Notes on The Suffocation of Democracy by Christopher R. Browning in the New York Review of Books.

For almost two years now, people have been comparing America today to Germany back then, to greater or lesser effect. Christopher Browning, an actual professor of history of the period, is the most recent I have read, and what he says is enlightening and frightening in equal measure.

I singled out a few choice quotations from many possibilities, most of which illustrate how today both mirrors and distorts then.

Who to blame:

If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell.

My friend's friend:

In France the prospect of a Popular Front victory and a new government headed by—horror of horrors—a Socialist and Jew, Léon Blum, led many on the right to proclaim, “Better Hitler than Blum.”

Which leads inexorably to:

“Better Putin than Hillary.”

Is it broken yet:

The elections of 2018 and 2020 will be vital in testing how far the electoral system has deteriorated.

The domestic agenda of Trump’s illiberal democracy falls considerably short of totalitarian dictatorship as exemplified by Mussolini and Hitler. But that is small comfort for those who hope and believe that the arc of history inevitably bends toward greater emancipation, equality, and freedom.

I went back to an earlier piece I read, in the London Review of Books, in which Thomas Meaney took Timothy Snyder, possibly the first great comparator, to task. I summarised Meaney's position thus: "Snyder both goes too far in comparing Trump to Hitler and Stalin, and also not far enough, in not pursuing his analogy where it leads". Seems to me that Browning's piece has neither fault. But as always, I'll wait for a more expert opinion.

For now, I was most struck by Browning's discussion of illiberal democracies and how they do not need to eliminate completely either the judiciary or the press.

The highly critical free media not only provide no effective check on Trump’s ability to be a serial liar without political penalty; on the contrary, they provide yet another enemy around which to mobilize the grievances and resentments of his base. A free press does not have to be repressed when it can be rendered irrelevant and even exploited for political gain.

I still don't understand, but I am better informed.

Notes

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