Reflections on the on the fate of the Republic

January 21, 2021
January 22, 2021

When the US Capitol was stormed on January 6th, 2021, I was nearing the final chapter of the audio version of William Shirer's The Collapse of the Third Republic: In An inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940

Less famous than his Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I not only found his work on France more interesting because of the lack of alternative English-language treatments of the period, but also in many ways more timely. At a moment when comparisons with the 1930s were all the rage within the media throughout the Western world, that focus manifested in efforts to force analogies with the dynamics of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany. While understandable given the cultural resonance of both the name Adolf Hitler, and his Nazi party, these analogies at best seemed forced, and at worst demonstrated a lack of understanding either of German history or even the modern events that were purportedly being compared to what took place in Germany 90 years ago. The truth is that part of what makes the story of Hitler and the Third Reich so resonant is how unique it was. Not in the sense that either genocide or the takeover of democracies by an authoritarian regime were unique, but in how heavily contingent the story was in the unique figure of Adolf Hitler, and the specific cultural circumstances of Germany. For reasons that would require at the very least an article of their own, it is highly unlikely that a Nazi party could have seriously risen to power without an Adolf Hitler, or that an Adolf Hitler would have gotten very far anywhere other than Germany. The mix of occultism, gangsterism, and grievance politics was something that would have been found embarrassing in a society that did not have the unique psychological syndrome of a simultaneous superiority and inferiority complex which afflicted Germany, nor is it easy to see how a Goebbels or Ernst Rohm would have transcended those image issues without a Hitler. Without either the man, or the climate, or an effort to analogize either except superficially, the comparisons fall flat.

That is less true of Shirer's chronicle of the travails of France's Third Republic during the 1930s. France had not lost the First World War, nor did France possess a leader of Hitler's caliber or any real leader of an alternative movement whatsoever. When the Republic toppled under external pressure in 1940, it was the backroom intriguer and two-time Prime Minister Pierre Laval who stepped into the breach, using old fashion horse-trading and vote-buying. France, therefore had no single "authoritarian populist movement" nor any clear organizing issue. And yet, long before 1940, the entire system had lost popular legitimacy to the point that it very nearly fell in events remarkably similar to what transpired at the US Capitol. Ironically, those events also occurred on the sixth day of a month, involved the storming of the seat of the legislature by armed mobs, and "failed" largely because there was no idea of what to replace the existing order with. Just as in America in 2021, the events were interrupted as an organized fascist coup, and just as their organization and intent were inflated by the intended victims, so to was the survival of the old regime due to the indifference of the Army and Police transformed into a triumph of the Republic. Fortified in the belief that they were the Republic, the politicians proceeded to return to their practice of jockeying and intriguing, sleepwalking into the catastrophe of 1940, following which they tripped over each other to be the first to vote themselves out of existence in favor of Marshal Petain.

The Narrow Escape

On the evening of February 6th, 1934, representatives of various paramilitary combat "leagues" began to gather in Paris outside the Palace of Concorde where the offices of the President of the Republic were located for a march on the National Assembly of France. The participants were a varied lot. "Fascist" would be used to denote many, and a good number would end up in senior roles at Vichy or collaborating with the Germans, though the correlation between their politics in 1934 was anything but clear. The most determined, and for that matter, brutal Nazi collaborators, Marcel Deat and Jacques Doriot who would spearhead the formation of volunteer Waffen SS formations during the war, were in 1934 still members of the Socialist and Communist parties, though they would both be expelled for their behavior in 1934. Joseph Darnand, who would head Vichy's vicious secret police, the Milice, had already made that transition. By contrast, Colonel De La Roque, whose Croix-De-Feu, nominally a veterans association represented the largest and most militarily formidable of the right-wing anti-Republican paramilitary groups would find himself arrested and deported to Germany for opposing collaboration.

On February 6th, however, the crowd was united by contempt for the politicians, fueled by a hostility towards corruption which could, depending on one's ideological outlook, be anti-capitalist, anti-finance, or anti-semitic. A massive scandal involving the fraudster Serge Alexendre Stavisky, a Russian Jewish immigrant who was close to members of the (ideologically mercenary) Radical Socialist party of Prime Minister Camille Chautemps. Despite their name, the Radical Socialists occupied the middle of the political spectrum, or as some would say an ideological position that placed the financial benefits of office above all else, which in France's fragmented political system meant they almost always were in office. When Stavisky committed suicide under mysterious circumstances, it was seen as emblematic of the total corruption of the political system. It was as if the Jack Abramoff and Epstein scandals had been combined in one, and exploded in a way which seemed to vindicate many of the conspiracy theories spread by the Qanon movement about highly placed paedophiles while also confirming the conviction of Bernie Sanders supporters that both parties were bought and paid for by financial elites.

That was how the affair managed to bring to Paris on the night of February 6th Monarchists and Communists, Socialists and Fascists' isolationist pacifists and ultra-nationalists. While the exact nature of the corruption at the root of the French Third Republic might be viewed subtlety differently, they were united in their belief that the system was corrupt to its core. Communists could see proof of the corruption of the capitalist parliamentary order, the monarchists of the republic, the fascists of democracy, and anti-Semites of the Jews. They were united in their belief that the system was corrupt, that the politicians as a whole were a gang of criminals, and that with the system corrupt, such criminals could only be brought to justice outside the system.

This belief was fortified by the the collapse of the separation of powers within the French system. The experiences of two Bonapartes using the position of Chief Executive as a base to make themselves Emperor, not to mention memories of the reign of terror, made the founders of the Third Republic fearful of the potential of an independent executive branch with the power to dissolve the legislature. These fears were vindicated during the Seize de May(16th of May) crisis of 1877, when less than two years into the Republic's life, the President, Marshal MacMahon, had fired his republican ministers and installed a monarchist cabinet. When the republican national assembly objected, he dissolved it ordering new elections. MacMahon gave up when the republicans won the subsequent elections, and quit soon thereafter, but no future French president would ever be allowed to contemplate dissolving an assembly against its will.

This may of been all well and good had that power merely been stripped from the President. But as the power of the ministers and the government were also derived from the President, this also meant that they were deprived of the power to dissolve an unruly assembly and to appeal to the electorate. In a system where such an appeal is possible, it provides a weapon for Prime Ministers to use against minor participants in their coalition governments who threaten to bring down the government through extortion. Chaos tends to be unpopular, especially if pursued for purely personal reasons, as is gridlock. While parliaments can overthrow governments, allowing the executive or at least the cabinet a recourse to dissolution means that those who overthrow governments may be called upon to defend their actions before the public. In France, however, this was not possible. There was no power to order early elections. The fall of a cabinet through a vote of no confidence merely meant that a new government had to be formed from the same assembly, in many cases with most of the same ministers. Often, politicians would bring down a Prime Minister to demonstrate their power only to promptly let the same individual form a new government a few days later. With a complex multiparty system, this meant that local power-brokers and "centrist" parties that existed solely to be part of every government and to bring down any government that failed to adequately cater to their whims became the dominant figures in every government of the Third and ultimately Fourth French Republics. When Clemenceau was accused of having overthrowing two dozen governments he responded that he had in reality only overthrown a single one twenty-four times. In practice, this meant political instability. The Third Republic saw 104 governments over the 65 years between 1875 and 1940, and at its fall had 16 living Prime Ministers.

Instability was not the only consequence of a sovereign and omnipotent legislature. The electors were just as disempowered as the Presidents and Ministers. Voters would turn out in large numbers to elect Cartels de Garches(alliance of the left) or Bloc Nationale(national blocs of the right) promising change, but once elected the new governments would see their majorities erode as their more centrist and localist members, safe from the need to face the voters for four years, would plot to bring down the ideological majority governments which had been voted into office, only to replace them with ad hoc alliances of the same old center-left and center-right politicians. Right-wing majorities in 1919 and 1928 were overthrown in this manner just as left-wing ones were in 1924, 1932(and would be after 1936. The National Assembly elected in 1936 with an overwhelming majority for a "Popular Front" of Communists, Socialists and Liberals would vote 569-80 to grant absolute power to Marshal Petain in July of 1940.) At the core of this rot was the so-called Radical Socialist Party, which was neither Radical nor Socialist, but rather a catch all party of all those who favored a parliamentary republic just the way it was. While the Radicals would join alliances of the Left or Right, they would inevitably betray their partners, and within 15 months France would be back under the rule of a Radical Socialist Prime Minister as it was in 1934.

This was the second element of what united those who turned out on that February night. Not only had the Stavisky affair proved the corruption of the government, the courts, the financial system, and the parties, but the fact that yet another Radical government was in office convinced many that change could never come through the electoral process. The National Assembly was sovereign and absolute. Untouchable by the President, the Prime Minister, or, evidently the voters. Which was why on the 6th of February, 1934, those voters gathered in their tens of thousands to not just touch, but manhandle and quite possibly murder that sovereign National Assembly.

While the events of that night would later be described as an "attempted fascist coup" this is to give more credit to planning than actually existed. The very breadth of the coalition that gathered in Paris that night, the diversity from which it drew its strength, and for that matter, legitimacy, made nay such plan impossible. French monarchists had done almost nothing but plot since 1871, often with comically disasterous results, but in February 1934 they were playing it by ear. The gathering was broad because it was spontaneous, and while groups involved possessed organization, none seemed to have a specific program for what to replace the Republic with. In fact, they were very nearly undone by lack of planning in terms of how to do it. Not least, because they decided to storm the wrong building. They chose to march on the Palais de Concorde, the seat of the President and the National Assembly, rather than the Palais Bourbon where the National Assembly was actually happening to meet that night. If there was a failure of strategic planning and communication, this represented an even greater military blunder as the path to the palace was channeled through several bridges which soon became clogged by crowds and then the scenes of violent confrontation between the crowds and the police, with the latter coming close to being overwhelmed. The delays brought enough time for the President to flee. That may have been deliberate because if the crowds to the north of the Seine were amorphous, and made up of the detritus of French politics, Communists, monarchists, fascist, the professionals showed better sense.

South of the river, however, the better trained and politically more savvy(and potentially army-backed) Croix-de-feu had managed to surround the Palais Bourbon where the National Assembly was in session. Whereas the police had moved rapidly to block the bridges and protect the seat of the President, they had been absent from the Assembly, and ominously there was no sign of the Army, an inaction which would soon cost general Maxime Weygand, the commander-in-chief, his position. As the Right demanded that the frightened deputies install a Right-wing government to appease the demonstrators, Colonel De La Roque seemed in a position to seize the source of all political power in France’s parliamentary system or dictate terms. But the Colonel, who would later break with Vichy over collaboration with Germany, and surprisingly for a French reactionary, anti-semitism, De La Roque seemed uncertain whether he wanted to follow through. With Communists, and ex-Communist “Fascists” dominating the mobs in other parts of the capitol, De La Roque seemed to have second thoughts about what would follow, and suddenly withdrew his forces leaving the National Assembly intact. While fighting continued past 2:30 AM around the Palais De Concorde, eventually costing 16 lives and leaving more than 2000 wounded, this action meant the survival of the regime.

But did it mean the triumph of the Republic or French Democracy? And a triumph over what? For the Left, the events represented an attempted Fascist coup on the model of what had occurred in Italy and Germany and would soon follow in Spain. On the Right, it was argued that no such plot existed or could exist. The crowds were spontaneous, representing all shades of ideological opinion, united only by fury over the corruption of the Republic. As such, the events proved the bankruptcy of the system. Both had elements of truth. Whereas in Italy and Germany the paramilitary forces of the Brown and Black shirts represented political parties with a coherent political agenda which could wield state power if they seized it, no such alternative existed in France. It was not even the diversity of the participants which was the issue. It would not have required a unified program among the Communists, Monarchists, and Fascists for any one of the groups to seize power. Rather, it would just have required at least one of them to have such a program. But the reality was none did. Even in 1940, Vichy was the project not of a well-conceived conspiracy, regardless of the efforts to make Pierre Laval into a scapegoat, but of the opportunistic plotting of Republican politicians. De Le Roque gave up his position of being able to dictate to the National Assembly because he had no idea what he wanted to dictate them to do, and no idea who would follow if he dispersed them.

De Le Roque’s actions saved France not from a “Fascist Coup” but from a power vacuum which might well have resulted in any number of regimes, though in all odds what likely would have been a proto-Vichy military government with a conservative civilian face. But if “fascists” were not about to seize power that night, it did not mean it would have been impossible for the Republic to fall. Had it been the militants of Action François, or the Communists who had the National Assembly in their power, it is unclear their leaders would have acted quite so conservatively or had the ability to exercise that degree of control over their followers even had they wished. And if they would have been in no position to seize power and install a monarchical regime or a Soviet republic, something would have had to follow the Republic.

I discuss the precedent of France in 1934 because there are striking similarities between what occurred in Paris that night and the events which transpired at the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021. In both cases a similar debate exists both regarding the makeup of the forces which attacked the seat of government, their goals, and what would have happened had they “succeeded”. In both cases, the debate misses the point. Critics on the Right are far from conspiracy theorists to suggest that the crowd which stormed the Capitol represented a broad-section of ideological sentiment which included elements which were hostile to the American political system not just from the Right but also from the Far-Left. They are also correct in noting that despite charges that the action represented a “coup” on the part of President Trump or his supporters, there did not appear to be any orchestrated political program, even if various groups involved did have various plans which showed signs of military preparation.

Nonetheless, these observations, while legitimate, miss the point that what happened was an assault on what was perceived as the American political system itself, and if not everyone involved was a supporter of the President in an ideologically “right-leaning” sense, almost everyone identified with what the President represented in the form of a figure at war with the American establishment. Government institutions, the media, corporations, the courts, the very rules that exist.

As for the debate over whether it was a “coup” or “insurrection” the argument that it was not seems to rely heavily on the idea that the President could not have hoped to gain from it. But that is to miss the point. Most of those involved in the events of February 6th in France would not have stood to gain from them. The Communists may have felt that the collapse of the Republic, even if it resulted in a military or fascist regime, would accelerate the polarization which would end inevitably(in their view) with a Communist revolution. Nonetheless, the immediate consequence of the collapse of the French government or its disappearance would have been a general massacre of Communists by the French Army, which would not have needed orders to do so. As with most street violence, the actions served not to bring the protagonists to power, but to create a vacuum which someone else would have been in a position to fill.

February 6th and January 6th

In the case of the United States, the reason Donald Trump could never have hoped to benefit from the attack on the Capitol is not because it could not have succeeded but because he had alienated the forces he would have needed to take advantage of it. Had Congress been unable to meet again safely, which assuredly would have been the case had the mob managed to kill or kidnap several dozen members, a situation would arise in which the electoral vote had not been certified. It is true this would not have extended Trump’s term or resulted in his reelection, but it would have created a situation of ambiguity where various actors – the Supreme Court, the military, the bureaucracy, could have decided what it meant. If Congress was unable to meet safely at the Capitol, which could easily be closed, doors barred with chains by federal troops, and it could not meet anywhere else due to covid restrictions one could have asserted that no one had received a majority in the count and that would justify a move to state delegations voting in the House. But that would have required the actors involved, of which the President was the least important, to decide that is how they wanted to interpret events.

In the end, almost no one wanted Donald Trump to remain President, not even many of his own appointees. As such, no matter what he did, or how successful he was in creating a vacuum of authority he could not have hoped to benefit. But this does not mean that the events proved the strength of the system. Despite all their disadvantages, the mob came perilously close to dispersing the United States Congress on what is constitutionally the most important day of the year. A few minutes of difference, and you would have had a high stakes hostage situation with no electoral college certification and no functioning legislative branch.

More important, however, is what the mob represented. It is important to make clear that it did not represent fanatical support for the person or policies of Donald J. Trump. It was dominated by those who had voted for him, and were supporting his efforts to contest the election, but that loyalty was driven by a perception that whatever the merits of the man or his tenure, he represented something more. His election, whether a good or bad move for the country, represented a defeat for the system. It was not supposed to happen. And what tens of millions of Americans of both parties saw as a heroic and principled struggle at high cost to careers and reputations to uphold the norms and standards of American government and democracy those who felt those norms had done preciously little for them saw as a self-interested effort by the system and those who were part of it to defend themselves from a challenge. Donald Trump lost the 2020 election and did not lose it because of voter fraud. But whether it was "fair" is for many millions a more subjective question given the almost unprecedented mobilization of American economic, cultural, and social capital against the prospect of a second Trump term. For millions then, the 2020 election was "proof" the system would not allow substantive change.

This belief is arguably misguided, and millions have fallen victim to misinformation campaigns spinning wild tales of fraud, but the march on the Capitol represented a crisis of legitimacy in the system. Was it hijacked and used by extremists who did not represent the interests or even the preferences of a majority of their supporters, much less of the American people? Absolutely. But it is important to keep this in mind when we consider the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump which seems set to crystalize around the question of whether for the first time in history an individual should be barred from being able to run for President. Or put another way, whether the voters should be barred from voting for a man for President because the members of a legislature deem the chance they might chose "wrongly" too great.

Most of the leaders of the February insurrection later proved themselves dangerous adventurers during the Vichy period, and a good number, though not enough met their just deserts. But recognizing what they were prevented the elites of the Third Republic from recognizing the deterioration in legitimacy which had made it possible for such random political flotsam to very nearly destroy the sovereign and absolute National Assembly. Random conspiracy theorists, local county commissioners, and mentally unhinged vegans in viking costumes are not a threat to the Constitution or the American Republic. But a situation in which with worse timing, or an indifferent military, or a President who was not indifferent to the opportunities presented by the circumstances, could easily have led to the destruction of an entire branch of government and an end to a two century old system should lead to deeper thoughts. Because this was not a "coup." It was an insurrection of clowns. The real thing risks being far more dangerous.


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