Media reaction to Donald Trump challenging the recent election results seems, so far, to be one of annoyed bemusement with a touch of gathering anxiety. The recent moves by the President to replace the civilian leadership at the Pentagon with diehard partisan loyalists, and reports of some Republican state legislators considering sending an alternate slate to the Electoral College, should send a chill up every spine. Still, it is a reasonable bet that Joseph R. Biden will be sworn into office on January 20, 2021.
That, however, will not end the existential threat posed to American democracy by Republican attempts to delegitimize the will of the voters. Right now, in ways that are redolent of our darkest cultural history, Trump and his apparatchiks are sowing the seeds of calamity deep in the soil of their furious, white, reactionary, and well-armed base — and that is a reality that should sober us all.
Despite losing the election by five-million votes (and counting); despite losing five states from his 2016 coalition; despite there being no evidence of widespread voter fraud; and despite the courts rejecting suit after suit brought by the Trump campaign legal team, the President has refused to accept the will of the voters, tweeting relentlessly that he has been — despite all the evidence before our eyes — victorious. He has also instructed his toadies to do the same. Attend this representative sample of recent public statement:
- On November 7, Republican Party elder statesman Newt Gingrich stated flatly on Fox News, “Frankly, I think it is a corrupt, stolen election.”
- On November 9, Senator Lindsey Graham showed, perhaps, a bit too much ankle in his conspiracy theorizing, stating, “If Republicans don’t challenge and change the U.S. election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again.”
- On November 10, while answering questions from the press, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bizarrely claimed there would be “. . . a smooth transition to a second Trump Administration.”
All of this is simply not true — with the hopeful exception of Senator Graham’s observation about the fate of his party in a rapidly diversifying nation. All of this, to use the argot of the day, is fake news. It is fake news, and people should be prepared — no matter what happens over the Trump-Biden interregnum — for it to get far worse from here.
Historically, we’ve seen the damage that this sort of collective delusion can cause when it spreads amongst a political party of well-armed, misinformed, and willingly misguided white people. We’ve seen that that damage can be, quite literally, devastating to a civilization. Consider this parallel:
Throughout World War I, the German national press was intimately censored by the government of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The state media reported only military victories, only stories of German glory. As such, a sizable percentage of the population was simply baffled by news that Germany had accepted an armistice in the fall of 1918. To the Kaiser’s most loyal subjects, quitting the war made no sense at all. German territory had not been invaded, and earlier that year, the war along the Eastern Front had come to a successful conclusion when Russia dropped out of the fight. For all the misinformed population knew, Germany was on the cusp of a great victory. Yet, none of that was true.
Substitute the Fox News primetime lineup for the Kaiser’s loyal press, and you see the same level of misinformation among modern American conservatives. Neither the Germany political right in 1918, nor the American political right in 2020 were prepared to accept a sudden and unexpected loss when it appeared on their doorstep.
Step back again into the history.
In the fall of 1918, the German position was beyond perilous. Earlier that year, they launched an offensive along the Western Front that proved a strategic disaster. The Kaiser’s military lost rank upon rank of their most elite forces, and gained only useless ground. These highly trained troops could not be replaced by the depleted reserves at home. Worse still, the Central Powers now faced an Allied army reinforced by two-million fresh American troops under command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing.
Moreover, Germany’s allies were falling aside. After a defeat on their Macedonian front, Bulgaria sued for peace in late September. Their withdrawal from the war severed the rail link between Berlin and Istanbul, causing the Ottoman Empire to seek peace under adverse conditions, as well. By October, Germany stood alone.
This reality — still denied by the propagandists — crashed down hard on the nation and its leaders. The Allies’ naval blockade had isolated Germany entirely, strangling its economy. Bread riots broke out in the cities. Trade unionists led strikes and marches. Industrial production ground to a halt. For those who weren’t determined to ingest the Kaiser’s unending stream of political disinformation, it became eminently clear: Germany had lost the war.
The high military command in Berlin understood this much, as well. On September 29, 1918, Army General Erich Ludendorff and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, reported to the Kaiser that they could not hold the army together for even another day. They explained that Germany must agree to an immediate armistice, or risk the complete destruction of its military. Reality, at long last, had broken down the door. Shortly thereafter, the Kaiser abdicated, Germany signed the armistice, and the war came to an end.
Yet, given the totality of the misinformation consumed by the German right during the war, this reality was inconceivable. Many in the nation believed so entirely in German cultural superiority that they rejected the notion of military defeat outright in favor of a unifying, soothing lie: A grievance myth that conformed to preexisting beliefs, and blamed the national humiliation on conspiracy, treachery, and foul play.
Again, sound familiar?
Leaders on the right wing of German postwar politics cast around for those they could blame, and found them in an already established list of enemies. In the form of a nascent Nazi Party, men like Adolf Hitler and Ernst Röhm blamed the urban intellectuals and liberals in academia. They blamed the trade unionists and the socialists. They blamed the anarchists, the communists, and the foreigners — and they blamed the Jews. This tale of betrayal became known as the Dolchstosslegende, or “the stab-in-the-back myth.” It posited a fictional narrative of the German Kaiser and the German military on the very brink of victory when, in November of 1918, criminal enemies on the home front betrayed them. These men rewrote, whole cloth, the German defeat into a story of treason by the left.
At first, the story didn’t gain much traction. The Weimar Republic — the new government of postwar Germany — liberalized their society and attempted to rejoin the fellowship of nations. For a time, they even enjoyed a bit of prosperity and growth. But when the German economy buckled under the weight of reparations, conditions ripened for a resurgence of the grievance myth and the political right wing.
In 1923, with hyperinflation driving the value of German currency into the dirt, Adolf Hitler led a cadre of disgruntled soldiers in an attempt to seize the government of Bavaria during the Bürgerbräu-Putsch, known in the English-speaking world as the Beer Hall Putsch. To inspire a willingness to topple the elected government in his followers, Hitler used the Dolchstosslegende as the central organizing message.
Weimer authorities foiled the revolt, but Hitler’s subsequent trial gained a national audience and gave the stab-in-the-back myth a massive signal boost. The following year, while in prison, he wrote it all down in his memoir, Mein Kampf.
A full decade of economic calamity further stressed the German volk to dreams of retribution against some easily identifiable enemy, leading a resurgent Nazi Party to ride the Dolchstosslegende into power in 1933. Thus ended the Weimar Republic, and thus began the Third Reich.
We can’t know, of course, if the modern Republican Dolchstosslegende of a stolen 2020 election will have the same consequences on our collective American future, but we would be fools to ignore the potential for chaos, given the all-consuming totality of the media bubble in which many on the right live. Donald Trump might fade from a central role in American history in little more than two months, but if we simply trust that the poisonous disinformation being injected daily into our national blood stream — disinformation that calls into question the very structure of our democracy — will dissipate of its own accord, then we forget the counsel of history. The GOP, Donald Trump, and Fox News are — right now — undermining the foundations of our republic, one gigantic lie at a time.
A large percentage of the American right, at this very moment, is every bit as misguided about reality as was the German right in the fall of 1918. Moreover, our modern American right wing is every bit as ethnically homogenous, anti-intellectual, well-armed, and potentially violent as were the proto-Nazis during Weimar. If you doubt this, consider the recent plot to kidnap and murder the governor of Michigan. If you doubt this, listen for an afternoon to a broadcast by Steve Bannon or Alex Jones, in which they call for the heads — literally — of their political rivals. If you doubt this, look to the recent statement by a leader of the Proud Boys embracing overt antisemitism, racism, and a belief in white supremacy. The Proud Boys are, of course, the group that Donald Trump told to “stand back, and stand by.”
These people have told us who they are, and we should believe them. More gentile conservative political operatives can obfuscate that truth only so far when the proof of their violent ends expresses itself both in the media, and in deeds on the ground.
The great lie that Donald Trump’s victory was snatched away by a conspiracy of treacherous leftists and Democrats should be understood as far more troublesome than some small stumbling block on the road to a smooth transition of power in early 2021. This Dolchstosslegende of massive voter fraud, this grievance myth of a broken system that Republicans can never honestly win, could — given the right social and economic calamity — come back to haunt us as it did the good people of Weimar.
History shows that when a sizable segment of society drifts so far away from reality that they see wide-ranging, nonexistent conspiracies in the wind, then we — the liberals, the intellectuals, the socialists, the anarchists, and the trade unionists — risk the whirlwind if we do not pay very close attention.
The Republican Party, right now, is claiming that we — that you and I — are part of a nefarious plot to destroy America. Accusations like that, when left to fester, can result in fantastic violence. Trump planted the seeds of this conspiracy theory over many, many months leading up to the election. Republicans and the right-wing media echo-chamber have watered and tended this madness right at his side. Now the departure of their audience from objective truth and reason has metastasized into a threat to our shared reality.
No matter what happens in January, we will enter the next phase of American history with literally tens of millions of our fellow citizens believing that their legitimate victory was stolen from them by traitors. We will enter that future with millions of them believing that democracy itself is a sham.
Will they seek to avenge that betrayal as their electoral losses mount in future cycles? Will they ever trust an election result that puts a Democrat in power again? Will their conspiracy theory someday overtly write “the Jews” into the script?
Perhaps we should ask that question of Newt Gingrich, who in the same interview cited above stated that our recent national election was “. . . a left-wing power grab, financed by people like George Soros.”
George Soros is, of course, a wealthy liberal, Jewish philanthropist, born in Hungary, and forced to flee his Budapest home in 1940s to avoid being thrown into a Nazi death camp. That which is old is new again in Donald Trump’s radicalized Republican Party.
We should all hope for — and work toward — the peaceful transfer of power in the United States in January of 2021, taking to the streets if necessary to support the newly — and duly — elected leader of our nation. But whatever happens in the coming weeks, Donald Trump and the Republican Party, by disseminating a willfully destructive false narrative which undermines the bedrock of our republic, have made themselves an existential threat to our democracy. Without an immediate reversal, they will remain so for a very, very long time to come.
Once lies become legend, nations fall.