What is the future of democracy in the United States? Recent news and commentary contain such words as “absolutism” and “autocracy,” and make comparisons between the present day and 1930s Germany.
There is evidence that many citizens have lost confidence in the ability of our constitutional government to survive. A Sept. 7 letter to The New York Times said, “Americans like and favor President Trump. Americans have no use for Congress, and we know that the nation would be better off without Congress.”
Seeking a balanced picture of the danger to our government I referred first to a paper I wrote about what enabled Hitler to rise to power, as well as many news and opinion articles saying that the president and his people are undercutting our democratic institutions and opening a path for “fascism.” Is this true? Let us start with reasons to say “no,” such as the significant differences between 1932 Germany and 2019 America.
There is no history of autocracy in the U.S., nor “a centuries-long authoritarian tradition” like that of the Hohenzollern family which ruled Prussia. There is no strong German-American Bund here as there was before World War II. Even if our democracy has its flaws, the U.S. has a long, strong democratic tradition which it can maintain, supported by many committed people.
The president does not have Der Führer’s drive, goals or singleness of purpose. He seems rather to regard the restraints imposed by constitutional government as nuisances that get in the way of his exercise or retention of power.
There are no smoldering resentments against our government like the World War I “stab-in-the back” legend of betrayal of the German nation by a liberal civilian government, which the Nazis used to build public anger and support for their cause. Nor is there a huge, threatening communist nation next door.
Subject to background problems, everyone in the U.S. has a right to bear arms. The more vocal defenders of the Second Amendment, if they sometimes seem to take an extreme position, feel disturbed about the loss of their arms because a tiny minority has grossly misused them — and it is the Constitution to which they turn for protection.
The racism against blacks and the poisonous anti-Semitism in Germany in 1932 were given written legal sanction, which would be anathema here. They were far more virulent and destructive than what is to be seen in this country today. The economic distress after the virtual collapse of the Weimar Republic also was much greater than is felt here now.
However, those who feel that there is indeed a danger to democracy argue that:
Trump uses his position as president to make personal attacks on anyone who crosses him, threatening and degrading people — increasingly using the word “treason” — to create a government subservient to his wishes, and words like “coup,” which could destabilize lawful governmental functions.
He has for political gain awakened dormant racism and given tacit permission for the freer expression of racist views and anti-Semitism, which could become much worse, threatening the rights, safety and well-being of minority groups.
He has stirred up nationalism as Hitler did in his rise to power. Trump seems to admire dictators of other countries and shows arbitrary and despotic ways of his own, ignoring the law when it suits him and substituting his gut opinion for expert advice.
Trump and Mitch McConnell have routinely obstructed Congress in the proper execution of its duties. Trump has bypassed the confirmation process for government positions, using “acting” officials to serve at his personal pleasure. He has required government scientists to confirm false statements. He has gathered followers who encourage his autocratic ways and work to shield him from things that might upset him, isolating him from reality. He has demanded loyalty to himself personally, not to the country, just as Hitler did from Army officers in 1934.
Trump jokes about being in office after 2024 (contrary to constitutional limitations) which may betray his desires. His statements show that he has a tolerance and perhaps even a wish for violence. A disturbing headline on Sept. 15 said, “Fox News and GOP media now warn of bloodshed if Democrats win in 2020.” This might mean that those paramilitary militias which have expressed support for Trump could become involved.
When we put all these factors on the balance pans of the scale, does the pointer point to real danger to our constitutional government? It is important for us all, whatever our politics, to weigh the arguments, make decisions, and participate in the orderly process needed to preserve the democracy which has served the United States so well for 200 years.
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