Donald Trump, who has cratered in opinion polls this spring as the pandemic and the economic collapse have battered the U.S., is attempting to turn this past week’s explosion of political protest amid a deadly pandemic into his Reichstag fire moment.
Back in 1933, when the German parliament burned (the Reichstag fire) — ostensibly at the hands of a Dutch communist, more likely at the hands of Hitler’s own agents provocateurs — Hitler seized on the event, and on the fears of chaos that it stoked up, to demand he be given unlimited emergency powers.
In a similar fashion today, Trump, in this chaotic spring of 2020, appears to be banking on people being so scared – by looters, by viruses, by economic ruin, by political chaos — that they will sit back and watch. Or, if he can whip up enough fear of protesters, perhaps the public will applaud the president and return to his political fold, as he moves to consolidate dictatorial powers and to use the vast might of the military for domestic political repression.
On Monday, after a weekend of taunting, loathsome tweets aimed at protesters, Democratic Party mayors and governors, and left-wing political groups, Trump and Attorney General William Barr ordered soldiers and mounted police to tear gas and beat and shoot with rubber bullets nonviolent protesters who were blocking Trump’s path to a nearby church at which he wanted a photo op. We know the protesters were nonviolent because the police and military attacked them in full view of the world’s media — those same journalists whom Trump has repeatedly called “enemies of the people,” and scores of whom are now, at protests around the country, being deliberately targeted, beaten, shot and gassed by uniformed agents of the state.
At the church that Trump strutted to in his best Mussolini, chin-up-and-out, arms marching tin drummer-like, the reality TV figure told his supporters, “I am your law and order president.” He ordered all the governors to deploy their National Guard – an order that he can’t legally enforce. He said that he would deploy the U.S. military on U.S. soil to inflict swift and bloody damage on protesters — an act that is clearly illegal absent the support of the governors — and that, a day later, prompted Admiral Mike Mullen, ex-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to write an article in The Atlantic urging the generals to refuse to obey unlawful orders to turn their weapons against fellow Americans. On Wednesday, ex-Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis penned a public warning that Trump represented an existential threat to the constitutional order, while Gen. Mark A. Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a memo to heads of all the armed forces reminding them of the oath they had sworn to uphold the Constitution. Trump also menacingly nodded to his gun-toting paramilitaries, waiting off in the wings, by saying, apropos nothing, that he was a defender of his people’s Second Amendment rights.
There was, in this ghastly tear gas-bejeweled spectacle, no acknowledgement of the U.S.’s chasm-like racial divide; no nod to the pain of the disenfranchised and disempowered; no attempt at forging unity or advancing calm.
Watching Trump’s snarling, fascistic performance unfold as he was surrounded by Attorney General Barr, by the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the other black-suited fellow horsemen of his American apocalypse, I felt I had been transported to Hitler’s Berlin, on the morrow after the Reichstag was burned out on February 27, 1933. For fellow history buffs, you will recall that, when the German parliament burned, Hitler ruthlessly seized the moment to demand he be given unlimited emergency powers. When the German parliament granted them to him, he promptly personalized government, established the Führerprinzip (a governing principle that mandated officials’ and citizens’ loyalty to the ruler rather than the institutions of constitutional government), turned his paramilitaries and his Gestapo against domestic opponents, shredded beyond repair the rule of law, and set in motion a catastrophe that would shatter much of the world over the next 12 years.
Such, I fear, is what we are witnessing in Trump’s response to today’s unrest.
Make no mistake: While Trump’s entire presidency has been one long five-alarm fire burning down the country’s democratic political structures, this current moment is something else again. In the film This Is Spinal Tap, a faux documentary about a heavy metal rock group, one of the band’s musicians boasts inanely of having a particularly loud amplifier that has 11 notches on its volume control instead of the standard 10. In June 2020, we have hit the 11th notch on Trump’s increasingly loud fascist patter. This month is now shaping up to be the most serious crisis for U.S. democracy, and for our ability to live as one country since the Civil War. With the GOP-led Senate fundamentally incapable of reining him in, Trump is clearly banking on intimidating governors into acquiescence of his military “assistance,” and of scaring suburbanites into supporting him through the specter of carnage.
I live in midtown Sacramento, California. This past weekend there was intense property destruction and looting; in fact, most of the storefronts on the nearby streets had their windows broken and their interiors ransacked. But I also know that the large majority of protests in Sacramento this past week have been peaceful. On Tuesday, I spent the hour before the onset of curfew at an entirely peaceful, multiracial, multigenerational protest outside of City Hall. It was filled with messages of peace and tolerance. There were dozens of doctors and nurses there as part of the protest.
Meanwhile, there were heavily armed police and National Guard everywhere. I walked home to get back before the curfew. As I turned onto my street, a few short blocks from my home, just east of the Capitol building, I ran into a bevy of armored personnel carriers and National Guardsmen with long-arm rifles. I continued on my way, and one of the Guardsmen followed me for nearly two blocks, his rifle clearly not just hanging idly by his side. To repeat, this was before the curfew, and I was on my own street.
While the Guardsmen were activated by Gov. Gavin Newsom, at the request of Sacramento’s mayor, rather than by Trump, they are people who have been repeatedly told in recent days by the country’s president to view the residents of the cities they have been sent to patrol as their “enemies,” as people who need to be — and deserve to be — “dominated.” No wonder they looked at anyone who walked past with the sort of suspicion one might expect to see on the face of a soldier patrolling occupied territory in a hostile country. Hostility begets hostility; an assumption of violence and mal-intent oftentimes, in these situations, ends up becoming self-fulfilling. What’s been missing in federal responses, in particular, is any meaningful attempt at de-escalation.
In Washington, D.C., on the other side of the continent, phalanxes of soldiers, under the direct operational command of the secretary of defense and the president, were arrayed up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial, in a display of raw power that would have looked entirely appropriate in, say, Pyongyang, North Korea — this, at the end of a day in which Trump had repeatedly goaded the protesters, positively egging them onto violence. His lust for a physical confrontation between Guardsmen and demonstrators was, throughout the day, entirely palpable.
This is Trump’s America in 2020. It is ugly and intimidatory. The scenes of the military on the streets remind me of images out of Belfast, Northern Ireland, which I used to watch on the news when I was growing up in London in the 1970s and 1980s. Donald J. Trump, this impeached gangster of a president, is treating the U.S. like a personal colony, to be used and abused, manipulated and discarded to suit his whim and his fancy.
He must not be allowed to succeed. By the tens of thousands, in cities large and small alike, they are coming out to protest; and, in the aftermath of his attempt to militarize the situation, most have done so peacefully, with organization, with strategy, with determination, refusing to take Trump’s poisoned bait.
In Sacramento on Tuesday evening, I saw dozens of nurses and doctors, still wearing their scrubs, kneeling in solidarity along with the young protesters. I was reminded of the scenes of Muscovites standing up to tanks in Moscow when hard-liners tried to launch a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and his reforms. I was reminded of people standing up against tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and of other protesters, later that year, demolishing the Berlin Wall. I was reminded of the mothers of the disappeared in Chile and in Argentina calmly, but with utter determination, coming out onto the streets of Santiago and of Buenos Aires each week to protest in the face of murderous juntas. And I was reminded of the vast demonstrations in South Africa that refused to disappear no matter how much force, how much murder, how much repression the apartheid regime sent against them.
The people, aroused, are a mighty, unstoppable force to reckon with. Trump understands only the idea of power enforced down the barrel of a gun. He will, I hope with all of my heart, soon discover the limits of that nightmare vision.