On September 18, 1787, James McHenry, an Irish immigrant and Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, noted in his diary the exchange that took place between Elizabeth Willing Powell, a salonniére and one of the leading social figures of colonial and early Republic Philadelphia, and the British-American polymath Benjamin Franklin who had helped draft the Constitution: “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Eliza, as she was popularly known, inquired. “A republic,” replied Franklin, “if you can keep it.”
The American people have kept the Republic safely, even when in its 243-year history ambitious and mercenary Presidents challenged that idea. That is until Donald J. Trump lost the 2020 election on November 3. After exhausting legal mechanisms of challenging the results, failing to strong-arm the election officials in four states to reverse the election results in those states, he summoned his core base to descend on the Capitol by Tweeting: “Be there, will be wild.” For good measure he added in another Tweet: “… or we will not have a country.” Rudy Giuliani, who as mayor of New York had earned the sobriquet of “America’s Mayor” because of his role during the terrorist attacks in 2001 but had turned himself into Trump’s bagman, called for “Trial by combat.”
The pictures, videos and other images that have emerged from the Capitol, where the joint session of the Congress had convened to complete the constitutional process of ratifying the election results, convulsed America, the oldest democracy; and it undermined democracy in the world. The mob, which had been marinated in Trump’s fundamental fakery that the only way he’d lose the election is if it is “stolen”— fakery he had used since the 2016 election as a hedge against electoral loss — turned bloodthirsty, calling to hang Vice-President Pence, a trusted and biddable Trump ally because the Constitution offered him no authority to overturn the result. The legislators were rushed to a bunker for safety, and in the melee that followed five people were killed, including a Capitol police officer. In a supreme irony of history, Eugene Goodman, a Black officer and a decorated military veteran, and whose people of colour have remained marginal in the American experiment, teased the crowd away from the lawmakers, potentially saving their lives and saving the Republic
How could such a thing happen in America?
German history presents an ominous lesson on the possibility of Trump and Trumpism overtaking American democracy. In 1923, Adolf Hitler led his Nazi party in an attempted coup against the Bavarian state government in Munich, hoping to use Bavaria as a base to topple the German government in Berlin. The coup failed. Hitler was arrested, tried and convicted of treason, and sentenced to five years; but he severed only nine months during which he wrote Mein Kampf. The rest is a historical nightmare.
To succeed after his release, Hitler used five circumstances to his advantage:
He fabricated the fable that Germany was not defeated in World War I but instead had been betrayed by its leaders. Today Trump's followers self-righteously believe the election was stolen from them, and many Republicans supported, and still support that fiction.
Hitler appealed to anti-Semitism, which was deeply rooted in Europe. Trump supporters will continue to use racism, which remains a major feature of American society. Further, they feel marginalized because of the demographic changes wrought by immigration.
Hitler refined his propaganda techniques, especially the use of the mass media technology of the day, including film and radio that had debuted in the 1890s and 1920, respectively. Today, the right wing media, including Fox, is minimizing the attack on the Capitol and continuing to spread the fable of a “stolen” Trump victory. In 2007, Twitter exploded on social media, and it has allowed Trump and his followers to message “alternative” narrative, countering mainstream news. (Twitter and other leading social media outlets have cancelled Trump’s accounts.)
Hitler promised to restore the glorious German past, to create a Third Reich that would follow and eclipse the Holy Roman Empire and Imperial Germany. And he adopted the swastika, originally a symbol of peace and prosperity in ancient religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, and linked it to the purity of Aryan race, thus transforming it into a symbol synonymous with racism and hatred. Today, Trump and his enablers promise to make “America Great Again,” (a slogan that Ronald Reagan used in his presidential campaign in the 1980s) by which they mean returning to the segregated America that dominated the world economy in the years following World War II, a circumstance resulting from the destruction of other industrialized economies of the world as a result of that war. To encapsulate this romanticized narrative, he adopted the slogan “Make America Great” (MGA) and put it on baseball caps.
Finally, with the depression of 1929, Hitler appealed to Germany's unemployed, impoverished and desperate masses. Trump, for his part, appealed to White working-class Americans who had been left behind by globalization of the economy and international trade and outsourcing of manufacturing jobs. To make America great, “America First” became the answer. The resulting economic distortions promoted by Trump and the GOP will present the Joe Biden administration with enormous economic challenges, with unemployment, and with major shifts in the workplace that will continue in the years ahead.
The table is set for Hitler in America. Americans should well note that Hitler came to power after he was arrested, tried and convicted for treason as a result of his attempted coup. After what was clearly an attempt to disrupt democracy by the mob of Trump supporters who attacked the Capitol, encouraged and literally cheered on by the President and his GOP enablers, Mitch McConnell will not even allow Trump to be tried for impeachment in the Senate.
Those opposed to Trump and Trumpism must get ready for a long, continuing effort to blunt the assaults on democracy that are surely coming, led by Senators Cruz, Hawley, and other Republican leaders, perhaps even Trump himself — even after he leaves the White House.
(Melton McLaurin is emeritus professor of history and associate provost at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and author of, among other books, Celia, A Slave.
Ravi Kalia is Professor of History and recipient of Distinguished Service Award at the City College of New York, and author of, among other books, Pakistan: From the Rhetoric of Democracy to the Rise of Militancy.)