Democracy’s last gleaming (thinking the unthinkable)

On Monday, 27 February 1933, precisely four weeks after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor, the Reichstag, home of the German parliament in Berlin, was consumed by a massive fire in a daring act of arson.

It turned out to be a pivotal event. The Nazis promptly blamed the Communists for the fire and for plotting against the German government. The very next day Hitler urged President Hindenburg to issue an emergency decree to suspend most civil liberties in Germany, including habeas corpus, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly and the secrecy of the postal service and the telephone. Publications not considered favorable to the Nazi cause were banned for life. Hitler promised to pursue a “ruthless confrontation” with the Communist Party of Germany. “These sub-humans do not understand how the people stand at our side,’ he said.

A month later, capitalizing on the national security panic he’d created, Hitler was able to pass the Enabling Act, which gave him the right to rule by decree — in effect, as dictator of Germany.

It wasn’t till the early 21st century that German historians were able to establish beyond doubt that the Reichstag fire was a Nazi plot, a “false flag” operation.

To recognize that the stage is set for a modern day “Reichstag fire” in America does not require a huge leap of imagination. The spark could be any number of things that sets off one side or the other: It could be the mysterious destruction of a national monument (either the Jefferson memorial, which would incite the right, or the Lincoln memorial, which would incite the left); or, it could even be a high-profile assassination. The conflagration will pit white supremacists and quasi federal agents on one side against a loose coalition of Antifa, Black Lives Matter protesters, immigrant activists (“vermin” to Trump) and the radical left (not communists, but socialists) and other bugaboos of the Right. America’s biggest cities will go up in flames. Trump will call out the tanks to crush the incipient civil war, ruthlessly taking on all the “fine people on both sides.” Soon after, with his Attorney General providing legal covering fire, a pliant Senate rubber-stamping his every move and a terrified suburban populace cowering behind him, Trump, the “law and order president” will issue a national emergency — he will invoke the Insurrection Act — a decision that is his alone to make.

Now he’d have few legal limits on his authority: He could shut down newspapers and web sites (the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN and MSNBC are doomed in this scenario); he could shut down social media (he’s knee-capped Tik Tok already) except, perhaps, Twitter; he could freeze bank accounts of his enemies (Soros? Bezos? Obama?) and flout many other civil liberties in the name of security. Other Presidents have done that: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s imprisoned U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during WWII; George W. Bush green-lighted warrantless wiretapping and torture after 9/11 and Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War.

Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center, writing for The Atlantic said this in early 2019: “Take a moment to consider that during a declared war or national emergency, the president can unilaterally suspend the law that bars government testing of biological and chemical agents on unwitting human subjects.” That statement acquires special significance in the age of COVID, since Trump has famously touted the use of bleaches and of other dubious remedies but has so far been restrained from mandating their use.

It’s time to start thinking the unthinkable; American democracy may be in its final throes.

Senator Chris Murphy’s upcoming book, “The Violence Inside Us,” is not going to be pleasant reading for fans of democracy. Murphy (D-CT), known for his straight talk, predicts that the end is nigh for the American democratic experiment. “Democracy is so unnatural that it’s illogical to think it would be permanent,” he claims, “We don’t run anything important in our lives by democratic vote other than our government. [Our democracy] will fall apart at some point, and maybe that isn’t now, but maybe it is.”

And, in her new book, “Twilight of Democracy; the Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” historian Anne Applebaum makes this sobering observation: “All democracies in the past have failed; there’s no law that if you’ve had democracy for a good number of years, it’s going to go on.” Americans should note, she warns, that our democracy is not inevitable, nor guaranteed.

We should also note that authoritarian revolutions that displace democracies aren’t imposed on the people, they are created by the people. Both Hitler and Trump were elected to their offices.

How did things come to this pretty pass?

Self-destruction is built into the DNA of democracy. The more democracy succeeds, the more it is doomed. Peace and prosperity — the twin promises of democracy — inevitably breed complacency in the population. The problem is that constitutional democracies are unstable — unnatural, in Senator Murphy’s words. Therefore, they require citizens who understand the ethos of democracy and are willing to do the heavy lifting necessary to sustain it. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that democracy is not self-perpetuating but needs to be fostered by succeeding generations. Being fat, dumb and happy is a losing proposition.

In America, says Applebaum, “A lot of people checked out of politics in the 1990s. ‘Politics is something that professionals do,’ we decided, ‘we don’t have to worry about it. It’ll somehow manage itself; we don’t need to vote; we don’t have to be part of civic institutions, we don’t have to worry about getting out the vote, etc.’”

But, back in the nineties, apathy toward politics didn’t seem much of a concern. After all, the future was on a fast track to a progressive utopia. So much so, that Francis Fukuyama, a little-known American political scientist, shot to international fame with his book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” in which he argued that with the ascendancy of Western liberal democracy — which occurred after the Cold War (1945–1991) and the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991) — humanity has reached “not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Even back then it was a stunning claim and, two decades later, has been proved stunningly wrong. Complacency resulted in a weakening of American democracy as it was inundated by torrents of spending by lobbyists and special interests. January 21, 2020 marked a decade since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, overturned long-standing campaign finance restrictions, enabling corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections. Money has always exerted an outsized influence on American politics, but since the Citizens United decision American democracy openly wears a “for sale” sign.

Complacency has also been the virus responsible for a pandemic of ignorance. Americans have always been notoriously fuzzy on how their government is structured, what its powers are and how it functions. The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania conducts periodic surveys on civics knowledge. Its most recent survey reports that “A quarter of U.S. adults can name only one of the three branches of government and more than a fifth can’t name any. The resilience of our system of government is best protected by an informed citizenry. And civics education and attention to news increase that likelihood.”

(There’s good reason for this state of affairs. It was common for American high school students to take multiple courses in civics and government. But civics offerings, along with art, music, physical education were slashed as the curriculum narrowed to focus on “core” subjects specified under the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind law)

Ignorance is fertile ground for rumor and innuendo — it’s no secret that fake news finds its greatest purchase among the ignorant. Indeed, ignorance is the Achilles heel of democracy as it can be manipulated to destructive effect.

In any society, change and chance are also inevitable. With change comes instability and unpredictability; the general undercurrent of uncertainty breeds fear. When fear begins to intrude on complacency, that’s when the shoots of authoritarianism begin to appear. Authoritarianism grows by feeding on a people’s fears until they cry out for “Dear Leader” and democracy is finally toppled. All failed democracies in history have been replaced by authoritarianism. People prefer to be led than to lead, it turns out.

The collapse of the Weimar Republic — Germany’s brief experiment with democracy between the two World Wars that immediately preceded the ascent of Hitler and the Nazis — may offer some cautionary lessons. There are many parallels between post World War I Germany and America of today, but it is in the personalities and mentalities of their leaders that the biggest similarities are to be found. (Note that there is one exception: Hitler was a relative outsider when he engineered the end of Weimar, Trump is not. It was on Trump’s watch that America was laid low by the pandemic and the ensuing economic collapse. But no matter. His genius is his ability to shrug off inconvenient facts by disclaiming responsibility, while recasting himself to the people as their only possible savior. He’s already re-invented himself as the outsider.)

Like Hitler, Trump is an ultranationalist. Like Hitler, Trump wants to make his country great again. “America First” eerily echoes “Deutschland über alles.” Hitler wanted to wipe out the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles; Trump wants the world to “stop laughing at us,” and, more recently, to erase the memory of the devastation caused by the virus. Both Hitler and Trump railed against globalization; to defend Germany’s economy from foreign influence Hitler’s top lieutenant, Joseph Goebbels, even proclaimed, “We want to build a wall, a protective wall.”

The most obvious thing, of course, is that Hitler and Trump are united in mendacity. Hitler’s lies didn’t just beggar belief, they were so big that they left some residue of credibility. Trump lies about everything, big or small, but with such frequency and creativity that his opponents begin to doubt their own sanity.

The first big postwar biography of Hitler, by the British historian Alan Bullock, published in 1952, depicted him as a charlatan, a manipulator, an “opportunist entirely without principle,” These are descriptions that would fit Trump to a tee. Add extreme narcissism to that potent mix and you have the complete Trump.

Given a bitterly divided country and a lifetime’s worth of turmoil caused by the pandemic, the likelihood of an overthrow of American democracy grows with every passing day. If Trump senses defeat, or if one of the investigations into his business practices hits pay dirt, the putsch could come before election day; more likely, if the results are inconclusive when the polls close on election day it could happen a few weeks later.

Beware the ides of November.



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