If you're a student of 20th-century European history, you know that Adolf Hitler knew how to stage a crisis for his own advantage. His underlings set fire to the building that housed the Reichstag, the parliament of the German Weimar Republic, and he then used the "crisis" he had created to invoke emergency powers that allowed him to transform himself from an elected official into the dictator that history is reluctantly forced to remember, if only to guard against the possibility that someone similar might re-emerge again.
Someone similar has, in fact, emerged again. But not in Germany. After decades of belief that "it can't happen here," there are unmistakable signs that it is, in fact, just beginning to happen here.
Paul Krugman knows it.
The Economist (not known for its knee-jerk liberalism) knows it.
The White House staff knows it.
The Federal bureaucracy knows it.
And, out in the so-called "heartland," in places such as Michigan and Kansas, people are agitating for it.
An end to democracy, and the beginning of a totalitarian state.
And, after all, it's not like we haven't seen this story before. We've seen it during the early part of this century.
A president elected by the Electoral College only, winning neither a majority nor a plurality of the popular vote. An administration that stumbles through the day-to-day business of the American people, finding time to reward its political patrons, but neither able or interested in anything else. A Commander-in-Chief who prefers vacations to reading intelligence briefings, especially ones that warn about an attack being planned by a member of a family with whom his family has had business dealings. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, an attack on American soil that was then used to manipulate popular opinion against the political opposition--with the facts behind the attack dumped down the "memory hole" of history.
We will never know to what extent the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a purposeful "Reichstag fire," or a kind of accidental one that allowed George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to monopolize government power in an almost unprecedented manner. But make no mistake: there was nothing accidental about that monopolization. Bush and Cheney, especially Cheney, saw an opportunity to turn American grief and anger into a political coalition that they thought could last forever. The trouble is, of course, that empires don't last forever; conservatives, who are supposedly students of history, should know that.
But conservatism in the purely classic sense no longer exists in any meaningful way in our political system. It has been replaced by a reactionary effort to recreate a mythical past, one in which white male Christians ruled, and everyone else was under their heels. And no one is more devoted to the fulfillment of that effort than Donald John Trump, the trust-funded bankrupt who currently lives in the house with the fireplace in which are carved the words of John Adams: "May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof." Trump may not be the first President to disappoint Adams from his vantage point in Heaven, but he is no doubt our second President's greatest disappointment yet.
And with Steve Bannon in his self-appointed spot on the National Security Council, and Bannon's professed belief (desire?) for American involvement in another major war, it's hard not to wonder where our next Reichstag fire will be.
And how big it will be.
And how lasting its scars will be.
And how successful it will be in creating a Fourth Reich on American soil.
Then again, consider Trump's refusal thus far to provide disaster-aid funding to California, a state that may have cost him a popular-vote victory in the election.
Maybe the fire has already been it. I pray that we are not too late to put it out.