By Dana Milbank
America, this is not a drill. The Reichstag is burning.
For five years, my colleagues and I have taken pains to avoid Nazi comparisons. It is usually hyperbolic, and counterproductive, to label the right “fascists” in the way those on the right reflexively label the left “socialists.” But this is no longer a matter of name-calling.
With his repeated refusals this week to accept the peaceful transfer of power — the bedrock principle that has sustained American democracy for 228 years — President Trump has put the United States, in some ways, where Germany was in 1933, when Adolf Hitler used the suspicious burning of the German parliament to turn a democracy into a totalitarian state.
Overwrought, you say? Then ask Yale historian Timothy Snyder, a top authority on Nazism and Stalinism. “The Reichstag has been on a slow burn since June,” he told me. “The language Trump uses to talk about Black Lives Matter and the protests is very similar to the language Hitler used — that there’s some vague left-wing conspiracy based in the cities that is destroying the country.”
Trump, as he has done before, has made the villain a minority group. He has sought, once again, to fabricate emergencies to justify greater powers for himself. He has proposed postponing elections. He has refused to commit to honoring the results of the election. And now, he proposes to embrace violence if he doesn’t win.
“It’s important not to talk about this as just an election,” Snyder said. “It’s an election surrounded by the authoritarian language of a coup d’etat. The opposition has to win the election and it has to win the aftermath of the election.”
If not? There won’t be another “normal” election for some time, he said. But that doesn’t have to happen, and Snyder is optimistic it won’t. To avoid it, we voters must turn out in overwhelming numbers to deal Trump a lopsided defeat. The military must hold to its oath. Homeland Security police must not serve as Trump’s brownshirts. And we citizens must take to the streets, peacefully but indefinitely, until the will of the people prevails.
“It’s going to be messy,” Snyder said. “He seems pretty sure he won’t win the election, he doesn’t want to leave office,” and he appears to Snyder to have “an authoritarian’s instinct” that he must stay in power or go to prison.
It’s abundantly clear that Trump plans to fabricate an election “emergency.” First, he claimed mail-in balloting, a tried-and-true system, is fraudulent. Now his supporters are trying to harass in-person voters.
When Virginia’s early voting opened this week, Trump supporters descended on a polling station, waving Trump signs and flags, chanting and forming a gantlet through which voters had to walk. When the New York Times reported that this voter intimidation campaign began at a nearby rally featuring the Republican National Committee co-chairman, the Virginia GOP responded mockingly from its official Twitter account: “Quick! Someone call the waaaambulance!”
Let’s be clear. There is only one political party in American politics embracing violence. There is only one side refusing to denounce all political violence. There is only one side talking about bringing guns to the polls; one side attempting to turn federal law-enforcement officials into an arm of a political party. And Trump is trying to use law enforcement to revive tactics historically used to bully voters of color from voting — tactics not seen in 40 years.
Some of what Trump and his lieutenants have been doing is merely unseemly: using the machinery of government to attack previous and current political opponents, likening pandemic public health restrictions to slavery, or threatening to overrule regulators if they question the safety of vaccines.
But embracing violence to resolve democratic disagreement is another matter. Trump embraced the “very fine people” among the homicidal neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. He embraced as “very good people” armed protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol to intimidate lawmakers. He embraced his supporter who allegedly shot and killed two people at a protest in Wisconsin. He embraced the “GREAT PATRIOTS” who drove into Portland, Ore., hurling paintballs and pepper spray at demonstrators. He embraced officers who kill unarmed African Americans, saying they simply “choke” under pressure.
Now he’s rejecting the peaceful transfer of power. Worse: Most Republican officeholders dare not contradict him. The Times reported that of all 168 Republican National Committee members and 26 Republican governors it asked to comment on Trump’s outrage, only four RNC members and one governor responded.
In Federalist 48, James Madison prophetically warned that tyranny could triumph under “some favorable emergency.” In 1933, Hitler used the burning of the Reichstag to do just that. Trump now, it appears, is aiming to do likewise.
America, this is our Reichstag moment. We have the power to stop it. Don’t let democracy burn to the ground.