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How can America heal from the Trump era? Lessons from Germany’s transformation into a prosperous democracy after Nazi rule

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Senior Lecturer of History, Wayne State University
Sylvia Taschka is not a member of the Democratic party, but has volunteered for them during election periods.

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Comparisons between the United States under Trump and Germany during the Hitler era are once again being made following the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Even in the eyes of German history scholars like myself, who had earlier warned of the troubling nature of such analogies, Trump’s strategy to remain in power has undeniably proved that he has fascist traits. True to the fascist playbook, which includes hypernationalism, the glorification of violence and a fealty to anti-democratic leaders that is cultlike, Trump launched a conspiracy theory that the recent election was rigged and incited violence against democratically elected representatives of the American people.
This is not to say that Trump has suddenly emerged as a new Hitler. The German dictator’s lust for power was inextricably linked to his racist ideology, which unleashed a global, genocidal war. For Trump, the need to satisfy his own ego seems to be the major motivation of his politics.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Trump is just as much of a mortal danger to American democracy as Hitler was to the Weimar Republic. The first democracy on German soil did not survive the onslaught of the Nazis.
If America is to survive the attacks of Trump and his supporters, its citizens would do well to look to the fate of Germany and the lessons it offers Americans looking to save, heal and unite their republic.
The Weimar Republic, the first democracy on German soil, was a short-lived one. Founded in 1918, it managed to survive the political turmoil of the early 1920s, but succumbed to the crisis brought about by the Great Depression. It is therefore not the history of the failed Weimar Republic but rather that of the Federal Republic, founded in 1949, that provides important clues.
Just like Weimar, the West German Federal Republic was founded in the aftermath of a devastating war, World War II. And, just like Weimar, the new German state found itself confronted with large numbers of citizens who were deeply anti-democratic. Even worse, many of them had been involved in the Holocaust and other heinous crimes against humanity.
During the first postwar decade, a majority of Germans still believed that Nazism had been a good idea, only badly put into practice. This was a sobering starting point, but Germany’s second democracy managed not just to survive but even to flourish, and it ultimately developed into one of the most stable democracies worldwide.
How?
For one, there was a legal reckoning with the past, beginning with the trial and prosecution of some Nazi elites and war criminals. That happened first at the Nuremberg Trials, organized by the Allies in 1945 and 1946, in which leading Nazis were tried for genocide and crimes against humanity. A further significant reckoning happened during the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of the mid-1960s, in which 22 officials of the SS, the elite paramilitary organization of the Nazi Party, were tried for the roles they played at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
To protect the new German democracy from the political divisions that had plagued parliamentary government during the Weimar period, an electoral law was introduced that aimed to prevent the proliferation of small extremist parties. This was the “5 percent” clause, which stipulated that a party must win a minimum of 5% of the national vote to receive any representation in parliament.
In a similar vein, Article 130 of the German Criminal Code made “incitement of the masses” a criminal offense to stop the spread of extremist thought, hate speech and calls for political violence.
Yet as important and admirable as these efforts were in exorcising Germany’s Nazi demons, they alone are not what kept Germans on a democratic footing after 1945. So, too, did the successful integration of anti-democratic forces into the new state.
This was a painful and amoral process. In January 1945, the Nazi Party had some 8.5 million members – that is, significantly more than 10% of the entire population. After the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, many of them claimed that they had been only nominal members.
Such attempts to get off scot-free did not work for the Nazi luminaries tried at Nuremberg, but it certainly did work for many lower-level Nazis involved in countless crimes. And with the advent of the Cold War, even people outside of Germany were willing to look past these offenses.
Denazification, the Allies’ attempt to purge German society, culture and politics, as well as the press, economy and judiciary, of Nazism, petered out quickly and was officially abandoned in 1951. As a result, many Nazis were absorbed into an emerging new society that officially committed itself to democracy and human rights.
Konrad Adenauer, the first West German chancellor, said in 1952 that it was time “to finish with this sniffing out of Nazis.” He did not say this lightheartedly; after all, he had been an opponent of the Nazis. To him, this “communicative silencing” of the Nazi past – a term coined by the German philosopher Hermann Lübbe – was necessary during these early years to integrate former Nazis into the democratic state.
Where one was going, advocates of this approach argued, was more important than where one had been.
For many, this failure to achieve justice was too heavy of a price to pay for democratic stability. But the strategy ultimately bore fruit. Despite the recent growth of the far right and nationalist “Alternative for Germany” party, Germany has remained democratic and has not yet become a threat to world peace.
At the same time, there were increasing efforts to confront the Nazi past, especially after the upheaval of 1968, when a new generation of young Germans challenged the older generation about their behavior during the Third Reich.
Another crucial factor helped make Germany’s democratic transition a success: an extraordinary period of economic growth in the postwar period. Most ordinary Germans benefited from this prosperity, and the new state even created a generous welfare system to cushion them against the harsh forces of the free market.
In short, more and more Germans embraced democracy because it offered them a dignified life. As a result, philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ concept of “constitutional patriotism” – as one interpreter put it, that citizens’ political attachment to their country “ought to center on the norms, the values and, more indirectly, the procedures of a liberal democratic constitution” – eventually came to replace older, more rabid forms of nationalism.
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In the coming weeks and months, Americans will debate the most effective ways to punish those who instigated the recent political violence. They will also consider how to restore the trust in democracy of the many millions who have given their support to Donald Trump and still believe the lies of this demagogue.
Defenders of American democracy would do well to study carefully the painful but ultimately successful approach of the Federal Republic of Germany to move beyond fascism.
The United States finds itself in a different place and time than postwar Germany, but the challenge is similar: how to reject, punish and delegitimize the powerful enemies of democracy, pursue an honest reckoning with the violent racism of the past, and enact political and socioeconomic policies that will allow all to lead a dignified life.
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Biden can transform the US from a humanitarian laggard into a global leader – here’s how

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Professor and Director, International Development, Community, and Environment, Clark University
Edward R Carr is the Climate Change Adaptation Panel Member of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel to the Global Environment Facility and a lead author of the upcoming Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. His research is funded by the United States Agency for International Development and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

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Even after the Trump administration’s repeated efforts to slash foreign aid and global partnerships, the United States remains the world’s largest source of official development assistance for low-income countries.
Still, based on what I’ve learned during a career straddling academia and government service in jobs that involved international development and climate change, I believe that the United States lost prestige, influence and capacity during President Donald Trump’s time in office.
Nearly all my close former colleagues at the United States Agency for International Development – the development agency known as USAID – have left the agency out of frustration, and those still working there are reportedly suffering from generally low morale.
President Joe Biden will need to restore credibility at a time when critical challenges like climate change have gotten harder to meet. I believe that the Biden administration will need to rapidly transform international aid policies, rather than incrementally strengthening them, for the U.S. to manage these global challenges.

Biden plans to nominate Samantha Power to head USAID. I think she should emphasize reducing the risks people in the world’s poorest countries face.
The problems to address go beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
In June 2020, the World Health Organization announced a new outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that took months to get under control.
In November, after years of neglect of food security programs, Category 4 Hurricanes Eta and Iota came ashore in Central America, destroying crops throughout an area two-thirds of the size of Rhode Island.
As 2021 began, an estimated 20 million people in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and parts of Nigeria were on the brink of famine.
The Biden administration can start to address many of these challenges by properly funding and staffing initiatives such as the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility. Known as COVAX, this joint effort by 190 countries is working with international organizations to make it possible for people everywhere to get affordable COVID-19 vaccines as they become available.
The U.S. is one of very few countries not participating in the initiative.
While COVAX is an important and worthy effort, simply signing up and rejoining other global initiatives won’t suffice. It will take more than that to address the challenges the world faces today, challenges that have only grown over four largely lost years.
Recent assessments by both the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services indicate that deeper change is needed.
Both assessments make it clear that the whole world must swiftly address climate change and biodiversity loss head-on. To do so requires phasing out the reliance on fossil fuels and other technologies that emit too much carbon and changing the way we use land.
Countries and local communities alike must adapt to current environmental impacts while planning for a substantially changed future. This will require new modes of transportation and new ways of generating energy, growing food and manufacturing goods, as well as new approaches to building homes and infrastructure.
Without transformational changes, the damage from climate change will leave the planet less safe and sustainable.
Experts have learned from decades of development efforts that it’s hard to bring about transformational change. When governments and nongovernmental development organizations have tried to make that happen in the past, it has rarely produced the desired results.
In some cases, these efforts have caused more harm than good.
For example, many studies have found that agricultural intensification, a common development strategy intended to sustainably boost food production, rarely benefits both the environment and local communities. Unfortunately, it can harm both the land and the people who depend on it for sustenance.
What I’ve found to work better are grassroots efforts to connect needed change with local conditions and norms. Foreign aid can catalyze such efforts when it focuses on reducing risks now – through humanitarian assistance – and in the future – through development aid.
Adopting this approach is harder than it sounds because of the way humanitarian aid and development aid are allocated.
Humanitarian aid is usually disbursed after disasters. Traditionally, this assistance aims to relieve immediate suffering, rather than its causes.
Development aid is different. In the U.S., as elsewhere, it’s used to address the root causes of poverty. However, governments usually tie this assistance to their foreign policy agendas, focusing on countries where outcomes are likely to be good. This is not always where the need is greatest.
In my view, closing the gap between humanitarian and development aid is critical for a safe, sustainable future, and it can work.
I have found, for example, evidence in Ghana and Mali that when low-income people acquire access to reliable sources of income and food, women get new opportunities that can greatly improve their potential earnings. When this change initially happens through humanitarian aid, and then continues with the arrival of development assistance, these transformations can sometimes become permanent.
USAID has been learning how to bridge this sort of divide through the work of its Center for Resilience in the agency’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security over the past eight years.
For example, this center has created contracting tools that make it easier for development programs to engage in humanitarian responses during emergencies and to integrate humanitarian and development efforts to help vulnerable people manage emergencies today while staving off future crises.
By emphasizing the reduction of risks from climate change and other urgent issues, I believe that under Biden’s leadership, U.S. development policy will do a better job of encouraging appropriate, effective and lasting innovations.
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Trump’s big gamble to gut US power plant emissions rules fails in court, opening door for powerful new climate rules

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Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley
Daniel Farber does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Joe Biden got a big judicial win for his climate agenda just hours before his inauguration as U.S. president. The case involved plans for cutting power plant emissions and a big gamble by the Trump administration.
Nearly a third of the U.S. carbon emissions driving climate change come from electricity generation. To try to cut those emissions, the Obama administration in 2014 issued the Clean Power Plan – a set of rules targeting high-emitting power plants, particularly those burning coal.
The industry sued, and before the Clean Power Plan could go into effect, the Supreme Court suspended it so the legal disputes could be resolved. It was still in limbo in 2019 when Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency formally repealed the Clean Power Plan and issued an extremely weak substitute called the Affordable Clean Energy rule that had far looser limits on pollution.
In issuing its own rule, the Trump administration took a big gamble. Trump’s goal was not only to replace the Obama administration rule but to ensure that no future president could ever adopt anything similar.
Trump’s substitute rule merely required limited retrofits of existing coal fired power plants, whereas Obama’s rule involved moving the power system toward cleaner energy sources. To prevent similar future actions, Trump’s EPA placed all its chips on an argument that EPA had no legal power to do anything beyond the retrofits.
On Jan. 19, 2021, a U.S. appeals court rejected the Trump EPA’s sole legal argument, potentially opening the door for Biden to issue something like Clean Power Plan 2.0.
The appeals court vacated Trump’s rule and sent it back to the EPA to reconsider, with just hours left in the Trump administration.
It’s conceivable but unlikely that one of the other parties to the case can get the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene at this point. When there’s a change in administrations, courts routinely grant a request to hold the case until the government can reconsider its position.
The appeals court acknowledged that the Clean Air Act requires EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. However, the court considered the original Obama plan moot because it had been overtaken by events, so Biden’s EPA will have to start anew in crafting its own approach.
Unless the Supreme Court jumps in, the ruling means his administration can use an approach similar to Obama’s, involving greater use of renewable power sources, shifting from coal power to natural gas, using biomass and other alternatives.
The process is complicated. The Biden administration will have to set requirements for how much each state has to cut power plant emissions. Then it would have to review states’ plans for achieving the limits. The result could be major reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The administration will have some help. Biden’s leadership team includes Obama EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who oversaw development of the Clean Power Plan.
The biggest unknown is how a conservative 6-3 Supreme Court might rule on a future Biden plan.
As a law professor who has worked on energy issues for years, I believe it would be unwise for the Biden EPA to put all its bets on using this one tool for reducing emissions, given the risk that the Supreme Court could reject it. There are other tools. Still, the ruling opens up possibilities.

Both the Trump and Obama rules relied on section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, which gives the EPA authority to regulate emissions from stationary sources, such as power plants.
However, the Trump EPA reinterpreted the law as allowing EPA to consider only a narrow category of regulations. It argued that it could only require coal-fired power plants to engage in very limited retrofits. The practical effect was to eliminate any meaningful reductions in carbon emissions.
The appeals court determined that the law simply didn’t say what Trump’s EPA claimed.
“The EPA has ample discretion in carrying out its mandate. But it may not shirk its responsibility by imagining new limitations that the plain language of the statute does not clearly require,” the majority wrote in a 2-1 opinion. They described the EPA’s actions as “a tortured series of misreadings.”
The dissenting judge did not contest this point. Instead, he claimed that even the Trump EPA’s token regulations of emissions from coal plants went too far. The majority had little trouble rebutting his arguments, which even the Trump administration had rejected.
The upshot of the court’s ruling was that the Clean Air Act does allow EPA to use a broad range of tools to cut carbon emissions.
Trump’s ACE rule was typical of many of his rollbacks, in that it swung for the fences. It is not the only time where Trump agencies reread statutes in a way designed to minimize regulation of industry. In other situations, the administration took other kinds of legal risks in pursuit of the outcomes it wanted: ignoring criticisms made in the public notice period rather than rebutting them, cherry-picking evidence in obvious ways, or even trying to evade public notice altogether.
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So far, the track record of Trump’s rollbacks in court has been dismal. The appeals court ruling in the power plant case merely confirms that many of the rollbacks rested on shaky legal grounds. These legal flaws will make it easier for Biden to undo many of the rollbacks.
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My research helped uncover a long-lost right-wing provocateur – but then I turned away from her work

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Literary Historian; Founding Director of the Office of Scholarly Publications, Georgetown University
Carole Sargent does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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Years ago I discovered a shocking early English political satirist when a professor urged me not study her. Dismissing what I assumed was his liberal bias, I claimed bipartisan curiosity and dove in anyway. You could say I fell for the clickbait.
What I found went beyond politics. To explain why I later stopped studying her, I said she sounded like “the Ann Coulter of 1709,” after the modern right-wing commentator. The satirist, London playwright Delarivier Manley, wrote and flourished between 1690 and 1720. In 1709 she anonymously published “The New Atalantis,” two bestselling books packed with behind-the-scenes political scandals. This gossipy, libelous attack included sex and humor.
Political conservatives like her were called Tories, then an emerging party. Also known as “royalists,” they stood for a powerful throne, an archbishop-controlled Church of England and nobility ruling the working class. The opposing faction, Whigs, were rough equivalents of today’s British Labour party, leaning toward what became representative government with a prime minister. Literary scholar Rachel Carnell’s new book “Backlash: Libel, Impeachment, and Populism in the Reign of Queen Anne,” with images from my collection of Manley’s books, offers context for that complex time.
The American colonies weren’t yet a country, and their leaders followed London news. As an early Americanist studying English women writers’ influence on our shores, I noted William Byrd II, founder of Richmond, Virginia, staying up nights decoding Manley’s books.
Manley’s opinions seemed like standard Tory politics, so at first I didn’t see a problem. As I decoded more stories, however, a disturbing subtext emerged.
I missed her more extreme points because she wrote in a kind of storybook code. Strict libel laws might land a writer in prison, so she couldn’t attack directly. Instead, Manley used popular songs and fables as strategic cover. When she was arrested, she claimed ignorance and avoided prison.
In one scene I decoded, a poet wife smacks her priest husband in the face with a hot apple pie, followed by butter “to cool him again.” The scene was vague enough for her to plausibly deny any connection to real people, even under oath in court. Within a generation few understood it.
Three centuries later, I used 21st-century technology to decipher it. Working with a database of 18th-century texts, which computers have only recently been able to scan, and using clues in a footnote from literary scholar Ros Ballaster of Oxford, I searched “pye” (their spelling), “butter” and stories of wives beating husbands.
Manley borrowed both characters from famous ballads to disguise a well-known, divorcing couple. She accused the wife, poet Sarah Fyge Egerton, and her rich Whig patrons of being what we now call feminists. Modern far-right provocateur Ann Coulter dubs them “angry, man-hating lesbians,” and Manley later used the charge of lesbianism as a similar political cudgel. Women’s sexual empowerment became a weapon – pie – upending both the poet’s marriage and the order of the Church of England.
Manley was an entertaining writer, memorably commenting on controversial issues while escaping serious punishment. But as my digging revealed coded racism, antifeminism, homophobia and fear of immigration, I reconsidered my priorities.
She admitted that she was “a perfect bigot,” citing “untainted” lineage. In another story I decoded, she portrayed the new Bank of England in dangerous debt to foreign lenders. She warned they would foreclose, steal jobs, marry into the aristocracy and rule Britannia. Her warnings also influenced American colonial leaders.
Gradually I understood why Winston Churchill had railed against her. Though he was no champion for immigrants, he deplored her tactics. Manley insulted his ancestor the duke of Marlborough, saying he prostituted himself to a king’s mistress to buy his military commission. She also claimed Marlborough prolonged a war for personal gain, and bet on the outcome of battles he commanded. Churchill wanted to sweep her “back to the cesspool from which she should never have crawled.”
I met Ann Coulter at the National Press Club. She was friendly, but why not? Manley also had personality. Jonathan Swift, famed author of “Gulliver’s Travels” and “A Modest Proposal,” dined with her and hired her to edit his Tory newspaper one summer. But Swift eventually distanced himself, complaining Manley ranted too much. Similarly, the conservative magazine National Review dropped Coulter’s column after her post-9/11 call to “invade (Muslim) countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.”
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Manley’s will requested her papers be burned, “that none ghost like may walk after my decease,” but her spirit still rattles around. In 2016 her wraith must have howled in glee over Brexit. In early 2017 I thought I heard her cheering when the immigrant-loathing United States president initiated a Muslim ban.
Instead of Manley, I now study a Whig poet who was influential in early America, Elizabeth Singer Rowe. If my identification of her in “The New Atalantis” is correct, then Manley attacked her for being a closeted lesbian. I anticipate bringing her, Sarah Fyge Egerton and others to vivid political life for a new generation of readers.
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