Saturday, June 5, 2021

IT CAN STILL HAPPEN HERE!


By Manfred Henningsen*)


In 1930 the novelist Sinclair Lewis was the first American writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, and 1935 he published the novel It Can’t Happen Here. His novel described in vivid detail how a proto-Fascist candidate became President of the USA, joining the Italian Fascist, Benito Mussolini, and the German Nazi, Adolf Hitler, in the attempt to remake their societies and the world. Philip Roth picked up in 2004 the theme of proto-Fascist tendencies looming in American society when he published he novel, The Plot Against America. He envisioned the aeronautical hero, Charles Lindbergh, would defeat the two-term President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election on an America First platform and then plan an alliance with the fascist dictators.

American Netflix viewers were reminded of this haunting theme when the German TV-series, Babylon Berlin, began its 3 season, 28 episode series during the Trump presidency. The parallels between Germany from 1929 to 1933 and the contemporary US were unintended but could not be missed. The Netflix viewers were fascinated how the capital of the Weimar Republic, as the Germany of the interwar period from 1919 to 1933 was called, went from being the exciting center of a vibrant modern culture to quickly become the capital of the Nazis‘ Third Reich.

Though the political transformation played only the backdrop for the core of the TV-production, namely a series of ordinary murder investigations by the police, its impact on society was obvious. And that’s where the parallels became visible. The American Republic faces the possibility of turning the capital of the USA into a replica of the Weimar story, even if it looks more like a cartoonish version of the original.

Instead of showing all the aspects of Weimar modernity, Washington is on the brink of becoming a political freakshow. On one political stage two members of Congress are competing for attention. The Congressman from Florida, Matthew Louis Gaetz, wants to recover his integrity from being overshadowed by charges of engaging in human trafficking and sex with teenage girls. The Congresswoman from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene, wants to downplay her demented suggestion that Jewish missiles were launched from outer space to start forest fires in California. As bizarre as these two elected officials and their public performances already are, they are distractions from the major play. That play is performed by the former President and the legion of his mindless political minions who all act in the tragicomedy called “The Big Lie.“

In this tragicomedy the former President refuses to accept the fact that he lost the election. He forced almost all members of his party in Congress to participate in this play while denouncing those who are unwilling to accept their assigned roles. Among these refuseniks are his former Vice President, the former majority, now minority leader in the Senate and a Congresswoman with impeccable conservative, if not reactionary, credentials who was the third in line in the party leadership in the House of Representatives. When she was finally removed from her position by a vote from her colleagues, the former President issued insults against her.

How the defeated former President has managed to convince himself and the members of his party to accept the lie that his defeat was actually a victory, has so far remained unanswered. The fact that nearly 70% of the Republican voters believe him does not change the genre of the tragicomedy. That change of format to the genre of real tragedy is still not part of the play.

On the more than 4,000 pages of the eight novels by the German writer Volker Kutscher on which the TV-series Babylon Berlin is based, the Nazis‘ threat was looming for a long time in the background of events, until it became reality with all its gruesome details. The fourth season, moving towards the Kristallnacht in November, 1938, is in the production process. In the American story, there was a preview of the possible tragic ending of the tragicomedy that may still come.

On January 6 of this year, a vanguard staged a rehearsal of the potential tragedy in the making in Washington by storming the Capitol and desecrating the Halls of Congress. The then still acting President had taken the strategic position of stage manager, giving directions in public that were broadcast while the restless crowd in front of him, who was standing on a podium, was eagerly waiting for his instructions.

What initially seemed to be a crowd of young rowdies and members of all kinds of known and unknown right wing organizations, searching for living politicians, promising, as they screamed, to hang them, has changed. This initial image of the riotous event was replaced by a much more frightening picture. In an interview (Wednesday, May 5 2021) on the PBS Christiane Amanpour & Co. talk show, the University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, a specialist on terrorist events all over the world, hinted at the potential tragic events in the future of American politics. Pape has looked at 420 of the more than 800 interviews that were conducted by the police with arrested insurrectionists. According to his findings, the majority of these insurrectionists were in their late thirties and didn’t belong to any right wing organizations.

They were not unemployed misfits or radicals seeking violent confrontations for the sheer joy of it. They were doctors, lawyers, business CEO’s, and teachers with steady employment records. They were overwhelmingly white. Many of them had military service backgrounds. The most surprising discovery for Pape was their motivation for coming to Washington. It was the existential fear of the great race replacement, the replacement of white Americans by Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other people of color.

This replacement fear became publicly visible in the US for the first time on August 11, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacist demonstrators marched through a city-park, screaming “You will not replace us“ and then specifying their immediate target by changing the slogan to “Jews will not replace us.“ The then President called them in an impromptu press conference “fine“ people. This replacement discourse was used by the white Australian terrorist, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, who killed 50 people in March 2019 in Christ Church, New Zealand by attacking two Mosques. He followed his Norwegian model, Anders Breivik, who on July 22, 2011 first killed 8 people in Oslo by setting off explosives and then, on the same day, murdered 69 young Social Democrats on a small island. His violent acts were meant to warn white, Christian Norwegians and other Europeans against the threatening Islamization of the continent.

The proposal for a bi-partisan commission, investigating the insurrection, failed to get a Senate majority on May 28.
Whether the refusal by the former president to recognize his successor, who defeated him in the national election, as President will lead to an actual legitimation crisis of the Republic is not clear. Though the members of Congress who belong to the party of the defeated president keep supporting the loser, they have not stopped attending the sessions of Congress and are continuing to perform their legislative functions. If they call the election fraudulent, this obviously raises the question of their own legitimacy. So far this question has not been mentioned in the public debate.

Yet the longer these senators and representatives insist on the illegitimacy of the 2020 election, they not only undermine the authority of the elected President but the political system as a whole. If this situation continues to linger, it could become the moment when putsch scenarios will be contemplated. These rebellious scenarios may find support among the members of Congress who have refused to criticize the former President and voted on January 6 to not confirm the results of the election. The insurrection on January 6 indicates that there will be public support if a group of politicians with the silent or public support by the defeated President should plan to orchestrate such a putsch.

Netflix viewers of "Babylon Berlin" should remember that this superb German crime series is set in the last years of the Weimar Republic, 1929-1933, which was terminated by an administrative putsch that brought Hitler to power on January 30, 1933 . The putsch was planned by advisers, including the then Chancellor General von Schleicher, around the 84 years old President Hindenburg, a popular Fieldmarshall from WWI. The parliamentary elections of November 1932 did not provide a majority to form a government. The Nazis never received a majority of German votes in free elections. The advisors around Hindenburg, including his son, recommended making Hitler Reichs-Chancellor and surrounding him with solid conservative ministers who would make sure that Hitler would not succeed with his radical ideas. As long as Hindenburg was alive –he died in 1934 and had even defeated Hitler in April of 1933 in his re-election to President – the arrangement worked.

After the death of Hindenburg, Hitler had proclaimed himself Chancellor and President and initiated the so-called “Night of the Long Knives“ on June 30th 1934, a bloodbath among the SA-leadership. The conservative appointments around him were also either killed like Schleicher or otherwise promoted to unimportant positions. The administrative putsch had led to the absolute take-over of power by Hitler and the Nazis.

Trump is neither Hindenburg nor Hitler and may spend the rest of his life defending himself in all kinds of criminal and financial investigations. But the seeds he has planted may become cultivated by even more ruthless and unethical political characters who are waiting for the curtains to come down on the last act of the tragedy, “The Big Lie.“ They will pick up the narrative that emerged in the interviews with the insurrectionists, namely “The Great Replacement.“

*) Emeritus Professor of Political Science
University of Hawai'i at Manoa, Honolulu, HI, USA
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