Op-Ed: The Trump insurrection was America’s Beer Hall Putsch
Very soon after the nation watched in horror as a mob ransacked the U.S. Capitol, journalists and politicians began speaking of a coup.
The fallout from these events has been dramatic and will continue. But we need to understand a crucial point. The guy in the Viking hat and his friends could break windows. A member of the mob could kill a police officer. Rioters could plot to assault members of Congress. All of this is terrifying. But these people and their criminal actions are not the most dangerous threat to our democracy. The real threat comes from people in business suits or police uniforms who are inside the system — and that threat remains.
A historical example illustrates the point.
In November 1923, Adolf Hitler led a violent coup against the democratic system of Germany’s Weimar Republic. The coup started in an unlikely spot — a beer hall in Munich, the Bürgerbräukeller, very far from the capital city of Berlin and its parliament. But at this beer hall, the political, military, and police leaders of the state of Bavaria were meeting. Hitler wanted to enlist them in a “March on Berlin” to overturn the democratic government. He went to the beer hall to give a speech.
For five years, Hitler and others on the German right had been telling their followers a lie: that Germany had not really lost World War I. Instead, Germany had been “stabbed in the back,” betrayed by civilian politicians (democrats and socialists, controlled, Hitler said, by Jews). Bavaria became the center of a large network of right-wing militia groups who believed the lie and were ready to act on it.
Hitler knew the Bavarian leaders were reluctant to join his march on Berlin. His speech at the Bürgerbräukeller was designed to get the crowd to pressure them into joining the coup. At first it seemed to succeed. But the Bavarian leaders turned on Hitler as soon as he left them alone. Police and military units then speedily crushed the coup. Hitler and some of his followers were jailed.
Hitler learned his lesson: A sophisticated modern state could not be overturned by a violent coup led by outsiders, against the police and the army. He realized he would have to work within the system.
Over the following decade, this is exactly what he did. The Nazis ran in elections until they were the largest party in Germany’s parliament, gridlocking legislative business. Even more insidiously, the Nazis worked to infiltrate crucial institutions like the police and the army. In 1931, Berlin police responded incredibly sluggishly to a massive Nazi riot in the center of the city. It turned out senior police officials silently sympathized with the Nazis and had colluded in hobbling the police response.
Hitler grew steadily more attractive to business and military leaders who saw him and his movement as their only salvation from the growing Communist Party. Early in 1933 they opened the doors of power to him.
After the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, 139 Republican members of the House and eight members of the Senate, led by Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, came out of hiding to vote to object to the electoral college vote count. While a police officer lay dying, they supported Trump’s lie of a stolen election and embraced the insurrectionists’ cause.
Imagine the events of the past weeks and months if someone like Hawley had been the secretary of state in Georgia, or someone like retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn held a significant military command. Imagine what would have happened if the Republicans held majorities in both houses of Congress and could have overturned the electoral college results. Imagine if the courts had been more generously stocked with judges willing to entertain the Trump campaign’s ludicrous arguments.
Above all, imagine if the president had been a bit more competent, a bit more strategic, a bit more daring. Hitler, after all, was at least willing to be present at the violence his words inspired. He was also more persuasive in his dealings with important officials.
It is much more common for democracies to be undermined by seemingly legal actions taken from within than by violence from without. Hitler himself ultimately consolidated his power through legal instruments — for instance, the notorious Reichstag Fire Decree, which abolished the civil rights the democratic Weimar Constitution had granted.
In recent times, we have seen this happen in Hungary, Turkey and Russia. We need to think about legal safeguards for our institutions more than we need to think about barricades. We need to know that our police and military commanders will be loyal and do their jobs. And there must be real consequences for officials who try to profit from spreading sedition. There need to be motions of censure at the very least against Hawley and Cruz.
The majority of one of our two political parties is firmly committed to anti-democratic and insurrectionist politics. Normally the opposition party gains in midterm elections. It takes little imagination to see where this would put us in a close election in 2024. Democrats will have to work hard, using the Georgia model of mobilization to minimize midterm losses.
This month, Americans have seen what it means to have insurrectionists working inside our government. We will need to respond aggressively if our Beer Hall Putsch is not to be followed by more of the kinds of violence and terror we have seen in the past.
Benjamin Carter Hett is a professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the author of “The Death of Democracy” and “The Nazi Menace.”
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