Even Without a Red Wave, This Could Now Be Weimar America


Before we ponder the biggest news in the world this week, the surprisingly narrow midterm elections in the US, let’s pay tribute to Jair Bolsonaro. That’s because the Brazilian president has recently done the right thing by becoming an unlikely role model for patriots in struggling democracies around the world — even (or especially) honest Republicans in America.

Bolsonaro is a populist leader who has taken style guidance from former U.S. President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He had just narrowly lost the Brazilian presidential election to his left-wing challenger Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. For two days, Brazilians waited with bated breath for what Bolsonaro would do. Spread the big lie that the election was “stolen”? Nodding to his thugs using violence? Reject the orderly transfer of power?

“As president and as a citizen, I will continue to abide by our constitution,” Bolsonaro announced instead, authorizing the transfer to Lula. Through this gesture, Brazil’s democracy, at least for now, has been preserved and even strengthened.

Now turning to the United States, after painful and ugly midterm elections, as of this morning, powers in Congress and several states remain suspended. The biggest unanswered question is: With the 2024 presidential election approaching, can the United States reaffirm its values ​​like Brazil did?

It may or may not be. If this ambiguity doesn’t scare you, you’re not paying attention. According to the count, between 253 and 291 MAGA Republicans were in some way Donald Trump supporters in the U.S. federal and state polls yesterday, promoting the big lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Many pretended to be indifferent to the violent uprising on January 6, 2021, denying it was an attempted coup despite good evidence. The majority will support Donald’s expected rematch with President Joe Biden in two years, after a big hit on Trump’s ride.

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What will that election look like? In 2020, Trump and his staff orchestrated an ongoing effort, documented with devastating precision by a congressional committee on Jan. 6, using lies, intimidation, fraud and violence to overturn legitimate elections. If that coup attempt failed, it was because enough officials across the country — especially enough Republicans — resisted and defended the truth.

Next time, it may not be so. “Anyone who denies the result of an election is also saying that he will deny the result of another election,” said Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale University and author of “On Tyranny.” With this pre-set tension, the United States could be headed toward what might be euphemistically called a constitutional crisis in 2024, but may actually look like a low-level civil war.

That nightmare wasn’t inevitable. But looking back at history shows that this is reasonable. Republics are being built all the time, and trends in the U.S. and elsewhere are so worrisome that they have sparked research into “how democracy dies.” The short answer is that their deaths did not have to be as spectacular and sudden as Chile in 1973. More often, freedom fails as marriages, corporations, and dams are known for: first gradually, then suddenly.

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My favorite case studies are Republican Rome and Weimar Germany. Both share many distinct features of institutional decline with the United States today. One is to repeatedly break taboos, especially those against political violence.

In the Roman Republic, it began with the murders of the two Glacia brothers in 133 BC and 121 BC. In Weimar, it started with the serial assassinations of centrist and left politicians by right-wing thugs in the early 1920s. In the US, this taboo will be broken by 2021 at the latest when the Capitol is ransacked. Just the other day, a man broke into the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with the intention of stomping her on his knees; in her absence, he decided to hit her husband on the head with a hammer . What’s next?

This erosion of taboos and etiquette was accompanied by a cynical abandonment of truth as a norm. The term “big lie” actually comes from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Once we can no longer agree on the facts—and worse yet, once we can no longer prescribe that the truth exists at all—nor can we respect the judgments of the courts, or the legitimacy of any institution.

In this context, the only thing evil needs to win is for good people to do nothing. This phrase, coined to the great conservative thinker Edmund Burke, describes Republican Rome, Weimar, and America today, among other places. Then, as now, enough people—in the elite and the elect—adapted to unbridled worship of Caesar until it was too late. One excuse for the November 8 indifference is that the election was not really about democracy, but about “fundamental issues” like inflation.

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So citizens of sunset democracies coveted into tyranny. One detail I’ve always been curious about is that neither Hitler nor Octavian – better known as Augustus, the first emperor of Rome – bothered to abolish the constitution of the republic they destroyed. Hitler simply ignored the Weimar Constitution, which was officially abolished only after Germany’s defeat in 1945. Octavian was careful to preserve the pomp of the Republican Party, including the Senate, consulates, consuls, and courts. It’s just that everyone knows it’s just a show. It is entirely conceivable that gravediggers in the American Republic would have “We the People” tattooed on their arms.

But we’re not there yet. Sometimes in history, good people stop doing nothing and start doing something. They transcend partisan allegiance or resist the composure of indifference — or the lure of power — and heed the call of duty. Bolsonaro and many Brazilians did it. Americans, regardless of their political party, can too.

More from Bloomberg Views:

Bogan shows US and UK how to get democracy right: Andreas Cruz

Divisive race: Brexiteers or Republicans ahead? : Martin Ivens

Jan. 6 panel proves again that Trump must be held accountable: Timothy L. O’Brien

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg columnist covering European politics. He was the editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global, a contributor to The Economist, and the author of Hannibal and Me.

More stories like this can be found at bloomberg.com/opinion


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