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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Let’s Remember How Authoritarianism Takes Hold

The invasion of the Capitol was a farce. But it should still terrify us. The lessons of history need to be learned.

In 1923, hundreds of Nazis attempted to seize control over the regional government in Bavaria. Their attempt was farcical. They surrounded a beer hall where local leaders were speaking and tried to take them hostage and seize government buildings. They were swiftly repelled by police and their leader, Adolf Hitler, was put on trial for treason. He was essentially given a slap on the wrist, writing his memoirs in prison and being released after nine months. It would be another decade before he unleashed the most hideous and systematic act of mass extermination in human history. 

The “Beer Hall Putsch” was probably never going to succeed, because it was disorganized and the Nazi Party was weak in 1923. But it was a terrifying sign that a far-right element was gathering strength, one that did not respect the existing liberal regime’s right to rule and would use whatever means were at its disposal to take power. Not everyone recognized that sign at the time. The New York Times ran the headline “Hitler Virtually Eliminated” and suggesting that with Hitler’s jail sentence, the courts had put the far right out of commission once and for all.

On January 6, 2021, members of the far right, seeking to overturn the result of the 2020 election and keep Donald Trump in power as an unelected ruler, stormed the United States Capitol building, breaking in by force, successfully halting the certification of the 2020 election results, and forcing politicians to grab the Electoral College ballots and flee through underground tunnels. For a time, the patriotic putschists roamed freely in what is supposed to be one of the most secure institutions in the country, lounging in Nancy Pelosi’s office, smashing windows, stealing things, spraying fire extinguishers, waving the Confederate flag, and breaking things. “I wrote her a nasty note, put my feet up on her desk and scratched my balls,” said one of the rioters of his time in Nancy Pelosi’s office, who was not arrested for trespassing but left to “loudly entertain fellow protesters” in the crowd afterwards with “tales of his exploits.” 

Remarkably, the Capitol Police appeared to make no serious effort to stop the rioters from breaching the building. Some video even appeared to show police opening barricades to let the crowd in. It was impossible, seeing the Trump mob freely roam and ravage the Capitol, not to think about just how lackadaisical the attitude of law enforcement was when compared with its approach to leftists and people of color. (Let us remember, hearing the man who scratched his balls at Pelosi’s desk bragging of his achievement, that Black teens are sent to jail for not doing homework and a Black woman was sent to prison for the crime of trying to vote without realizing she was disenfranchised.) 

Nobody can seriously believe that law enforcement was incapable of stopping the Trump mob from wreaking havoc. The Trumpers had been warning for months of a civil war on the 6th—it was even printed on their sweatshirts. Given the size of the U.S. policing and military apparatus, the only way that protesters can freely occupy the Capitol is if the police make a deliberate decision to let them. (Images of the massive armed presence in response to Black Lives Matter protests in D.C. this summer offered a striking contrast.) One could not help but think that if Antifa had been the ones gathering in force, there would have been a far more energetic effort to protect the nation’s lawmakers, and a lot more arrests followed by felony terrorism charges and multi-decade prison sentences. (See, for example, what happened to the J20 protesters after Trump’s inauguration.) The police would likely have spent more time deploying rubber bullets and tear gas than taking selfies with the rioters. (Although we should be careful not to conclude that the proper response here is to beef up the police state and treat all protesters the way marginalized people are currently treated; the right to occupy political buildings is one we ourselves may want from time to time.)

Eventually, the mob was shooed out of the building, and senators began making windy speeches about how “this isn’t what America is.” Donald Trump appeared to congratulate the rioters on a job well done, saying that we should “remember this day forever” because “these are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away.” Some elected officials, like Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have called for Trump to be impeached over his refusal to participate in the peaceful transfer of power and his continued exhortations to supporters to resist the acceptance of the election results.

Trump should obviously be impeached and removed from office. He has shown himself incapable of participating in the legal democratic process and is intent on subverting it and fomenting resistance to the law. His expressed wish for supporters to remain peaceful rings hollow, because it comes coupled with a continued insistence that the election was fraudulent and that he is the rightful president. If the election was fraudulent and Biden is a usurper, as Trump is attempting to convince people, then surely an armed uprising is not a coup but the act of decent patriots trying to maintain democracy. In one breath, Trump is telling people to go home, but in another, he is telling them that their government is currently being illegitimately seized by an autocrat. Anyone who takes him seriously may feel inclined to take up arms, since they are being told that unless something is done, the duly elected president is about to be kicked out of office illegitimately.

This is something important to understand about the protesters: they do not see themselves as staging a coup. They see themselves as trying to restore democracy, because they believe that the election was stolen. Their fury comes from a dangerous delusion, one that is going to make it very difficult for them to go home quietly. If Trump keeps saying similar things after he leaves office (perhaps on the right-wing social media site Parler rather than Twitter, where the echo chamber effect will take his supporters even further away from reality), it is not inconceivable that we will long continue to have a faction of people who refuse to accept the Biden administration as the legitimate government. 

The New York Times quickly published an article calling the events the “end of the Trump era” and “a last-ditch act of desperation from a camp facing political eviction.” I am not so sure about this. Their tone reminds me too much of the one they took in 1923 when they wrote that “any prospect of Hitler playing a leading part in Bavarian politics appears to have vanished…” I think it is fully possible that Trump will be back. Nothing prohibits him from running again in 2024, more aggrieved and deranged than ever. If the Biden administration is weak and unpopular, and Trump’s colossal COVID-19 failure has receded in the collective memory (we forget everything in five minutes these days, even crimes against humanity), I think it’s perfectly possible that we will yet see a second Trump term, and I am not excited to find out how it would go. (Impeachment and removal could disqualify him from running in 2024, but seems unlikely.) 

Not everyone thinks that what happened at the Capitol should be described as an attempted “coup” (or, to use the more apt term for one by the far right, putsch). It was not completely clear what the rioters intended to do in the Capitol building, and I didn’t expect the man dressed in horns and a pelt, with face painted red, white, and blue, to begin issuing legislative proclamations and emergency orders from the Senate dais. But the Beer Hall Putsch, too, was a failure and an absurdity. It would be another decade until the Nazis actually took power. During that decade, though, many people would make the same mistake that the New York Times did, and assume that because the putsch had failed, the movement it represented was not a threat. This was an absolutely fatal mistake, and if we make it again we have missed one of the most crucial lessons of the 20th century.  

Authoritarians can be clowns, which makes it easy to laugh them off. I am sure that Biden will be inaugurated and that there will be the superficial appearance of a “return to normalcy” in this country. It will be tempting to think that those who stormed the Capitol did so out of desperation and no longer need to be worried about. Resist this temptation. To me, the only thing that keeps the far right from seizing power in this country is that they have not got an effective and charismatic leader. Donald Trump is lazy and a bungler, rather than a committed ideologue like Hitler.

One should be careful about making too many close comparisons between 1920s-’40s fascism and the situation of the present day. What we can do is draw lessons about how power works. In 1930s Germany, a creaking liberal government that could not solve basic social problems was vulnerable to an organized far-right movement, which never commanded a majority of the vote but was nevertheless able to run rings around politicians who assumed that their constitution and laws would save them. Today, we need to make sure not to think that because the right has suffered a serious electoral setback, it will not come back with even greater force. (And we have learned that the police and military just might not be dependable allies of democracy at critical moments.) 

The best protection against this is for Joe Biden to deliver the American people the kinds of gains that will make them unlikely to fall for the right’s pitch. Franklin Roosevelt, by giving people things like the G.I. Bill, Social Security, and the Works Progress Administration, ensured that huge numbers of ordinary people would think positively about their government, because it had put money in their pocket, given them a free college education, or given them a job. If the Democrats deliver the hugely popular $2,000 checks, and follow it up with a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, free college, student debt forgiveness, Medicare For All, and a Green New Deal—which there are no excuses not to do now that they control the executive and legislative branches—then every person in the country will have gotten something tangible from the administration. These will include the ability to go to school without worrying about debt, the ability to go to the doctor without having to think about the bill, the ability to have a child without worrying you’ll need to go back to work the day after, and the knowledge that one’s grandchildren might live on a habitable planet with a sustainable civilization. A government that delivers for people inoculates them against the appeals of fascist demagogues.

I am of course not at all confident that Joe Biden will make any serious attempt to deliver these policies. He’s already breaking promises, selecting disappointing and useless appointees, and making it clear he is still pursuing the fruitless dream of bipartisan governance. And that terrifies me. Because those who don’t notice their lives change for the better under the Democratic administration are not going to see any reason to return Democrats to power. Republicans, who still control the courts and are determined to erode democracy as much as they can, will be back in power before you know it if Democrats screw up at this precarious moment. Unfortunately, it’s not at all clear to me how many of them even know it’s a precarious moment, let alone understand what needs to be done.

We should not assume that there can never be a successful putsch in the contemporary United States. The day we may find out we are wrong will be the day it is too late to do anything about it. History has not ended; there is plenty more of it to come, and our choices today determine which way it will go. 

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