Browning is a historian specializing in the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, and–as one might expect–the essay considers the parallels and differences between then in Germany and now in the United States. He notes several troubling similarities–and one equally troubling difference. After sketching U.S. policies in the run-up to World War Two, and emphasizing the importance of the post-war international agreements, he writes
Today, President Trump seems intent on withdrawing the US from the entire post–World War II structure of interlocking diplomatic, military, and economic agreements and organizations that have preserved peace, stability, and prosperity since 1945. His preference for bilateral relations, conceived as zero-sum rivalries in which he is the dominant player and “wins,” overlaps with the ideological preference of Steve Bannon and the so-called alt-right for the unfettered self-assertion of autonomous, xenophobic nation-states—in short, the pre-1914 international system. That “international anarchy” produced World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Great Depression, the fascist dictatorships, World War II, and the Holocaust, precisely the sort of disasters that the post–World War II international system has for seven decades remarkably avoided.
In addition to the “agenda of withdrawal” parallels, he compares the political weakness of those in control of the Weimar Republic–weakness that led them to cast their lot with Hitler–to the shrinking American support for conservatism that led to the GOP’s embrace of Trump.
But Browning saves his most scathing–and accurate– criticism for Mitch McConnell, writing
If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell. He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could. As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more. Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments. Systematic obstruction of nominations in Obama’s first term provoked Democrats to scrap the filibuster for all but Supreme Court nominations. Then McConnell’s unprecedented blocking of the Merrick Garland nomination required him in turn to scrap the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations in order to complete the “steal” of Antonin Scalia’s seat and confirm Neil Gorsuch. The extreme politicization of the judicial nomination process is once again on display in the current Kavanaugh hearings….Like Hitler’s conservative allies, McConnell and the Republicans have prided themselves on the early returns on their investment in Trump.
The difference Browning identifies between then and now is equally unsettling. Hitler had to take overt actions to dissolve labor unions, to seize control of media and pursue other measures that consolidated his power. Browning says such actions are no longer necessary, because American democracy is being suffocated from within: the independence of the judiciary is being steadily eroded; the free press still exists, but has been neutered by a flood of propaganda and fake news; and systemic flaws like gerrymandering and the Electoral College have allowed the GOP to win elections despite garnering only minority support.
On these issues, often described as the guardrails of democracy against authoritarian encroachment, the Trump administration either has won or seems poised to win significant gains for illiberalism. Upon his appointment as chancellor, Hitler immediately created a new Ministry of People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels, who remained one of his closest political advisers.
In Trump’s presidency, those functions have effectively been privatized in the form of Fox News and Sean Hannity.
I think it was Mark Twain who said history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.