In a chilling piece in the New York Review of Books called “The Reichstag Warning,” Yale history professor Timothy Snyder summarizes how the Nazis used various events such as the 1933 arson of the Reichstag building and the 1938 assassination of the German ambassador to France to justify their anti-democratic program and Kristallnacht, respectively. Professor Snyder writes that Hitler rejoiced as the German Parliament burned knowing that he could use it to grab even more power and to punish his enemies, irrespective of their complicity in the arson. Snyder also refers to new scholarship by Benjamin Hett at Hunter College which suggests that the Nazis themselves burned the building in a false-flag operation.
Snyder’s article makes it clear that responding to provocations – real, imagined, and sometimes self-contrived – is how authoritarians work within the system to aggrandize more power and, ultimately, destroy the vestiges of democracy. The last paragraphs of the article are the payoff. They see the prospect of Trump and the people around him following the “history of terror manipulation” to seize more power. Even James Madison gets into the act for his concerns about a tyrant using a “favorable emergency” to suspend civil rights.
It’s an excellent piece and a good reminder that Trump (and especially some of his more odious advisors) come from – and understand – the long history of opportunists who will try to use the worst events for their best self-interest.
In other ways, though, the piece misses the more obvious point which is that the last 20 years or so have been about nothing as much as how our leaders – and we ourselves – react to provocations that have come along with disturbing frequency. Snyder thus praises the Bush Administration for not calling for an anti-jihad against Islam after 9/11 (although their Iraq War part of the reaction comes in for some criticism).
President Obama’s reactions to provocations are not mentioned at all. If I had to guess, most of the virulent Obama haters would put high on their list of things they hated about him his cool reactions to the numerous provocations of which there was no shortage. In just the last four years we had, among others, the Boston Marathon bombing, the San Bernardino shootings, the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, and an attack at the Fort Lauderdale airport. That list doesn’t even include the multiple shootings, stabbings, and street bombings that have occurred all around the country.
Through them all, President Obama remained a cool customer. His rhetoric was always measured – generally sounding sad and disappointed – as were the actions of his Administration. Where was the anger, the outrage, the lashing out, the eye-for-an-eye (or more), seethed his critics? “They pull a knife, you pull a gun” escalation wasn’t his thing. And they hated him for it.
The provocations will keep coming in Trump’s America, just as they have for the past eight or 16 (or more) years. There should be no requirement to manufacture them. Steve Bannon doesn’t need to find a patsy to blow up a congressman’s SUV in the Capitol parking lot. Instead, he can count on some sad and sick kid from a majority Muslim country to commit an outrage in a suburban shopping mall or similar event tailor-made for a clamp-down.
First, we’ll get the tough rhetoric from the president (and likely his entourage of generals). Then the worst of go-along media will talk and write about how much more satisfying it is to have a genuinely angry president who can lead us in national rites of primal scream and catharsis.
Then the policy people will take over and begin to take away our civil rights. It may be slow (e.g. suspension of habeas corpus for non-citizens), but it could also be fast. What about an omnibus bill passed through the Republican Congress ten days after the umpteenth mall shooting in the past 20 years that pretty much shreds the Constitution?
From there we can proceed to the courts and we all know what that will look like: one step forward and two steps back, capped by a Supreme Court decision ratifying most or all of it, with the requisite nods to our grand rhetorical tradition that the Constitution is “not a collective suicide pact.”
Professor Snyder ends his piece by reminding us that we need to understand history and be vigilant, but the real question is whether there’s anything we can really do beyond watching it unfold.
Four years from now, many of us may look back in fond nostalgia for the days when we had a president who didn’t fly off the handle.