The left is struggling to define a strategy of resistance against the radical agenda of Donald Trump and his Cabinet. Some are calling for the adoption of tea party-style tactics of total obstruction. Congressional Democrats seem to be taking a more pragmatic approach. Since the inauguration, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) has pledged that his caucus is ready to work with the Trump administration on policies that align with Democratic values.
Twentieth-century German history provides a useful perspective. While comparisons between Trump’s America and Adolf Hitler’s Germany should be made cautiously, we can learn something from the anti-Nazi resistance: The left should not only fight extreme measures coming from the regime, but it should also peel off conservatives to create an anti-Trump coalition.
Unfortunately, the German example also shows that such coalitions can require painful compromises on core values — precisely the kind of compromises Democrats currently appear unwilling to make. More than anything, the analogy shows that false moves during a resistance can haunt a nation for decades.
Like Trump, Hitler took control of a democratic system in crisis. Establishment politicians on the left and the right were fighting over what seemed like mutually exclusive visions for the country’s future. The left argued that Germany had been founded on secular ideals of pluralism and socialism; the right considered Christianity and capitalism the basis of national community. Hitler, an outsider with no government experience, took advantage of this situation by allying himself with the right and blaming the left for the country’s polarization.
For a short while, the alliance between the Nazis and the right-wing establishment held. Conservatives trusted Hitler’s promise to restore Christian values to German society. They raised no objection when the Nazi-led government smeared left-wing politicians as traitors and drafted laws intended to isolate groups that had allegedly eaten away at the country’s cultural fabric. Similarly, congressional Republicans remain mum as Trump declares war on the “liberal media,” lambastes dissenting civil servants who “betrayed” their jobs, and bars some Muslims and refugees from entering the United States.
The Third Reich’s founding coalition began to falter when conservatives saw that their new leader showed little commitment to traditional Christian values. Fewer than two years into the regime, after a fateful event known as the Night of the Long Knives — during which Nazi security forces purged a number of key conservative politicians — Hitler made clear that he considered race, not Christian spirit, to be the true source of national unity.
Germans on the left found themselves at a crossroads. Two paths lay open: They could double down in their struggle against the right or try to woo disillusioned conservatives.
A minority, mainly communists, chose the first path. They excluded conservatives from a popular front of anti-Nazi resistance and insisted on the strict application of left-wing values, such as the socialization of private property and the complete separation of church and state.
But most left-wing leaders chose the second path. In the years between 1935 and 1945, they quietly began recruiting conservatives to build an anti-Hitler coalition and plan for the post-Nazi order. To achieve that goal, however, they needed to develop ideas and craft policies that would attract religious Germans.
This required some painful ideological compromises. Many left-wing leaders gave up their struggle against religion in public schools and abandoned their previous goal of socializing key industries. The more radical left criticized them as betraying the socialist cause. But after Hitler’s demise and the end of World War II, their decisions helped to provide a stable foundation for what became known as West Germany, and ultimately today’s reunified Germany, which by most measures is one of the least politically polarized societies in the world.
Meanwhile, the left-wing resisters who refused to compromise with conservatives found themselves isolated and dependent on support from the Soviet Union, whose leaders proved just as ideologically intransigent. These were the men and women who ended up founding East Germany, a state that survived only as long as communist Russia remained economically viable.
The current American situation is not identical to the German case. But Trump’s ascendancy is a symptom of societal crisis, just as Hitler’s was in Germany. At least since the 1980s and the entry of a religious right into politics, there has been polarization over the question of the country’s bedrock values. And for the past eight years, Republicans — establishment politicians and the tea party insurgents who brought them to heel — have run a successful campaign of “no compromise” with the left. Living in North Carolina, the so-called belly of the beast, I have seen how many on the right speak about liberals as enemies (and vice versa). They embrace Trump despite their skepticism because they think he can finally push through their agenda with no left-wing interference.
Liberals could emulate the pragmatic wing of the anti-Nazi resistance by appealing to conservatives. But this would require something more agonizing than normal bipartisan compromises. It would mean finding common ground on the very social issues that have riven politics for the past three or four decades.
Liberals might have to alter, or at least sideline, some of their most prized platforms on abortion or secularism in the public sphere. Conservatives might need to consider welfare policy proposals they have long condemned, such as single-payer health care. Compromise on that profound level seems almost impossible at the moment. But Trump’s threat to the republic grows in proportion to the widening ideological fissure between left and right. As the German example shows, bridging the worldviews of former enemies may be the only way to avoid the abyss.