Reminding ourselves (again) of authoritarian populism

I will not surprise anyone by observing that authoritarian populism has taken hold in the United States. Donald Trump never made the slightest pretense of valuing democracy as a system of choosing leaders. There were other things that were much more important, such as, for instance, “Making America Great Again.” In light of that, it occurred to me this morning that we might pay for attention than we have to the various Hitler centennials. [1]

If we did that, we might begin that observation with a paragraph that starts like this

On July 29, 1921, Hitler assumed leadership of the organization, which by then had been renamed the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party

For this part of Hitler’s career, we might take the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 as an orienting event. This connection came to me a little late, so I failed to notice that only 77 days ago—that’s a century and 77 days, of course—Hitler became the official leader of the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party (the NSDAP) in Munich. By starting there, we would have laid a good foundation for us to begin noticing what he did to plan military-style action (premature, it turned out) against the state.

It would be fatuous to claim that the rapid rise of populist authoritarianism in Germany in the 1920s would look just like the rise of populist authoritarianism we are facing in the United States. On the other hand, it would be just as silly to refuse to see the similarities. Here are three:

Hitler believed, as did many Germans, that Germany had once been great and that its greatness had been stolen from it. All he wanted was to “stop the steal” and return Germany to the status it deserved.

Hitler believed that democracy as a system was weak and specifically, that it was inadequate to the present crisis. On the other hand, especially after the failed military action in Munich in 1923, Hitler saw that the democratic system was the best chance for the Nazi party to take power. It could be—and was—discarded after that.

Hitler drew on the economic difficulties of a large swath of the German people after the war. They were angry anyway. Hitler only needed to focus their anger on useful projects and on vulnerable populations

Macht Deutschland wieder gross

English and German don’t line up all that well as languages, but I notice that Hitler’s Stormtroopers the Sturmabteilung wore something that looked very much like an American baseball cap. That being the case, I can imagine MDWG—Macht Deutschland wieder gross—printed across the front very like MAGA is used by Donald Trump partisans. My German isn’t all that good, but I claim that is a plausible version of “Make Germany Great Again,” which was, in fact, the heart of Hitler’s early rhetoric in Munich.

It could be objected that this is simple mockery, but I don’t think it is. There are certain steps that the Nazis of Munich saw to be necessary if they were to become the dominant right wing party in Munich, in Bavaria, in Germany. These steps can be illustrated by the events of 1919—1923 as they played out. Each event can serve us, a century later, by drawing attention to what that event meant in southern Germany and by asking ourselves what a similar event would mean in the U. S.

I think that may be worth doing and I have a first example in mind. Hitler and a group of young strong “lads” [2] started a full scale riot in the Löwenbräukeller. The Bavarian League was meeting there and their leader, Otto Ballerstedt was speaking. Hitler and his group turned out the lights and attacked the meeting in the dark. The police were called and closed down the meeting. Hitler was given a warning. A month later, in a speech, Hitler defended the violence by saying, “We got what we wanted. Hallerstedt did not speak.”

The crucial organizing principle of the NSDAP was the “Führerprinzip.” This principle demands that a strong leader is to be obeyed unconditionally. Or, more practically, that “the leader’s personal authority replaced majority voting in the party.” [3] Think for a minute what that means. It means that loyalty is not given to the “party principles” if any; it is not given to the nation. “Make Germany Great Again” is folded entirely into “Make Hitler the chancellor with complete power.” The two are the same thing.

The implications for the U. S. are troubling because the worse things are, the more appealing actual leaders are and the less important principles are. In good times, all the members of the party are expected to “support” the party platform. Now when large-scale economic change is under way and the mechanisms of democracy are under threat, “supporting the party platform” just doesn’t seem enough. We feel a need to support the party leader.

If the party leader himself/herself supports the the platform, the extent of the damage will not be apparent, but this puts great pressure on the party leader. If support for the leader were contingent on the leader’s support for the platform, the leader would be insulated from the worst of those pressures. Failing that, the choice must be made over and over whether to seek fidelity to the platform or concrete and immediate political success. Every leader will lose that eventually.

That is why veneration of some “Glorious Leader”—the very heart of today’s authoritarian movements—is so important to such a movement and also why it is so important to the rest of us, who are committed to democracy as a way of choosing and constraining our leaders.

[1] This does not require that we celebrate them, of course, but it might be worth our while to begin tracking them.
[2] His term for them according to Ian David Hall’s
Hitler’s Munich, p. 94
[3] Hall op. cit. also
Mein Kampf, pp. 349—350..

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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