Awaiting Our Own Reichstag Fire
February 16, 2017
Millions of Americans now share the profoundly disturbing experience of watching and waiting as their nation lurches toward authoritarianism. In a previous essay, I described the Trump administration as a “presidency in search of an emergency”—i.e., a crisis that could be used as a pretext for seizing unchecked power. I opined that the emergency could come in the form of an economic meltdown, a terrorist attack, or a natural disaster.
As a result of the events of the last two weeks we now know what the crisis will almost certainly be (a terrorist attack) and how it will be used—namely, to do the following:
- Nullify the constitutionally mandated independence and authority of the courts. More on this below.
- Shut down congressional investigations. These are soon likely to include probes into collusion with Russia to influence the election (if the worst of the allegations are substantiated, Senators and Representatives could soon be bandying a word that starts with “T” and rhymes with “reason”), along with financial conflicts of interest that go vastly beyond the recent dustup with Nordstrom’s. The evidence of profound misdeeds is getting so hard to ignore that even a Republican Congress will likely eventually get rambunctious. The forced departure of national security adviser Michael Flynn can only fan the furor, rather than quelling it (again, more below).
- Criminalize dissent. Millions have already taken to the streets to voice their displeasure with the new administration, and thousands are showing up regularly at congressional town hall meetings. The time-proven ways authoritarian governments discourage anti-government activism are to increase surveillance and to heighten the perceived risks entailed in joining protests (prison time or worse).
- Rein in and discredit the mainstream media. White House strategist Steve Bannon has called the media “the opposition party.” Authoritarian regimes always attempt to marginalize and control the press and broadcasters. Given a sufficiently compelling national emergency, criticism of the government could be declared unpatriotic and even criminalized (as happened during World War I).
The events of the week of February 6 provided some clues on how Trump’s war on the judiciary is likely to play out. Jack Goldsmith writes that the way the executive order banning entry by residents of seven Muslim-dominated nations was drafted suggests a couple of possible interpretations. One is that White House Counsel Donald McGahn is simply incompetent; the other is that the executive order was deliberately botched in order to flush out judicial opposition for later retribution: “….Trump [may be] setting the scene to blame judges after an attack that has any conceivable connection to immigration. If Trump loses in court he credibly will say to the American people that he tried and failed to create tighter immigration controls. This will deflect blame for the attack. And it will also help Trump to enhance his power after the attack.”
In a New York Times column titled “When the Fire Comes,” Paul Krugman recalls that “The Bush administration exploited the post-9/11 rush of patriotism to take America into an unrelated war, then used the initial illusion of success in that war to ram through huge tax cuts for the wealthy.” He opines, “the consequences if Donald Trump finds himself similarly empowered will be incomparably worse.”
Krugman might easily have dug a bit further back in history to mention the Reichstag Fire of 1933, which Hitler and the Nazis used as an excuse to suspend civil liberties and round up enemies. Some historians now believe the Nazis planned the arson as a false flag operation.
I’m not suggesting that Trump can or will do something of the sort. But by demonizing Muslims, Trump has implicitly invited some sort of attack. Indeed, he almost literally does so in this tweet:
All of this speaks to the new administration’s evident intent to go full authoritarian on us. But success in carrying through with such intent is far from guaranteed. Donald Trump stands at the head of a cadre of insurgents that has managed to seize an extraordinary level of power in a very short time, but he and his merry band are opposed by an old guard that is not likely to exit the stage quietly or willingly. That old guard includes appointed officials and career staffers in Executive Branch agencies including the Justice Department, FBI, CIA, NSA, and DHS. Each agency has its own institutional agenda that is independent of the White House. To succeed, Trump’s team must neutralize, co-opt, enlist, or replace as much of this bureaucracy as possible, as quickly as possible. Indeed, Trump has already completely restructured the National Security Council in a way that is completely unprecedented: White House strategist Steve Bannon and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus have been given permanent seats on the NSC’s Principals Committee, while the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are now to be included in meetings only when requested for their expertise; the Secretary of Energy and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations are excluded entirely. Meanwhile, the White House has purged nearly the entire State Department senior staff. So far, most observers agree the job of transforming the Executive Branch is proceeding in fits and starts, and suffers from poor planning and leadership.
In addition, there is Congress to manage. The Democratic Party is of course utterly opposed to the new administration, but it’s sidelined with little real power; meanwhile, though Trump is a Republican and has captured the presidency for his party, his crew is by no means entirely in sync with the old Republican guard. Indeed, top Republican senators have called for a probe of the Flynn/Russia situation. For now, Congress is largely still working in line with the White House—but its acquiescence is not to be taken for granted.
Next comes the Judiciary. It will simply take too long to replace enough federal judges so as to entirely neutralize opposition within this branch of government, even given the imminent prospect of a conservative-dominated Supreme Court. That’s why silencing the judiciary in the aftermath of a national emergency makes sense.
Finally there are the American people. No regime can afford to entirely ignore the will of the public. Within the White House, the faction around chief strategist Stephen Bannon appears to be consolidating power and keeping the faith of Trump voters by forging ahead with campaign promises to expand the Mexican border wall, bar entrants from Muslim countries, step up deportations of undocumented residents, and downshift the NATO alliance. Nevertheless, popular opposition to Trump is very large and growing, and even in the face of a national emergency this could pose a significant obstacle to the administration’s plans.
It must always be borne in mind that the true objectives of the Trump administration differ somewhat from the issues that energized Trump voters. White House strategy almost certainly includes doing away with regulatory constraints on global banking while privileging U.S. banks and corporations wherever possible. The Trumpists also hope to fan economic growth with a combination of increased fossil fuel production, a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, and a revitalization of American manufacturing. Trump’s foreign policy strategy evidently includes partnering with Russia on oil and gas projects and on fighting ISIS in Syria, while also driving a wedge between Russia and China wherever possible. At the same time, White House strategists seem intent on pursuing a civilizational war with Islam. Every autocrat needs a villain, and Iran is being set up in the role of immediate and proxy foe. The ultimate prize is the Middle East’s remaining oil, which Trump has said we should “take”—whatever that means in practical terms.
Not all of this is completely anathema to the existing Washington consensus. As Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed argues, the Trump crew actually represents an existing segment of the Washington elite, “…an interlocking network of powerful players across sectors which heavily intersect with the Deep State: finance, energy, military intelligence, private defense, white nationalist ‘alt-right’ media, and Deep State policy intellectuals.” Ahmed believes “we are seeing a powerful military-corporate nexus within the American Deep State come to the fore. Trump, in this context, is a tool to re-organize and restructure the Deep State in reaction to what this faction believe[s] to be an escalating crisis in the global Deep System.” The guiding philosophy of this far-right nexus, which has exponents in Europe and Russia as well, has been labeled “traditionalism”—an ideology I hope to unpack in my next essay.
Flynn is an early casualty of infighting among elites within the Executive Branch. But he won’t be the last. Intelligence professionals appear to be deliberately withholding daily information from the president (who seems minimally interested in any case). Leaks are helping to undermine morale (it was a White House leak that brought Flynn down). The sharks are circling and there is blood in the water. If it is to succeed, the Trump presidency needs its emergency sooner rather than later. Even then there is no sure prospect of maintaining control for long.
It’s important to remember that the elites with whom the Trump insurgency is at war have failed in their objectives and have misled the American people for many years. Neoconservative foreign policy was responsible for needless and failed wars, as well as a steady stream of lies that squandered public credibility and support; meanwhile, neoliberal economic policy oversaw the erosion of the American middle class through globalization and financialization. It is these entrenched elites, for whom Hillary Clinton served as a lightning rod, who are therefore ultimately responsible for Trump’s ascendancy.
It may be a mistake to assume that one faction or the other will prevail. At least, that’s the implication of a recent essay by Peter Turchin, a Russian-American ecologist specializing in the study of cultural evolution. Without specific reference to the Trump insurgency, Turchin posits that America has entered a period of greatly heightened intra-elite competition, one measure of which is the vast recent increase in sums spent on election races. There is always competition among elites for positions of authority and power, but when positions are limited and aspirants are many, the result is a breakdown of social norms and the appearance of competing power networks “which increasingly subvert the rules of political engagement to get ahead of the opposition.” Once societies enter such phases, there is no return. Elites cannibalize society’s resources in rivalry over power, resulting in a breakdown of the myriad daily instances of cooperation that enable society to function. The re-establishment of intra-elite cooperation never occurs, and the state disintegrates. Turchin’s theory (developed from Jack Goldstone’s earlier work) has been tested on data from Ancient Rome, Egypt, and Mesopotamia; medieval England, France, and China; European and Russian revolutions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and the Arab Spring uprisings.
Steve Bannon has declared that he wants to “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,” but he evidently wants to do so in service to his vision of a restored white, Christian, hierarchical order ruled by a spiritually superior caste (again, more about this next week). However, as Nafeez Ahmed argues in his recent book Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence, we are actually facing not a “clash of civilizations” (Islam versus the Christian West) but rather a “crisis of civilization.” The former can at most merely temporarily disguise the latter. Our real crisis, only partly acknowledged or understood by any of the elites, consists of the end of the fossil fuel era, the end of economic growth as we knew it during the 20th century, and ultimately the end of an entire phase of human social and economic organization.
In this war of the elites, those who understand the “crisis of civilization” and are working to build community resilience as a response should be wary of hyper-partisanship. It may be essential over the short run to oppose both the rise of an authoritarian state and the dismantling of national climate policy. But no matter how fierce the contest, it is vital to remember that getting rid of Donald Trump will not make America great again. The only way forward with any prospect of success consists of creating a new pattern of existence within the shell of the existing one—a way of life that doesn’t require endless fossil-fueled economic growth or consumerism, and that brings people together rather than pitting them against one another.