... I recently spoke with Christopher R. Browning. He is the Frank Porter Graham Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. He is the author of several books, including the most recent "Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp. "Browning is also the author of the recent and widely-read essay "The Suffocation of Democracy," which appeared both online and in the Oct. 25 edition of The New York Review of Books.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Authoritarian leaders like Donald Trump can cause widespread pain and confusion to the public. As a historian and expert on Nazi Germany, how are you feeling? What were your first reactions to Donald Trump's rise to power?
The first reaction was frustration. We are caught in a situation where none of our previous political experiences as a country when democracy was functioning well, albeit far from perfectly, equipped us to deal with this situation. I sensed that it would be a tyranny of the majority which would create this type of crisis. This is why, of course, we have the Bill of Rights and other checks on power. But what we really have now with Donald Trump and the Republican Party is a tyranny of the minority,where gerrymandering, voter repression and the Electoral College give a minority of the population a majority vote even when they don't have control of the presidency or the House and Senate. Demographic shifts, geography and cultural divides are a perfect storm for minority rule by the Republicans in the United States.
The second feeling is bewilderment. As a rational thinker, someone who believes in the Enlightenment project and liberal democratic norms, I assumed that the truth and basic facts were a type of sunshine. If you put enough of this light out there for the public, they would make good decisions. But now, with Trump and his enablers, systemic serial lying is rewarded. The very notion that there are facts and discernible truths are being rejected by a good percentage of the American people. We are stuck in a situation where President Trump's spokespeople say things like, “Well, we have alternate facts," or "The truth evolves," or "The truth is not true." Basically, the truth has become utterly instrumental to close to half the population.
Moreover, they delight in the capacity of the president to openly lie. Everyone knows he's lying. Sometimes it's totally gratuitous, it doesn't even serve any purpose. But the very act that he lies with a swagger and so boldly makes Trump attractive. to them. That breaks all the rules about how democracies are supposed to function. Ultimately, the fact that intentional, obvious lying has a political reward just stunned me.
How do we dig ourselves out of the hole? The next two elections are absolutely crucial. 2020 is critical. I don't think we are past the point of return for trying to correct things and fix America's democracy, but we certainly are getting perilously close to the point of no return.
What are some immediate parallels between the failure of democracy in mid-20th-century Germany and other parts of Europe and what is occurring at present in the United States with Donald Trump?
What went wrong post-World War I in Germany is instructive, but it is not an exact parallel for what is happening today in America with Donald Trump. One thing that is clear, however, is that if people do not accept the ground rules by which democracy operates, and winning at all costs and incivility become the norm, then things fall apart. There has to be an acceptance of the norms and rules, and a sense of obligation to one another and the democracy, by the broader political community. We see that falling apart with political polarization now. And that was true in the 1930s with the rise of authoritarianism and fascism in Europe and elsewhere. ...