bush in December 2000 as President of the United States.
Once the large number of pending vacancies, including an initial U.S. Supreme Court vacancy, are filled by President Trump with conservative ideologues, it seems unlikely that the courts will be a bastion of resistance.
They, too, will not be an obstacle to America’s ever more earth-shattering turn from 1932 to 1933 on the Weimar clock.
The Democratic Party?
For the Democrats, this ought to be a historic moment. But all too often in the past, they have chosen to fold rather than stand up and be counted. They have forgotten how to fight.
Worse, President Obama himself actively continued the long year of 1932 during his two terms in office. Under his stewardship of the American nation, there were no prosecutions of torture under the Bush years, Guantanamo Bay was never closed, mass surveillance persisted and deepened, protesters and whistleblowers faced stiffer prosecution and the wars never came to an end.
Drone strikes became routine, hands-off and even expanded to include U.S. citizens as targets without trial.
So much for all the “hope” he generated upon his election.
The street response?
Stunningly, to stop the turn from the long 1932 to 1933, the best hope now may end up in a long 1968 – French-style more so even than the ultimately very futile U.S.-style 1968.
Recent mass demonstrations against the repeal of Obamacare and against the executive orders from Trump on Middle Eastern green-card holders, as well as the women’s march, have shown a preview of what that might include if sustained.
Youth-driven protests of members of the middle class and professionals taking to the streets repeatedly.
They can put themselves in the way, perhaps stage strikes and generally make the country temporarily ungovernable – just as French students did when they nearly (note: nearly) ejected Charles de Gaulle from office in 1968.
Such paralysis would not be the worst thing for the United States, despite how that sounds. Consider the present alternatives: Imagine what abuses further unobstructed governance by Trump might produce – and also factor in the already baked-in levels of gridlock.
Plus, an unruly street might shake the law-and-order myth that Trump used to ride into office. It would likely cost him his influence with other Republicans and his own voters.
But this strategy is very difficult, since there is no political vehicle through which to channel this protest, opposition-mindedness and political energy.
The two-party system mainstreams everything
Certainly, the Democratic Party seems confused by the emerging protests and rallies so far, if not outright hostile to them. Many of the protesters are beyond fed up with status quo party politics that have not given them any role in electoral self-governance.
A two-party system, by definition, is a regime in which a narrowly framed establishment exerts continuous rule, absorbing (or rather killing) other thoughts and policy ideas.
There seem to be so many anti-Republican voters who are left out of the Democratic Party coalition and are given a permanent choice of non-participation or sucking it up and voting for a party that barely gives them lip service, if even that.
Therein lies the risk of the 1968 response. An opposition can rise up as a civil society in protest, but to what end, if they never find champions for their causes in the leadership of the alternative party?
Too much of a rainbow coalition for Democrats?
Many of these protest networks now mobilizing have grown up as part of immigrant rights demonstrations, Black Lives Matter protests, indigenous rights encampments, anti-inequality occupations, wildcat union strikes for higher wages, anti-pipeline resistance and more.
Throughout it all, Democratic Party leaders have failed to respond, other than with a few speech lines here and there.
That is all the more puzzling as even a slight uptick in turnout among black youth in three key cities (Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia) could likely have saved Hillary Clinton from defeat.
Instead, many (justifiably) felt that she had a career of being openly hostile to young black people and would never champion the Black Lives Matter movement or black unemployment issues.
Does the U.S. have any fighting spirit?
The images we have seen so far on TV look impressive. The question, of course, remains whether they will peter out, as has been the tradition in the past. I hope not.
Will any mainstream electoral faction be ready and sincerely willing to accept this new generation of activists into its ranks and its leadership? I fear not.
The George W. Bush and Obama years were America’s long Weimar 1932. Now 1933 beckons.
Courts and journalists will not save the U.S. from moving into Weimar 1933. Can street protests?
Anti-Trump protests we have seen so far look impressive. The question is whether they will peter out.