By Thomas Weber
It is not hyperbole to state that the future of liberal democracy is at stake when Americans go to the polls today. If Donald Trump will emerge victorious from his contest with Hillary Clinton, the future of liberal democracy will be in peril.
To be sure, Donald Trump’s America will neither be the Fourth Reich, nor will it likely resemble anything like Mussolini’s Italy. The flaw in most Hitler-Trump comparisons is that they focus on the similarities between the two men – real as well as imagined – rather than their differences. Unlike Mr. Trump, Hitler was neither a dunderhead nor a clown.
The leader of the Nazi Party did not merely propagate empty political slogans of the ‘Make America Great Again’ kind. Even though Hitler was using slogans that superficially resemble those of Mr. Trump, at his core, he was driven by the genuine goal of understanding why Germany had lost World War One and how a new Germany had to be recast in order sustainably to survive in a rapidly changing world. It was the attempt to find answers to these two questions and to implement them, rather than merely to get attention and gain power for its own sake, that sets Hitler apart from Trump. And it is so obvious that, unlike Hitler, Donald Trump has no plans for war without end or for genocide that the fact is hardly worth pointing out.
Nevertheless, despite the profound differences in their political ambitions, both men have posed an existential threat to the survival of liberal democracy. Despite their different goals, both have in their times undermined the fabric of democracy and politics. In their style of campaigning and of conducting politics fanned by their narcissism, they share tactics and modes of operation that present a direct threat to the rule of law, the separation of powers, and the check and balances at the heart of liberal democratic polities. And their demagoguery kills civility, without which, liberal democratic polities suffocate and eventually die. Further, both have gone through confirmation cycles that have fuelled their radicalization. Both have turned the traditional politics of adversaries into a politics of enemies. In short, both have undermined the immune system of the liberal processes that produced them such that their very survival of democracy is brought into question.
The differences in their political goals should not reassure us. Nor should the fact that the United States of today has more in common with the western world during the late 19th Century and the great crisis of liberalism following the crash of the Viennese stock exchange, than with interwar Germany. After all, those who destroy political systems do not always determine what happens next. In fact, they rarely do: the cases of Hitler or Mussolini may well be unusual in that both demagogues destroyed one political system and dominated the system that followed. Yet in far more historical cases that was simply not the case. The phrase “the revolution devours its children” exists for a good reason.
The real danger a Trump presidency would pose to the United States thus is quite possibly not encapsulated by the man himself but by what would follow a Trump presidency. The best-case scenario of a Trump presidency is an 1880s scenario: a rule of populism that is ultimate checked. Yet we should bear in mind that it was only the great crisis of liberalism of the late 19th Century that made the even greater crisis of interwar Europe possible. We should also remember that political disintegration, once triggered, historically often plays out much more rapidly than around the turn of the Century. Domestically, the real danger a Trump presidency poses hence lies in its likely ability to destroy the American immune system, thus making it eventually susceptible to 1920s-style shocks to its system, reverberations that will be far more egregious than the one posed by Donald Trump.
In foreign affairs, the danger a Trump presidency would pose to the liberal order is even more immediate. Again, Trump-Hitler comparisons will not get us very far in explaining why a Trump presidency should be the cause for grave concern. To state the obvious, Mr. Trump has no plans to grab territories from others, to annihilate entire populations, or to advocate an international system governed by social Darwinism.
An unstable narcissist in charge of the U.S. nuclear codes poses an obvious and fundamental threat to the world that requires no further elaboration. Yet Trump would pose an existential threat to the liberal world order, even if his generals were to hide the nuclear codes from him in the same way that his team pulled him away from his Twitter account in the dying days of the presidential campaign.
In his foreign policy goals, Donald Trump repeatedly oscillates between isolationist positions and a return to a crude version of late 19th Century power politics. A Trump presidency would thus fatally undermine an international order based on liberal values and rules. With a United Nations rendered impotent by internal divisions, a European Union unable to speak with one voice, and a United States unwilling both to champion and police the liberal world order, it is difficult to see how that order could survive. Furthermore, a constant oscillation between isolationism and intervention aimed at maximizing American power, in combination with a lack of a functioning system of collective security, and no obvious other power able or willing to fill the void would massively increase the volatility of the international system.
A Trump presidency would hence trigger a further mushrooming of ungoverned spaces well beyond the southern shore of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It would thus herald the Somali-fication of the world. These issues – rather than the question which emails Hillary Clinton may forwarded to her daughter – are thus the ones worthwhile considering for Americans as they enter their polling stations today, for it is these issues which will determine the future of liberal democracy.
Thomas Weber is Professor of History and International Affairs at the University of Aberdeen. He has held positions and fellowships at Harvard, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, and the University of Glasgow.
His latest book on how Hitler became a Nazi was recently published in Dutch by Nieuw Amsterdam and in German by Propyläen. The book is forthcoming in English, published by Basic Books and Oxford University Press, under the title of “Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Demagogue”.
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Header photo: Thomas Weber photographed by Rosie Goldsmith