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Polarized America

Members of the group called ANTIFA Sacramento (Anti-Fascism Action) stage a counter-protest against the Traditionalist Worker's Party and the Golden State Skinheads in Sacramento (Paul Kitagaki Jr. /SacBee)

The movie “Cabaret” takes place in Weimar Germany, right before the rise of Hitler. In it, a baron, who is also a very rich businessman and a representative of the German establishment, assures a poor scholar, visiting from Cambridge, England: “The Nazis will take care of the communists and we’ll take care of the Nazis.” The scholar then asks the baron, “Who is we?”

A few scenes later, they are together at an outdoor pub when an angelic looking blond boy in a Hitler Youth uniform begins singing a seemingly innocuous patriotic song, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” which begins with serene comforting images of the German countryside but ends with a reframe, “The morning will come when the world is mine,” as almost everyone except the baron and the scholar rises for a “Heil Hitler” salute.

The scholar then asks the baron, “Do you still think you can control them?” The scene might not have been that alarming to people who did not know what was to follow.

The word “we” suggests common interests in which all Germans shared, but that was hardly the case in the early 1930s. Struggling to recover from World War I and dependent upon American investment, the Weimar Republic saw its legitimacy collapse as the Great Depression spread its tentacles from the United States to the rest of the world. Weimer was certain to be replaced either by the Communists or another revolutionary movement of the left or by one of several right-wing, hyper-nationalist militaristic parties. The Nazis prevailed, but a rival could have taken over had events gone only slightly differently. Only a few years before the Nazi take over, most of the conservative or social democratic establishment dismissed them as the “right loony fringe.”

As German politics polarized between the left and the right in the 1920s, there emerged a parallel cultural divide between people who embraced experimentation in art, sexuality, lifestyle and those who clung to the “three K’s” (in English: children, kitchen and church) and yearned for the restoration of German military glory and respect for traditional authority.

The United States, at the time, experienced a similar rift between the flappers and the evangelical revivalists who flocked to hear Billy Sunday and fought evolution, as the Ku Klux Klan reemerged.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the United States underwent even greater division between a counterculture tied to a left that saw the Vietnam War as emblematic of a flawed militaristic capitalist empire against a “silent majority” committed to American glory, traditional families, the virtues of hard work, and for some, white rights and Christian values.

For all the talk about how polarized the United States is now, it was more so then. At that time, the left was challenging the legitimacy of the American military. Many within the younger generation were rejecting the society, based on working and consuming, which they were supposed to inherit. Japan and Europe were showing signs of surpassing the United States economically. Some, such as David Rockefeller, within the corporate elite felt it was essential to reestablish respect for traditional authority.

By the late 1970s, the silent majority morphed in the “New Right.“ The New Right embraced unrestrained capitalism as “Christian,” something which evangelical movements had seldom previously done. The American corporate elite found this version of fundamentalism palatable, especially when, like the German establishment during Weimar, it confronted a threat from the left.

Today, like in the 1960/70s, America is experiencing a Weimar-like polarization as the gap between the 1% and 99% approaches an unprecedented high.

A few years before the rift of the late 1970s, much of the American corporate establishment would have seen the Christian right as a “loony fringe,” but like the German elite of the early 1930s, they felt a need to find someone to return order and stability. Although many were previously suspicious of Ronald Reagan, they allowed him to become president. Hitler promised German honor would be restored and Germany would never again lose a war. Reagan made the same promise to America. The German business community thought they could contain Hitler. They were wrong. The American business community hoped they could control Reagan and it turns out they were correct.

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Reagan built a coalition between the corporate elite and the evangelical right. He did not enact the programs of the fundamentalists, but he gave them lip-service as their perspective gained respectability. He recentered the political spectrum as the real left fell beyond the edge and liberalism, which previously had been the mainstream, became the “L-word.”

Reagan dissipated the crisis that he was brought into office to resolve, but his fiscal and military policies may have laid the seeds for America’s long-term economic decline. He doubled the government deficit as jobs and infrastructure were exported. Despite underlying instability, there appeared to be a surface return to normalcy and patriotism and today, even some liberals remember his tenure nostalgically. America is now suffering through the long-term impact of his program, as a standard of living based on deficit rather than production cannot be sustained indefinitely.

Today, like in the 1960/70s, America is experiencing a Weimar-like polarization as the gap between the 1% and 99% approaches an unprecedented high. After a thirty-year dormancy, the Left seems to be reemerging; with manifestations like the Occupies and the campaign of a moderate social democrat-Bernie Sanders-who almost captured the Democratic nomination. Like in Weimar, a strengthening Left is being matched by an assertive Right as Donald Trump is about to be crowned Republican nominee.

Sanders and Trump both won their support among a 99% feeling much the same angst and insecurity. The battle is over how the public is to conceptualize the source of the malaise. Sanders suggests it is the 1% establishment and perhaps the very militaristic capitalist system they control. Hitler attributed Germany’s trauma to vermin within its midst, undermining Aryan purity—especially Jews, who lived there prosperously for generations. Similarly, Trump blames America’s decline on alien infiltrators—Muslims and Mexicans, along with cowardly liberals who cannot stand up for true Americans and have weakened the United States to the point that foreign countries dare defy American authority. As the Nazis, in defiance of religious freedom, passed laws requiring Jews to register, Trump plans to establish a national database for Muslims. Former Republican Governor of Massachusetts William Weld has compared Trump’s xenophobia to Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when the Nazis went wild beating Jews as they broke their windows.

True to the baron in “Cabaret’s” expectations, Nazi storm troopers would beat up Communists even before Hitler seized power. When leftist protest at Trump rallies, his response from the podium has been reminiscent of Hitler’s. He assured his supporters “knock the crap out of them … I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”

In polarized times, the right has hardly been alone in turning to violence, although they often seem more comfortable with it than the left. As Weimar collapsed, the Communists did engage the Nazis in street brawls. In the 1960s and 70s, the Black Panthers and the Weatherman called for “picking up the gun.” At the May 2016 Nevada Democratic convention, some Sanders’ supporters were alleged to have thrown chairs and Chairwomen Roberta Lange allegedly received threats. Sanders appeared to condone the protesters suggesting that they were reacting against the party leadership using "its power to prevent a fair and transparent process from taking place." However, he also insisted his rallies had been violence free and he did not endorse violence.

In Sacramento on June 26, 2016, about thirty members of a self-proclaimed White national group, the Traditionalist Workers Party, held a rally. The party claims to defend “faith, family and folk” against “economic exploitation, federal tyranny, and anti-Christian degeneracy.” When they met by a larger group of at least two hundred anti-fascist protesters, violence ensued with at least ten people injured and two stabbed. It is not clear who initiated the violence.

Although there has been violence from the left, both in America and in Weimar, it is not comparable to violence from the right. A Trump regime could have eerie similarities to Nazi Germany, but resolving America’s problems will require an opposite approach—following policies like those proposed by Bernie Sanders.

Very likely, the establishment will prevail and Hillary Clinton will be America’s next president. We certainly should prefer her to Trump, but she probably will not close the gap between the 1% and the 99% and she is likely to engage in more self-destructive military adventurism. The crisis will continue and a new Trump-like bully will emerge—perhaps Trump himself four years from now.

To prevent a Weimar-like collapse, America must follow Sanders-like policies, stop playing the world’s military policeman, and direct its resources towards improving the quality of the life for its people.

vietnam war crime

Yale R Magrass