America’s neo-Weimar constitution
Outwardly, America still seems like a normal country, so predictions of doom and gloom may seem over the top. But, says Daniel Lazare, the danger of authoritarianism is all too real
Following a series of election victories last week and a growing Republican breakdown in Washington, Democratic fortunes must finally be looking up, right?
Not quite. While Democratic wins in Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia were indeed impressive, the party’s fortunes are still sinking, even as Donald Trump’s ratings continue to soar. So striking is the disparity that it is beginning to resemble a disaster some 90 years ago, when growing legislative paralysis also helped generate a lurch to authoritarianism. That was in Germany, beginning in January 1930, and the upshot three years later was the rise to power of an ex-army corporal named Adolph Hitler. The details differ, but the overall pattern is looking more and more the same.
Broadly speaking, the reason for the first breakdown was a global financial crisis that shook German society to the core. But a growing constitutional crisis contributed by providing a fault line along which the political structure would eventually crack wide open.
The problems with the Weimar constitution (after the city in eastern Germany where it was drafted in 1919) are well known. Simply put, the document combined parliamentary and presidential features in one ungainly package. Elected on the basis of strict proportional representation, the Reichstag was ultra-democratic, in that it allowed small parties to gain a foothold with as little as 0.4% of the vote. Forty parties, according to one count, were thus represented as of 1933. At the same time, however, the constitution subordinated the legislative branch to an independently elected presidency of almost imperial proportions - one that could dissolve the Reichstag at will, saddle it with a prime minister, or chancellor, it did not want and rule by decree.
Friedrich Ebert, the Social Democrat who served as Weimar Germany’s first president until his death in 1925, used the last feature on no fewer than 136 different occasions. These included an incident in 1920 in which he backdated an emergency order so as to retroactively legalise summary executions of communists by members of an ultra-right militia known as the Freikorps.1
Irrespective of whether the Weimar constitution ‘caused’ the Nazi takeover, there is no question that it took contradictions that the failed Spartacist uprising in January 1919 had left unresolved and then locked them in place, so they would eventually explode.
The constitution also gave the president carte blanche to declare a state of emergency and impose martial law. When the Reichstag refused to approve austerity measures in the wake of the crash of 1929, chancellor Heinrich Brüning, who had been appointed by Paul von Hindenburg, Ebert’s successor, urged the ex-field marshal to rule on his own. With the economy continuing its dizzying plunge, the effect was to marginalise the Reichstag, as power shifted to a president in his mid-80s surrounded by a secretive cabal of military officer and rightwing politicians.
The rest - Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, war on three continents, more than 80 million deaths, and so on - is history, as they say.
At first glance, the US political structure seems very different. But it is anything but democratic: Congress consists of a grossly unrepresentative Senate elected on the basis of equal state representation and a lower house heavily gerrymandered in favour of the right. Instead of a multitude of small parties, America has suffered under just two for close to two centuries.
If anything, the presidency seems more democratic, since it is elected by the nation at large, even though that is starting to change, as an antique body known as the electoral college increasingly makes itself felt. Otherwise, Americans traditionally see the president as a tribune of the people, whose job is to tame and subdue the counts and barons on Capitol Hill. The US constitution is meanwhile silent about a state of emergency and provides for a seemingly impregnable Supreme Court, whose role, among others, is to prevent the executive branch from violating constitutional norms. So the gross constitutional mismatch that fuelled the German crisis does not exist, and a descent into authoritarianism is therefore out of the question.
Except that it is not. If American politics are following a similar path, it is not because constitutional protections are proving ineffective, but because mounting pressures are turning ancient constitutional structures into their opposite. America may seem different on paper, but the resemblance to Weimar continues to grow.
Paralysis, for example, has been the rule in Congress for more than a generation. Despite the long-standing ‘Repocratic’ duumvirate, observers have counted no fewer than five Mafia-style ‘families’ among House Republicans alone - the Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee on the ultra-right, the business-minded Main Street Caucus a bit more toward the centre, plus the slightly more moderate Republican Governance Group and Problem Solvers Caucus as well.2
Each one functions more or less as a separate party - they elect leaders, vote en bloc and delight in telling other factions where to get off. It is a tendency that last week’s electoral drubbing only served to reinforce. The carnage - in which voters in Ohio overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing abortion rights, handily re-elected a pro-abortion Democratic governor in Kentucky, and in Virginia allowed pro-abortion Dems to take back control of the state legislature - demonstrates how vulnerable Republicans are on the reproductive-rights issue.
But, with moderates pushing back ever more vigorously and conservatives digging in their heels in response, it also demonstrates that fragmentation is not going away soon. On the contrary, with yet another federal budget deadline looming this weekend (they now come every six weeks or so), paralysis is likely to intensify, as a last-minute settlement proves ever more elusive.
Rightists will chortle if the federal government shuts down for the sixth time since the mid-1990s, while centrists will fret, but the breakdown will intensify. This will be bad news for an economy beset by growing deficits and rising interest rates. But it will be good news for Trump, as the balance shifts ever more decisively in favour of presidential authoritarianism.
Democrats cannot stop beating their breast over a November 5 poll by The New York Times and Siena College in upstate New York that showed Trump leading by as many as 10 percentage points in five out of the six battleground states that, thanks to the electoral college, could well decide next year’s election.3 With two wars raging, voters are spooked by House Republicans who refuse to approve military aid for either Israel or Ukraine. They are put off by a president who is growing frailer and ever more befuddled, as he nears his 81st birthday. And they are equally at a loss over what to do about a supremely unpopular Kamala Harris, who, as vice-president, could well take the reins if Biden dies in office.
Democrats hoping that the abortion issue will somehow turn things around thus find themselves overwhelmed by a crisis of confidence, from which there is no escape. Voters are tired of gridlock, tired of a system of government that has not worked in decades, and tired of foreign military adventures that are forever spinning out of control. They are longing for someone to shake things up. Trump is just the ‘bull in a china shop’ to do it.
As in Germany, authoritarianism is what happens when constitutional structures deteriorate across the board. And ‘authoritarianism’ in this respect is no exaggeration. With a second Trump administration already looking like a done deal, the consequences are shaping up as ugly in the extreme.
“Where there is a true and total breakdown of law and order ... the federal government can and should send the National Guard to restore order and secure the peace without having to wait for the approval of some governor,” Trump warned in July 2022. “I am your warrior, I am your justice, and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution,” he added last March. But he went even further at a campaign rally last weekend in New Hampshire:
We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country, that lie and steal and cheat on elections. They’ll do anything, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America and to destroy the American dream.4
This is cheeky coming from a man who tried to steal an election himself in 2021 - but, then again, cheek is something Trump has always had in abundance. With the term ‘fascist’ just for show, Trump’s real enemies’ list is clear: liberals, feminists, Black Lives Matter activists, anti-Zionists, and anyone else who is remotely left of centre. All could end up feeling the full wrath of the federal government if he wins a second term.
In June, The New York Times reported that Trump’s legal team was planning to strip government employees of civil-service protections, so as to thoroughly purge the federal bureaucracy.5 The aim is to prevent anything resembling a replay of the full-scale bureaucratic revolt that nearly drove him out of office in his first term.
Last weekend, the Times published a second exposé concerning “an assault on immigration” that is taking shape “on a scale unseen in modern American history”. According to the report, a top Trump advisor named Stephen Miller is putting together a programme in which Muslims will again be barred at the border, foreign students participating in pro-Palestinian demonstrations will be expelled, and tens of thousands of Afghans evacuated during the 2021 Taliban takeover will be kicked out as well. No less startling is a plank aimed at abolishing birthright citizenship. If approved, it means that thousands of native-born Americans could find themselves on the deportation list if their parents turn out to have violated immigration law. Conceivably, the sins of the parents could be visited on grandchildren too.
Miller described the offensive as a “blitz” aimed at overwhelming liberals and preventing them from getting in the way. “Any activists who doubt president Trump’s resolve in the slightest are making a drastic error,” he told the Times. “Trump will unleash the vast arsenal of federal powers to implement the most spectacular migration crackdown.” Miller added that the plan also calls for detention camps to be built on vacant land near the US-Mexican border, whose purpose will be to house alleged illegal immigrants while their cases are adjudicated.6
With 1.8 million people behind bars as of 2021 and another 3.9 million on probation or parole - 1.7% of the population in all - America is already a global leader, when it comes to mass incarceration and regimentation.7 But mass arrests and concentration camps will raise such tactics to a whole new level. With Trump also vowing to invade Mexico in order to shut down drug cartels, the upshot will be a dramatic step-up in aggression, repression and belligerence - toward immigrants within US borders and toward entire countries beyond.
The problem with a human wrecking ball like Trump is that, rather than instilling order, his efforts will do the opposite. Each ‘solution’ will lead to greater disorder, greater anger and hence to an even more drastic response. Authoritarianism is a self-reinforcing process of self-radicalisation ending up who knows where.
Outwardly, America still seems like a normal country, so predictions of doom and gloom may seem over the top. But similar predictions no doubt struck the German bourgeoisie as over the top in 1930. Events showed otherwise.
Richard J Evans The coming of the Third Reich London 2003, p80.↩︎
See my article, ‘The forgotten war’ Weekly Worker November 9: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1466/the-forgotten-war.↩︎