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July 5, 2017



I am a subscriber to Harper’s Magazine. The July 2017 edition contains an excellent essay by Masha Gessen entitled “The Reichstag Fire Next Time – The coming crackdown” which, ideally, should be read by every American citizen. The essay discusses the conditions that must be present for authoritarianism to morph into totalitarianism, beginning with our response to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and down through the years to Trump’s transparent attempts to assume the mantle of authoritarianism today, a necessary prelude to totalitarian rule favored by his Leninist adviser, Bannon.

Paraphrasing from Gessen’s essay for background context > On the evening of February 27, 1933, the German parliament building, the Reichstag, burned. Hitler had been appointed chancellor four weeks earlier and had already begun placing restrictions on the press and expanding the powers of the police. That fire changed the world. Hitler cited such burning as grounds for seeking yet more power and said: “There will be no mercy now. Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.” Such language boosted his popularity and paved the way for the Nazi Party in elections for parliament a week later.

The day after the fire, Hitler cracked down on the political opposition; his government issued a decree allowing the police to detain people without charges on grounds of prevention (see FDR’s internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus under the same pretext). Activists were rounded up by Hitler’s paramilitary forces and placed in “camps,” and less than a month later the parliament passed a so-called “enabling act,” creating rule by decree and establishing a state of emergency that lasted as long as the Nazis were in power.

The consensus among historians is that the Nazis themselves burned the Reichstag as a means of gaining dictatorial power and that a cowed populace in the face of fear would agree that “grave emergencies require discretionary authority to act outside and against standard operating procedures,” per legal scholar Stephen Holmes. Bush had his 9-11 and gained authoritarian rule to deal with it. FDR and Lincoln had their “grave emergencies” due to war and dealt with them in authoritarian ways (since found unconstitutional). The Federalists and Republicans accused each other of treason, fatal lack of vigilance and of being Jacobin puppets after passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, arguments backed by a Federalist-stacked Supreme Court who held for the Federalists, after which the Federalists shut down opposition newspapers. Putin seized power after assassinations and explosions in Moscow and southern Russia with hundreds of causalities which provided him with perfect pretexts to move from authoritarianism to totalitarianism.

When the people cede their rights to authoritarian power in the fearful heat of the moment (war, terrorism etc.) it is difficult to regain such rights later and if there are no emergencies then would be authoritarians can manufacture their own in order to create the conditions as a pretext for seizing power. While there is still some dissent, I agree with the consensus of historians that the Nazis themselves burned the Reichstag for just such a purpose and that it worked. A fearful German populace voluntarily gave dictatorial powers to Hitler and he took it from there, as we all know. The capture and beheading of a Dutch communist who was in the area as the responsible party do not dissuade me in my view, especially with Hitler’s well-known hatred for communists and, of course, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and anyone else who questioned his totalitarian views or exercises of power.

Our “war” that began in 2001 with the WTC disaster is different than most wars in that most wars are against another nation or an army. This “war” (as noted by Gessen) is against a tactic and a war that cannot be won because “a tactic cannot be eradicated” and “a war that cannot be won cannot end.” The Reichstag event has become the standard for contrast with all subsequent events in which the people give emergency rights to their rulers, rights, but after the “emergency” is over the rights ceded remain in place. Thus this Bush-Cheney grab of power (remnants of which continue) we ceded to them after 9-11 helped give them a popular base for the later war on Iraq on the Reichstag-sounding pretext of WMD, and we should look with suspicion on any demand by Trump to give him more authoritarian powers to confront our enemies under whatever pretexts he chooses. Kindling fear in order to replace our democracy with totalitarianism should be outside the power and position of anybody, including presidents of any political stripe and, as we have seen above, power grabbing is a bi-partisan exercise peculiar to the executive branch. It seems to be in the nature of man for the powerful to want more power.

So what to do? Gessen suggests a means of breaking this cycle of fear (real or contrived) into authoritarianism to totalitarianism as more than simply resisting Trump; we must break the country’s post-9/11 trajectory. We must, Gessen writes, “question the very premise of the war on terror, challenge the very fact of a perpetual state of emergency, and confront not only the Trump presidency but the legacy of the Bush and Obama Administrations.” In other words, we must question not only what Trump is doing and proposes to do, but question the grounds upon which he proposes to act with a view toward teasing out his motivations in seeking more and more power.

Gessen concludes with such advice as follows: “Now is the time to stop waiting for the Reichstag fire and start battling the consequences of the one we already had – Trump and the legal and public conditions that are enabling his presidency.”

Good advice. Statutes giving away our rights in a democracy to the executive against a background of fear should be reevaluated and repealed unless their continuation in perhaps amended form can be justified. Fear and acquiescence to demands for dictatorial powers do not expand our democracy; they rather provide a grounds for its demise, and our democratic institutions which millions bled and died for are not up for sale to anybody of any political stripe, Reichstags, WMDs and the like notwithstanding.

Gessen is right. We must not only resist Trump’s obvious attempts to dismantle our democracy; we must ourselves dismantle the conditions he inherited to make such a tragedy possible, and the sooner the better, so let’s get on with it.      GERALD      E





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