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Our Pivotal Year: 2018 as 1933

November 1, 2018

30s Germany

I think I’m not alone in feeling a foreboding sense of anxiety that American democracy is threatened in ways that we are unprepared to deal with. What we are feeling today must have been much like it felt in 1933, when repeated political and economic shock waves were reverberating around the world. Everyone knew that the ground was shifting alarmingly, but no one could have known just how a few years later the world would descend into the most disastrous war in human history.

That year in America, Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in as president in the midst of the worst economic depression in modern times–not just in the US, but worldwide. And in Europe, Adolph Hitler was named chancellor of Germany after winning a minority of votes in a disputed election. The directions each country took were shaped by its institutions and culture and specific circumstances, but to a probably greater extent they were determined by the character of the leaders each had at the time. Roosevelt took an inclusive and optimistic approach, launching a series of programs designed to alleviate unemployment, poverty, and hunger and declaring that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In Germany, Hitler went in the other direction to play on fear and resentments, blaming communists, Jews, gays, and other marginalized groups for Germany’s problems, inveighing against the free press and promoting huge industrial corporations like Krupp, Thyssen, Bayer, and I. G. Farben as the engines of growth and nationalism.

Obviously, history never repeats itself exactly, but patterns do re-emerge. It’s not hard to see parallels between Trump’s political and economic template and Hitler’s National Socialist program of 1933, which in turn had been largely borrowed from Mussolini’s Fascist model in Italy.

When Hitler took over the reins of government, Jews, Roma, and gays were not yet being rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps–that was still five years into the future. But the ground was being prepared by propaganda targeted at scapegoated groups and by theatrical political rallies that exalted ethnic identity and patriotism and amplified the message, all the while feeding Hitler’s megalomania.

Then in February 1933, a fire gutted the seat of the Reichstag, the German parliament, and provided the pretext to suspend civil liberties and invoke emergency measures in the name of national security. Who really set the Reichstag fire remains a subject of historical debate, but there was no doubt about who got blamed for it.  Hitler began arresting communists and other political enemies and detaining them in prison camps like Dachau and Buchenwald, which were initially established for political prisoners, not ethnic cleansing. Many Germans supported such measures, and Hitler’s popularity grew. Many Jews and other members of targeted groups still believed they could continue life more or less as usual under the new regime. But the “emergency” quickly became the norm, and the list of enemies continued to expand, and restraints on Hitler’s power evaporated. Then in November 1938 came Kristallnacht–the night of broken glass–when Jewish-owned business were systematically smashed, looted, and burned, signaling the beginning of what became the Holocaust.

This is not to say that the same thing will happen in the United States, nor I am equating Trump to Hitler. But it is certainly conceivable that some version of this pattern could happen here. We haven’t had our own Reichstag Fire yet (although 9/11 came pretty close), but we have in place a president and ruling party that are primed and ready to exploit an event like that when it does happen–as it likely will.

Consider the instruments already at the disposal of the president for curtailing civil liberties. The brilliant analyst Masha Gessen (a Russian immigrant who knows from personal experience how the process works) lays it all out in an essay published in Harper’s last summer. As the result of the Patriot Act (passed in the Senate with one dissenting vote in the immediate wake of 9/11) and its slightly modified successor, the Freedom Act, the president has been given stunning unilateral powers when he declares a national emergency.

The president’s ability to impose and renew a state of emergency is technically limited by the 1976 National Emergencies Act, which requires Congress to vote on the state of emergency within six months of the day it is imposed. But such a vote has never occurred—even though the act has been invoked at least fifty-three times….

…At any given time in the past decade, roughly thirty simulta­neous states of emergency have been in effect. Dozens of executive orders, and numerous other directives and regulations, have stemmed from these states of emergency—all of them creating powers that would be impossible in the increasingly illusory normal state of things. A state of emergency allows the president to unilaterally seize control of the media, food supplies, and commercial vessels, for instance. The fact that Bush and Obama did not utilize some of the more extreme possibilities of the state of emergency testifies only to their restraint, not to the legal limitations. At the same time, we know less and less about the powers the government has exercised; since 2001, an ever-increasing number of these emergency powers have been classified.

The key point here is that the extent to which these powers are used stems not from institutional constraints on the president, but from the personal character and ambitions of the person who holds that office. And now that person is Donald Trump.

Just look at how Trump is trying to hype a caravan of a few thousand wretched people fleeing violence in Central America into a major threat to the country justifying deployment of the US military to the Mexican border. This is so ludicrous that not even everyone at Fox News is buying it, but Trump keeps beating the drums and the faithful who turn out at his rallies believe him. Now imagine how he would exploit a real “Reichstag Fire” event. 

What may save us is the fact that American democratic institutions and traditions–however eroded–are still a lot more robust than what existed in Germany in 1933. As Gessen observes: “American civil society is strong—far stronger, paradoxically, than it was before the election.” The question is, however, whether that would remain an effective impediment to a president like Trump in the face of a galvanizing event.

As Gessen points out, it’s important to remember that everything wasn’t just fine before Trump, and we need to question seriously the whole premise of our endless war that justifies endless “emergencies” and which we tacitly accept because it hasn’t really directly touched most of us–yet..

But as we head to the polls this year, it seems to me that the choice really is between a Roosevelt approach to the nation’s problems or a fascist one. I just hope the former is still possible.

Read Masha Gessen’s full essay here.





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