Trump is a man so reckless, so petulant, so full of blind self-regard, it is impossible to know where his presidency will lead. Will he fake terror? Will he go to war to distract us? The unthinkable is now thinkable. That itself is stomach-turning.
From Vladimir Putin to Saddam Hussein, Trump has expressed his admiration for a rogues’ gallery of foreign dictators and autocrats. And we know that other “strongman” leaders he admires have gone to war just for the ratings, or to distract from their miserable failures and corruption.
“When our sitting president and his national security adviser speak of fighting terrorism alongside Russia, what they are proposing to the American people is terror management: the exploitation of real, dubious, and simulated terror attacks to bring down democracy. The Russian recap of the first telephone call between the president and Vladimir Putin is telling: the two men ‘shared the opinion that it is necessary to join forces against the common enemy number one: international terrorism and extremism.’ ” So writes Timothy Snyder in this article adapted from On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.
The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on—this is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it. Modern tyrants are terror managers. Do not allow your shock to be turned against your freedom. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that aspiring tyrants exploit such events in order to change regimes and to consolidate power.
The Reichstag fire was the moment when Hitler’s government, which came to power mainly through democratic means, became the menacingly permanent Nazi regime. It is the archetype of terror management.
On Feb. 27, 1933, at about 9 p.m., the building housing the German Parliament, the Reichstag, began to burn. Who set the fire that night in Berlin? We don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this spectacular act of terror initiated the politics of emergency. Gazing with pleasure at the flames that night, Hitler said: “This fire is just the beginning.” Whether or not the Nazis set the fire, Hitler saw the political opportunity: “There will be no mercy now. Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.” The next day, a decree suspended the basic rights of all German citizens, allowing them to be “preventively detained” by the police.
On the strength of Hitler’s claim that the fire was the work of Germany’s enemies, the Nazi Party won a decisive victory in parliamentary elections on March 5. The police and the Nazi paramilitaries began to round up members of left-wing political parties and place them in improvised concentration camps. On March 23 the new parliament passed an “enabling act,” which allowed Hitler to rule by decree. Germany then remained in a state of emergency for the next 12 years until the end of the Second World War. Hitler had used an act of terror, an event of limited inherent significance, to institute a regime of terror that killed millions of people and changed the world.
The authoritarians of today are also terror managers, and if anything they are rather more creative.
Consider the current Russian regime so admired by the president. Vladimir Putin not only came to power in an incident that strikingly resembled the Reichstag fire, he then used a series of terror attacks—real, questionable, and fake—to remove obstacles to total power in Russia and to assault democratic neighbors.
When Putin was appointed prime minister by a failing Boris Yeltsin in August 1999, he was an unknown with a nugatory approval rating. The following month, a series of buildings were bombed in Russian cities, apparently by the Russian secret state police. Its officers were arrested by their own colleagues with evidence of their guilt; in another case, the speaker of the Russian Parliament announced an explosion a few days before it took place. Nonetheless, Putin declared a war of revenge against Russia’s Muslim population in Chechnya, promising to pursue the supposed perpetrators and “rub them out in the shithouse.”
The Russian nation rallied; Putin’s approval ratings skyrocketed; the following March he won presidential elections. In 2002, after Russian security forces killed scores of Russian civilians while suppressing a real terrorist attack at a Moscow theater, Putin exploited the occasion to seize control of private television. After a school in Beslan was besieged by terrorists in 2004 (in strange circumstances that suggested a provocation), Putin did away with the position of elected regional governors. Thus, Putin’s rise to power and his elimination of two major institutions—private television and elected regional governorships—were enabled by the management of real, fake, and questionable terrorism.
After Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, Russia introduced terror management into its foreign policy. In its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Russia transformed units of its own regular army into a terrorist force, removing insignia from uniforms and denying all responsibility for the dreadful suffering they inflicted. In the campaign for the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine, Russia deployed Chechen irregulars and sent units of its regular army based in Muslim regions to join the invasion. Russia also tried (but failed) to hack the 2014 Ukrainian presidential election.
In April 2015, Russian hackers took over the transmission of a French television station, pretended to be ISIS, and then broadcast material designed to terrorize France. Russia impersonated a “cybercaliphate” so that the French would fear terror more than they already did. The aim was presumably to drive voters to the far-right National Front, a party financially supported by Russia. After 130 people were killed and 368 injured in the terrorist attacks on Paris of November 2015, the founder of a think tank close to the Kremlin rejoiced that terrorism would drive Europe toward fascism and Russia. Both fake and real Islamic terrorism in Western Europe, in other words, were thought to be in the Russian interest.
In early 2016, Russia manufactured a moment of fake terror in Germany.
While bombing Syrian civilians, and thus driving Muslim refugees to Europe, Russia exploited a family drama to instruct Germans that Muslims were rapists of children. The aim, again, seems to have been to destabilize a democratic system and promote the parties of the extreme right.
The previous September, the German government had announced that it would take half a million refugees from the war in Syria. Russia then began a bombing campaign in Syria that targeted civilians. Having provided the refugees, Russia then supplied the narrative. In January 2016, the Russian mass media spread a story that a girl of Russian origin in Germany who had momentarily gone missing had been serially raped by Muslim immigrants. With suspicious alacrity, right-wing organizations in Germany organized protests against the government. When the local police informed the population that no such rape had taken place, Russian media accused them of a cover-up. Even Russian diplomats joined the spectacle.
James Madison nicely made the point that tyranny arises “on some favorable emergency.”
For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission. For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of our institutions. After the Reichstag fire, political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote that “I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander.” Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do so.
(Adapted from On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century Copyright © 2017 by Timothy Snyder. Published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Reprinted from Slate by permission. (Timothy Snyder is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and the author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.)
How much damage Trump will do to our nation is just a matter of time. His obsession with his own fame, wealth and success, his determination to vanquish enemies real and imagined, his craving for adulation — these traits were, the very heart of his scorched-earth outsider campaign. He is our half-baked less than competent version of Mussolini.
All that stands in the way of Trump now are the very bedrock American institutions — the free press, the courts and the federal agencies and Congress — that he daily seeks to undermine and belittle as a threat to his family’s corruption and his delusions of glory.
Trump’s direct, personal attacks on judges’ integrity and on the legitimacy of the judicial system itself — and his irresponsible suggestion that the judiciary should be blamed for future terrorist attacks — go farther. They aim to undermine public faith in the third branch of government. Trump loves chaos because in an orderly climate people will notice what a shabby little fake imitation of an actual American president he is.
The courts are the last line of defense for the Constitution and the rule of law; that’s what makes them such a powerful buffer against an authoritarian leader. Trump is Un-American, in fact anti-American. He is outright seeking to destroy the balance of power. As the LA Times notes other institutions under attack include:
The electoral process
Faced with certified election results showing that Hillary Clinton outpolled him by nearly 3 million votes, Trump repeated the unsubstantiated — and likely crackpot — assertion that Clinton’s supporters had duped local polling places with millions of fraudulent votes.
In a democracy, the right to vote is the one check that the people themselves hold against their leaders; sowing distrust in elections is the kind of thing leaders do when they don’t want their power checked.
The intelligence community
After reports emerged that the Central Intelligence Agency believed Russia had tried to help Trump win, the president-elect’s transition team responded: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” It was a snarky, dismissive, undermining response — and the administration has continued to belittle the intelligence community and question its motives since then, while also leaking stories about possibly paring and restructuring its ranks.
Trump has blistered the mainstream media for reporting that has cast him in a poor light, saying outlets concocted narratives based on nonexistent anonymous sources. In February he said that the “fake news” media will “never represent the people,” adding ominously: “And we’re going to do something about it.” His goal seems to be to defang the media watchdog by making the public doubt any coverage that accuses Trump of abusing his power.
In addition to calling for agency budgets to be chopped by up to 30%, Trump appointed a string of Cabinet secretaries who were hostile to much of their agencies’ missions and the laws they’re responsible for enforcing. He has also proposed deep cuts in federal research programs, particularly in those related to climate change. It’s easier to argue that climate change isn’t real when you’re no longer collecting the data that documents it.
What’s uniquely threatening about Trump’s approach, though, is how many fronts he’s opened in this struggle for power and the vehemence with which he seeks to undermine the institutions that don’t go along. Can fake or managed “terror attacks” be far behind?
Trump’s assaults are designed to chip away at people’s confidence in these institutions that are the only thing that stand between Trump and Putin-like power. He is trying to talk America into losing our faith in the forces that protect us from … him.
Be warned “terror management: the exploitation of real, dubious, and simulated terror attacks to bring down democracy,” is on the way…
And it will happen in the midst of lies directed at anyone or anything that might curtail the ego-driven recklessness of the first American “Strongman” to sit in the White House who seeks to undermine his own country’s democracy, its media and its courts.
Trump is the embodiment of the embrace of alternative facts personified. His next step is to create and alternative “reality.” He constitutes an existential threat.
Trump is a living lie. He is the embodiment of the populist myth that truth is only a malleable raw material and that leaders can provide a higher “truth” for the greater good… and they define the greater good as themselves remaining in unchecked power…
There’s a name for such leaders: demagogues.
And demagogues eventually need to create new “facts on the ground” — be that Putin or Trump.
And with the war-lover Bannon whispering death as a useful “strategy” in his ear… it is only a matter of time before Trump begins to manage terror- and perhaps even create it. He has the Putin blueprint to follow. As David Satter noted in “The Unsolved Mystery Behind the Act of Terror That Brought Putin to Power” (National Review, August 17, 2016) all available evidence points to Putin’s complicity in the 1999 apartment-building bombings in Russia.
Those who have tried to investigate have been killed off, one by one. I believe that Vladimir Putin came to power as the result of an act of terror committed against his own people. The evidence is overwhelming that the apartment-house bombings in 1999 in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk, which provided a pretext for the second Chechen war and catapulted Putin into the presidency, were carried out by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Yet, to this day, an indifferent world has made little attempt to grasp the significance of what was the greatest political provocation since the burning of the Reichstag. I have been trying to call attention to the facts behind the bombings since 1999. I consider this a moral obligation, because ignoring the fact that a man in charge of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal came to power through an act of terror is highly dangerous in itself.
And Trump is our Putin, loves Putin is allied with him, was literally put in power by the 1000 online fake news trolls Putin unleashed on his behalf.
As they say “Do the math.’
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Thank You Frank, you state so beautifully how I have felt since even before Trump announced he would seek the presidency. I’ve even thought about the German parliament fire. And just last night I said to myself, “One way for President Trump to deflect from our concerns about his campaign’s actions and the administration’s actions would be to cause a crisis, either here or abroad. There is talk now of maybe needing to assassinate or otherwise remove the Syrian president. As I write Trump has already begun sending more soldiers into the Syrian conflict. A president may not declare war, but what Congress would dare refuse to support our troops in harms way?
just so and thanks David! F
I really agree. He is very good at FAKING [lying]. If it can get the focus off his Russky friends ,then he;ll do it. people are going to lose their lives just for his bullshit
Aaaaand, then as if by cue, Donald sends in 59 Tomahawk missiles, and in doing so raises Raytheon stock, of which Donald owns many shares.
Thanks, great article.