President Trump has now declared a national emergency to fund his long-sought border wall. It is no surprise that when a fascistic president like Trump starts throwing around the idea of a national emergency, media outlets like Esquire start asking whether “it might be time to start fireproofing the Reichstag,” a clear allusion to Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933. But is the comparison justified? Is Trump’s declaration of a national emergency a threat to American democracy?
The short answer is: National emergencies are normal … until they’re not. The United States has been in a state of nearly continual national emergency since the passage of the National Emergencies Act in 1976. Trump’s national emergency would be the 32nd national emergency currently in effect. Others include selective embargoes on Syria, Libya, and South Sudan and opposition to the “Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Congress can override a president’s national emergency, but only with a two-thirds majority vote.
More broadly, parliamentary governments typically enact emergency provisions that limit civil liberties and enable the centralization of authority in order to protect themselves from social upheaval, natural disasters, and other unforeseen calamities. A political interpretation of such measures was coined “militant democracy” by the political theorist Karl Loewenstein in 1935.
An infamous example of such an emergency provision was Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution in Germany, which granted the president the authority to overrule the legislature. This provision was implemented more than 100 times prior to 1933. It was normal until it wasn’t — until Hitler convinced President Hindenburg to use Article 48 to legally sanction Nazi attacks on their opponents.
Indeed, the norm has become the exception in a number of infamous cases where fascists and other authoritarians have used emergency provisions to destroy the system that gave birth to them. Historically, fascist regimes have come to power by working within parliamentary systems rather than toppling them from the outside. The Enabling Act that legalized Hitler’s dictatorship was passed by parliament (albeit under duress). Mussolini was only the prime minister of a governing coalition in which his party was a minority until he took advantage of the “exceptional” threat posed by a series of failed assassination attempts to eliminate opposition parties and inaugurate his dictatorship. Similarly, the Argentine military junta justified its seizure of power in 1976 in terms of Article 23 of the constitution, which legalized the suspension of constitutional guarantees in times of crisis. In the United States, executive orders were used to intern Japanese Americans during World War II and pave the way for torture after September 11, 2001.
If we conceptualize the relationship between fascism and representative democracy in terms of contestations over the nature of the “normal” and the “exceptional” (among other factors, of course) we can see how these distinctions are often far less obvious than such historical examples suggest. When is the use of executive authority authoritarian? Republicans never tired of accusing Obama of being a “tyrant” when he utilized executive authority, yet they defend Trump and vice versa. If they’re all so worked up about executive authority, why not get rid of the executive branch? And why is much of the critique of Trump’s actions offered by the Democratic leadership focused on procedure – “doing an end run around Congress” — rather than politics? Because the Democratic Party leadership also supports the detention and deportation of the undocumented and doesn’t want to appear “soft” on immigration. Trump’s “abuse of power” in pursuit of the wall is an egregious “exception,” we are told, while routine detentions and deportations are “normal.”
Yes, we should be outraged by Trump’s border wall, but, as Evan Greer pointed out in the Washington Post, we should be just as outraged by the Democratic calls for a “technological barrier” composed of enhanced surveillance technology to support the caging and deportation of migrants. We must not forget that President Obama set the record for most deportations. The liberal ascription of blame to Trump for all social ills implicitly (or explicitly) constructs an image of American greatness prior to 2017. When Democratic politicians call for a return to the pre-Trump era, they too are saying “Make America Great Again.”
If we look more closely at the period of “presidential government” that preceded Hitler from 1930-1933, nothing was actually “normal.” The German working class and poor were suffering through the Depression, Nazi violence was increasing and any democratic vestige of the Weimar system had been hollowed out. The government had become so authoritarian that the German Communist Party argued that Germany was already fascist in 1930. Of course hyperinflation had decimated living standards in the early 1920s. And before that was the First World War. When was Germany “normal”? The same could be said for Italy, where poverty had been rampant for generations prior to Mussolini.
This is not at all to minimize the horrors of Nazism and Fascism or to equate them with the economic exploitation and repression of earlier governments. Hitler and Mussolini’s ascent to power was aided by the failure of much of the German and Italian left to recognize the novel threat posed by fascism until it was too late. The politics of anti-fascism are grounded in a commitment to never make this mistake again by taking far right and fascist politics seriously from the start. Such a stance entails a recognition of the fact that as bad as things are under a capitalist republic, they could be worse.
The challenge lies in organizing against the growth of far-right and authoritarian politics while simultaneously highlighting the continuities they share with the political center — the overlap between the “exception” and the “norm.” In this case, that means opposing the wall with all of our might while remembering that the struggle for a world without borders does not stop with Trump. It means that Trump’s national emergency ought to be resisted as if it were a slide into further authoritarianism whether that proves to be the case or not. As Walter Benjamin famously wrote at the peak of the fascist menace, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule.”