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


Before we delve into the biggest news in the world this week, America’s surprisingly narrow midterm elections, let’s honor Jair Bolsonaro. That’s because Brazil’s president recently did the right thing, becoming an unlikely role model for patriots in struggling democracies everywhere — even (or especially) conscientious Republicans in the US.

Bolsonaro is a populist leader who has taken style cues from former US President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. And he just lost Brazil’s presidential election to his leftist challenger, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, by the slimmest of margins. For two days, Brazilians waited to see what Bolsonaro would do. Spread a big lie that the election was “stolen”? A nod to his goons to use violence? Deny an orderly transition of power?

“As president and citizen, I will continue to follow our constitution,” Bolsonaro declared, rather than authorizing Lula’s handover. And with that gesture, democracy in Brazil was, at least for the time being, preserved and even strengthened.

Now turn to America, after a bitter and ugly midterm that, as of this morning, still holds power in Congress and some states. The biggest question remains to be answered: Come presidential elections in 2024, will the US be able to reaffirm its values ​​like Brazil?

It may or may not be. And if that ambiguity doesn’t scare you, you’re not paying attention. By count, between 253 and 291 of MAGA Republicans on federal and state ballots across the US yesterday have, in one way or another, sided with Donald Trump in promoting the big lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Many are cynical about the violent coup of Jan 6, 2021, denying – despite ample evidence – that it was an attempted coup. After gaining popularity on Trump’s coattails, most will support Donald in an expected rematch against President Joe Biden in two years.

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What will that election be like? In 2020, Trump and his minions made a sustained effort, documented with devastating precision by a January 6 congressional committee, to use lies, intimidation, fraud and violence to overturn a legitimate election. If that push effort failed, it was because enough officials across the country — and especially enough Republicans — resisted and stood up for the truth.

Next time, that may not be the case. “Anyone who rejects the results of an election is also saying they will reject the results of another election,” says Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian and author of “On Tyranny.” And with that tension pre-programmed, America could be heading into 2024 into what might be politely called a constitutional crisis, but actually looks like a low-grade civil war.

That nightmare is not yet inevitable. But a look at history suggests it is plausible. At all times the founding of the Republic, and trends in the US and elsewhere have been alarming enough to cause an explosion of research on “how democracies die”. The short answer is that their demise need not be as spectacular and sudden as Chile’s in 1973. Often, marriages, companies and dams proverbially fail independence: first slowly, then suddenly.

My favorite case studies are Republican Rome and Weimar Germany. Both today in the US. shared many of the characteristics of institutional decline. The first was the frequent breaking of taboos, especially against political violence.

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In the Roman Republic, it began with the assassination of the two Gracchi brothers in 133 BC and 121 BC, followed by a series of assassinations of centrist and left-wing politicians by right-wing thugs in the early 1920s. In the US, the ban was most recently dismantled with sacks of the Capitol in 2021. The next day, a man broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home with the intention of cutting her knee; In her absence, she decided to take her hammer to her husband’s head. What’s next?

Parallel to this erosion of prohibition and decorum is the cynical abandonment of truth as the norm. The term “Big Lie” actually comes from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Once we can no longer agree on the facts – and worse, once we can no longer determine that truth exists at all – we cannot respect the judgments of courts or the legitimacy of any institution.

In such a context, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing. This quote, aproposly attributed to the great conservative thinker Edmund Burke, describes Republican Rome, Weimar, and the US, among other places. Then as now, enough people — among the elite and the electorate — find themselves indulging in unscrupulous wannabe Caesars until it’s too late. One excuse for the gloom on November 8 was that the elections were not really about democracy, but about “bread-and-butter issues” like inflation.

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And so the citizens of a sunset democracy sleep under tyranny. One detail that I have always found curious is that neither Hitler nor Octavian – better known as Augustus, the first emperor of Rome – ever bothered to annul the constitution of the republic they had broken. Hitler simply ignored the Weimar Constitution, which was officially abrogated only after Germany’s defeat in 1945. Octavian, for his part, with his senate, consuls, praetors, and tribunes, carefully preserved the competition of the republican party. It’s just that everyone knew it was just for show. It is entirely conceivable that the gravediggers of the American Republic would have had “We the People” tattooed on their arms.

But we are not at that point yet. Sometimes in history, good people stop doing nothing, and start doing something. They rise above partisan allegiance or resist the lulls of indifference — or the temptation of power — and heed the call of duty. Bolsonaro and many Brazilians did. Americans, no matter their party, can.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

Borgen shows US and UK how to do democracy right: Andreas Kluth

A Race to Discord: Are the Brexiteers or the Republicans Ahead?: Martin Evans

Jan. 6 Panel Proves Again That Trump Must Be Accountable: Timothy L. O’Brien

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

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. Former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and author of The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me.”

More stories like this one are available at bloomberg.com/opinion


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