Christopher Browning’s pessimistic take on America’s future

Christopher Browning is an American historian whose expertise is mainly on the Holocaust. His new article in the New York Review of Books is on a related topic: comparing the debilitated state of American politics with what happened during the rise of Nazi Germany. Browning was apparently inspired by the frequent claim that the U.S. is becoming like Hitler’s Germany. Click on the screenshot below to read the free article.

It’s a very good piece that, while drawing some parallels between what happened in the two countries, also doesn’t buy the “Nazi” analogy. A few quotes to tease you:

If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell. He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could. As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more. Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments. Systematic obstruction of nominations in Obama’s first term provoked Democrats to scrap the filibuster for all but Supreme Court nominations. Then McConnell’s unprecedented blocking of the Merrick Garland nomination required him in turn to scrap the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations in order to complete the “steal” of Antonin Scalia’s seat and confirm Neil Gorsuch. The extreme politicization of the judicial nomination process is once again on display in the current Kavanaugh hearings.

One can predict that henceforth no significant judicial appointments will be made when the presidency and the Senate are not controlled by the same party. McConnell and our dysfunctional and disrespected Congress have now ensured an increasingly dysfunctional and disrespected judiciary, and the constitutional balance of powers among the three branches of government is in peril.

A parallel:

But the potential impact of the Mueller report does suggest yet another eerie similarity to the interwar period—how the toxic divisions in domestic politics led to the complete inversion of previous political orientations. Both Mussolini and Hitler came to power in no small part because the fascist-conservative alliances on the right faced division and disarray on the left. The Catholic parties (Popolari in Italy, Zentrum in Germany), liberal moderates, Social Democrats, and Communists did not cooperate effectively in defense of democracy. In Germany this reached the absurd extreme of the Communists underestimating the Nazis as a transitory challenge while focusing on the Social Democrats—dubbed “red fascists”—as the true long-term threat to Communist triumph.

And Browning’s depressing conclusion:

No matter how and when the Trump presidency ends, the specter of illiberalism will continue to haunt American politics. A highly politicized judiciary will remain, in which close Supreme Court decisions will be viewed by many as of dubious legitimacy, and future judicial appointments will be fiercely contested. The racial division, cultural conflict, and political polarization Trump has encouraged and intensified will be difficult to heal. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, and uncontrolled campaign spending will continue to result in elections skewed in an unrepresentative and undemocratic direction. Growing income disparity will be extremely difficult to halt, much less reverse.

Finally, within several decades after Trump’s presidency has ended, the looming effects of ecological disaster due to human-caused climate change—which Trump not only denies but is doing so much to accelerate—will be inescapable. Desertification of continental interiors, flooding of populous coastal areas, and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, with concomitant shortages of fresh water and food, will set in motion both population flight and conflicts over scarce resources that dwarf the current fate of Central Africa and Syria. No wall will be high enough to shelter the US from these events. Trump is not Hitler and Trumpism is not Nazism, but regardless of how the Trump presidency concludes, this is a story unlikely to have a happy ending.

Browning’s essay is long, but we’re not abjuring print like the young folk, are we?

h/t: Ken


  1. Merilee
    Posted October 6, 2018 at 2:04 pm | Permalink


  2. JezGrove
    Posted October 6, 2018 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Sadly, Browning’s analysis is all too accurate I fear.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted October 6, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    The writer does a good job of plowing over old ground and doing comparisons but again, missing the the opportunity to actually add some examples of how to fix anything. This seems to be all we can do these days – cry over bad results and do a lot of hand-wringing. I will add a couple of thoughts to explain what I mean.

    McConnell used the Senate during the Obama years to bring everything to a stop. How about fixing that. All the rules and regulations within the Senate were pretty much created by them. These things were not part of the Constitution, it only provided an outline. All of the rules that eventually allowed congress to stop a supreme court nominee from going forward was created by the congress. So the congress could sure as hell be fixed and not be allowed to do such a thing. Instead we throw up our hands and throw in the towel. Why do we do this? This is exactly the attitude of the democrats that is beating the hell out of them.

    Why does the party in majority get to control every committee and chairmanship. This is really stupid and sure has nothing to do with democracy. Why not fix this and make committee control a shared procedure, not one side gets all.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 6, 2018 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      I listened to part of Sam Harris’s podcast with Bull Maher yesterday. Bill said something quite accurate: the republicans excel at cheating and they keep their eye on the prize.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted October 6, 2018 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        I would agree that is probably true, but again, it fixes nothing. Sam is plenty smart and I’ll bet he could come up with more broken things that need fixing than I can. I cannot change a cheater to an honest person. But I can create some laws and rules that will prevent him from cheating. I can create some changes to government that will give it back to the people where is should be. People need to stop crying and blaming everyone but themselves.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 6, 2018 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

          I think in the podcast they do mention doing things to correct the issue but first you have to acknowledge the problem and part of the problem is the democrats aren’t seeing where the problem is so they can adjust their approach to it.

          • Randall Schenck
            Posted October 6, 2018 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

            One small problem that should have been right out front for them to fix is – Why did the republicans get to stop the democrats from putting in a new supreme court justice when an opening occurred. Because of the ridiculous rules that let one guy stop anything from happening in the Senate. FIX THAT.

            • Posted October 6, 2018 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

              Because they had the majority. The majority wins even if you there had been a vote. Any nominee that can not get a majority of the votes loses.

              You sound like you want to change the rules so the no majority is need to pass a vote. That is not how voting works anywhere. Majority wins elections . It is a very simple concept.

              • Posted October 6, 2018 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

                Don’t mention Hillary got more votes. The electoral college system works state by state.

              • Randall Schenck
                Posted October 6, 2018 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

                I do not have the time or the care to explain all the rules in the House and Senate to you. You can go read about it or take a class, whatever you want. I will be simple and specific on one thing that I brought up to Diana. If a supreme court justice dies tomorrow. Should one person in the Senate be able to stop the country from filling that position for a year. No they should not. So why not fix the rules in the Senate that allowed this to take place. Is that too difficult for you to understand?

                As I said earlier, all of the rules and regulations that are currently in the House and Senate were pretty much created by them over the past 200 plus years. This is what needs a lot of fixing. We should be demanding it.

              • Posted October 6, 2018 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

                You can’t explain them because you don’t understand them. Or politics. Or elections. I do.

              • Posted October 6, 2018 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

                One man did not stop the vote. The republican majority did. Had they not shred with the majority leader they could have removed him and replaced him with someone who would have called the vote.
                But the majority party wanted to wait until the next election to name someone to the court picked by someone of their party.

            • Nicolaas Stempels
              Posted October 7, 2018 at 1:19 am | Permalink

              I think Old Guy is right Randall, there were 11 senators writing to Mr McConnell they would not hear Mr Garland.
              They were Mrs:
              Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee (both Utah), Jeff Sessions (Alabama), Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), John Cornyn and Ted Cruz (both Texas], Jeff Flake (Arizona), David Vitter (Louisiana), Sonny Perdue (Georgia) and Thom Tillis (North Carolina).
              Note that 7 of the 11 came from former Confederate States, and all but one from slave holding states.
              It was not just Mr McConnell(odious as he is) who singlehandedly blocked Mr Garland’s hearing.

              • Randall Schenck
                Posted October 7, 2018 at 9:51 am | Permalink

                You are also wrong sir. The fact that other members of his party on that committee wrote him a letter means nothing. All that was doing is showing agreement with what McConnell was doing. He had the power to decide on any legislative or executive business. He alone decides on the schedule. Look it up. And even if you were right and you are not, that he needed a letter from the committee, that would also be a very bad rule. If a nomination is put forward by the president, for the court, it should be acted on. That is what the Constitution says. It does not say – oh yeah, we can hold up a nomination for 293 days just because we feel like it. Taking positions such are yours is why we are in the shape we are in. Only the people can demand good government and sitting back and making excuses does not get the job done.

      • Posted October 7, 2018 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

        So true. They are also good at compartmentalizing and rationalizing ‘alternative facts’ into existence.

    • Posted October 7, 2018 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      The only problem is that the only people who can change the rules of Congress are Congress. You are asking them to take the high road and vote to curb their own power for the good of democracy. I think it is pretty apparent now that a Republican controlled Congress will not have the necessary integrity to do this.

      A Democrat controlled Congress may have that integrity but they would be voting to curb their own powers, powers that the GOP will reinstate as soon as the next time they take back control. The Democrats will probably recognise that, and instead play the same game as the Republicans.

      So really, the answer to your criticism is that there are no realistic fixes.

      I will, however, put my own unrealistic fix forward. You should just embrace the fact that the party in power gets to make all the decisions. That’s how it works in all the other democracies. But given that is the case, you should work to make sure “the party in power” is a better reflection of the democratic will of the people.

      Start by doing away with the presidential electoral college and elect your president by straight popular vote. Take the responsibility for defining congressional district boundaries away from politically motivated bodies. Reduce gerrymandering as far as possible.

      Once you have made your system more democratic, if you get a bad government, at least you’ll know it is what the people wanted.

  4. Mike Cracraft
    Posted October 6, 2018 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    We are not in a period of emergent fascism. Germany in the 30’s was pounded by the remnants of the destruction of WWI and the global economic collapse of 1929. We are not in any way in a similar situation today. McConnell and his partners in crime got away with this because he had a lot of popular support from reactionaries in the population. If the economy collapses and we see multiple parties forming and then right wing mobs attacking civil rights organizations and trade unions with cooperation from the civil police authorities, then we will know that we are in great danger.
    Germany’s problem could have been stopped by Stalin but his branding the social democrats as “Social Fascists” sealed their fate.

    • Posted October 6, 2018 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      Plus McConnell has and had more than fifty one votes. Simple math.

  5. Historian
    Posted October 6, 2018 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Since thousands of articles have already been written on Trump and his presidency, Browning has little new to say to those who have been paying attention. However, it provides an excellent summation of the Trump presidency and will be very useful to those who haven’t been paying attention.

    What Browning emphasizes and what we all must be aware of is that even if Trump were to exit the presidency tomorrow, the damage he has wrought will exist long after he is gone. Even if the Republicans should suffer a massive defeat next month (which is not likely), Trump will still be president and the Supreme Court will be far right.

    The sad fact that we must acknowledge is that a large minority of Americans like Trump and what he has done. So far, the evidence is scant that many have turned away from him since the 2016 election. Different explanations have been offered as to why this is. I have argued for before, and will not repeat here except to say that the core of the Trump constituency (his most ardent supporters) and the Republican Party are whites, who fear that their cultural, social, and religious dominance is threatened by demographic change. This is why so many state that they no longer recognize their country.

    The nature of the federal system gives these people more political power than their numbers alone would justify. Much of this system cannot be changed without changes to the Constitution, and that is not happening. In any case, attempts to tinker with the Constitution could make things worse since right wingers could easily control the process. Some changes can be made on the state level should Democrats win more governorships and state legislatures, particularly in regard to drawing the boundaries of congressional districts. But Browning is right; this story is unlikely to have a happy ending.

    • Posted October 6, 2018 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      The Republican and Libertarian combined vote in the 2016 election was more than the combined vote of the Democratic and Green parties. That large majority is really according to the 2016 vote is a small majority.
      I voted for Hillary. But I can count.

      • Posted October 6, 2018 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

        The large minority is really a small majority. Sorry for the typo.

  6. Leigh Jackson
    Posted October 6, 2018 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    So not surprisingly, not the end of history. Maybe Trump is simply pointing the way for a yet more egregious American Messiah. Things can always get worse or better.

  7. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 6, 2018 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    I really hate it when I think something jaded and it happens and just confirms my cynicism.

    • Posted October 6, 2018 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

      Agree with that.

    • Diane G
      Posted October 7, 2018 at 2:50 am | Permalink

      Paraphrasing Lily Tomlin, no matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.

  8. littleboybrew
    Posted October 6, 2018 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    The Republicans have always told us that government is not the solution. In order to prove this point they have a mission to break the government. They are succeeding. The election this fall will go a long way in finding out if anyone even cares.

    • Posted October 6, 2018 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

      Plenty of people care. The question is whether their votes outnumber those of the other side.
      Get out the vote!!

  9. pablo
    Posted October 6, 2018 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    The Nazi hyperbole drives me nuts. Worst case scenario we’re becoming post war Italy. Still not good, but a far cry from death camps.

    • Posted October 6, 2018 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. It also shows a stunted imagination.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted October 7, 2018 at 1:33 am | Permalink

      Well, Mr Browning <did state (correctly IMMO)that “Trump is not Hitler and Trumpism is not Nazism”, but he definitely has an authoritarian streak.

  10. Posted October 6, 2018 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  11. Posted October 7, 2018 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Rashid's Blog: An Educational Portal.

  12. Posted October 7, 2018 at 1:22 am | Permalink

    The US Constitution is about 230 years old and is starting to come apart at the seams. It’s great that it lasted that long. I like to think we have learned lots of things since then.

    What seems clear to me is that if 51% of the citizens (assuming they all vote) lord it over 49%, then we have probably badly defined the question we are voting on and we should send it back for more study and refinement. Like maybe breaking it up into several pieces, or proposing something else.

    That said, I am very pessimistic about the future and not just because of government. Example: When I look at the sort of movies available on Netflix or Amazon Prime, I really get depressed.

    • Posted October 7, 2018 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      Some votes are close but how else would you make a decision except by having a vote? I don’t know if a better way.

  13. Elizabeth Coons
    Posted October 8, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Randall Schenk wrote, earlier this week, “Should one person in the Senate be able to stop the country from filling that position for a year. No they should not. So why not fix the rules in the Senate that allowed this to take place.”

    Perhaps we should keep this in mind and raise it before the next Democratic-majority senate, as soon as it arrives. (I do not give up hope about 2018.)

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