A Few Steps to an Abyss?

A Few Steps to an Abyss and a Way to Avoid It in the US: a review of The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard (2017) and of a recent article in Harper’s magazine entitled “Rebirth of a Nation” November 2018

by John M Repp

Order of the Day is a short, very powerful book about Nazi Germany. Translated from the French, the prize-winning author, Eric Vuillard picks out a few events in the long string of events, i.e. “orders of the day”, that historians describe when they tell the whole story. The accounts of the two events make clear that individuals of the ruling economic and political circles missed chances to stop the Nazis if not actually supporting them. The accounts are based on memoirs or diaries of the men who were there.

On February 20, 1933, the Nazis were the leaders of a coalition government and they called together a secret meeting of 24 titans of German industry. The owners of corporations like Bayer, Siemens, and BMW were told that if they wanted a strong regime that could totally eliminate the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party and bring the labor unions under their control, the titans needed to donate millions of German Marks, so the Nazis could win the next election and get a big majority in the Parliament. The 24 agreed and gave millions to the Nazis.

On March 12, 1938, Germany invaded Austria. Leading up to that day, Vuillard tells us what happened in the rooms where Nazi leaders were making ever escalating demands on the Austrian political leaders, some of whom were old aristocrats not used to being verbally abused in diplomatic negotiations. When the German army finally invaded Austria, the Nazis hoped to show the world what a blitzkrieg (lightning war with tanks) looked like. The invasion faced no resistance because the German demands on Austrian leaders succeeded in forcing a surrender before the German army crossed the border. The Germans were taking the “high ground” of uniting all the German-speaking people into the new Reich (empire). When the German army finally crossed the border, the German tanks had mechanical failure, blocking the road so Hitler’s motorcade had to drive around the broken-down army. Hitler was on the way to Vienna for a big rally and “celebration”. The breakdown of the tanks was not what the Nazi controlled newsreels broadcast to the world.

Vuillard shows us a version of history that challenges the legends about the Nazis that have seeped into our culture. He shows us a few of the steps towards the abyss that made the twentieth century a tragedy. The war unleashed by the Nazis killed 60 million people. Then Vuillard writes: “Don’t believe for a minute that this all belongs to some distant past.”

Many historians and political scientists know that as the elites of a capitalist country, in economic and political crisis, face massive protest, or effective organizing by the working classes, or just a massive loss of legitimacy, they work to protect their positions by chipping away at and destroying democracy. From the point of view of the ruling elites, the role of fascism is to destroy movements that also develop during periods of economic and political crisis. Fascism is led by cynical power-hungry leaders. Fascism is a movement of a minority of enough passionate and confused people, people confused by nationalism, racism and false narratives, to look like a genuine popular movement.  The movement is not a genuine popular movement because it serves the interests of the ruling elites. We need to know that the mass media play an important role in a fascist movement. The Nazis made very effective ground-breaking use of radio and film to build their movement.

Since Trump’s installation into the White House and as well as the success of several authoritarian parties around the world, there has been a lot of discussion about fascism. In Seattle, Rick Steves, the popular travel writer, made a one-hour special program for public television entitled “The Story of Fascism in Europe”. https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/video/tv-show/fascism

The dominance of fascism is not inevitable in the United states, or anywhere else, for that matter. There is also a movement in the U.S. called “the Resistance” that is organizing against Trump and the Republican Party. The Resistance desperately needs a strategy if it is to be successful. The November 2018 edition of Harper’s magazine features an article entitled “Rebirth of a Nation: Can state’s rights save us from a second civil war?” by Jonathan Taplin where he lays out such a strategy. https://harpers.org/archive/2018/11/rebirth-of-a-nation/

Taplin takes the danger of a second civil war in the U.S. seriously because a large power and policy imbalance very similar to the one that led to the first Civil War has appeared in our time. A minority of citizens living in the rural South and the Midwest currently holds veto power over any progressive legislation wanted by the urban-based majority of Americans.

However, several pillars of the American democratic tradition stand in the way of a fascist takeover. One is Federalism, the fact that we have elected governments in the States, cities, and counties. Another is the Tenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Taplin calls the strategy he is describing “progressive Federalism.” It means progressives need to work at the state, city and county level to push through their programs.

In a particularly hopeful part of his essay, Tarpin describes “an experiment” that has been run since 2008. The theory to revive economic growth after the financial crash embraced by Trump and the political establishment in Texas and Kansas, for example, calls for “cutting taxes on the wealthy and cutting regulations on business” (p.31) The progressive theory, used in California and Oregon, calls for “raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for education and public infrastructure, and stronger regulations on pollution, privacy, and assault weapons.” (p.31) The results of the experiment have been in since 2015. The progressive theory results in more than twice the rate of economic growth! And people are noticing. Some are moving out of the conservative controlled areas to the progressive areas for the better and more plentiful jobs.

Tarpin admits that the California model has a big problem. The wealth gap in the Bay area is one of the largest in the country, in part due to the monopolistic nature of companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook, and its effect on markets. He recommends that “Democrats might frame themselves as the party that rallies beneath the banner of a nationally unified anti-corruption and anti-inequality program while embracing a decentralized view of government as the vehicle for achieving that program” (p.32) He is supporting the progressive Sanders-Warren-Ocasio-Cortez wing of the Democratic party over the status quo Pelosi-Schumer-Feinstein wing.

Tarpin writes that the power and policy imbalance threatening our nation can be traced back to 1989 with the first outline for the creation of a World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee, a Federal Court affirmation of the right of the Federal Communication Commission to abolish the fairness doctrine, the subsequent filling of the AM radio airwaves with right-wing talk and finally first successes of the new Fox TV network. Today, Americans spend about 9 hours a day in front of a screen. We no longer have a shared set of facts like we used to have when Walter Cronkite signed off saying “that’s the way it is”.