Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Interlude - #MoveTrumpGetOutTheWay

I’ve watched this an inordinate number of times.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Highly recommended: Keep Quiet

On Netflix now. (Incidentally, the local tabby was entranced by the Philip Sheppard soundtrack.)

The aggressive neurotic: Trump’s cynical use of language

“I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly. ‘[The official labor statistics] may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now’.” – Sean Spicer, March 2017
In my previous post, I discussed the moral code of the aggressive neurotic type analyzed by Karen Horney. For this type,
a strong need to exploit others, to outsmart them, to make them of use to himself, is part of the picture. Any situation or relationship is looked at from the standpoint of ‘What can I get out of it?’ – whether it has to do with money, prestige, contacts, or ideas. The person himself is consciously or unconsciously convinced that everyone acts this way, and so what counts is to do it more efficiently than the rest. (Our Inner Conflicts, 65)
This larger analysis bears on the complex question of Trump’s dishonesty. Are the false claims he spews daily in person and on Twitter expressions of his delusions, impulsive outbursts, compulsive lies told for no reason, part of a brilliant political strategy,…?

Trump’s neurotic distortion of reality is so far advanced (and possibly accelerated by neurological degeneration) that he often can’t accept facts that contradict the beliefs his neurosis demands. Some of his false claims do appear to express delusions of this sort; this seems to be the case, for example, with his insistence on the size of the crowd at his inauguration or his Electoral College victory.

I’m not convinced by arguments that Trump’s vicious, dishonest tweets are part of some master strategy to distract from issues he’d rather people not focus on – not because it isn’t in keeping with his neurotic character but because the evidence doesn’t support it: He’s not, fortunately, particularly intelligent or strategic. He’s lashed out in similar ways for decades, long before and beyond his political involvement. He does it when there’s no issue it makes sense to distract from, and indeed when it draws attention away from what he would reasonably like people to be focusing on. And he often creates new problems for himself with these tweets. So I believe these claims are often what they appear: either (semi-)deluded statements or impulsive, spur-of-the-moment attacks.1

That said, setting aside the false claims rooted entirely in Trump’s desperate delusions – which are of great concern for other reasons – his lies, including even his most impetuous tweets and statements, are in fact calculated in the sense that they’re used to advance his neurotic goals. The key to understanding and responding to Trump’s statements is understanding that he simply doesn’t care what the truth is. What he says and tweets has a purely coincidental relationship to the world of fact and reason. He sees his statements only in terms of their effectiveness or usefulness.

Most of the rashest, most impulsive claims he makes on Twitter seek to achieve a perceived end: to exact revenge on an opponent, to discredit or instill doubt in a critical voice, to neutralize a threat, to incite fear or hatred, to self-promote, to confuse or misdirect, to “work the refs,” to rally his followers, to humiliate or destroy an enemy, and so on. Does Trump now or did he ever believe that Obama was born in Kenya, deliberately booby trapped the ACA, had him wiretapped,…? Practically speaking, it doesn’t matter, nor does it matter that he lashes out at people impulsively or via Twitter. Because even if he knew his impulsively tweeted early-morning assertions to be utterly false when he made them, or took the time to calmly consider his claims’ merits, it wouldn’t have the slightest impact on his decision whether or not to make them.

He’s not constrained by truth in the least – it’s simply not a consideration. That sort of constraint is for suckers. “Smart” - which Trump understands as self-servingly devious - people are not only not bound by the facts2 but know how to use language to advance their interests and vanquish their enemies. “Is this true or not?” is utterly irrelevant. The only question is “Is it effective?” - and winning decides.

It’s not the case that Trump’s mistruths stem primarily from an epistemic failure on his part. An oped in the LA Times argues that:
He has made himself the stooge, the mark, for every crazy blogger, political quack, racial theorist, foreign leader or nutcase peddling a story that he might repackage to his benefit as a tweet, an appointment, an executive order or a policy. He is a stranger to the concept of verification, the insistence on evidence and the standards of proof that apply in a courtroom or a medical lab — and that ought to prevail in the White House.
He’s not a stranger to the concept of verification, though. He’s aware of these standards and can deploy them when it suits his purposes, even using hyperskeptical language when he’s attacking an opponent or facing off against claims he sees as threatening. He’s just morally indifferent to them. He feels no obligation to adhere to these standards as such. Does embracing skepticism advance his perceived interests? If so, he’ll embrace it. If credulity seems more useful, that will be his choice (as the writers acknowledge with the phrase “that he might repackage to his benefit,” which suggests, correctly, that his credulity is selective and tactical).3

It’s easy enough to provide evidence of Trump’s cynical approach. As I discussed in the previous post, an interesting aspect of Trump’s case – and one that’s very telling of the state of our culture - is that he explicitly boasts of his neurotic-aggressive moral code. Recognizing that he faces few negative consequences for openly endorsing sociopathic behavior - and often wins praise when it’s seen as toughness, “counterpunching,” and so on - he even offers advice in these terms.

As the appalling quote from Sean Spicer at the beginning of this post suggests, he not only has perfect awareness of what he’s doing but believes that publicly acknowledging it will have no negative repercussions and quite possibly receive a positive response from his followers.

Trump boasted of his instrumental use of truth claims throughout the presidential campaign and after the election. At a rally after Ted Cruz had debased himself to endorse him, Trump had to educate some of his followers who had joined him in detesting “Lyin’ Ted” that his attacks were pure theater:
‘Ted Cruz is no longer a liar, we don’t say Lyin’ Ted anymore’, Trump told the crowd. ‘We love Ted, we love him, right? We love him. Now we don’t want to say Lyin’ Ted. I'd love to pull it out and just use it on lying, crooked Hillary because she is a liar’.
Audiences had to be similarly educated after the election, when Trump declared his campaign rallying cry about jailing his opponent no longer politically useful:
Donald Trump said Friday he doesn't care about prosecuting Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, after attendees at his rally chanted ‘lock her up’.

After the chants started at the President-elect's post-election ‘thank you’ rally in Michigan, he responded, ‘That plays great before the election -- now we don't care, right?’4
Indeed, he proudly announced on several occasions after his “victory” that his campaign claims had been nothing but cynical devices to gain votes:

As Noah notices, he describes his techniques to those he’s manipulating in the language of grifters and cold readers, explaining how he settles on catchphrases that “play well” and “pulls out” claims to use when convenient. In one post-election appearance, he started to talk about how knowledgeable he is about infrastructure when he interrupted himself to inform his followers that “I don’t need your vote anymore”…but would still try to sell them on the claim that he’s good at infrastructure anyway (noting that he’d need their votes in four more years in any event).

In some moments, Trump presents his use of language as advice or a personal development strategy. In 2011, in an appearance that was vile in innumerable ways, Trump called 2004 Miss Universe Jennifer Hawkins onto the stage and told her and the audience, by way of illustration of his moral principle of “get even with people,” that when he’d believed she’d declined to appear to introduce him:
I was actually going to get up and tell you that Jennifer is a beautiful girl on the outside, but she’s not very bright…. But that wouldn’t have been true, but I would have said it anyway.
Nothing could be a better illustration of his attitude toward truth claims. He’s not just openly bragging about his self-serving deception – he believes he’s imparting valuable knowledge.

So how should Trump’s falsehoods be confronted? I argued in the previous post that it’s futile to appeal to Trump on the basis of sympathy, decency, or traditional values. Similarly, there’s little point in attempting to shame him or his minions for their promotion of lies. Trump doesn’t feel shame over lying, or any sort of attachment to facts or logic. As the spectacle he created when pushed to acknowledge his years of birther lies attests, under pressure he’ll simply shift to a different tactical lie.

It’s necessary to continue to publicly call attention to the untruths while pointing to the facts. We should be attuned to those times when Trump appears to be in the grip of delusions, and note the pathological insecurity and danger of this. But most important, we should be fully aware of his absolute indifference to the truth – every statement and tweet can be read in terms of the neurotic delusions to which it caters or the neurotically-driven pursuits it serves. (This basic indifference means that we shouldn’t focus exclusively on outright lies – he’ll make similar use of true claims if he thinks they serve his purposes.)

Over many years of using lies to damage or discredit his “enemies,” Trump has developed an intuitive sense for people’s personal and political vulnerabilities, and his practice has proven successful, which says nothing positive about our society. But there are many important contexts in which his actions have negative consequences, especially given that he’s not very bright.

Much of reality, of course, is resistant to his claims. His handlers seem to be awakening to the fact that in many legal contexts his lying won’t help him and could potentially destroy him. Robert Mueller and his professional team won’t be swayed by Trump’s tweets or other public statements; increasingly, in fact, his claims appear to expose him to more legal and political jeopardy. As the pattern of purely tactical statements comes to be recognized, his capacity to extricate himself and others from suspicion or legal trouble is weakened. Obviously, as we’re seeing over time, he’s destroying his credibility. This matters not only for his personal legal situation and attempts at domestic political alliances but for the global standing of the United States. To the extent that he threatens this, allies could desert him.

1 There are many insightful articles about authoritarian regimes and how they not only lie to the public but seek to destroy the concept of disinterested truth entirely, leaving people with no concrete basis for resistance. It’s not that I think people in Trump’s inner circle don’t recognize the usefulness of this approach or that Trump’s efforts to undermine truth-seeking institutions like science and journalism don’t advance this goal. But I don’t think this is the most useful understanding of Trump’s actions in light of the fact that he’s operated the same way for virtually his entire life. The most accurate and fruitful approach, in my view, is to understand Trump’s neurotic psychology and then analyze how his thinking and actions play in our political climate.

2 Extremely neurotic people like Trump believe something that goes beyond this. Because they’re special, they’re not bound by existing facts and in a sense transcend the mundane reality of ordinary people. This is another element of neurotic grandiosity carried to an extreme.

3 Once again, it’s often difficult to discern the extent of the delusion in any specific case: does he actually convince himself of the truth of some of the claims he finds useful, or attempt to confuse himself as he does others? It’s an interesting psychological question, but again doesn’t change the fact that he would make or repeat any claim he sees as effective regardless of his belief in its truth.

4 Despite publicly “retracting” such claims, he’s always ready to revive them whenever he’s feeling threatened or thinks they might be of use.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Moving against people: Donald Trump as a case study of Karen Horney’s aggressive neurotic type

There’s an urgent need right now to understand how the authoritarian mind works and how people can come to be driven by the authoritarian impulse, and I’ve been working for several months on a series of posts about authoritarian psychology and the specific case of Trumpism.

I’ll soon post a series about Erich Fromm’s work on the subject, which finds the roots of the authoritarian character in large-scale social changes, and particularly in the insecurity created by the rise of modern capitalism. Fromm and Karen Horney, who were colleagues and even romantic partners for a time, were both trained in Freudian psychoanalysis in the early twentieth century. Both developed original theories that retained some basic Freudian insights while rejecting others.1

Fromm, trained as a social scientist, focused on how epochal political, religious, and religious transformations led to changes in human psychology. Horney, trained as a medical practitioner, retained the Freudian focus on the effects of the child’s immediate environment on psychological development. While she never quite succeeded in merging her work about neuroses into a larger sociological theory, her 1945 work Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis and others offered important observations about how neuroses originating in childhood interacted with a consumerist, capitalist, patriarchal society. Fromm and Horney have different emphases, but their perspectives on authoritarianism are compatible and complementary.

I’ve referred to Horney’s ideas here on a few occasions: when discussing misogynistic spree killer Elliot Rodger, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, the book and film Revolutionary Road, and – probably most relevant right now – Joseph Stalin. A bit of background: Horney rejected arguments that people are born with a good or an evil nature or one in which these two opposing forces struggle for dominance. She believed that humans, like other living beings, have a natural tendency to develop in a healthy way.2 This healthy development requires conditions and environments that foster it.

Of course, so many environments in which children grow up interfere with their healthy growth. Horney roots neurotic development in what she calls “basic anxiety,”
meaning by this the feeling a child has of being isolated and helpless in a potentially hostile world. A wide range of adverse factors in the environment can produce this insecurity in a child: direct or indirect domination, indifference, erratic behavior, lack of respect for the child’s individual needs, lack of real guidance, disparaging attitudes, too much admiration or the absence of it, lack of reliable warmth, having to take sides in parental disagreements, too much or too little responsibility, overprotection, isolation from other children, injustice, discrimination, unkept promises, hostile atmosphere, and so on and so on. (41)
The basic anxiety that results from these problems in a child’s environment sets the stage for the development of neuroses. Children come to see the world as a fundamentally hostile place, against which they have to defend themselves. In response, they will, Horney argued, move against, towards, or away from the world and the people around them. These defensive mechanisms correspond to the three general neurotic types she analyzed: the aggressive, compliant, and detached types.3

What causes any given person to go down one of these three paths, she thought, depended on the nature of the environmental conditions, the possibilities open to them, and a variety of chance and idiosyncratic and individual factors. As neuroses, they share the same fundamental features: each type is characterized by an imagined “idealized self” (set against a despised actual self), self-alienation, a distorted understanding of reality, a set of neurotic claims, a neurotic moral vision, neurotic pride, neurotic ambition and a “search for glory,” a drive toward vindictive triumph, a set of neurotic inner dictates or “shoulds” accompanied by neurotic guilt, and serious problems in relationships and work. What differs in each type is the particular content of the idealized self, inner dictates, imagined triumph, etc.

Horney provides the most comprehensive description and analysis of the three neurotic types in Neurosis and Human Growth (1950), but the portrait she draws of the aggressive type in Our Inner Conflicts seems most immediately relevant and is also developed with reference to how its characteristics are received in US culture. I’m going to present a handful of quotations from this work that I believe are useful in understanding the psychology of Trump and some of his followers and the actions and reactions we can expect from them. (I purposefully don’t refer to policies or political ideology. Trump is driven overwhelmingly by his aggressive-authoritarian character – this, and not any political framework, dictates how he approaches politics and political relationships.)

The Need for External Affirmation

Many articles about Trump arrive at or begin from the erroneous conclusion that he’s a classic narcissist or egomaniac who holds a high opinion of himself and doesn’t care what others think of him. This common misunderstanding is surprising given all of the evidence to the contrary – Trump’s insecurity and neediness are transparent; at times their rawness is painful to witness.4 A key to understanding the aggressive neurotic type is seeing through the bragging and bombast to the basic anxiety and the profound lack of basic self-esteem below. As Horney describes:
[The aggressive type] needs to excel, to achieve success, prestige, or recognition in any form. Strivings in this direction are partly oriented toward power, inasmuch as success and prestige lend power in a competitive society. But they also make for a subjective feeling of strength through outside affirmation, outside acclaim, and the fact of supremacy. Here as in the compliant type the center of gravity lies outside the person himself; only the kind of affirmation wanted by others differs. Factually the one is as futile as the other. When people wonder why success has failed to make them any less insecure, they only show their psychological ignorance, but the fact that they do so indicates the extent to which success and prestige are commonly regarded as yardsticks. (65; emphasis added)
Here Horney recognizes the connection between the widespread misperceptions about people of this type and the culture of capitalism. The competitiveness and desire for wealth fostered by our culture lead to the deceptive normalization of neurotic compulsion. The aggressive type is propelled to seek out fame, power, and success - and can never get enough - not because of a simple excess of greed, but because the social recognition that accompanies them is their only source and gauge of self-worth.

The Moral Code of the Aggressive Type

The aggressive type views ethics, “human nature,” and relationships in a very particular way. They see other people in purely instrumental terms. Horney explains that
a strong need to exploit others, to outsmart them, to make them of use to himself, is part of the picture. Any situation or relationship is looked at from the standpoint of ‘What can I get out of it?’ – whether it has to do with money, prestige, contacts, or ideas. The person himself is consciously or unconsciously convinced that everyone acts this way, and so what counts is to do it more efficiently than the rest. (65)
As this suggests, the aggressive type’s instrumental view of relationships has to be understood in the context of their view of human nature. Their idealized self is characterized by (what they perceive as) toughness, hardness, dominance, selfishness, and a lack of sentimentality. They’re drawn to people they think embody these qualities – in Trump’s case, Roy Cohn, Erdoğan, Putin, Duterte, Arpaio, generals who commit war crimes, corporate heads who steal natural resources, “tough guys” in general… They’re similarly attracted to philosophies and ideologies that appear to confirm the naturalness and even justness of their neurotic inclinations, such as eugenics, Social Darwinism, fascism, and authoritarianism generally.

In turn, they’re contemptuous of (what they perceive as) weakness, softness, sentimentality, or selflessness. Their unpleasant treatment of people, from feigned respect and friendship to contemptuous callousness, rudeness, and even viciousness, is rooted in their entire view of human relations. The aggressive type
sees no reason to be considerate of others. ‘Why should I care - let others take care of themselves’. In terms of the old ethical problem of two persons on a raft only one of whom could survive, he would say that of course he’d try to save his own skin – not to would be stupid and hypocritical. He hates to admit fear of any kind and will find drastic ways of bringing it under control. (65-6)
Exploiting Virtue and Conciliation

Horney insightfully notes that “Actually, [the aggressive neurotic type’s] feelings on the score of ‘softness’ in others are mixed. He despises it in them, it is true, but he welcomes it as well, because it leaves him all the freer to pursue his own goals” (69). In fact, the aggressive type always stands ready to capitalize on kind or considerate gestures and use them to advantage. Those dealing with this type should never expect reciprocity for fairness or decency or even basic politeness. Indeed, amazingly, Trump has explicitly acknowledged that he exploits people’s desire to be (or at least to be seen as) unbiased, fair, and tolerant. “Working the refs,” as he freely admits,5 he accuses others of bias, unfairness, cheating, intolerance, aggression, or obstruction, and then waits to exploit their efforts to prove otherwise.

All conciliatory acts will be treated with the same deep contempt and exploited for gain. Compromises with aggressive types are also doomed to fail, as they’re seen as evidence of weakness in a battle of wills; it’s a fundamental mistake to believe that aggressive types like Trump can work toward shared public goals – the only stakes in their battles with the world are personal victory and defeat. (In Trump’s case, furthermore, his word can’t be trusted.) And of course none of their own seemingly compromising, kind, or fair actions are genuine. All are calculated to produce a desired effect in the ongoing contest – disarming opponents, breaking up alliances, impressing onlookers.

Of central importance here is that an aggressive type like Trump sees himself in constant battle against an unremittingly hostile world and believes this is the human condition:
His set of values is built around the philosophy of the jungle. Might makes right. Away with humaneness and mercy. Homo homini lupus. Here we have values not very different from those with which the Nazis have made us so familiar. (68-9)6
It’s vitally important to recognize that Trump’s frequently appalling behavior doesn’t reflect a lack of values or a failure to live up to shared values. The characteristics Trump prizes are his positive values - this is the moral code of the aggressive type. Many aggressive people conceal or disguise their Hobbesian moral code in the recognition that it’s socially unacceptable in their culture, but Trump does not. He openly boasts about it, recommending it in public speeches, interviews, and books.

We see this in countless statements and reactions from Trump himself. He doesn’t want to be caught gaming the system if he fears legal or financial consequences, for example, but when he doesn’t foresee such consequences he’ll boast that it makes him “smart.” His value system becomes visible through his projection as well. His claim that Obama designed the ACA to implode shortly after he left office is absurdly false, but most telling is that Trump sees in Obama’s (projected) deviousness an admirable quality. Analyses of Trump as a would-be autocrat are undeniably true and important, but to the extent that they’re intended to make him see the error of his ways will have the opposite effect – Trump wants to be regarded as a strongman, and receives as compliments what are intended as criticisms.

It’s often claimed that Trump has the upper hand because it’s impossible to shame him. Not so. We just need to understand the sources of shame within his neurotic moral code. Specifically, he feels shame at being seen – or perceiving himself - as the opposite of his idealized self: as soft, weak, passive, impressionable, tender, emotional, manipulable, stupid, failing, unpopular, dominated, beaten. (The shame at feeling impressionable and manipulable is highly ironic in that it makes him all the more impressionable and manipulable. Members of his staff routinely describe to reporters the simple means by which they exploit his tendencies. Similarly, all anyone had to do when he lied about firing James Comey on the basis of Rod Rosenstein’s recommendation was to take the lie – which in his neurotic assessment made him look weak and passive – at face value. Trump was then compelled to insist to Lester Holt in a televised interview that he had already made the decision himself and that the Rosenstein memo was mere window dressing.)

Neurotic “Realism”

Trump believes the social and political world is a realm of thinly disguised warfare, and that the only appropriately prized qualities are those he espouses. This is what realism means to the aggressive type:
His feeling about himself is that he is strong, honest, and realistic, all of which is true if you look at things his way. According to his premises his estimate of himself is strictly logical, since to him ruthlessness is strength, lack of consideration for others, honesty, and a callous pursuit of one’s ends, realism. (68)
This view of social and political life, this neurotic “realism,” has already come, horrifyingly, to shape US foreign policy and its public rhetoric. An oped by National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and chief economic advisor Gary Cohn following Trump’s first foreign tour presents US foreign relations from the viewpoint of his psychology. “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook,” they assert,
that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.
This twisted vision is presented as the only clear-eyed, realistic understanding of how the world works - what politics is, its elemental nature. Moreover, it isn’t simply to be recognized but to be enthusiastically embraced as the cornerstone of US foreign policy.7

This paragraph encapsulates Trump’s rhetoric throughout the campaign and indeed going back decades. This view of the world is not a clear-eyed, empirically-based realism which recognizes the complexity of human political motivations but an expression of Trump’s psychology – his childhood experience of the world as a hostile place and his neurotic strategy of moving against people to in order to defend himself. That this distortion can be stated in the language of international politics and given the name of “realism” doesn’t make it any more realistic in actual fact.

Three aspects of Trump’s worldview – its consistency, its partiality, and its paranoia - help us to appreciate that his is not genuine political realism but neurotic “realism.” First, there’s a consistency to Trump’s views that spans wildly different circumstances and administrations – in his mind, the US and US presidents are always losing, always being outsmarted, always being disrespected, taken advantage of, laughed at. Of course, most recently he’s focused on Obama’s alleged weakness and how any agreements he negotiated were supposedly disastrous for the US, but he’s said similar things about every US president. The lack of grounding in specific arguments about concrete approaches or agreements is due to the fact that this is merely the political projection of Trump’s distorted neurotic reaction to the world.8

Second, and related to the first, Trump has a long history of extreme partiality in his choice not only of evidence but of associates, who in turn reinforce the bias of his worldview. People often suggest that Trump’s views reflect the influence of people like Roy Cohn. But in fact Trump was an adult when he became acquainted with Cohn, and actively sought out Cohn’s friendship and mentorship. He’s psychologically drawn to thugs, mobsters, con artists, autocrats, dirty tricksters, media manipulators, corporate raiders, war criminals, “vicious, horrible, miserable human beings” who “don’t sleep at night” – people who reflect back to him the “truth” of his distorted vision and confirm its realism.9

Finally, the irrational, neurotic nature of Trump’s so-called “realism” is evident in its marked element of paranoia. In his speech announcing the abandonment of the Paris Accord, for example – which also notably included ad-libbed comments about how the world would no longer be laughing at the US – he insinuated that the agreement, like so many others, was essentially a multinational conspiracy to take advantage of the US. This belief is so unconnected to reality as to shatter any claims of clear-eyed realism.

But in the mind of the aggressive type, the truth of this worldview is confirmed by success in its practical application:
His attitude on the score of his honesty comes partly from a shrewd debunking of current hypocrisies. Enthusiasm for a cause, philanthropic sentiments, and the like he sees as sheer pretense, and it is not hard for him to expose gestures of social consciousness or Christian virtue for what they often are. (68)
It is consistent with his attitude of having to fight against a malevolent world that he should develop a keen sense of realism – of its kind. He will never be so ‘naïve’ as to overlook in others any manifestation of ambition, greed, ignorance, or anything else that might obstruct his own goals. Since in a competitive civilization attributes like these are much more common than real decency, he feels justified in regarding himself as only realistic. Actually, of course, he is just as one-sided as the compliant type. (67)
In Trump’s view, his cynicism’s effectiveness proves its accuracy. While we’ve long had evidence of the Republican Party’s cravenness, Trump has exposed its depth and successfully mined it. He’s shown that, with few exceptions, Republicans and rightwing organizations will go to virtually any lengths to obtain and retain power and prosecute their class war. The rot at the heart of white evangelicalism in the US and the absolute hollowness of its moral claims have similarly been shamefully revealed.

What could be better evidence of the correctness of Trump’s ethics of ruthlessness and cynicism than his winning not only the votes of a substantial part of the US population (the rubes, marks, and losers, as he sees them) but the support of a “family values” political party and a large number of religious leaders? But of course this is, as Horney makes clear, a biased, one-sided interpretation. In order to sustain this claim, Trump has to ignore all of those he hasn’t been able to exploit, or alternatively rationalize their actions.

The Weakness of Neurotic Cynicism

Trump’s irrationally jaded outlook prevents him from understanding human motivations that don’t comport with his neurotic framework. Activists and protesters must be paid, criminals, or jealous and embittered losers. Sally Yates and Eric Schneiderman are partisan Democrats who always had it in for him. James Comey and John Brennan want power and attention. Career government officials are “Obama holdovers” who want to sabotage Trump and advance Obama’s agenda. Intelligence agencies are a “deep state” that wants to rule supreme. Federal judges have a liberal axe to grind. Investigative journalists want fame and money. Whistleblowers in the administration are out for personal advantage….

The point isn’t that everyone who poses an obstacle to Trump acts out of only the purest and noblest of motives, but that the aggressive type is simply incapable of understanding human motives that differ from their own. Because of this, Trump will continually try to reframe genuinely virtuous, principled, or professional behavior in terms he can grasp. (He’s helped in this when the media and political commentators construe the vast majority of interactions in which he’s hostile to a person or organization as “feuds,” giving him ammunition to portray his targets’ actions in his terms - they’re only investigating, opposing, or criticizing him out of personal hostility and a desire to beat or destroy him.)

But outside of dictatorships, the inability to understand and need to distort people’s motivations in this way has serious practical consequences. The aggressive type is bound to run into problems when he’s facing people who won’t be bullied, bribed, or cajoled, who are driven by genuine selflessness, professionalism, or patriotism or a mission to get at the truth or inform the public; when Trump attempts to deal with people on the basis of his assumptions, he tends to make things far worse for himself. In addition to the fact that his efforts often fail to achieve their ends, they also tend to arouse the suspicions of more decent people. In turn, those he’s trying to manipulate, having come to appreciate that he and his crew aren’t, in James Comey’s (reported) words, honorable people, will alter their behavior accordingly – becoming hyperaware of his manipulation in other contexts, documenting their interactions and telling colleagues, etc. If they’re professional investigators or journalists, naturally this will work to his detriment.

Aggressive Inhibitions and Failed Appeals

Finally, Horney points out that the nature of our culture tends to blind us to the significant inhibitions of the aggressive type. “The aggressive type looks like an exquisitely uninhibited person,” she suggests.
He can assert his wishes, he can give orders, express anger, defend himself. But actually he has no fewer inhibitions than the compliant type. It is not greatly to the credit of our civilization that his particular inhibitions do not, offhand, strike us as such. They lie in the emotional area and concern his capacity for friendship, love, affection, sympathetic understanding, disinterested enjoyment. (68)
These extreme emotional inhibitions mean that appeals to liberal values, empathy, generosity, etc. – even framed as “American” values or in the national interest - will have no effect. (Indeed, Trump discovered at the time he bombed the runway in Syria that humanitarian rhetoric can be effective with the many people who don’t want to recognize that anyone, much less someone in a position of great power, can be so incapable of sympathy or human emotion. Since then he’s cynically seasoned his overwhelmingly authoritarian language and cruel legislation and executive actions with references to his “having a heart” and wanting bills to be less “mean.”10)

Trump’s success says a great deal about the state of our culture, and of the Republican Party in particular. But Horney makes clear that, while our culture often tragically tends to misinterpret aggressive neurotic behavior, especially in men, as strength, like all authoritarian tendencies it’s based in fundamental psychological weakness. Unable to overcome the basic anxiety developed in childhood, the aggressive type relies on fragile and pathetic neurotic “solutions.”

Trump desperately needs others’ attention, approval, and affirmation, to the point that he has to surround himself with fawning sycophants and a protective shell of delusions. His insecurity runs so deep that no amount of success can ever overcome it. His neurotic pride is the basis of his real self-loathing. Maintaining his neurotic “realist” worldview requires the constant distortion of reality, and his self-image is so brittle that it leaves him always on the defensive, projecting his self-hatred onto others. Unable to handle criticism, he needs to attack and silence critics. Feeling threatened from every direction, he’s constantly on guard for signs that he’s not perceived as his neurotic pride demands, which would bring his self-loathing once again to the surface. Utterly dependent on external validation, he’s easy prey for anyone – or any adept intelligence service - who knows how to manipulate him.

He lacks the capacity for love, empathy, and positive human relationships, which despite his neurotic cynicism he’s envious of. He’s also incapable of understanding honorable or unselfish motives, which creates endless practical, legal, and political difficulties. When our culture so frequently misinterprets the actions of the aggressive type as evidence of strength, egotism, and mastery, recognizing the weakness, insecurity, and haplessness behind them is central to resisting and combating them.


1 Both wrote worthwhile critical works about Freud: Fromm’s Greatness and Limitation of Freud’s Thought and Horney’s New Ways in Psychoanalysis.

2 This view was I think at the heart of Horney’s therapeutic and general optimism – when she spoke of the actualization of the “real self,” she didn’t mean that such a self existed, fully formed, inside of each person, simply needing to be released; she meant that all humans have a basic need for and natural tendency toward healthy development.

3 Horney discussed these as ideal types – a person was an aggressive type, for example, to the extent that they were characterized by the features of this particular neurosis. Also, she didn’t think of these types or neuroses in general as diagnostic classifications, for which it could be said that one person meets the definition of “a neurotic” as opposed to a psychologically healthy person.

4 This can be seen in the childlike way he speaks about Putin and other world leaders; his cringeworthy speech at the Al Smith dinner; his relationship with the media – both the absurdly unrealistic hope that media coverage after the election would be wholly positive and that everyone would now “bow down” to him and the vicious response when this didn’t happen; his creation of a fake persona to present a sympathetic image of himself to the media; his extreme response to Neera Tanden’s mildly critical comments about Hillary Clinton in the hacked emails; his demands that his staff obsequiously praise him in private and in public and lie to him about his popularity and prestige, as demonstrated most disturbingly in a recent cabinet meeting; and countless other episodes. Trump’s obsession with his Electoral College victory (including false claims about it) and the deceptive maps that show the counties he won are evidence not of narcissistic self-regard but of a vast need for concrete visual and numerical proof of admiration. Most revealing of Trump’s profound psychological dependence on public affirmation is his response to the pictures and video of his sparsely attended inauguration; his rage, his attempt to deny and destroy the evidence, and his continuing inability to accept the reality that the election didn’t guarantee him social acceptance show that his need for outside approval is so great that he has to enclose himself in a protective cocoon of delusions rather than face even the slightest blow to his idealized self-image. World leaders have of course recognized this bottomless need for affirmation and praise and used it to their advantage.

5 As with so many of Trump’s statements, it’s difficult to know whether this admission is an error rooted in stupidity or the result of appreciating how many of his followers share his psychological profile and respond favorably to this sort of manipulation and exploitation of virtue.

6 As I’ve said in the past, I reject as both false and harmful metaphors in which human selfishness and cruelty are presented as qualities of nonhuman animals and “uncivilized” humans.

7 Many people have recognized the extent to which this approach represents a break from the tradition of US foreign-policy rhetoric. Some naively or hypocritically hold to this traditional rhetoric as reflecting the reality of US actions. Others, particularly on the Left, point out that this rhetoric has for more than a century largely served to thinly conceal a project of capitalist expansion and the imperialist drive for natural resources, pipelines, bases, and power. I’ve made this argument for years. I don’t believe the appropriate response to the Trumpian approach is to naively or hypocritically cling to liberal pieties while turning a blind eye to real, aggressive policies or to dismiss the Trump doctrine as simply “removing the mask” from US imperialism and thus somehow making it better. Nazi imperialism built on British and French imperialism, but it would have been the height of stupidity and shortsightedness to welcome its arrival as a positive development in that it exposed the reality of democratic and humanitarian imperialism. No, the only positive response is to continue to fight to defend and advance real democracy, equality, freedom, and justice globally – immediately against their greatest threats (Trump, Putin, Erdoğan, and the like) and more broadly against anyone who would use these values as cover for predatory policies.

8 Some have noted that the timing of Trump’s remarks about Reagan’s “weak” posture toward the Soviet Union suspiciously followed his 1987 trip there, and similar comments – which are so out of step with the traditional views of the US Right - came on the heels of his hosting the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. I believe that it’s possible, and maybe even probable, that the notions Trump has advanced about the USSR/Russia and his recommendations for US policy have to some extent been seeded by agents of these regimes who rightly view Trump as a “useful idiot.” But the reality is that he wouldn’t have been such a reliable tool for them had they not found fertile soil for their propaganda in his neurotic psychology.

9 In the Netflix feature Get Me Roger Stone, the sleazy political operative explains his longtime friendship with Trump in these terms – Trump “understands” that this is how the real world works.

10 Some commentators have even gone so far as to express concern that he would act on the basis of raw emotion and humanitarian concern and that his purported humanitarian instincts that are out of step with the Republican Party, both ludicrous readings given the facts.

Friday, April 7, 2017

BANNED IN TURKEY – Bêjin Na (Say No)

The Ankara-appointed governor of the city of Sirnak banned this week a Kurdish song prepared by the opposition Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) for its ‘no’ campaign to extending Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers in an upcoming referendum on April 16.

A written request made by the chief of the police in the province to the Governor Ali Ihsan Su said that the song “Bêjin Na” or “Say No” was against the first three articles of the Turkish Constitution and was “creating enmity among people.”

HDP, Turkey's second largest opposition party whose co-leaders Selahattin Demirtas, Figen Yuksekdag as well as ten other lawmakers remain in prison, is a leading force behind the ‘no’ campaign to consolidate Erdogan's rule along the Republican People's Party (CHP).

Among the lyrics in the song are slogans “No to one flag, no to one nation and no to one language,” references to phrases often used by President Erdogan.

The police claimed the song could cause public unrest as well as a “clear and near threat” within Sirnak provincial borders.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, the Turkish governor's office in the city of Van followed suit and declared a ban on HDP's song….

I can see why the Turkish regime is afraid of it. It’s catchy, and I can’t even understand the lyrics. (See also here.)

Here’s more about Turkey’s looming democide (although I disagree with the author in the sense that what pertains in Turkey currently is far from true democracy and would point out that other democracies have stronger institutional barriers against democide by referendum).

Monday, February 20, 2017

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Hugenberg Lesson

…As important as Hugenberg’s role was in the destruction of the republic, it can in no way be labeled the decisive factor in the triumph of German fascism. Nevertheless, in the deliberate campaign to frustrate political and economic democracy, Hugenberg and the Pan-Germans must bear a large portion of the historic responsibility for the rise of Nazism. Hugenberg’s narrowly rigid point of view catered to the most selfish and unenlightened tendencies of men. Not justice for all, but power for the few was his goal. - John A. Leopold, Alfred Hugenberg: The Radical Nationalist Campaign against the Weimar Republic, p. 172
As we rode toward the airport, Obama talked about Trump. “We’ve seen this coming,” he said. “Donald Trump is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party for the past ten, fifteen, twenty years. What surprised me was the degree to which those tactics and rhetoric completely jumped the rails. There were no governing principles, there was no one to say, ‘No, this is going too far, this isn’t what we stand for.’ But we’ve seen it for eight years, even with reasonable people like John Boehner, who, when push came to shove, wouldn’t push back against these currents.”- David Remnick, “Obama Reckons with a Trump Presidency”
History will be so cruel to you…. Your resumes will always read “Worked for a batshit crazy crypto-fascist who destroyed the GOP.” – Rick Wilson on Twitter, June 15, 2016
I highly recommend Jane Mayer’s 2016 Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. The book falls short, though, when it comes to questions of capitalism and class. Evaluating the Koch brothers’ political efforts, Mayer often seems torn, questioning repeatedly whether they’re driven by their ideology or their conglomerate’s bottom line. The question is at once too general and too specific. The problem is solved if we recognize that the Kochs’ ideology and political actions ultimately serve their class interests, as they often recognize themselves.1 It’s worrisome how far nonfiction writing in the US has moved from any sort of structural or theoretical analysis. (Mayer’s impressive work on the Bush administration suffers from the same deficiency, in my view.) Of course, writers shouldn’t simply plug concrete people and events into preformed theoretical frameworks; at the same time, if you lack a grasp of the structural and historical forces and trends, you can never develop a deeper understanding of your subject and usually end up, like Mayer, asking questions that could easily be answered in a more theoretically structured work.

John A. Leopold’s Alfred Hugenberg: The Radical Nationalist Campaign against the Weimar Republic (Yale Press, 1977) avoids this problem. The book isn’t written with any ideological or historical axe to grind, or of course with events 40 years in the future in mind.2 It’s not a Marxist work but basically narrates the actions of Alfred Hugenberg and his party colleagues in the years preceding the Nazi seizure of power, centering on the question of Hugenberg’s role in that catastrophic outcome. Interestingly, Leopold notes early on:
In my view, the career of Hugenberg demonstrates the pluralistic bases of historical development. Nevertheless, I am sure that my treatment of certain phenomena lends support to some Marxist interpretations of these events. (xi)
And it certainly does. This interpretation is all the easier to arrive at given that the early twentieth-century capitalists were more open than today’s about their ideas and aims. While they were aware that to some extent they had to work from the shadows to advance their agenda, manipulating rather than informing, they were often explicitly elitist and anti-democratic. Unlike the plutocrats of today, they didn’t go to great lengths to conceal their belief that their class should rule.

But much in Leopold’s narrative will sound familiar to those with knowledge of the political organization of capitalists today. This is especially troubling given that Hugenberg and his colleagues didn’t intend to bring the Nazis to power – they wanted to bring themselves to power. Had it been a simple matter of support for the Nazi cause there probably wouldn’t be significant lessons for the present. But the Nazis were a monster that Hugenberg and his coalition played a key role in creating, and which turned around and consumed them, and it’s important to understand how this happened, especially because their actions have much in common with those of people today.

Who was Alfred Hugenberg?

Alfred Hugenberg was never Hitler’s publicist, as he’s sometimes been portrayed. His role in fact anticipated that of the Koch brothers, and had much in common with them and with Rupert Murdoch, Sheldon Adelson, Robert Mercer, and other rich rightwing operators. Leopold describes him as “an unlikely and unwieldy combination of ideologue and administrator” (171) whose “managerial talent…allowed him to preserve and disseminate…elitist ideals and traditions throughout the Weimar era” (169-70).

Hugenberg, who had been chairman of the board of directors at Krupp (and for a time effectively ran the company) and acquired great personal wealth, organized and administered several rightwing operations in the years leading to the Nazi rise to power. First, he sought to advance capitalist class interests by gathering industrialists together to set up a fund to sponsor rightwing parties and organizations in order, in his words, “effectively to countermand threatening dangers in the economic and social fields” (8). Since “many industrialists fearful of democratic and socialistic movements had logically concluded that sporadic attempts to influence the electorate only during election years and then to manipulate parliamentary groups through select representatives had been inefficient and ineffective” (5), a coordinated and long-term strategy was needed.

Hugenberg not only established and ran a capitalist trust fund but also, “through the use of diverse bank accounts and holding companies administered by additional trustees” (8), hid the identities of the funders. He also “presided over the maze of ever-shifting corporations which…exploited the structure of corporate law to avoid taxes” (12). “Political influence was what the men of the Ruhr wanted,” Leopold suggests, and Hugenberg “provided funds for a vast number of counterrevolutionary organizations” (12). His organization “enabled western coaling magnates to conceal the vast trust fund that had accumulated during the war years and at the same time invest this money in the pursuit of reactionary endeavors” (12).

Additionally, Hugenberg ran a rightwing media syndicate, controlling numerous newspapers and the largest German film corporation, Ufa. Realizing that their “patriarchal policy hardly aroused mass support, Hugenberg and some nationalist-industrialists preferred manipulation and exploitation as the means of securing their goal” (xv-xvi). Industrialists “had already begun infiltrating the media” sporadically in their attempts to influence elections; Hugenberg “emphasized the coordinated attempt to influence public opinion through the press” (5). Through his syndicate, Hugenberg “emerged as a somewhat independent lobbyist championing Pan-German, nationalist, capitalist views” (170).

Finally, Hugenberg had a wide influence on politics in the pre-Nazi era in his role as the chair of the DNVP, the German National party beginning in 1928.

Hugenberg’s Ideology

So what was the ideology propounded by Hugenberg through the industrial coalition, media syndicate, and party he ran? It was precociously neoliberal, elitist, imperialist, antidemocratic, antiliberal, and antisocialist.

The German state envisioned by Hugenberg, “controlled by aggressive elitists,” would “not disturb established corporations” but would “encourage rugged individualism” (xv). This would require the spread of capitalist social relations into all spheres of life, including agriculture, in which state policy would promote entrepreneurship among farmers.3 Hugenberg believed in radical neoliberal transformation of the economy:
His response to the problems of modern society required neither massive state intervention nor a return to an idealized past but bureaucratic assistance in fostering agrarian individualism… The state had to encourage competition within its borders and not protect antiquated forms of economic activity. (2)
His approach involved the firm rejection of the welfare state and social programs that obstructed the formation of the neoliberal subject. “Emphasizing individualism,” Hugenberg insisted that “self-help rather than state assistance would save the worker” (91) - “self-help would replace welfare legislation” and “state intervention in the economy had to be minimized” to promote meritocracy and individual initiative (119). He
criticized welfare payments and union dues charging that such contributions prevented individual saving and self-help. His press organization expanded this argument by publishing Gustav Hartz’s Irrwege der Sozialpolitik, a book that attacked the entire welfare system and proposed replacing it by a system of compulsory saving. (53)
(Unsurprisingly, this agenda was shared by the business community, which, even in troubled times, demanded from the Brüning cabinet “strict adherence to the principles of classical economics” (101).)

Hugenberg believed in the “social Darwinistic philosophy so prevalent in industrial circles during this era” (3), which explained hierarchies and inequalities as the result of natural differences in the ability to compete in the capitalist contest. His neoliberal views in some ways contrasted with the more culturally reactionary strains of conservatism, and those ideas weren’t at the center of his program (although his bloc certainly contained culturally reactionary forces). In fact, he presented his as a modernizing agenda, while
vulgar publicists who sought to return to an idealized past or condemned capitalism as a Jewish invention fostered nationalism at the expense of its modern spirit. Such ignorant racists, in Hugenberg’s view, could be manipulated, for power belonged to the elite who had proven their ability to survive in the modern world. (169)
In turn, he was accused by some who were more culturally reactionary of being a plutocrat willing to tolerate immorality and degeneration (in the films his corporation produced, for example) in order to advance crass economic interests. He was also opposed early on by some traditional elites, like the Junkers, who sought to protect their position.

Power, Nationalism, and Democracy

Hugenberg and his coalition were fiercely antidemocratic, believing that “power derived not from the democratic organization of men on behalf of an idea, but from the ability to structure a bloc which manipulated the masses and pressured political leaders to execute the plans of an elitist group” (170). These beliefs were at the heart of his capitalist coalition, media syndicate, and party.

At the same time as Hugenberg worked to institute radical neoliberal reforms domestically, he promoted nationalism and imperialism as the key tenets of foreign policy. He argued that all Germans would be elevated and provided security through the expansion of German global power, maintaining
that neither voting nor legislation would advance the workers, but only a ‘very much richer, very much greater, and very much more powerful’ Germany would be able to insure continued benefits for the industrial proletariat. (3)
This required a colonial empire and much more land for Germany. While he believed that “individual national economies, self-contained and autonomous, formed the kernel of a healthy world order” (92), he had in mind only a few European countries, and thought that Germany – a ‘people without space’ - needed to be provided a colonial empire in Africa and Eastern Europe (91-2). His party “proposed foreign policy based upon ‘national egotism’ and demanded Lebensraum, area in which the population could expand and develop its economy free of foreign dictates” (119). “In short,” Leopold suggests, “Hugenberg’s mentality was Pan-German. Cultural dynamism, propelled by the eruption of industrial expansion, entitled Germany to a greater control of the world’s resources” (169).

So Hugenberg’s ideology and agenda had much in common with the Nazis’. He condemned “unionists, Marxists, democrats, and internationalists” (170). He advocated “rabid antisocialist, antidemocratic, and proimperialist policies” (xv). He believed that “one could ‘not be radical enough’ when public interests were threatened” (22). However, he “favored neither the social nor the economic policies of the Nazis” (60).4 His coalition and party differed from the Nazis in terms of ideology, methods, and political identity.

As Leopold describes, Hugenberg’s party, the DNVP,
was rooted in the attitudes and traditions of the nineteenth century. It comprised men of property and education who patronized inferiors while scorning democratic idealism and loathing socialistic egalitarianism. Older men raised in the prewar era of peace and prosperity, the German Nationals identified their superiority as social, intellectual, and racial. Hugenberg, himself, typified their Pan-Germanic idealism and expansionism. (125)
In contrast,
Hitler and the Nazis were products of the twentieth century. Alienated and deprived, enured by the hardships of the war, the frustrations of inflation, and the humiliation of the depression, these were men of action. No Spenglerian historicizing for them; power was the goal. Hitler and his SA felt that polite bourgeois civilities had castrated the earlier generations; Nazis would not be so easily subdued. (125)
Hugenberg, while professing a radical ideology, was comparatively “disinclined to resort to violent or illegal opposition” (22). This was less a matter of ethical concerns about violence and more a question of culture and political pragmatism. Also, “like his friend Class, Hugenberg must have understood that Hitler, as a self-appointed ‘savior of Germany’, was not only a classic example of ‘megolamania, but also of uncontrollability, imprudence, and lack of judgment’” (99).

The Nazis were presented in Hugenberg’s press as “misguided men seeking admirable goals with improper tactics” (22). Hitler’s movement generated both optimism and fear. While “Hitler was an ‘exceptionally popular speaker’ and an ‘organizer of unaccustomed talent’ who was able to liberate ‘innumerable workers from the bond of international socialism’ and convert them to the nationalist cause,” Hugenberg and other conservatives worried that “Nazi extremists…could promote anarchy” (22-3).

In effect, Hugenberg represented the hypercapitalist branch of the German Nationalist establishment. But it should be noted that even with the threat of Hitler looming, many, amazingly, saw Hugenberg, with his radical neoliberal agenda and uncompromising tactics, as the greater danger:
For many observers of the German scene, the greatest threat was not the Nazis. As Mussolini expressed it, there was no necessity to fear Hitler, who was ‘malleable’, but rather ‘Hugenberg and the Junkers of the old Germany’. Hugenberg’s principled intransigence in internal affairs and his plans for national economic development seemed to present the greatest threat to the status quo. In classical understatement, the French ambassador had voiced this same concept when he informed his foreign office that ‘in the association of the three men (Hitler, Papen, and Hugenberg)…the least dangerous, the least troublesome is certainly not M. Hugenberg’. Similarly, Germany’s eastern neighbor, Poland, was less disturbed by the appointment of Hitler to power than by ‘his connection with Hugenberg’ whom the Poles viewed as ‘the more dangerous threat’. Even within Germany itself, ‘the impression of a German National preponderance’ was widespread. (138)
How Hugenberg Aided the Rise of Hitler

Hugenberg wasn’t pro-Nazi. He didn’t intend to help bring the Nazis to power. He thought he could control them and subordinate them to his more established coalition of rightwing elites. But every step of the way throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Hugenberg’s choices and actions played into Hitler’s hands. Resisting warnings from other nationalists, he formed alliances with the Nazis while refusing any compromise with or real participation in government. He remained obstructionist to the end, engaging in a “crisis politics” which prevented more moderate solutions from emerging and which frequently advanced radically authoritarian policies. He refused to attack Hitler in the press he controlled.

Hugenberg and his party were willing to collaborate with the Nazis and others on the far Right to advance their program. “The fundamental rule,” Leopold points out,
had to be, ‘You must gather together and not scatter! You must bind together and not tear apart! There was no enemy on the right; there were only undisciplined idealists. Only when a rightist collaborated in saving the Weimar regime was he liable to censure. (23)
Hugenberg was so desirous of winning power and so terrified of the Left that he “deliberately determined that the best way to win votes and influence the imperial regime was to cooperate with the very reactionaries and racists whose existence he had proclaimed an obstacle to national development” (xvi).5

Hugenberg’s strategy wasn’t to back the Nazis fully but to bring them into the larger conservative coalition. Thus, “while Pan-Germans like Kirdorf joined the Nazis, Hugenberg remained within the German National organization but sought to develop an opening to the radical right” (42) with his own party firmly in control:
Hugenberg and his allies de-emphasized incongruities and insisted that the only differences between the parties on the extreme right lay in ‘temperament and disposition’. The DNVP and the NSDAP fought side by side in foreign affairs, but domestically the older party had much to teach the Nazis. The Hugenberg party considered itself the source of ‘schooled, conservative, constructive, youthfully strong determination’. (86)
believed that the National Socialists should be given governmental responsibility so that they could demonstrate their strengths and weaknesses. He concluded that ‘throughout the country we have to build up a strong, powerful, national, anti-Marxist party. As uncomfortable as it is to me that a National Socialist movement has developed, we must still take it into account’. (80)
In the face of growing mobilization and the new dynamism of the radical Right, Hugenberg and others in the DNVP were often willing to set aside their concerns:
The people had finally been aroused against the republican system. When a moderate nationalist like Otto Gessler warned that the Nazis were an extremist party like the [Communist] KPD, Hugenberg’s supporters replied that they would rather work with the NSDAP than with a democratic group. (86)
Even when Prussian elections saw the NSDAP gain at the expense of Hugenberg’s party, “German Nationals preferred this to the existing coalition led by the Socialists” (87). Perhaps the clearest expression of Hugenberg’s readiness to mute his reservations in favor of an alliance with the Nazis came at a Nazi-style rally the DNVP organized in 1931. He argued that “only an ‘artful and unconstitutional’ manipulation of power had prevented the complete triumph of the national opposition” and blamed the Brüning government and the “timidity of moderates” (101) for the rise of extremists. While suggesting that the “young and thoughtless proponents” of Nazi “national bolshevism” “needed the strong and friendly hand of a good leadership” which he and the DNVP could provide (100), he stated
With bitter earnestness I add warningly and threateningly: I dare say that in the most extreme emergency every man among us would prefer this so-called national bolshevism to either Marxian bolshevism or foreign domination. If you have to die once, it is after all better to die in honor than in disgrace. (100; emphasis added)
Hugenberg’s sabotage of any form of moderation or compromise with regard to the republic was crucial in opening the door to the Nazi seizure of power. “Convinced that political and economic democracy would ruin Germany,” Leopold suggests, “he was prepared to use any means to frustrate its acceptance” (xvi). His party, the DNVP, “had to reject any cooperation with democracy” (21), and Hugenberg enforced this party line throughout the years of his chairmanship. More moderate voices called attention to the DNVP’s “luxury of negativism” (72). For example, his “ideological rejection of the government” with regard to the Young Plan “freed him from the burden of proposing a realistic alternative” (72). But Hugenberg persisted in his anti-government obstruction even when participation could have given him real influence. While the 1930 government “would be clearly non-Marxist and follow a conservative economic policy…Hugenberg remained adamant in his opposition and embarked on a course that prevented his party from accepting any government that tolerated the status quo” (72-3).

A chapter of Leopold’s book is titled “The Politics of Polarization.” Hugenberg’s political strategy was consistently divisive and polarizing. He “debated political issues in terms of a simplistic, philosophic disjunction – a man was either for the nation or he was against it” (55). “Radical nationalists” led by Hugenberg
rejected the new political structure and maintained a loyalty to some transcendent concept of the state embodying their ideological ideals; they appealed to a higher justice which went beyond the materialistic and partisan interests attributed to Weimar’s supporters. This psychology evoked strongly emotional rhetoric and fostered the creation of shibboleths such as the ‘war-guilt lie’, the ‘stab in the back’, and the ‘November criminals’. Those who unqualifiedly endorsed these slogans became the ‘experts’ who spoke for the true Germany; those who demurred were dilettantish, partisan politicians. Right-wing propagandists embroidered these stereotyped notions into fanciful and malicious patterns. (13; emphasis added)
Hugenberg sought to gather together and mobilize the country’s anti-democratic forces: “The clearer and stronger the distinction between right and left, the more Hugenberg and his reactionary associates could expect to rally ardent nationalists in a Sammlung, a unified bloc, which could destroy the republic” (13). Dominated by wealthy elites, this bloc would nonetheless be inclusive of all nationalist and rightwing forces. Just before World War I, a “cartel of the producing classes” had been formed, whose
goal was to rally artisans, farmers, shopkeepers, civil servants, and other petit bourgeois nationalists behind reactionary industrialists, radical Junkers, and Pan-German ideologues in a united bloc. This simplistic division of the nation into an arbitrary dichotomy of producers and parasites, creative and destructive forces, nationalist and antinationalist elements, propagandized a dual alternative for Germany – prosperity and development with the cartel or poverty and destruction with socialism and democracy. Sammlung, the unification of all nationalist forces, was the political ideal of these bourgeois nationalists. Deeply committed to this tactic, Hugenberg and his allies sought to exploit this concept of national unity in order to gain control of the state. Convinced that the end justified the means, he patronized the radical masses with the hope of using them to control society. The national opposition which ultimately triumphed in 1933 was the tragic result of such tactics. (xvi)
Rather than forming a moderate or center-right party, “Hugenberg emphasized the counterrevolutionary image of the German National party as the focal point of a large national movement and encouraged radicals who dreamed of uniting extremists from the Stahlhelm [Union of Soldiers from the Front, an antiparliamentary veterans’ organization], the ADV, the NSDAP, and various fatherland organizations into a single superright-wing party” (43).

While liberalism, socialism, and internationalism remained the principle foes, Hugenberg increasingly turned his divisive tactics on other conservatives and nationalists, even those in his own party, when he saw them as compromising with and therefore strengthening the enemy:
Radicals propagandized that the conflict in the party [in 1928] was essentially a determination on ‘whether the large right which is perhaps being formed will stand under ideological-conservative or liberal-democratic leadership’. Such dramatic dichotomization had always characterized DNVP propaganda; now the radical faction used it against the party itself (50; emphasis added).
He “favored not bridge-building, but a radical alternative” (31), and used his media syndicate and party organization to attack rightists perceived as too moderate or too willing to participate in parliament. To this end, Hugenberg “requested that local German National organizations be allowed to criticize the parliamentary delegation” (36). Editorials in his newspapers “bolstered Hugenberg’s hard line” (38), and he “refused to check his journalists when they embarrassed German National leaders” (38).

Hugenberg’s “antiparliamentary approach” (36) and his hostility toward those more willing to tolerate opponents or try to work within the system – “what his press labeled the ‘majority of cowardice’, the tolerant majority extending from former DNVP members to Socialists” (88) - were justified by his view of the DNVP as something other than a party in the traditional sense. In one speech, he
argued that the party had to be a movement and the bearer of principle which would attract splinter groups and other nationalistic organizations; he wished to form a solid front that would eventually replace the Weimar government with the dynamic leadership of a nationalist elite. (52)
The victory of this rightwing front wouldn’t come about through parliamentary participation but through the destruction of democratic institutions. Hugenberg “boasted that he had not become a party leader to sponsor ineffectual discussions in the Reichstag, but to free the national movement from the frozen and lifeless hands of the parliamentary system” (56).

Hugenberg not only used a divisive and obstructionist approach but adhered throughout the era to a crisis politics that welcomed social, political, and economic instability and turmoil. The republic itself was an obstacle to the conservative movement, and accepting its continued existence or compromising with it in any way was tantamount to betrayal:
Bourgeois acceptance of the republic…threatened the elitist ideals of the Pan-Germans. The greater the success of Weimar, the more dangerous the threat. As burgeoning support repudiated counterrevolution, neoconservatism sought a new political organization which would perpetuate nationalism and capitalism in a new form. When some elements of this movement began developing a ‘Tory-like’ conservatism, Hugenberg demanded a radical change in the political course of the right. Believing that inevitable catastrophe would result from democracy and socialism, Hugenberg and his allies expected that the republic would destroy itself. When it did not, these men who had awaited a crisis encouraged one. (170-71)
He rebuffed those who sought his party’s participation in governance or help in addressing the country’s economic crises. At the end of a meeting with chancellor Brüning in November 1930, during which Brüning had “carefully explained his economic policy, detailing the cabinet’s fiscal conservatism and its willingness to assist agriculture” (86), Hugenberg
rejected the chancellor’s attempt to establish either personal rapport or political understanding, with the statement: ‘I am more convinced than ever, that I have always been right. Germany is standing right before the collapse which I have predicted. After your detailed presentation, that is clearer to me than ever. Therefore, I must fight you and the entire system’ (86-7).
As Leopold explains, “Brüning hoped to prevent, confine, or moderate any crisis. Hugenberg welcomed crisis as a fuse to explode democracy and disgrace socialism” (87; emphasis added). Even in 1931, “when social discord and financial adversity threatened the state and mandated the cooperation of all politically constructive forces, Hugenberg continually placed obstacles in the chancellor’s path” (97):
Despite the fact that political instability would intensify the economic crisis, Hugenberg and Hitler declared on 9 July that ‘the national opposition will introduce and carry out a decisive battle for the destruction of the present system’. While Brüning was in London attempting to inspire confidence in the German economy among its creditors, German Nationals joined with the NSDAP and the Stahlhelm in announcing that the national opposition would refuse to consider as ‘legally binding’ any further French demands (97).
Hugenberg’s approach to national crisis was entirely cynical. He “plotted that the radicalization of the electorate, caused by the continuing depression and particularly the bank crash in July of 1931, would win support for a nationalist Sammlung. Radical unity could then influence the presidential election mandated for 1932” (98).

With the same cynicism, Hugenberg and his party repeatedly denied that they were engaging in crisis politics: “Hugenberg himself insisted that he was a trustworthy statesman and would accept responsibility if a thorough ‘change of course’ guaranteed the opposition ‘absolute, full power’” (97). The DNVP consistently attributed the problems they sought to exacerbate to the failed policies of the government.

Hugenberg and his party also unintentionally aided the Nazi rise to power through their readiness to resort to extreme, authoritarian, and unconstitutional measures. Already during the inflation of the mid-1920s, Hugenberg and the ADV (the Pan-German League) called for a dictatorship. He began organizing for a coup in 1926, attempting to get an emergency decree passed that would suspend the constitution and give more power to the chancellor and planning to use the party’s paramilitary organization, the Kampfring, to repress leftists. In the years immediately preceding the Nazi takeover, Hugenberg sought to become an economic dictator in order to advance his neoliberal-imperialist goals. His program included purging the civil service and police, making strikes illegal, defining opposition as treason, and taking activists into “protective custody” (130).

In 1933, “at the first meeting of the new cabinet, Hugenberg was indeed more radical than Hitler” (138). While the Nazis strategically “preferred preserving the semblance of legalism” and constitutionality until they had full power, Hugenberg proposed outlawing the Communist party (138). After the Reichstag fire, in his pre-election speech,
the DNVP leader spoke of the necessity of ‘draconic measures’ and of ‘exterminating the hotbeds in which bolshevism can flourish’; he argued that ‘in these earnest times there can no longer be any half measures…no compromise, no cowardice’. (143-4)
“Had Hugenberg not continued with an appeal for the DNVP,” Leopold points out, “his speech could have been delivered by any member of the Hitler party” (144).

So Hugenberg’s choices were significant in the Nazis’ advance. He pursued a divisive and polarizing approach, rejecting any and all cooperation with more moderate conservatives or participation in government. He allied with the Nazis and justified or excused their extremism in order to garner support and to defeat the center and the Left. He engaged in a crisis politics which welcomed and even aggravated national problems in the hope that this would mobilize rightwing forces and lead to the destruction of the system. And he promoted and sought to use unconstitutional, authoritarian measures to take power and destroy opponents. But Hugenberg in these years was fighting for himself, his party, and his own radical program. He supported and endorsed Hitler and the Nazis warily, grudgingly, strategically, and cynically. He and his colleagues always believed – despite suggestive indications to the contrary – that they could control Hitler and his movement.

The Nazis Outmaneuver the DNVP

Leopold discusses three episodes in which the DNVP joined with the Nazis. From one to the next, the Nazis’ power continued to grow, until in the end the DNVP was pushed aside entirely:
The Reich Committee against the Young Plan, the Harzburg Front, and the Hitler cabinet had each been structured so that elitists could frame in the NSDAP. Prewar radicalism, however, had spawned an ungrateful and unmanageable movement. The manipulator became the manipulated; propaganda became reality. The mob proclaimed itself the new elite. (172)
At every stage, as the Nazis’ position vis-à-vis the DNVP strengthened, Hitler and his party moved more aggressively against Hugenberg. How they managed to outflank the German Nationalists warrants attention. Essentially, the Nazis increasingly used the same tactics against Hugenberg’s party that Hugenberg had deployed against more moderate rightists and previous governments, but took them to another level entirely. As Leopold notes: “Hugenberg and the new Pan-Germans spoke of radical tactics; Hitler and the Nazis implemented them” (172).

As they gained strength, the Nazis began to portray the DNVP as part of the outdated establishment. While Hugenberg’s party was somewhat hemmed in by its relatively more consistent conservative ideology, Hitler didn’t have to rely solely on the support of conservatives or elites and could make opportunistic appeals and promises to a variety of groups. In the end, “despite their reluctant tolerance of the NSDAP, Hugenberg and his allies were among the first to be devoured by the totalitarian appetite of the Nazis” (172).

Hugenberg’s forming of the Reich Committee against the Young Plan in 1929, shortly after he was made chair of the DNVP, was cynically devised as a propagandistic opportunity. He didn’t expect his “Freedom Law” referendum to succeed, but he hoped to use it to discredit and delegitimize the government. With his choice to include the Nazis on the Committee, “it seems that Hugenberg had intended to circumscribe Hitler’s maneuverability and curb his radicalism” (60). Instead, Hitler’s inclusion lent him political credibility, Hugenberg’s press coverage of the campaign offered the Nazis free publicity, and Hitler ultimately used the episode to begin to marginalize Hugenberg and his “establishment” party. Resigning from the Committee after the failed referendum, Hitler publicly “asserted that the DNVP had reached a peak in its campaign against the Young Plan, but the future now belonged to the NSDAP” (75). “Unable to force moderate nationalists to accept his leadership, Hugenberg “failed to control the rabid element which he had helped to unleash” in the campaign (171).

But Hugenberg continued to include the Nazis in his efforts to unify far-Right forces. At a meeting at Bad Harzburg in October of 1931, he launched the Harzburg Front, a coalition of rightwing groups. This alliance also featured the Nazis, as Hugenberg continued to believe he could manipulate the situation to his and his party’s advantage. At the rally, Hugenberg read
a joint resolution denouncing Marxism, cultural bolshevism, and the Treaty of Versailles, condemning inequality in arms, and demanding the resignations of Reich chancellor Brüning and Prussian Minister President Braun. (102)
But Leopold reports that even at the meeting itself, the Nazis, increasingly sensing their growing power, were beginning a campaign of sabotage in their own interests. Others at Bad Harzburg were “confounded by Hitler’s conduct at the rally” (102). Ultimately,
Hitler’s overt obstruction made the effort a colossal failure. Harzburg was not the first step toward a more unified national opposition, but rather the beginning of open conflict among the members of the national bloc. Hitler offered an excuse for each of his uncooperative actions. Essentially, however, NSDAP leaders were convinced that they no longer had to depend exclusively on allies in the national opposition. (104)
Hugenberg’s approach to the “Cabinet of National Concentration” and the series of elections in 1932 and 1933 had the same effect as the Reich Committee and the Harzburg Front and contributed to the Nazi seizure of power and the dissolution of the DNVP. In these years, Hugenberg veered back and forth between aiding and attempting to ally with Hitler (but without supporting the NSDAP) and actively campaigning against him. Amazingly, Hugenberg was still trying to convince himself that he and his party were in control.

Hugenberg’s press syndicate had “never showered attention on the NSDAP. Though editorial policy was friendly and positive, Hitler and his party rarely made the headlines” (86). In 1932 and 1933 we see his press alternately portraying the Nazis in a neutral manner while highlighting Hugenberg and the DNVP and openly attacking the Nazis.

Even though by 1932 the danger posed by the Nazi movement was evident, Hugenberg couldn’t back away from his politics of polarization. He “did not wish to totally estrange the NSDAP. Some vestige of the Harzburg Front had to be maintained for the future struggle against the Socialists and their allies” (110). Trying to avert open conflict between the two parties, Hugenberg actually helped Hitler to obtain Reich citizenship, enabling him to run for president. Hitler of course announced his candidacy in the next elections.

The DNVP and the Stahlhelm, the rightwing veterans’ organization, endorsed the Stahlhelm’s second in command Theodor Duesterberg in the presidential race against both Hitler and Hindenberg. Even here, Hugenberg was unwilling to openly attack Hitler through his press syndicate: “headlines rallied readers against the system and for Duesterberg – never directly against Hitler,” though Hitler’s “demands for absolute authority” were argued to be “unsupportable” (110-11). After Duesterberg received less than 7% of the vote in the first election (Hitler received 30.1% and Hindenberg 49.6%), Hugenberg decided to remain neutral in the second round of elections. He tried writing to Hitler to explain his actions, argue against Hitler’s demands for total power, and call for cooperation, but Hitler – now confident his party little needed the DNVP - ignored him (112). In the second elections, Hitler received more than 36% of the votes and Hindenberg 53%.

In the next election, Hitler knew the NSDAP had three times as many votes as the DNVP, and that “by openly aligning himself with the conservative forces in society he would weaken his appeal to the poor and the lower-middle classes” (104). His lack of a parliamentary record offered him the flexibility to turn toward the center and the rightwing unions (104):
With his lieutenants supporting varied policies, Hitler’s political stock soared. Since the Nazis had never shared ministerial responsibility [or] compromised their propagandistic line, Hitler could stand Janus-like between opposing forces, offering hope to everyone and cooperation to none. (104)
In contrast, “obdurate against the ‘middle’, Hugenberg’s options were more limited” (104).

Hugenberg entered the campaign for the July elections as a supporter of Hindenberg and, at this point, openly opposing the Nazis. Leopold describes the vicious struggle on the Right:
Hitler condemned Hugenberg as reactionary, and he described his own movement as new wine which could not be placed in old sacks made before 1914. While the Nazis dismissed the German Nationals as an aged and effete clique, the DNVP launched a scathing counterattack. German Nationals branded the Nazis as preservers of the constitutional ‘system’, traitors to the cause of national opposition, and opponents of Hindenberg’s presidial government. (123)

The German Nationals were depicted as the party of reaction and the Nazis as the protectors of the little man battling against the hydra of capitalism and Marxism. (124)

To further exploit anti-Semitism, Der Angriff listed the nationalists of Jewish origin employed at Scherl and charged that the party which had supported the ‘Jew Duesterberg’ had no right to claim leadership in Germany. (124)

The Hugenberg press countered that over fifty Nazi leaders had been previously convicted of criminal and moral misconduct. (124)

Long-standing differences in economic policy were also stressed, as the DNVP criticized the capriciousness that characterized the ‘unalterable’ NSDAP program. (124)
In sum, Nazi anti-DNVP campaigning centered around the image of Hugenberg’s party as reactionary, elitist, out of touch with the radical nationalist base, and racially objectionable. In turn, the DNVP pointed to the Nazis’ suspicious “bolshevism” and lack of conservative bona fides, their openness to the center, their programmatic inconsistency, and their criminality. Of course, these criticisms (with the exception of inconsistency and criminality) responded to the Nazis’ opportunistic posturing in their attempt to appeal to a wider swath of voters. But they shed light on the real concerns of Hugenberg and his colleagues at the time: the problem with the Nazis was that they were insufficiently conservative.

The Nazis’ attacks on their erstwhile allies intensified. “So intent was Goebbels on destroying the Hugenberg party,” Leopold notes, “that scarcely a day passed without some negative comment about the DNVP in Der Angriff” (124). It was in these ferocious electoral campaigns that the Nazis really began turning the DNVP’s own methods of disruption and obstruction back against them. The Nazis answered the attacks in the Hugenberg press “with more than propaganda” (124). SA members interrupted DNVP events with shouts of “Heil Hitler!” and “Hugenzwerg varrecke!” and threatened or assaulted DNVP paramilitaries (124). Leopold offers a debate between Hugenberg’s representative Schmidt-Hannover and Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels as “a classic example of the disruptive tactics employed by the NSDAP against the DNVP in this campaign”:
The Nazi propagandist had requested an open discussion in the huge Berlin Sport Palace; the German Nationals proposed a smaller gathering. Goebbels agreed, but, as he later bragged, ‘craftily’ arranged that the NSDAP would control the meeting. Under his aegis, thousands of tickets were forged and distributed to Nazis. Even before the debate began, the auditorium and its environs rang with confusion and disorder. Neither Schmidt-Hannover nor his colleague, Lothar Steuer, were able to speak without constant interruption. Goebbels, in his turn, spoke longer than the time allotted to him and castigated the DNVP as a ‘class’ party that had participated in republican cabinets on two occasions. (124-5)
In the increasingly dire situation for his party in 1933, Hugenberg decided that his best course of action was to support Hitler for appointment to chancellor in exchange for a major role in the “Cabinet of National Concentration,” once again seeking to use a rightwing alliance to secure his position and to rein in Hitler. He became minister of economics and agriculture, with promises of extensive power to implement his plans. And once again, the Nazis adeptly turned the situation to their advantage.

While seeking what they knew at some level to be risky alliances with the Nazis, Hugenberg and many in his party frequently tried to convince themselves that the dangers didn’t loom as large as it might appear. He “asserted that the national movement advanced in two columns toward the same goal. On the one hand, there was the National Socialist group, and on the other, there was ‘the proper right, the Battle Front Black-White-Red, the national bourgeoisie of the best tradition’” (141). The DNVP tried to distinguish Nazi leaders from followers, as
Hugenberg’s supporters perpetuated his distinction between the leadership of the NSDAP and the radical masses that flocked to the swastika. German Nationals argued that Hitler had taken over many of their ideas and had moderated his own demands, particularly in the economic field, but the Nazi masses were still not attuned to the change. (149)
They also continued to try to make headway with Hitler himself, believing him amenable to appeals. “Downplaying conflicts with some Nazi lieutenants,” Leopold describes, “German National leaders felt that friendly personal relations with Hitler would facilitate manipulation of the NSDAP” (87). While Hugenberg continued to try to reach out to Hitler personally, he “never succeeded in having Hitler positively affect Nazi conduct toward German Nationals” (149).

Not all DNVP leaders were on board, though:
Despite Hugenberg’s change in tactics, many German Nationalists remained hostile to the Nazi movement. Oberfohren, the chairman of the German National Reichstag delegation, expressed the sentiments of many party members when he said that the Nazis were not fit to govern and the powers of the Reich president would have to be used against them. (134)
In the context of the Government of National Concentration, Hugenberg sought to use his media syndicate to enhance his standing. In the weekly newsreels shown in theaters,
the necessity of the DNVP and the importance of Hugenberg’s work were depicted as having greater significance than the radicalism of the Nazis. The very first news reel of the new cabinet emphasized that the regime was one of ‘national concentration’. The cameras, of course, showed Hitler and all the ministers, but the clip ended by focusing on von Papen talking with Hugenberg. The intimation was obvious. (143)
films with a distinct nationalist appeal were to be rented to the party and used at political rallies held right in the 97 Ufa theaters spread over 47 cities across Germany. In addition, the Scherl Verlag offered subscriptions to Der Tag at reduced prices to members of the DNVP, and the party press made its anti-Nazi literature readily available. This propaganda base was further amplified by the use of radio, which brought Hugenberg’s speeches to thousands of homes. His discussion of the necessity of economic adjustment and the lowering of interest rates, so as to emphasize national development of a bulwark against international bolshevism, was heard and seen by millions. (143)
Ultimately, though, the Nazis successfully marginalized the DNVP through their own PR efforts. For example, in February of 1933
the [Hitler] cabinet issued a proclamation summoning the electorate to the polls and stating the unified goals of the new government. The ministers argued that the loss of ‘honor and freedom’ of the last fourteen years had to be reversed and the spiritual regeneration of Germany had to be their first task. The maintenance of Christian principles, protection of the farmer, and the termination of unemployment constituted their expressed guidelines for future policy. Such goals, coupled with the ‘utilization of individual initiative’, formed the best protection for a secure currency that would not be threatened by dangerous experiments. Certainly the counterrevolutionary DNVP could stand solidly behind such rhetoric. The manifesto issued by the Hitler cabinet said what conservative nationalists wanted to hear. But if Chancellor Hitler supported such a platform, all nationals could support the NSDAP. If the ‘party state’ had been overcome, the German National party was superfluous. (139)
Hugenberg’s press syndicate tried desperately to make a case for the DNVP’s continuing relevance within the government. The party had to be entrusted with economic reorganization, they argued, and more broadly “the DNVP had to ensure the ‘Christian-conservative way of life’ against the incursions of ‘atheism and liberalism, socialism and Marxism’ and, at the same time had to lead the way back to a ‘pure state’ free of party influence ‘according to the Prussian tradition’” (140). “Privately,” Leopold notes, “the German Nationals presented a more familiar argument – that the DNVP had to continue because the Nazi movement was unreliable.” The Nazis didn’t show sufficient appreciation of governance. They “had ‘not unambiguously recognized the principles of private economy’.” The nation needed “men of property and education” to “influence the unprincipled and inexperienced National Socialists” (140).

But the Nazi propaganda operation ran circles around the German Nationalists’. The DNVP participated in the mediatic ceremony in which Hitler appointed Goebbels minister of propaganda. But
Hugenberg and his ‘Green Shirts’ were buried in ‘a brown sea’. Once more the Nazis had outmaneuvered Hugenberg and pushed him to the sidelines. Rather than allowing the old Germany to express itself in new forms, the ceremonies gave the signal for ‘the younger [generation] to evict the senior’. Potsdam symbolized the overwhelming of elitist traditions by the vulgar exuberance of Nazism. (144)
Hugenberg’s history of openness to extraconstitutional, authoritarian measures was also used against him. Since he had supported the February 28 Emergency Decree after the Reichstag fire, he couldn’t really oppose an enabling act “granting extensive powers to the Hitler cabinet” (144). Nor did he think he could stop it if he tried – the Nazis had used the emergency decree to have Communist Reichstag delegates arrested, giving them a majority in the Reichstag even without the DNVP. Still, Hugenberg and other German Nationalists “hoped that certain checks on National Socialist power might be included” in the act (144).

Unsurprisingly, as it turned out, granting the Nazis more power didn’t lead to checks on that power. Outside and inside the government, the Nazis’ rapid resort to extralegal and violent action caught the DNVP on its heels - “Confronted with the aggressive tactics of Nazi officials, German Nationals were confounded” (148). “In fact,” Leopold offers,
a revolution was engulfing Germany, and neither Hugenberg nor his followers were prepared to stem the tide. Despite their rejection of liberalism, most members of the DNVP adhered to the principles of the Rechtsstaat, a state governed by laws. Committed to the use of normal channels, German Nationals were frequently confronted with a fait accompli which they were powerless to change. (148)
(I think Leopold overstates the DNVP’s commitment to the rule of law here – he himself provides numerous examples of their own championing of illegal means and describes their ultimate goal of destroying the existing government and replacing it with an authoritarian order. But there’s no doubt that the Nazis rapidly took this to new and previously unimagined extremes, and surprised the ultraconservatives of the DNVP with their willingness to use such means against their recent allies.)

In the weeks following the passage of the enabling act, “sustained terror gathered momentum throughout Germany,” and was used against the DNVP (148). Hugenberg complained in the cabinet when the SA started kidnapping members of local chambers of commerce from his party, but “Göring replied that the current membership of these groups did not reflect the present conditions in Germany, and thus he could not hold back” the brownshirts (148). Even important leaders weren’t exempt from Nazi hostility. Herbert von Bismarck, the leader of DNVP youth groups, was harassed and kept from speaking on the radio. He left his position in the Prussian ministry of the interior “because he did not wish to bear responsibility for the illegal acts perpetrated in the name of the government” (148).

As a member of Reichstag, DNVP delegate and Nazi opponent Dr. Oberfohren had immunity, but the Nazis still searched his house, arrested his secretary, and claimed to find evidence he’d criticized Hugenberg, which he denied. But “Hugenberg never came to his assistance,” Leopold reports. “The party leader argued that Oberfohren’s actions, coupled with his resignation from the Reichstag, had made it ‘internally impossible’…to take any steps against this violation of parliamentary immunity” (149). Even Hugenberg’s media syndicate was left “without clear guidelines” (149) on how to respond to the Nazi terror.

With the DNVP unraveling, Hugenberg thought that a name change to the DNF (German National Front) might appeal more to society in general. The Nazis were ready to pounce:
Hitler, the political manipulator par excellence, readily perceived the timid tactics of the DNF and had nothing but contempt for the ‘grovelling’ of the German Nationals. Rather than ending attacks, the Nazis unleashed a massive campaign against Hugenberg himself. National Socialist newspapers and party rallies throughout the countryside called for the resignation of the minister. Even in the cabinet, Hugenberg himself felt the opposition of the Nazis. (150)
The Kampfring, the German Nationalist paramilitary group, had generally had uneasy alliance with SA, but now the Nazis began to portray it as opposing the government. Hitler found its continued existence intolerable, and local units were banned. Taking advantage of Hugenberg’s absence while he was away in London, Göring ordered its dissolution, after which the Nazis started arresting its members (158). At the same time, the veterans’ Stahlhelm joined the Nazis (160).

By June of 1933, Hugenberg had decided to resign from the cabinet, and the DNF as a whole contemplated dissolution (160). It was all over for Hugenberg’s party:
Hitler rapidly came to a written agreement with the German Nationals. The Nazi leader personally guaranteed that the members of the DNF, especially civil servants, would be recognized as ‘full and legally equal cofighters’ and that those held in jail would be unconditionally released. The DNF agreed, in turn, to dissolve itself. Party officials in the Reichstag and the various provincial legislatures would be absorbed into the governing bodies of the NSDAP. Hitler also promised to do his best to find equivalent positions for party employees. In addition, Scherl and Ufa would be permitted to continue their work ‘in the spirit of the present Germany’. (163)
“In their hubris,” Leopold describes, “Hugenberg and his associates could not imagine a revolution from below. Ensconced in his ministry, Hugenberg believed he could remodel Germany. Within five months, he was forced to admit that he had totally misjudged the political scene. The manipulators had become the manipulated. German Nationalism and its leader were obsolete.” (139)

The Role of Business

To return to where this post started, the story of Hugenberg and the DNVP offers potential lessons for today’s Republican Party. At the same time, these events can’t be analyzed outside of their capitalist context. Leopold argues that Hugenberg’s intransigence, divisiveness, and obstruction weakened democratic institutions and frustrated the development of a more moderate or center-Right party, setting the stage for the Nazis. “Had party leaders instructed their electorate in the realities of politics,” he offers, “the DNVP might have evolved into the dynamic conservative party that some Reichstag delegates belatedly envisioned” (38). Hugenberg’s
constant refusal to cooperate with the non-Socialist regime of Brüning did not demonstrate adamant idealism; it merely emphasized his negativism. As chairman of the DNVP, Hugenberg not merely frustrated the development of that party into a dynamic conservative movement, but also inhibited the coalescence of a broad-based moderate rightist bloc. (171)
But understanding Hugenberg’s role also requires consideration of the pressures and choices of the leaders of capitalist enterprises. Their support was critical in deciding the fate of the DNVP and the NSDAP. As described above, the syndicate Hugenberg organized and ran was funded by large industrial interests. As individuals, capitalists were split on Hugenberg’s radicalism and divisiveness, but in general “industrialists who opposed socialism and feared democracy had great difficulty in disassociating themselves from simplistic Pan-German ideology” (41).

With the emergence of the Nazi movement, Hugenberg continued to get support from the Ruhr industrialists: “The bourgeois leaders of these corporations, afraid of Nazi radicalism, looked to the DNVP to establish ‘sound’ social and financial policies in the ranks of the national opposition” (97).6 As the Nazis began to make inroads with industry, “DNVP leaders reminded industry that their party was the only constant and vigilant sentinel against socialism and they would never entrust this duty to Hitler” (105). But Hugenberg’s party “lost ground in industrial circles that respected Nazi power more than they feared National Socialist economic attitudes” (105). In January 1932, the steel magnate Fritz Thyssen arranged for Hitler to speak at the Dusseldorf Industrial Club (106).

Capitalists were split, with lines of division often drawn in accordance with an industry’s particular interests in international trade and finance and positions revised in accordance with political expediency:
Men like Schacht and the Cologne banker, Kurt von Schröder, enthusiastically supported the NSDAP. They wanted not an arbitrary Hitlerian dictatorship, but a period of calm predictability in which Germany, under a strong rightist cabinet, could redevelop its economy. (127)

Industrial opponents of this proposal, men like Reusch and Springorum, feared the socialist thrust of Nazi policy and distrusted the totalitarian claims of the NSDAP. They did not directly oppose Hitler, but they lacked confidence in his movement and suspected that supporting a single party would weaken the influence of industry.” (127)
The Nazis assiduously courted capitalists. Hitler, the consummate opportunist and political chameleon, “knew that industry desired a firm, stable government that would not experiment with the economy” (141), and this is what he sold them. Meeting with influential industrialists in February of 1933, he
told them what they wanted to hear. He assured them that there would be no experiments and asserted that his fundamental position in the political battle of the last fourteen years had always been based on respect for individualism and private property. Krupp, as chairman of the RDI, thanked the chancellor. (141-2)
By 1933, big industry and agriculture had turned toward the Nazis and away from the DNVP:
Despite the fact that the anti-Semitic campaign of the NSDAP evoked strong reactions around the world and hurt business, many industrialists believed that the best way to influence the Hitler movement was through penetration rather than opposition. (158)
The anticommunist, antisocialist, and antiunionist tactics of Hitler hardly displeased organized industry. On the National Day of Labor, 1 May, the once ‘socialist’ publication of Goebbels, Der Angriff, was a giant volume filled with ads from key concerns and major banks. Not opposition, but support would win the favor of the Nazis – so industrialists hoped. (158-9)
And they were right: in the end, Nazism did serve their interests.

Responsibility and Blame
That Hugenberg cooperated with Hitler is clear; that he wanted Nazism to triumph is not – despite his contributions to the development of Hitlerism through the encouragement of radicalism in the media and, I believe, through financial contributions to Nazis. (171-2)
Hugenberg doesn’t bear sole responsibility, Leopold argues:
The acceptance of Hitler by the German bourgeoisie is too complex a development to be explained in Cinderella fashion by the magic touch of Hugenberg’s headlines. The collaboration of Ludendorff with Hitler in 1923 and the favorable coverage given the putsch trial in 1924 had made the Nazi leader a national figure. The attention that Kirdof and Thyssen bestowed on Hitler before the summer of 1929 made him known to industrial circles in the Ruhr and in Berlin. The flamboyance and shallowness which characterized the journalistic debate on fundamental issues prepared the public for a demagogue such as Hitler well before 1929. In this evolutionary process, the entire German right, not solely Hugenberg and his press syndicate, were the overseers. (60)
Hugenberg’s actions can “in no way be labeled the decisive factor in the triumph of German fascism.” But “in the deliberate campaign to frustrate political and economic democracy, Hugenberg and the Pan-Germans must bear a large portion of the historic responsibility for the rise of Nazism” (172). His “crisis politics exacerbated the discontent produced by the world economic crisis of 1929 and facilitated the ready acceptance of a radical nationalist position by millions of voters. The discontented electorate, however, did not rally behind Hugenberg, but behind Adolf Hitler” (55).

Leopold writes that “up to his death, Hugenberg refused to admit his responsibility for the development of Nazism; history must disagree” (173).7 He continued to blame moderates and the Left for Hitler’s rise, calling it, in his own words, “a natural and irresistible reaction to the policy of the middle…” (80).


There are significant differences between the US today and Weimar Germany. Our democratic institutions are far older and stronger. While they often seek to erode and delegitimize and delimit democracy through various covert and legislative strategies, most Republicans aren’t openly calling for the destruction of the democratic system. A small but vocal anti-Trumpist movement has grown among conservatives. Hitler was intelligent and a good strategist; Trump is not. He’s also brazenly corrupt and plainly unstable; the legislature has the power to impeach him, and will have cause for impeachment from the first moment of his looming presidency. Our economic and geopolitical situation is nowhere near as dire as Germany’s in that era. Trump’s presidency is widely recognized as illegitimate. He lost the national vote by 2% and has historically low and sinking favorability ratings, while demographic and cultural changes continue to erode the Right’s base. And of course we have the historical example of twentieth-century European fascism to learn from.

On the other hand, the global situation – in which far-Right movements, parties, and media are promoted by foreign governments – is ominous. The interference of the Kremlin in the electoral process and the subsequent realignment of global forces signaled by Trump in alliance with Putin offer the far-Right a strategic advantage. Domestically, we’re discovering the fragility of the constitutional order, and the extent to which democracy relies on norms that can be flouted by malevolent actors. Globally and in the US, inequality has reached grotesque levels, in conjunction with increasing corporate power and ideological influence.

It’s indisputable that the actions of rich rightwing donors and propagandists and the party and network of organizations they fund bear a remarkable resemblance to those of Hugenberg and his associates in the years leading up to the Nazi seizure of power, and the Trump apparatus - particularly in the months since the open involvement of Bannon - is behaving much like the Nazi Party in the early 1930s.

When Obama was elected, Mitch McConnell made clear that the policy of the Republican Party would be uncompromising obstruction and crisis politics rather than honest participation in governance – a policy to “make the country ungovernable,” as Noam Chomsky has put it. The rise of the Tea Party, supported by elite interests, added to the atmosphere of polarization in which joining democratic debate or bipartisan cooperation are seen as veritable treason. Republicans have exploited legislative tools for partisan purposes, and sought to paralyze the workings of government. While they haven’t openly called for the destruction of democracy, they’ve been willing to bring down the government in support of unpopular policies. They’ve consistently fought against public policies and programs that would reduce inequality or give people economic security or collective power and promoted those that favor corporations and the super-rich. They’ve exploited white racial resentment and a false sense of religious and gender persecution.

The Trump campaign’s rhetoric and actions towards the Republican “establishment” similarly match those used by the Nazis against their former rightwing allies. Throughout the campaign, Trump didn’t hesitate to go after any Republican who criticized him and even the Party itself, using many of the same tools Republicans use against Democrats and moderates. Attacks by the Trumpist propaganda arm against Republicans who even hint at opposition to his agenda are already a regular feature of the political landscape. Steve Bannon, Trump’s key advisor, has openly declared his desire to destroy Paul Ryan, the Republican “establishment,” and the “system” itself.

I started writing this months ago, and my optimism has diminished as time wore on.8 While some Republicans made an early show of rejecting Trumpism, almost all in the party and among their capitalist donors and media networks have now aligned themselves with Trump, acquiescing to if not actively apologizing for his statements and actions. Overwhelmingly, they’ve shown themselves willing to abide and even aid unprecedented corruption, manifest unfitness, serious threats to national sovereignty and security, and even, potentially, collusion with a foreign adversary to disrupt an election. Barring unforeseen developments – which actually seem quite likely at this point! – drastically altering the situation, I have no doubt Trump will continue his assault on democratic and ethical norms, human rights, the Constitution, and international law. And it appears the Republican Party and its wealthy backers still believe they can fruitfully partner with, control, or use him for their purposes.


1 Adopting this materialist perspective doesn’t mean believing that class interests are the same as real human needs. Capitalist alienation leads people to mistakenly equate the two, but in fact capitalists’ constant battle for more wealth and power by no means corresponds to the search for a good life, fulfillment, or the realization of human potential.

2 But the coincidental timing of Leopold’s book’s publication is interesting. As Mayer describes, in the late ‘70s - as Alfred Hugenberg was being published - the Kochs were launching their political organization and movement. In a 1978 article in the Libertarian Review, Charles Koch stressed that “ideas do not spread by themselves; they spread only through people. Which means we need a movement.” In 1976, the new Koch-funded Center for Libertarian Studies held a conference which, Mayer suggests, “laid out much of the roadmap for the Kochs’ future attempted takeover of American politics.” The papers presented at the event were “striking in their radicalism, their disdain for the public, and their belief in the necessity of political subterfuge,” with Charles Koch’s counseling secrecy “in order to avoid undesirable criticism.”

3 Ellen Meiksins Wood sees this transformation as central to the emergence of capitalism as such.

4 Nevertheless, “During the 1930 election, the DNVP issued a statement proclaiming that there were no important differences between them and the NSDAP on the ‘Jewish Question’, arguing that the few differences that did exist concerned a small number of the ‘radical demands of the NSDAP’ which were ‘hardly important since in practice they cannot be implemented’.”

5 This included the Junkers: “At first opposed to the Junkers and their reactionary agricultural techniques, Hugenberg like many bourgeois gradually accepted the ideal of feudal-industrial control of Germany” (168).

6 These discussions were closely guarded, naturally. When some wanted to oust Hugenberg from his position of leadership, for example, “industrialists refrained from making their debate…a public issue. Most of these men, after all, were not democrats and believed that popular opinion regarding the selection of party chairman was un-informed, irrelevant, and partially damaging for bourgeois unity” (122).

7 After the war, Hugenberg “rejected the charges that he was the ‘Lord of Press and Film’ and a lackey who had helped Hitler grasp the reins of power” (166). Barred from participating in politics, he appealed his “fellow-traveler” designation (which had already been reduced from “lesser evildoer”), and won. Partly due to his age and failing health, Hugenberg was classified as “not tainted” with guilt of the Nazis (167).

8 I wrote the line near the beginning of the post about how “their actions have much in common with those of people today” probably in June or July of last year. So much seemed to be in flux in the subsequent months that I doubted the post would be nearly as relevant as it’s turned out to be.