Are we in our Weimar moment? is not an unreasonable question. But the apparent parallels can disguise the deeper difference. Unlike the Weimar Republic, whose unraveling opened the way to Hitler’s rise to power, we are not attempting to found and stabilize a democracy where one has never existed. Germany in the 1920s needed to establish a democracy in a country that had never been democratic and had to make the attempt in the wake of a lost war and crippling armistice and in the midst of brazenly anti-democratic movements of Soviet-inspired revolutionaries and rightwing extremists. Our existing democratic institutions and norms have been shaken by a regime already in power. The U.S. in the 2020s is faced with preserving and reinvigorating a democracy that has persisted and evolved, regressed and stagnated, reanimated and reformed, across nearly two and a half centuries.
Let’s revise the question then: Are we in our Weimar moment?
January 20, 2016, the Inauguration inaugurated a real-time stress test of American institutions all the way down to the integrity of the electoral process, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, the balance-of-powers, and a fact-based press. The damage will continue irreparably if Trump is re-elected; if Biden-Harris win, the damage will persist and roil their every undertaking.
Many hope that a Democratic victory will restore the status quo ante, a kind of reset to the end of the Obama administration. This hope is a terrible illusion. The ante is never as stable as the term status quo suggests, and the changes wrought and the wreckage done over the past four years cannot be magically waved away. History is filled with regressions but never permits do-overs. Biden’s campaign has been built on the promise of a return to normalcy, a promise clothed in the charisma of his personal steadfastness and longevity, but he will have to govern in a country that will remain, whether or not Democrats attain the majority in both houses of congress, deeply divided and agitated by an angry mass of Trump supporters ever more convinced that the political system is conspiratorially rigged against them.
Trump stubbornly stuck to his most extreme positions and egregious behavior during his campaign to a degree that many consider bizarre and self-destructive. There is, however, an alternative hypothesis. At some point, consciously or unconsciously, Trump realized he was unlikely to get reelected, so he went whole hog on all that garners him the most adulation from his devoted followers. He made his habitual calculation that fomenting confusion and chaos will sooner or later fall to his advantage. The strategy is aimed at delegitimating the election and keeping his most avid supporters filled with resentments and prejudices, embracing conspiracy theories and concocting conspiracies, enamored of militias and celebrating vigilantes. The shape the Trump movement might take during a Biden presidency is uncertain and worrisome.
Our Weimar moment will unfold on the domestic and the international front.
Our severely frayed democratic institutions and democratic values need not just restoration but radical renewal. The vision of the needed renewal is inseparable from the struggle against racial injustices, as the Black Lives Matter movement and protests have brought to light. It is the third time in American history that Black freedom and participation are necessary to rejuvenate the Republic, as in the 1860s and again in the 1950s and 60s. Democracy was dying and fragmenting in the 1850s, as legislative compromises and Supreme Court decisions expanded slavery to the West. Lincoln on the Dred Scott decision in 1857: “our Declaration of Independence was held sacred by all, and thought to include all; but now, to aid in making the bondage of the negro universal and eternal, it is sneered at, and construed, and hawked at, and torn, till, if the framers could rise from their graves, they could not recognize it at all.” It took the Emancipation Proclamation, the South’s defeat in the Civil War, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to renew democratic possibilities. But the undoing of Reconstruction and the institutionalization of Jim Crow quickly decimated those possibilities in the South. By 1896 the Supreme Court gave outright legitimacy to apartheid for another half century in Plessy v. Ferguson; not until the Civil Rights movement won Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 did de jure segregation end. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 finally redeemed the broken promises of the 1860s. And yet—mass incarceration, police violence, de facto segregation, voter suppression, and intractable inequalities of schooling, income, and wealth plague society and polis today. A Biden administration will have to turn the protest and rage into tangible policies and achievements that successfully equate African Americans’ gains with national revitalization.
American power and international standing are weaker than at any point since the end of the war in Vietnam. Unlike then, and unlike Weimar, the problems are not the result of recent defeat. To be sure, the Trump administration inherited the tangle of mistakes and miscalculations stretching from Bush’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq to Obama’s capitulation to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. A Biden administration will inherit Trump’s abandonment of global leadership and allies, erratic diplomatic and trade policy, succor to autocrats and antagonists of U.S. interests, and disregard of global energy and health policy. Roger Cohen’s commentary on the final Trump-Biden debate detailed all the areas of foreign policy that the presidential candidates and their parties have failed to debate. True, foreign policy seldom is central to electoral politics, but this year the absence of debate underscores the fact that, despite Trump’s outrages and neglectfulness, there is no consensus on the direction American diplomacy ought to take. A new vision will be required. Biden’s views have largely been derivative rather than visionary. It will not be enough to sound tough on North Korea, tell Putin what-for, and coax China to play nice. Whatever diplomatic, economic, and military strategies a Biden administration undertakes, they will be met with an array of objections and oppositions—and the inevitable unforeseen events that foreign policy must respond to.
The pressure of time will weigh heavily on these domestic and international tasks. The Republican Party has scarcely accepted the legitimacy of a Democratic President for the past three decades. A defeated Trump and his supporters will be a formidable opposition. QAnon will churn away. Biden-Harris have but four years, perhaps only two, to put American democracy on a new path. Can infrastructure initiatives, health care reform, and coherent trade policy help Democrats rebuild in so-called red states? Can the conflicts among traditional liberals, progressives, and academic and BLM activists become a creative rather than destructive strife? For it to be creative Biden-Harris must discover, in policy and rhetoric, a stance at once idealistic and pragmatic. To reverse the cliché, Biden and Harris campaigned in prose, they will have to govern in poetry.
Scholars of the Weimar Republic have drawn a significant distinction between the experience of constitutional crisis in Weimar and in American history, according to which the U.S. has tended to resolve its political problems with reference to the constitution rather than letting politics overthrow the constitution (see Arthur J. Jacobson and Bernhard Schlink (eds.), Weimar: A Jurisprudence of Crisis). The emergence of a conservative federal judiciary, now led by the ultraconservative Supreme Court that Trump has put in place with the appointment of Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, poses a rather different question, defining our Weimar moment: Will the newly minted Supreme Court majority embrace the lineage of Dred Scott v. Sandford and Plessy v. Ferguson or that or Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade? ∞