The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote (Again) and his smirking Republican minions are currently undermining our democracy by lying about a supposedly stolen election. This is a thoroughly false claim for which they have no evidence. Even Trump administration elections officials in the Department of Homeland Security, as well as the head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, have confirmed the baselessness of the charges.
However, the promulgation of these falsehoods evokes a piece of history that loomed large in the rise of the greatest evil our world has known. I’m referring to the “stab in the back” myth that emerged on the far right in Germany after that country’s defeat and surrender at the end ofWorld War I.
According to this fantasy, the German military was not in fact vanquished: Victory on the battlefield was instead stolen away at the last moment by politicians at home — specifically socialists, democrats, and Jews — who “stabbed the soldiers in the back” while they were still fighting in enemy territory. The word for that myth in German is Dolchstoßlegende.
The parallels between Donald Trump’s despicable claims of election fraud and the Dolchstoßlegende are real, but there is one important difference: Whenever one talks about 20th century German history and the rise of the Nazis, of course anti-Semitism must be front and center. I want to make clear Trump’s war on the truth of his defeat — unlike the German phenomenon under discussion here — has not included anti-Semitic language or targeted Jews as a group in any direct way.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Trump is blowing racist dogwhistles when he talks about illegal voting and other “bad things” relating to election integrity that “happen in Philadelphia.” We know that when he brings up Philadelphia, he means “Black people.”
The parallels between the German myth and the Trump myth
Now let’s explore the parallels. The most basic one — as well as the most dangerous — is that both phenomena represent a denial of reality aimed at destabilizing a democracy. Rather than rehash the manifold examples of Trump’s despicable post-election deeds — widely derided as echoing those of strongmen for whom he has, for years, expressed a downright creepy level of admiration — I’ll instead cite the damning assessment of their long-term impact leveled by Michael J. Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, “an organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world.” Abramowitz states:
… by convincing a large part of the population that there was widespread fraud, [Trump] is seeding a myth that could endure for years and contribute to an erosion of public confidence in our electoral system.
Just as Trump refuses to accept his defeat in the recent election, in the years after World War I, many on the right refused to accept their country’s defeat on the battlefield. In the case of Germany, that refusal helped to fatally weaken the democracy that emerged after 1918. Fourteen years after World War I ended, Adolf Hitler became Germany’s Fuehrer. But where did the “stab in the back” myth come from in the first place?
By the fall of 1918, thanks in large part to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of fresh, well-equipped American troops, the military position of the German empire and its allies began to collapse. After the German army’s Hindenburg Line along the Western Front was broken in late September and early October, Berlin requested negotiations for an armistice, which was signed and famously went into effect at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. (Absurdly, 3,000 soldiers were killed in the six hours after the agreement to end hostilities was signed but before it took effect, including Henry Gunther, the last American.) The war came to an end, and Germany lost. Sounds fairly straightforward. But there was one problem: Some Germans didn’t want to believe it.
One of the most important reasons for this disbelief is that the defeat directly contradicted the information most Germans had been fed throughout the war about their prospects for victory. Alan Kramer, professor of history at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, explains why the news of defeat engendered such a broad rejection of what really happened.
“Knowledge of the perilous condition of the front had been kept secret from the German people. Strict censorship and the army’s daily false news bulletins meant that news of the armistice came as a shock.
“This too was important to bear in mind. With minor exceptions in 1914, the war had not been fought on German territory. Unlike the devastation visited on its enemies, the German population was spared direct violence and destruction, and had the benefit of the exploitation of the resources of occupied northern France, Belgium, Poland, Serbia, Romania, northern Italy and the Ukraine, though most of that was enjoyed by the army. The German people had no “ocular proof” of defeat.
“This cognitive dissonance produced the “repressed defeat”: the denial of the fact of the military debacle.”
Here we see another striking parallel between the Dolchstoßlegende and Trump’s current campaign of lies: deceptive propaganda. Throughout the 2020 presidential campaign, the current occupant of the White House and his sycophants in the right-wing media kept saying Trump was winning, that the real polls were showing him in the lead, and that other polls were “fake news.” He incredulously (to anyone seeing things objectively, at least) claimed that polls showing Joe Biden in the lead were the real voter “suppression” – as opposed to the actions his Republican Party were taking before the election all over America to actually suppress votes.
On the eve of the election, a YouGov poll found that half of all Republican voters believed Trump would “definitely win,” and another quarter of them believed he would “probably win.”
Even after the votes had been cast, that belief was still out there. According to an Axios poll done over the two days following Election Day, 37% of people who voted for Trump thought he had defeated Biden. Politico found that 70% of Republican respondents polled after the race was called for Biden didn’t think the election was “free and fair.” Another YouGov poll found that 86% of Trump voters rejected the notion that Biden had won the election fairly. As Charles Blow pointed out, that represents over 62 million voters.
Right-wing media were still — over a week after Election Day — declaring that Trump was in the lead. For example, the Gateway Pundit’s Joe Hoft hyperventilated the following: “Overall right now President Trump is leading in the Presidential race. The fact that the media will not report this and will call the race for senile Joe Biden tells you all you need to know about today’s really evil media. Have faith, trust your eyes not their lies.” Hoft added: “This race is not close to being over and the media’s coordinated effort to steal this election and their collusion in calling the election for Joe Biden is a lie.” Then there’s the Orange Julius Caesar himself:
If the only information providers these people trust promise that Trump is going to win, and then insist that he really did win, then why would they believe any different? Large swaths of Trump supporters exist within what amounts to a self-reinforcing media echo chamber.
The same goes for the German people and what they were told about who was winningWorld War I prior to its conclusion.
How the “stab in the back” myth came to be
Not long after the war, an “alternative fact” emerged out of hard-line right-wing circles. The army was actually never defeated – and in fact when combat ended, no foreign troops stood on German soil. Of course, this was because the German high command had recognized that continued resistance to the Allied offensive would be unsuccessful, so better to ask for peace right away without any more bloodshed. Nevertheless, those looking to peddle a lie took advantage, claiming that the valiant forces who had fought so well for so long had been sold out by those who wanted to turn Germany into a democracy.
In the very last days before the war ended, a revolution broke out in Germany. It started in late October, when sailors refused to carry out orders from the Imperial Navy’s High Command to prepare for a final, clearly futile attack on the British Navy. This mutiny quickly spread outside the bounds of the armed forces, and by Nov. 9 — two days before the war officially ended — the German empire became the German Republic. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated his throne and the leader of the Social Democratic Party, the largest party in the parliament, became the head of the government.
It was this civilian government, headed by representatives of left-leaning, socialist, and/or democratic parties, that ultimately signed the armistice and, later on, the treaties of surrender as well as the Versailles Treaty, so hated by Germans for its supposedly harsh terms – which were not that harsh in reality. Even though it was military personnel who started the revolution, those leftist politicians who took power two days before the war ended, and who founded the democracy known as Weimar Germany, somehow became the ones to blame for losing the war. Never mind that Germany had been led for the first 1,568 days of the war by a monarchy that had, by the end, become almost a military dictatorship. Those unelected leaders managed to escape blame.
That military dictatorship was effectively run by General Erich Ludendorff. If any one individual should bear responsibility for Germany losing World War I, it’s him. Ironically, he is perhaps most responsible for spreading the key phrase at the heart of the Dolchstoßlegende. A few months after the war ended, while eating with a British general, Ludendorff was going off on one of his well-practiced rants about how the army had been undercut by a political revolution on the “home front.” His counterpart cut in, asking, “Do you mean, General, that you were stabbed in the back?” As one historian put it: “Ludendorff’s eyes lit up and he leapt upon the phrase like a dog on a bone. ‘Stabbed in the back?’ he repeated. ‘Yes, that’s it, exactly, we were stabbed in the back.’ And thus was born a legend.”
This bald-faced calumny essentially became the official right-wing history of the war, particularly among reactionary conservatives like Ludendorff, who never accepted the legitimacy of Weimar democracy and sought to use the “stab in the back” myth to justify its overthrow. The former Kaiser published his memoirs just a few years later, and wrote of how the army had been “forced to collapse by the stab-in-the-back.” Nazi propaganda used the phrase repeatedly in official statements and publications, and argued that Weimar German democracy only came into being because of the supposed betrayal committed in November 1918. Lies became the truth, and tens of millions died.
The dangers of the Trump myth
Now think about Donald Trump. No matter what actually happens in the remaining weeks of his term, or how nonexistent the evidence is to support his claims of election theft, think about how many millions of Americans are going to believe that the Biden presidency is illegitimate – a belief that could well lead to violence, as Daily Kos’ own Hunter pointed out. Some of them may feel that way just as strongly as did the millions of Germans who rejected the post-1918 democratic system. No responsible leader would act as Ludendorff did, or as Trump is doing. That’s no surprise when it comes to the latter, given his refusal to take responsibility for, well, anything.
Think about how Trump, some members of his family, and anyone else looking to remain in his favor will fuel those feelings even after he leaves office. Think about how right-wing media will monetize those feelings, pouring gasoline on the fire. Breitbart, OAN, Fox News opinion hosts, Newsmax, Rush Limbaugh, and other media figures will keep on repeating Trump’s lies about Democrats and socialists stealing what was rightfully his. Think about what that could do to our country.
You might be asking how things could have turned out differently in post-WWI Germany and, by extension, how we can combat the destabilizing impact on our democracy of what Trump is doing. In Germany, the “stab in the back” myth on its own might not have been enough to topple the Weimar democratic system. But once the Great Depression was ravaging the country, the questions the myth had already raised about that system’s legitimacy had prepared the ground for the Nazi overthrow of Weimar Germany.
In our country, I hope that the truth, combined with the far stronger roots of our constitutional democracy and our tradition of press freedoms, will be enough to counteract any potential impact of Trumpian lies. What it comes down to is this: Once we get through the next few weeks, will one of the two major political parties continue to prioritize riling up its base over the good of the country? Will Republicans continue to shred democratic norms in a single-minded pursuit of power – something they’ve been doing so much under Trump that they now look much more like the parties led by autocratic leaders in Turkey and Hungary than they do parties in functioning democracies? If the answer is Yes, then America is in for a difficult future. I would nonetheless remain cautiously optimistic regarding the survival of our democracy in such a scenario, although if another Great Depression befell us as well, then all bets would truly be off.
Since Election Day, President-Elect Joe Biden has handled this situation beautifully. He has been measured in his reaction to Trump’s words and actions, but rightly called them an “embarrassment.” They are more than that: They present a clear and present threat to our democracy. The day before the election, Paul Krugman warned that large numbers might well buy into “an American version” of the Dolchstoßlegende.
Krugman didn’t know for sure exactly how things would play out, whether Trump would truly go all-in on the lies if he lost. But for anyone who has watched the impeached president with open eyes, was there really ever any doubt?
Written by Ian Reifowitz. He is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (foreword by Markos Moulitsas). Cross-posted from Daily Kos.