In 1930s Germany, due to waning support for their ideals, conservative politicians made a Faustian bargain with Adolf Hitler so they could benefit from his popularity while he implemented their political priorities. After installing Hitler as chancellor, German President Paul von Hindenburg and his allies were “initially gratified,” wrote Holocaust historian Christopher Browning, as Hitler curtailed the country’s free press, free speech, and freedom to assemble. Of course, after Hitler and the Nazis stamped out basic civil liberties, they went on to deliver the horror of full-scale genocide to the country.
So in present-day America, does Browning see any Hindenburgs of our time? Maybe. As the Brett Kavanaugh hearings gripped the country last fall, Browning observed:
If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell. He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could. As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more. Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments. 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. The extreme politicization of the judicial nomination process is once again on display in the current Kavanaugh hearings.
One can predict that henceforth no significant judicial appointments will be made when the presidency and the Senate are not controlled by the same party. 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.
McConnell, through his degradation of institutional norms, has taught Americans not to trust the very institutions that were devised to protect them and defend the rule of law. In short, McConnell has corrupted our democracy. Exactly how to restore it remains unclear, especially in the current climate, which includes his continued presence as Senate Majority Leader.