Weimar America? Lessons of the Elections

Trump’s catastrophic election win carries urgent lessons. Consider the similarities between Trump’s rise to power and Hitler’s rise in Weimar Germany. Both involve the rise of an unlikely authoritarian effectively using Right wing nationalist and racialized Identity politics. In both cases, Left-wing identity politics became detached from class politics and from significant parts of the population. This has major implications for progressives and the Left today, as it confronts universalizing right wing populist movements surging across the US, Europe and much of the world.

In 1920s Germany, Hitler was only one of many right wing demagogues speaking to the economic problems and status resentments of German working people. The Allies’ harsh sanctions on Germany helped create a major economic crisis that threatened German jobs in a globalizing economy, particularly in rural areas and small towns. Larger German cities bounced back more quickly and nourished Left parties and feminist, gay, and other identity movements that challenged traditional values.

A charismatic, unpredictable and bombastic speaker, Hitler had a genius for tapping into the pain and anger of German traditionalists and working people. He realized that their identity was deeply wounded after the War and proclaimed a new hyper-nationalism that would make Germany great again. He advanced a “betrayal narrative” that foreigners and liberal urban elites, most notably Jews, were undermining German identity and preventing German resurgence. They had to be purged.

Trump has his own betrayal narrative. His hypernationalism, a right wing identity politics, seeks to unify ordinary working Americans in the heartland and South against liberal cultural elites, people of color and immigrants. Like Hitler, Trump has brilliantly tapped into the economic anxieties of the white working class as well as their status resentments toward non-whites who have “cut in line,” as Arlie Hochschild has put it, using affirmative action and other liberal policies.

Like Hitler, Trump promises to be the strong leader who will fix the German crisis and take down the betrayers of the nation, abroad and at home.

Trump will not solve most workers’ economic problems, but his identity politics speaks to both economic and cultural anxieties. And just as Hitler’s authoritarian approach appealed to the general working population long disciplined to accept strict authority in Germany’s traditional aristocracy, Trump’s authoritarianism resonates with a significant percentage of the American working class trained to accept orders by their parents, managers and military leaders.

The German Left was stronger than the American Left and focused on class politics. But it was deeply fragmented between Social Democrats and Communists, and offered no real economic alternatives. It had weak ties to the strong Weimar urban feminist, gay and other Left identity movements.

The American Left—including liberals, the Democratic Party and Left movements – is even more fragmented. Class politics among Left social movements do not find strong support among mainly reformist US labor movements. The Democratic Party is tied to Wall Street and corporations.

Moreover, even more than in Weimar Germany, the US Left movements have moved toward identity politics and away from class politics. Left-wing identity politics, when detached from class agendas, creates important rights for its respective communities but alienates many white workers.

The solution is to “universalize resistance” by melding class movements and identity politics. We need resistance against Wall Street and corporate autocracy intertwined with anti-racist, feminist and other “cultural” movements. We need identity politics that works closely with workers of all colors to transform a globalizing capitalism that is hammering all workers.

Universalizing resistance is a kind of intersectional politics that strikes hard against corporate power and economic injustice while fighting racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant politics. A universalizing intersectional system can only by defeated by a universalizing intersectional resistance.

Universalizing is hard work, but Trump and right wing universalizing movements have taken over the country by uniting right wing identity movements with corporate elites and the Republican Party. The Left should look and learn. It must universalize full force, uniting our strong identity movements with class politics, the labor movement, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and many disenchanted Trump working class voters.

Bernie Sanders started what he called “our revolution.” It seeks to universalize workers with identity groups, and unite Left movements with electoral politics and liberals in the general public. Such universalizing movements—a form of “democracy striking back”—are crucially important but their prospects are uncertain in the Trump era.

Trump’s victory hints at the possibility of an American Weimar and a contemporary neo-fascism. But while the Left faces ugly repression, new opportunities created by Trumpist extremism creates a potential “movement moment,” that could dramatically expand and unify the Left, mobilizing mass protests in the streets and mounting resistance from Democrats in Congress and local communities.

Never has universalized resistance been more urgent. The Left must universalize not just against Trump but the militarized capitalist system and bullying culture that created him. Everything is at stake.



Charles Derber, professor of sociology at Boston College, is the author of 20 books, most recently Bully Nation. His forthcoming book is How to Make A Revolution: Universalizing Resistance in the age of Trump and Beyond.