Aaron Sibarium has written a fascinating article for American Purpose on the parallels between the current American republic and the Weimar republic. It’s worth reading on its own merits as a history lesson, as a reminder that no people is immune to time and tide, as a reflection on how democracy can turn into disaster. It’s worth reading even if you disagree, as I do.
Sibarium rightly identifies the Weimar-esque tendencies in modern American life: radicalization of once-centrist parties, demonization of the other side, a willingness to overturn founding principles in the same of restoring or repairing them, a rise in street violence — all reflecting an elite ‘inchoate radicalism’, a ‘vague, burn-it-down impulse increasingly common across the political spectrum’.
As Sibarium says, America isn’t Weimar. The Freikorps who tried to overthrow the Weimar republic would eat the cosplay protesters of Portland for breakfast. And, above all, the American constitution has proven durability. The Weimar constitution demonstrated its weaknesses soon after its creation in 1919, and those weaknesses are why Weimar still overshadows us, because they made possible the democratic rise and parliamentary victory of Nazism.
Weimar society was born fissiparous in the aftermath of military defeat. The new constitution, rather than healing those differences, contained a powerful incentive for exacerbating them: proportional representation. While this made Weimar democracy unstable, Article 48 of the constitution rendered democracy dispensable, but on nebulous terms. Article 48 gave the president emergency powers to override the Reichstag, but without defining the emergency.
The American system remains a two-horse race, regardless of the knackered quality of the ponies. The president’s powers are extensive and, as Walter Bagehot smirkingly pointed out, almost monarchical, but they are also tightly defined in law. So while we see Weimar symptoms in American society, the deeper condition isn’t Weimaritis. Rather, the framework of the current American crisis is an inflammation of the Hapsburgs.
The emperor in the White House rules a colossal terrain. In this, the American president has more in common with an Ottoman sultan or a Hapsburg emperor than a British monarch or even a French president. Like the sultan and the emperor, he is the ever-present provincial symbol of the distant metropolitan power that prints the money and maintains the army.
The American emperor’s subjects have sorted themselves into two kingdoms, Democratic and Republican. The urban-rural aspect of this split has similarities to Georgian England, and the divisions that Trevor-Roper called ‘court and country’. But the political geography of America is closer to that of the Hapsburg empire after it had sorted itself into two kingdoms, the Dual Monarchy, in the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867.
The Hungarians wanted their rights and rebelled in 1848. The Austrians refused to grant them and installed military rule, then struck a deal. The result was a two-headed beast in which neither head trusted the other, and a condominium that, instead of calming nationalism, intensified it by leaving its strongest passions unsatisfied. The Austrians compromised in 1867, but not enough to satisfy the Hungarians, and all the other nations under Austrian control saw what the Hungarians had won, and wanted it for themselves. Fast-forward to Franz Ferdinand’s day trip to Sarajevo.
Where the Hapsburgs had nationalism, we have ‘identity’. Like the Hapsburgs, we have racialized nationalism within an imperial framework. The result is what English-speakers call ‘Balkanization’. You need only look at the history of the Balkans in the half-century before 1914 to see where our current path leads.
The bureaucracy in Washington DC — our Vienna, only without the boulevards, salons, musicians and writers — is a depraved and incompetent patronage system. The Hapsburg-style education system encourages its subjects to see themselves as members of national collectives, and also to resent the metropolis for not giving them their hyphenated rights. This too is a recipe for violent breakdown.
As the center gives way, anti-Judaism, which is the racialized inversion of Christian morality, emerges as the only common language of politics. Once, the intellectuals, clergymen and the mob told the Jews to go to Palestine. Now, the children of our semi-educated ruling caste gang up with black nationalists and Islamists tell the Jews to get out of Palestine. This is called progress.
Above all, the typical affluent young American, the sort who in a more stable time might have thrown in his or her lot with the bureaucracy or a management job in the Mittelstand, the corporate heart of the economy, now resembles no literary figure so much as Ulrich, the protagonist of Robert Musil’s 1913 novel The Man Without Qualities.
Ulrich is a forerunner of our college-educated millennials: morally enfeebled, sexually frustrated, professionally stunted. He has acquired enough sophistication to see through the forms of politics and social life — ‘critical thinking’, as the imposters of our schools call it — but not enough conviction to act in a way that might improve his life by bringing him into authentic contact with ‘reality’, which he knows is somewhere out there but cannot touch.
Musil never finished his novel. But Hitler, who rode the failings of Weimar all the way to the top spot, eventually gave the Ulrichs a purpose. The American future won’t be Weimar, but late-Hapsburg: a dual monarchy, divided between itself and within itself by nationalism, decadent with corruption and lassitude, scapegoating Jews because it cannot accept its own mediocrity, and waiting for the historical intrusion that will free it from the slow spiral of decline.