The Capitol assault and the fate of the GOP's Faustian bargain with Trump: Lessons from Nazi Germany

The attack on the Capitol of January 6, 2021 lent renewed urgency to the issue of whether or not Trump and Trumpism are a sort of American fascism. In spring 2016, I argued that Trump was not a fascist but that his rhetoric and appeal did echo both Lindbergh's "America First" moods of the 1930s together with the conspiracy theories and yearning for the "strong man" associated with Hitler and Mussolini. Trump, many of us argued, was best understood as following in the footsteps of distinctly American demagogues who rode the currents of authoritarianism, racism, nativism, and conspiracy theories to political power. Since Trump won the Republican nomination, and especially in the aftermath of his "very fine people on both sides" comments after the racist neo-Nazi attack in Charlottesville, answers to the urgent question of whether Trump and Trumpism would destroy American democracy would be found in the response of the leaders of the traditional Republican Party. The question facing us now is whether the Faustian bargain made by the Republican establishment with Trump will hold up in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob containing white supremacists, Christian nationalists, militia members, conspiracy theorists and fellow-travelers, and incited by Trump.

For many decades, historians of Nazi Germany have focused attention on the key link between conservative elites and Hitler. In January 1933, former Chancellor Franz von Papen and President Otto von Hindenburg invited Hitler into power and supported his destruction of democracy in order to crush the political left and the trade unions. The story of a mixture of underestimation and self-interest that led to Hitler's entry into power has been told many times in works by Karl Bracher, Richard Evans, Ian Kershaw, and Henry Turner, among others. Their now-standard accounts have recalled how the German military leadership welcomed the gangster murders of the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, even though the victims included some of their fellow officers who had dared to challenge Hitler in 1932-1933. In both cases, the economic, political, and military establishment struck a Faustian bargain to support Hitler because he promised to crush the political left, destroy the trade unions, eviscerate parliament, and launch rearmament. Historians have explained the actions of the German elites as a mixture of an inability or refusal to take Hitler's ideas seriously combined with the appeal of perceived self-interest. Catastrophe and massive criminality were the result of a sequence of many decisions by people in positions of power to tolerate, enable or applaud Hitler as he crushed opposition and increased in popularity.

In 2018, Christopher Browning made a compelling case that then-Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican senators played a similar role in the United States. The German conservatives of the 1930s understood that the Nazis gave them a mass movement, which traditional conservatives lacked. In pursuing this American Faustian bargain, the traditional Republican establishment in these past four years acted as if they had learned nothing from the most famous example of the destruction of democracy in the twentieth century: the Nazi entry into power followed by Hitler's consolidation of power in the 1930s. The Republican leaders in 2016 understood that Trump gave the GOP an expanded white middle- and working-class voter base which the Republican Party, even after sixty years of its "Southern Strategy" had not yet fully captured. While Trump was not a Hitler or Mussolini, that is, was not a figure who openly called for the elimination of democracy and organized paramilitary organizations to terrorize his opponents, his open appeals to racism and misogyny, his blatant lies, and endless conspiracy theories were evident by spring 2016. His appeal to his followers lay partly in the open and unambiguous way he spouted hatred and contempt for his various enemies. Yet, like their counterparts in Germany in the 1930s, the traditional Republican establishment made the fateful bargain: support Trump and Trumpism for the sake of tax cuts and conservative judicial nominations, and use gerrymandering, the electoral college and the unrepresentative United States Senate to hold on to power while losing the popular vote in national elections. From the perspective of German historians of the Nazi era, the core failing of the Republican Party was to fail to adopt a policy of "militant democracy."

The term "militant democracy" entered German political discourse during the Allied occupation from 1945 to 1949, and then in the second German democracy, the Federal Republic of Germany. It referred to the moral responsibility of political parties committed to democracy to fight against antidemocratic parties of both the far right and far left. Conservative parties had a special responsibility to avoid repeating their fatal error of 1933. That meant refusing to make common cause with the antidemocratic forces of neo-Nazism. To be sure, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's Christian Democratic Union had rejected timely war crimes trials and pushed for premature amnesty to those already convicted. But there were limits to amnesty and integration, and Adenauer and his fellow conservatives knew what they were. There would be no public legitimation, no respectability, no winks, and nods to those seeking to restore Nazism after 1945; the danger of such acts was recent history, not a hypothetical possibility. The "politics of the past" examined by Norbert Frei encompassed amnesty and integration of former Nazis but for Adenauer it ruled out cooperation with anyone intent on reviving Nazism as a political option. Although some of Adenauer's colleagues were eager to obscure the Nazi era through silence, the majority of Germans understood that a functioning liberal democracy needed its major political parties of both the left and right to defend that democracy against the antidemocratic currents that emerge in every modern society. That meant no repetition of an alliance with the far right.

As Stuart Stevens's It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump has recently reminded us, ever since Richard Nixon initiated the "Southern Strategy" the GOP has won elections by appealing to white voters with veiled racial appeals. The last four years of Trump and Trumpism were a logical outgrowth of this decades-long strategy. The party of big business, hedge funds, country clubs and Wall Street also needed numbers, and so it welcomed Trump as he gave it a mass of angry, resentful white voters fed up with liberals and unhappy about changing demographics in American society. That was the GOP's Faustian bargain. In exchange for votes from the white middle and working class base, the traditional GOP elite would look the other way as he destroyed the concept of truth, spun conspiracy theories, sent dog whistles to neo-Nazis and white supremacists, attacked institutions of the United States government, and abandoned longstanding Republican views regarding U.S. foreign policy. In return, Trump delivered massive tax cuts and judicial appointees who would support deregulation of business. As a result, the extremist fringe, with encouragement from the White House, was able to radicalize the Republican Party even further.

As in 1930s Germany, today's American conservative elites made the Faustian bargain to ignore the unpleasantries in service of the short-term benefits. In Germany, force was needed to keep the bargain alive--not so in the United States. No one was pointing a gun at the heads of the Republican establishment; no one had to fear a nighttime raid from the Gestapo or imprisonment in a concentration camp. The donor class with money on the East coast and the Republican majority in the Senate told journalists off the record that they disliked him, then enabled and supported Trump.

Since 2016, nothing has shattered that bargain—not "very fine people on both sides" after Charlottesville in 2017; not the over 30,573 lies the Washington Post recorded that Trump uttered; not the devastating details of the Mueller report; not the preference for Putin over American intelligence agencies; not "the perfect call" attempting to shake down the Ukrainian President; not the compelling case for convicting Trump in the impeachment and trial of 2019-2020; not separating children from their parents at the Mexican border; and most devastating of all, not even the massive incompetence, denial and abandonment of leadership that has led to over 405,000 deaths (and counting) due to the coronavirus and the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. The Republican Party had enabled Trump as he mobilized a voter base that was indispensable to the Republican elite's determination to hold on to power in a society in which demographics and geography were threatening to turn it into a permanent minority party.

While Donald Trump is not a fascist, the mob he gathered and unleashed on January 6th was composed of the kinds of angry people, including many military veterans, who followed Mussolini and Hitler. The Trumpist insurrection against the effort of Congress to certify the vote and the big lie about a "stolen election" were the logical outcome of Trump's lies and conspiracy theories. As I wrote soon after the election, it was an American version of Germany's post World War I Dolchstosslegende according to which Germany had not lost World War I on the battlefield but had been "stabbed-in-the-back" by liberals and leftists at home. That "big lie" was crucial for the rise of Nazism. It was central as well to Hitler's determination to establish a dictatorship to prevent its repetition. Republican Senators did not recognize the echoes of that famous previous "big lie" as Trump spread the lie about "the stolen election." Most of them remained silent in November and December 2020. Many supported his bogus claims about election fraud, as did 123 Republican members of the House of Representatives.

Yet on January 6th, Trump repaid their four years of enabling by inciting a mob of right-wing extremists that threatened to assassinate leaders of the United States Congress. Hitler had been careful to make clear to all that he was specific about his enemies: Jews, communists, socialists, liberals, homosexuals, and anyone in public life who criticized him at all. For those who did not fall into those categories, for members of the elites who supported him or kept their reservations to themselves, life could proceed with an odd normality, at least until the Allied armed forces arrived in 1944 on land and in the air. As Charles Maier, among others, pointed out, compared to Stalin's, Hitler's terror was targeted and specific. He was careful to appease and reward the German elites who went along with him while Stalin kept much of the Soviet elite in a state of justified fear.

The attack on the Capitol suggested that Trump did not refrain from attacking the elites who had enabled him. The mob were not just chanting "where's Nancy (Pelosi)?" They also called out "hang Mike Pence," the Vice-President who had offered four years of humiliating sycophancy toward Trump. Capitol police reported that the terrorists that day came armed with guns.

They carried the equipment needed to seize and hold hostages. Were it not for the courage and determination of an outnumbered Capitol and Metropolitan Washington police force that held the mob back, it was entirely possible that members of the United States Congress could have been held hostage or murdered. Every Senator sitting in Trump's second impeachment trial knows that Trump unleashed a mob that could have carried out mass murder in the United States Congress. Trump, in contrast to more clever authoritarians, had unleased the mob on the very elite which had coddled and defended him for four years. Every Senator who thinks things through must understand that they are lucky to be alive.

The assault on the Capitol was an act of terrorism that for the first time since the bargain with Trump was made in 2016 threatened death to those who had benefitted so much from Trump's rule. In that sense, it was a tactical blunder on Trump's part, one that demonstrated what was obvious from 2016: that his narcissism exceeded his political skills. Awareness of the elemental, existential reality--that the Trump mob might have killed them--may lead some of the Faustian bargainers to belatedly turn on Trump and convict him.

As of January 27, hope is fading that seventeen Republican Senators will join the Democrats to convict Trump of the insurrection he incited based on lies about a stolen election. Democratic norms, fidelity to the truth, respect for the Constitution and the rule of law and opposition to a right-wing extremist attack on the peaceful transfer of power all call for conviction. Yet conviction would shatter the Faustian bargain that reached its clearest expression under Trump, and thus also would split the Republican Party into a minority establishment wing and a mass of enraged Trumpist voters seeking revenge on those who turned against their beloved Leader. Pleasant surprises cannot be ruled out, but the advantages of the Faustian bargain of the past four years suggest that lack of historical perspective, cowardice, and short-term self-interest badly understood will lead Republican Senators to keep that disastrous bargain intact.

Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor of Modern European History at the University of Maryland, College Park. His works on German history and Nazi Germany include The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard U. Press, 2006).