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The gravedigger of American democracy

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Move over, “Turtle Man.” Make way for “the gravedigger of American democracy,” Mitch McConnell’s brand-new moniker.

Historian and author Christopher R. Browning debuted “gravedigger” in the Oct. 25 issue of The New York Review of Books.

Who knows if it will top “Turtle Man” as a McConnell handle. But “gravedigger” is based on substance, not the just senator’s supposed resemblance to a myopic tortoise.

The Suffocation of Democracy

In an essay headlined “The Suffocation of Democracy,” Browning compared the Senate majority leader to Paul von Hindenburg, the last president of Germany’s short-lived, post-World War I Weimar Republic.

An authority on the Holocaust, Nazism, and the Europe of World Wars I and II, Browning wrote that the reactionary Hindenburg, a World War I field marshal, doomed his country’s fledgling democracy by abetting the rise of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.

Rather than defend the republic, “Hindenburg became its gravedigger, using [his emergency]…powers first to destroy democratic norms and then to ally with the Nazis to replace parliamentary government with authoritarian rule,” explained Browning, the Frank Porter Graham Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina.

The prof piggybacked “gravedigger” onto McConnell based on the senator’s winning-is-all-that-matters, might-makes-right politics.

“If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell,” Browning predicted. “He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could.”

The U.S. vs the Weimar Republic

Eighty-five years ago, Hitler and the Nazis destroyed Germany’s fledgling Weimar Republic. From its founding in 1918, the far-left and the far-right had engaged in escalating conflict—with angry words in parliament and fists, knives, clubs and guns in the street—to subvert the country’s first democracy.

Communists demanded a revolutionary Soviet-style state. Monarchists aimed to bring back the Kaiser (but ultimately got behind Hitler); the Nazis would stop at nothing to make Hitler dictator and Germany Judenrein, meaning “cleansed of Jews.”

“As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more,” Browning maintained. “Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments.”

Browning recalled that the GOP’s “systematic obstruction of nominations in Obama’s first term provoked Democrats to scrap the filibuster for all but Supreme Court nominations.

“Then McConnell’s unprecedented blocking of the Merrick Garland nomination required him in turn to scrap the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations in order to complete the ‘steal’ of Antonin Scalia’s seat and confirm Neil Gorsuch.”

Browning added that “the extreme politicization of the judicial nomination process” showed up again in the GOP’s recent damn-the-torpedoes determination to put federal Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a right-wing Republican ideologue, on the Supreme Court despite Christine Blasey Ford’s credible allegations that he sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers.

Browning warned that “McConnell and our dysfunctional and disrespected Congress have now ensured an increasingly dysfunctional and disrespected judiciary, and the constitutional balance of powers among the three branches of government is in peril.”

The Trump payoff

According to the historian, it doesn’t matter “whatever secret reservations McConnell and other traditional Republican leaders have about Trump’s character, governing style, and possible criminality” because the GOP powers-that-be “openly rejoice in the payoff they have received from their alliance with him and his base: huge tax cuts for the wealthy, financial and environmental deregulation, the nominations of two conservative Supreme Court justices (so far) and a host of other conservative judicial appointments, and a significant reduction in government-sponsored health care (though not yet the total abolition of Obamacare they hope for).”

Browning pointed out that “Like Hitler’s conservative allies, McConnell and the Republicans have prided themselves on the early returns on their investment in Trump. The combination of Trump’s abasement before Putin in Helsinki, the shameful separation of families at the border in complete disregard of US asylum law (to say nothing of basic humanitarian principles and the GOP’s relentless claim to be the defender of ‘family values’), and most recently Michael Cohen’s implication of Trump in criminal violations of campaign finance laws has not shaken the fealty of the Republican old guard, so there is little indication that even an explosive and incriminating report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller will rupture the alliance.”

The historian conceded that “The domestic agenda of Trump’s illiberal democracy falls considerably short of totalitarian dictatorship as exemplified by [Italian Fascist Dictator Benito] Mussolini and Hitler. But that is small comfort for those who hope and believe that the arc of history inevitably bends toward greater emancipation, equality, and freedom. Likewise, it is small comfort that in foreign policy Trump does not emulate the Hitlerian goals of wars of conquest and genocide, because the prospects for peace and stability are nevertheless seriously threatened. Escalating trade wars could easily tip the world economy into decline, and the Trump administration has set thresholds for peaceful settlements with Iran and North Korea that seem well beyond reach….Trumpism is not Nazism, but regardless of how the Trump presidency concludes, this is a story unlikely to have a happy ending.”

Will our story turn out differently?

If McConnell were to read Browning’s essay, he’d almost certainly dismiss it as a “sore-loser hit-piece” from an “elitist left-wing intellectual” in a “liberal elitist” magazine (or words to that effect).

But politicians, even Machiavellians like McConnell, care deeply about their historical legacies. History won’t be kind to McConnell, who scorns compromise as weakness and who demonizes Democrats, embraces demagoguery, practices dog whistle politics, and panders to the worst in the body politic.

Admittedly, in these Trumpian times, I sometimes feel like a Social Democrat in Weimar’s waning days. Nonetheless, I still have faith that “the arc of history” does indeed, sooner or later, curve “toward greater emancipation, equality, and freedom.”

We’re not Weimar in 1933. Germany had no tradition of democracy; we do, however imperfect.

Our republic will reject—hopefully sooner than later—the racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, religious bigotry, LGBTQ-bashing, and militarism that McConnell, Trump, and most of the GOP have come to represent.

Let that rejection start Nov. 6.

Kentucky Sen. John Sherman Cooper, a moderate Republican and a McConnell mentor, must be spinning in his grave in Arlington National Cemetery. The party of Cooper, “the Global Kentuckian,” and of “Lincoln and Liberty,” has degenerated into the nearly all-white party of spite, resentment, hate, and divisiveness with “the gravedigger of American democracy” and the Yankee George Wallace in the White House, arm-in-arm and leading the way.

Meanwhile, I’m all in for “Turtle Man” losing out to “gravedigger of American democracy,” though I’d tweak the latter nickname to “Would-be gravedigger of American democracy.”

Despite Browning’s chilling, but apt, comparison of the Hitler enabler and the Trump enabler, we can still avoid the tragic fate of the Weimar Republic.


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