Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
There are times that is terrifying to be a historian who has specialized in the study of tyrannical regimes especially on the anniversaries of significant events that changed the course of nations. A couple of weeks ago President Donald Trump made good on his threat to declare a National Emergency because Congress would not approve funding for his wall along the Border with Mexico. The Declaration, which I expected would happen came after a government shutdown that lasted over a month followed by almost three weeks of Congressional negotiations to re-open the government. When the House and Senate passed a compromise bill that did not give Trump what he wanted he declared a State Of Emergency while at the same time commenting that he “didn’t have to do it.”
Of course he didn’t have to do it. He did it in a juvenile fit of rage, even more than Hitler did after the Reichstag Fire.
The Reichstag Fire, the 86th anniversary of which is tomorrow, February 27th is a precedent setting state of emergency that brought with it very dire results.
The fire was set by Marinus (Rinus) van der Lubbe, a Dutch Communist who was acting alone. There was no proof that he had any German support, nor that any German political party was involved. However, Hitler, backed by the aging and doddering President Paul Von Hindenburg was given power to suspend constitutional rights indefinitely by acting under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution through the Order of the President of the Reich for the Protection of People and State. I will discuss that tomorrow.
Ever since my undergraduate study working under Dr. Helmut Haeussler at California State University Northridge I have studied the transition of German society from democracy to dictatorship. While my studies then and ever since focused on the rise of National Socialism in Germany, the fact is that what happened in Germany was not unique, it is a part of the human condition and the people of any country can find themselves under the foot of a dictatorship if the conditions are right. I believe that conditions in the United States have never been more ripe for the establishment of an authoritarian regime, possibly even a dictatorship, than they are today.
When I read through the text of President Trump’s speech at CPAC and the response of the NRA to the massacre in Parkland Florida shuddered last February, I shuddered. They were the words that an autocrat would use, and the vehemence of the CPAC crowd, which just a few years ago prided itself as being the intellectual bastion of conservatism. Speakers and panel members who dared to question the movement were heckled, jeered, and threatened. Mona Charen, a long time conservative who had worked for both William Buckley and Ronald Reagan, had to be escorted out by security officers concerned for her safety.
I realize that despite chaos that is engulfing the House of Trump; despite more and more of his advisors being indicted by the Muller investigation of the Trump campaign and family connections to Russia, the more I become more concerned that the unthinkable will happen and something will occur that will allow the President to seize power under the pretext of national security; most likely a war, or a major terrorist attack, using existing National Security Executive Orders dealing with the continuity of government functions as a result of catastrophic emergency.
But the President chose to declare an emergency for which no evidence exists. Even today, the Commanding General Of U.S. Northcom reported that there was no military threat at the border in direct contravention to the words of the President and his actions, sending thousands of troops to the border with Mexico.
There are a lot of laws in existence for a President to declare a state of emergency, the latest of which is National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive (National Security Presidential Directive NSPD 51/Homeland Security Presidential Directive HSPD-20) of 4 May 2007 which defines a catastrophic emergency as “any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government functions.”
But this doesn’t fit the bill. Nor does the National Emergency Act of 1976 do the trick, though the Administration seems to be banking on it with the courts.
Trump has now made his declaration. But I am sure if his attempt is rebuffed by Congress or the Courts, his regime will act to suspend civil rights and liberties and maybe even suspend Congress and the courts in the name of security and under existing provisions. Sadly, I think that in such a case that very few people would resist such a takeover. Of course the 35% or so of people that would support him as he said, even if he shot someone on 5th Avenue would be at the forefront probably even using extrajudicial means to apprehend, persecute, or kill anyone suspected of disloyalty. But I also believe that many other people would follow all because they are afraid and desire security more than freedom.
Now the psychological preparation for such an event is not all Trump’s doing; for the last three decades many of those that now support him, especially the leaders of the Religious Right, Fox News, and radio and internet demagogues have prepared the ground for his rise.
Dr. Timothy Snyder, the historian from Yale has warned us in his book On Tyranny. He noted:
“Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of political parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. DO NOT FALL FOR IT.”
Human beings are the one constant in history, and human nature is very consistent when it comes to how we respond when under attack. One only has to think of the fear that followed the 9-11 attacks and the willingness of people to give the government vast new powers. Those included The Patriot Act and an authorization for the use of military force against Al Qaida which has not been updated or supplemented since 2001, and which has been used for operations around the world which are completely unconnected to the initial authorization.
I believe that the chances of such an event occurring have gone up exponentially. Part of this is because the President and the Executive branch have not filled many critical ambassadorships, as well as thousands of key billets in the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security. Even more concerning is the fact that the President is relying on non-Senate confirmed “Acting” cabinet members to serve in order to circumvent the Constitution.
This is a very dangerous time and every day I wake up wondering if this will be the day that our Republic as we knew it dies. I do not know if this will be the result of a war a major terror attack, or even an unexpected financial crisis, but as things spiral out of control I cannot shake the feeling that we are going to have our Reichstag Fire moment, and that we will not rise to the challenge. Instead I think that most Americans will give up freedom in the name of security simply because that is human nature and has been demonstrated throughout history on every continent. The President’s Declaration Of National Emergency qualifies as such an event.
James Madison noted:
“The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”
Now is a time that we must all be awake and aware of what is going on in our country and the world. The storm clouds are building and we most be cognizant of the times or be engulfed and overwhelmed when the unthinkable arrives. That may not be pleasant to contemplate, but it is necessary.
I would like to believe that I will be proven wrong and honestly I want to be proven wrong because I do not want our nation to have to endure war, terrorism, or the rule of a tyrannical despot backed by fanatical and heavily armed followers, many of who are already discussing a new civil war and the extermination of their opponents by violent means. Sadly, some of these men and women are serving in the military and in various Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies. If I am right, they will be the nucleus of quasi-government death squads, no different than in any dictatorship, and any resistor, regardless of Party, politics, ideology, religion, or even military service will be a potential target.
God I hope that I am wrong.
So, until tomorrow I wish you a good day, the conclusion of the article will appear tomorrow.
One response to “Non-Emergency National Emergencies: The Reichstag Fire and Trump’s Decree”
I’m glad I’m old. The future looks dim and most people are oblivious to that fact.