The agony & the ecstasy of Donald Trump: America is at a crossroads — and his is the path to hell

The historical parallels that Trump is drawing are apt, and point to the significance of this moment in time

Published March 16, 2016 11:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/Jae C. Hong)
(AP/Jae C. Hong)

“Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.”

When the Marxist theorist and revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote those words a century ago, she could have hardly predicted that Germany -- a country with one of the strongest worker movements in the world, long assumed by prominent socialist thinkers, including Karl Marx, to be the most ripe for socialism -- would instead give rise to one of the most brutal and heinous regimes the world has ever seen. Following the first World War and the German Revolution of 1918-19 — in which Luxemburg lost her life — the democratic Weimar Republic formed, and a tumultuous decade of intense political division and economic instability engendered the rise of political extremists.

On the left, the Communist Party of Germany — the largest communist party in Europe at the time — directed most of its energy and anger at the Social Democratic Party, a reform socialist party with significantly more electoral support. As the Nazis were growing in size, the communists made preposterous claims that the Social democrats were themselves fascists, and divisions on the left helped empower the real fascists. In 1932, Leon Trotsky correctly predicted that a divided left would strengthen the fascists, and that the fascists would consequently destroy them:

“Should fascism come to power, it will ride over [communist] skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory.”

By the time the Enabling Act had passed, granting Hitler absolute powers, communists had been purged by the Nazis and only the Social Democratic Party stood in opposition. (Moderate bourgeois parties either supported Hitler due to fear of a communist revolution or because of Brownshirt intimidation.)

Now, there has been no shortage of articles comparing modern America to the Weimar Republic in recent years, from both left- and right-wing commentators. According to “goldbugs” on the right, for example, America will suffer Weimar-like hyperinflation any day now. These warnings have been regularly debunked by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman over the years, and have no basis in reality. They also make comparisons to the Weimar Republic seem a bit ... paranoid.

However, now that a strongman like Donald Trump — who is being openly compared to Hitler and other fascist leaders by mainstream commentators across the political spectrum — is leading the Republican primary, it is hard not to draw some parallels. Modern America may not be the new Weimar Republic, and Trump may not be the second-coming of Hitler, but there are similarities worth looking at, if only to see how a modern democratic state can succumb to demagoguery in times of extreme polarization and discontent.

Like the Weimar Republic, America seems to be hopelessly divided, and like an old-school fascist, Trump is running to restore America to its past glory days. For many white Americans, this means the days before immigrants and minorities transformed the country’s makeup, and before “weak” leaders let foreign nations bully them into submission. (For Hitler, it was the Treaty of Versailles; for Trump, it’s unfair trade deals with Mexico and China, the nuclear deal with Iran, etc.) The disturbing trend toward scapegoatism and authoritarianism that has unfolded is the result of an increasingly polarized political landscape that has been fueled by dark money, along with persistent economic instability and ever-growing inequality. The rise of right-wing populism can also be seen as a backlash against America’s changing social values. And yes, the 2008 election of Barack Obama did help spark this reaction, though not because of his politics — which fall in the political center — but because of his cultural impact.

As Jamelle Bouie writes in his insightful Slate article, How Trump Happened”:

For millions of white Americans who weren’t attuned to growing diversity and cosmopolitanism...Obama was a shock, a figure who appeared out of nowhere to dominate the country’s political life. And with the talk of an “emerging Democratic majority,” he presaged a time when their votes -- which had elected George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan -- would no longer matter... When coupled with the broad decline in incomes and living standards caused by the Great Recession, it seemed to signal the end of a hierarchy that had always place white Americans at the top, delivering status even when it couldn’t give material benefits.

Of course, Trump isn’t the only anti-establishment candidate who has soared in 2016 thanks to a frustrated and anxious electorate; his success has coincided with the rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. It has been decades since an actual leftist has managed to attract nationwide support, and his platform of economic progressivism has obviously struck a chord with young people and working-class Americans who are similarly disillusioned with establishment politics.

If anyone can be labeled the anti-Trump, it’s Bernie Sanders, and over the past week things have grown tense between the two populists and their supporters. At Trump rallies — which have become increasingly violent and dangerous places for non-white protesters — Bernie supporters and others on the left have gone to protest, even forcing Trump to cancel a rally in Chicago on Friday. And, whereas Hitler employed the SA Brownshirts to protect Nazi rallies from left-wing agitators and disrupt opposing party rallies, Trump has threatened to send his supporters to Sanders rallies and even offered to pay legal fees after telling his audience to “knock the hell out of” protesters.

(Sanders, for his part, has had nothing to do with the disruptions at Trump rallies, and has been respectful of protesters at his own gatherings.)

This bitter polarization (bordering on disdain) — not only between the two parties, but between different factions within the parties themselves (the GOP could easily split into three or four different parties today) — has created an environment ripe for an extremist like Trump, as the bitter divisions during the Weimar Republic left the door open for the Nazis. And even if Trump does not get the nomination, the insurgency that he has led, and the growing authoritarian impulse within the Republican Party, will have a lasting impact on American politics.

As the populace increasingly rejects the status quo, both party establishments continue to appease corporate and plutocratic interests, while workers continue to see their wages stagnate and the middle class continues to shrink. Unsurprisingly, a recent Gallup poll shows that 75 percent of Americans consider the government to be widely corrupt. This has left much of the population desperate for real change — but also susceptible to demagoguery. While millions of Americans are now supporting a Jewish democratic socialist for president, millions of other Americans are supporting a man who cheerfully advocates torture and would consider creating a database for certain religious minorities. The United States seems to be at a crossroads. If change does not come from a united progressive movement that promotes economic fairness and social justice, it may just come from a new authoritarian movement on the right.

As Rosa Luxemburg would put it, the choice is clear: “Socialism or Barbarism.”

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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