Before the trophy went to Adolf Hitler, German Emperor and King of Prussia Wilhelm II held the award for Most Hated Man on Earth. And while Hitler’s Third Reich has become the ultimate go-to place for much journalistic handwringing about the horrible times we are living in, in reality it feels like we are still stuck in Wilhelm’s Second Reich — it’s Kaiserzeit in America. Donald Trump and the last German Emperor have a lot in common, the vanity, insecurity, the penchant for bombast and persönliches Regiment (personal rule), to name just a few. In Wilhelm’s case the brakes on his impulsive and egotistical personality came off after he fired Bismarck, the experienced chancellor he inherited from his father, and surrounded himself with sycophantic generals and noble toadies who went along with his imperial fantasies and straight into World War I.
I am reminded of those spineless Wilhelmine characters every time I am watching a White House press briefing. It’s not so much the bumbling fool at the microphone who advertises Clorox for healing the nation. That’s to be expected from someone who has been in sales all his life. What’s truly troubling is the backdrop of supposedly educated advisors and cabinet members who gaze at the president nodding their heads like bobble toys every time he opens his mouth. Not much different from Wilhelm’s bootlicking court jesters. I often hear the argument that when people do that, they don’t mean to kowtow to Trump but are only paying respect to the office of POTUS. As if through some weird Hegelian twist the presidency has a spirit and will of its own, whether the job is filled or not. Or are people afraid that the Founding Fathers will be miffed if their genius isn’t appreciated and hurl lightning bolts from heaven at them?
Let’s face it, the President of the United States and Donald Trump are one and the same ugly thing right now. There is no need to get sentimental about the Founding Fathers’ wisdom. They handed—by today’s standards—a grotesque amount of powers to the presidency and hoped that checks, balances, and judicial review would somehow tame any officeholder with tyrannic ambitions. In hindsight, it is surprising that it took 44 presidents before somebody came along who ruthlessly abused the many constitutional loopholes to his personal advantage. But that Trump is in the White House can only partially be blamed on 18th-century baggage like the Electoral College. Constitutions are just as good as the people who interpret them, which is another way of quoting Joseph de Maistre’s, “Every nation has the government it deserves.” Hitler became Germany’s dictator without ever breaching the democratic Weimar Constitution; the Reichstag voted to give him absolute powers. So, whose fault was that? Wilhelm II wasn’t voted into office, but he still reflected the preference of most Germans at the time for authoritarian leadership. He was deserved as well, I guess. All these nodders and pseudo-patriots that don’t stand up to a mobster like Trump out of some warped respect for his office make me feel that, well, he is deserved too — a gigantic system failure of the people, by the people, and for the people. I can’t wait for a better system reboot in November.
Henning Schroeder is a former vice provost and dean of graduate education at the University of Minnesota. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his Twitter handle is @HenningSchroed1.
Andy Steinfeldt — May 13, 2020
Brilliant analysis as always Dr. S.!