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A historian of Nazi Germany explains why the divided opposition to Trump should terrify you

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As we witnessed in the third Democratic primary debate last week, Democratic presidential candidates are struggling to distinguish themselves from their party rivals and competing for endorsements. Their horizontal vision in these disagreements diverts their gaze from the peril we face as Donald Trump dismantles the norms that have guided our political life since 1776.

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Whatever their differences, Democratic candidates must agree to broad principles related to key issues, for example, immigration, health care, and the growing wealth gap. A general consensus would leave plenty of room for healthy debates about implementation, but failure to emphasize shared ideals in relationship to two or three major questions will blunt Democrats’ offensive against a candidate whose campaign is based on slander and fear.

Although we Americans like to think our nation is exceptional, the choices made by defenders of democracy in 1922 Italy and 1933 Germany are worth revisiting. The parallels are not perfect. Our two-party tradition sets us apart from Germany and Italy, each of which had five major parties. But legislative gridlock and voter cynicism today are reminiscent of conditions that marked the last months of democracy in Italy and Germany. The threat to our democracy does not command militias, but hate groups incite violence. Our economy is stable but many Americans feel left behind. Most worrying, Republicans march in lockstep behind Donald Trump, while Democrats fragment – like opponents of authoritarianism in interwar Europe. Of course, we can’t know whether different strategies in Italy and Germany would have preserved democracy, but since hindsight is 20-20, let’s use it.

In economically devastated post-World War One Italy, labor unions and peasant leagues clashed violently with Mussolini’s Black Shirt militias. Voters in 1921 gave Socialist and Christian Democratic candidates almost half of the vote – compared to seven percent for the Fascist Party. Fearing a revolution from the left, the King used his constitutional power to appoint Mussolini as prime minister in 1922. Mussolini manipulated the election of 1924 to create a Fascist majority. An exposé of Fascist electoral interference by journalist Giacomo Matteotti touched off massive demonstrations. After Fascist thugs murdered Matteotti, 150 deputies protested by walking out of the Chamber of Deputies. After Mussolini expelled them and won the King’s approval, erstwhile critics in the Chamber calculated that opposition to “il Duce” would be futile. Superficially, the trappings of democracy remained.

Fast forward to the German elections of 1932, when Marxist parties won 38 percent of the vote, compared to the Nazis’ 33 percent. Instead of forming an anti-Nazi phalanx, Communists and Social Democrats fought about tactics and theory. In January 1933, the President appointed Adolf Hitler as chancellor. On February 27, after arsonists set the Reichstag on fire, Hitler called it the beginning of a communist revolution. Despite massive repression of leftist rivals, on March 4, Nazi Party candidates won only 43 percent. Two weeks later, the Catholic Center Party legislators joined conservatives and moderates in granting Hitler four years of dictatorial power. As in Italy, the handover was technically legal.

Mussolini and Hitler promised to restore national glory and depicted themselves as the last defense against radical socialism. Neither appealed to racism at first. Not even Hitler, who muted his virulent anti-Semitism in public to attract middle-class voters during the late 1920s. New followers told themselves he had mellowed, but his base and his Jewish targets never doubted his true intentions.

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President Trump has violated many of the norms and laws on which our democracy depends. He circumvents Congress by declaring the “crisis” at the border a national emergency. He orders his staff to ignore subpoenas. He uses his presidential status to enhance his family’s wealth. He demands absolute loyalty from his appointees. He treats truth like a despot and jokes with Vladimir Putin about his “fake news” problem. He boasts about his misogyny and spews racist insults.

Trump is not a despot. But neither were Mussolini and Hitler early on. No black or brown shirts march in our streets. President Trump’s enablers wear white shirts and black robes. They are unified. Democrats are not.

Claudia Koonz is the author of The Nazi Conscience and Peabody Family Professor of History Emerita at Duke University.  

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2020 Election

All I want for Christmas is Democracy

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As the House of Representatives prepares to vote on articles of impeachment, and as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell openly colludes with Trump’s lawyers to fix the upcoming Senate trial, it’s more obvious than ever that Donald Trump is just a symptom of much more profound disease that has rendered our democracy dysfunctional. America is hardly alone in this regard.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Contrast McConnell with Paula Duncan, the Trump-supporting juror in Paul Manafort's criminal trial, who told NBC News, "I wanted Paul Manafort to be innocent, but he wasn't," and voted to convict him on all charges. She followed the evidence, just as jurors are supposed to. “I didn't believe politics had any place in that courtroom,” she said. “I knew I could be fair and impartial," and she was right.

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2020 Election

‘Always inaccurate’: Trump melts down on Fox News after their new poll shows impeachment support rising

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Donald Trump once again attacked another Fox News poll that showed growing support for his impeachment -- ranting that their numbers are "always inaccurate" and "they got it all wrong."

Taking to Twitter -- of course -- the president ranted about his favorite conservative network and advised them to hire another pollster that will provide them -- and him - with numbers that he finds more pleasing.

According to the president, "The @foxnewPolls, always inaccurate, are heavily weighted toward Dems. So ridiculous - same thing happened in 2016. They got it all wrong. Get a new pollster!"

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2020 Election

How Michael Bloomberg made life worse for the poor in New York

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Death catches us the way we live.

So it was last week in a lower Manhattan subway station that serves the financial district when Shamari Anderson, a homeless 2-year old boy, was struck and killed by an uptown 2 train during the evening holiday rush.

This article first appeared on Salon

According to press accounts, his 20-year-old mother was juggling bags from the Dollar Store when she put her son down to fix his clothes. In an instant, the high energy toddler escaped her grasp and was struck by the subway.

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