Readers of Today’s WorldView are probably familiar with these allusions, not least because we surfaced them from time to time. Of course, there’s a justified wariness when framing contemporary U.S. politics in terms that belong to another era and another country. American history, on its own, carries plenty of precedents for the dysfunctions revealed and the passions unleashed by Trump’s movement.
Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by a fervent mob hoping to overturn Trump’s electoral defeat, a litany of commentators invoked one notorious incident surrounding the rise of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as a cautionary tale for Washington in 2021.
In November 1923, Hitler, then a young leader of a still-fringe nationalist movement in Weimar-era Germany, hatched a plot in Munich to capture the regional Bavarian government and, from there, provoke an autocratic transformation of the German state. Appealing to a sense of national humiliation after World War I, he peddled conspiracy theories and lies about the treachery of Jews and schemes of socialists that galvanized an aggrieved minority. On Nov. 8, Hitler and his associates interrupted a political rally in one of the largest beer halls in Munich, took a leading regional politician hostage and announced their intention of seizing power in Bavaria and provoking a “national revolution.”
The Beer Hall Putsch, as the episode would be remembered, was a failure. Hitler did not receive the local backing from politicians and security forces he expected. Sixteen Nazis were gunned down in the streets in clashes with police officers, four of whom were killed. Hitler slunk out of town and was later arrested and tried for treason. But his punishment ended up being lenient — he spent a few months in prison before being released with a pardon — and he emerged from the botched putsch as a more popular national figure. Within a decade, he would install the Third Reich.
Some observers of what happened this past week in Washington note potential echoes of the Beer Hall Putsch — not in the risk that Trump is about to turn into a genocidal monster, but in that there may not be meaningful consequences for the lies and subversion of democratic order that Trump appears to have encouraged.
Yes, the House this week impeached Trump for a second time. But a large body of Republicans, per current polling, as well as the majority of Republican lawmakers in Congress, still seem to support the president’s baseless claims. And rather than reckoning with what happened, they are mobilizing a new cycle of grievance against the forces they see arrayed against Trumpism. Down the road, they may well be able to engineer the sort of electoral coup that Trump could not in 2020.
“Republicans have pursued a project of minority rule for decades, exploiting structural features of American politics and opportunistically shaping rules in their own favor,” wrote Zeynep Tufekci in the Atlantic. “Already, there are signs that many in the GOP intend to respond to their loss in the Senate by doubling down on disenfranchising voters in the name of fighting the ‘election fraud’ they falsely convinced millions is widespread.”
The lesson of 1923 now, some argue, is that there cannot be complacency about the scale of the threat. “What at first blush looked like a failed coup proved successful in the long run because of a justice system that was blind in its right eye and conservative political leaders who fueled the myths that Hitler had tapped into, planted the seeds of political polarization and discredited the legitimacy of elected officials,” Michael Brenner, a historian at American University, wrote for The Washington Post. He concluded that, “as the German example warns us … knocking down an insurrection does not yet mean winning the fight for democracy.”
Other experts shrug off the utility of the parallel. Although there is evidence of off-duty and former military and police personnel storming the Capitol — as well as joining far-right militia-style groups now under increasing scrutiny — Trump and his movement have no real sway over the American security apparatus. The U.S. state is still more robust than the fledgling Weimar Republic. Moreover, “Hitler and his followers were young men in 1923. They could afford to wait,” wrote Richard J. Evans, a preeminent British historian of fascism. “Trump is in his seventies and can’t. A successor may emerge, but it seems unlikely that he would match Trump’s crowd appeal.”
“I think the chances of a right-wing takeover by force are close to zero,” Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye told Today’s WorldView during a Thursday webinar hosted by the Center for the National Interest. “You might find that some of these extreme groups will create violence, but I don’t think a putsch or a takeover is in the range of things they can accomplish.”
Evans argued that the current moment ought to give analysts enough to fret about. “It means that rather than fighting the demons of the past — fascism, Nazism, the militarized politics of Europe’s interwar years — it is necessary to fight the new demons of the present: disinformation, conspiracy theories and the blurring of fact and falsehood,” he wrote.
But the specter of darker histories will always loom. “A lot depends on what happens next,” Jo-Marie Burt, an associate professor of political science at George Mason University, told my colleagues. “If you’re going to allow impunity [in the United States], then that hurts the American experiment. Without accountability at home, we’re going down a path of saying, you know, stuff happens.”