A great deal of energy has gone into arguing about historical parallels to our time: imperial Rome, Gilded Age America, Weimar (pre-Nazi) Germany. It is important that we get those historical parallels right. It is too easy to draw flattened, one-dimensional lessons from “history” that conveniently reinforce what we already think.
But there is also a risk in being fussy about history. We might miss that the ultimate purpose of making such comparisons is practical and moral, not theoretical. Are there significant and multiple differences between Trump’s America and Weimar Germany? Yes. But are there still lessons one can draw from the parallel? Yes.
The US is not Weimar Germany, but since 2016 we have been faced with a similar problem. All politicians are a mix of good and evil, and we often support politicians despite serious reservations. This is “transactional” politics, and it is painfully normal.
The problem is when transactional support becomes blind loyalty, a potent mix of self-deception and fantastic thinking. And so Weimar presents America with a question: when does transactional politics become idolatry?
Weimar Germany had serious problems, and as a result many Germans tied their fortunes to a radical, dangerous leader because they thought that on balance he would be more good than bad. In some cases, they thought they could mitigate his evil tendencies. They were wrong, of course. But most of them could not or would not see that.
And a lesson of Weimar for America is that such toxic brews are more common than we think – or perhaps that is a lesson of America for future Weimars. In an effort to nitpick over the right historical parallels, we might miss dangerous situations developing right before our very eyes.
Many diagnoses assume that the problem with US politics is politics itself. But Catholics have a nuanced view toward power. We know from Saints Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and ultimately Christ, that political authority exercised by the proper authorities is by nature good and by dint of sin often evil. Thus, even when we seek to work with the powerful, we know they can always lapse into injustice.
That is why character matters. The virtues tell us something about how a person is, which is to say what he or she characteristically does. Are there simulated virtues? Are there partial virtues? Yes. And that is precisely why character is so crucial to politics. How far can we trust politicians to do good? When and where do we expect them to fall short, even grievously so?
That proclivity to sin is also why the option for the poor matters. Can we tolerate certain failings and foibles of the powerful in the pursuit of higher goods? We can and we must. But when we give ourselves permission to tolerate the oppression of the weak and the vulnerable, what higher good could we possibly be seeking? Likely only a lowly, self-serving one.
The Church is a contrast society. That does not mean we are always and everywhere opposed to our local culture. Indeed, we are so wrapped up in it that our opposition to one part of it usually ends up miming the vices of another part.
But, at the very least, it means that when we do have to choose between the Gospel and culture, we choose the former. And it should also mean in a less dramatic sense that we do not relent in our attempts to share the fruits of the Gospel with that culture.
The US has profound political, economic and social problems, but our ability to respond to them comes down to trust: trust in institutions, trust in elites who populate them, and trust in each other. We clearly have precious little of it. It is that lack of trust that ultimately leads to desperation and deals with the devil.
Catholics have many tasks in the present moment, and each of us has to discern what our particular task must be. But, in whatever we do, we must show that trust is good and that it is possible.
This task is not just a matter of thinking, but of doing. Christians ultimately must be guided by love of God and neighbor, and love ought to show itself more in deeds than words. That line of Saint Ignatius of Loyola will never be truer than in the coming days.