By Dana Milbank [July 15, 2021]
In September, I wrote that the United States faced a situation akin to the 1933 burning of Weimar Germany’s parliament, which Hitler used to seize power.
“America, this is our Reichstag moment,” the column said, citing the eminent Yale historian Timothy Snyder on the lessons of 20th-century authoritarianism. Snyder argued that President Donald Trump had “an authoritarian’s instinct” and was surrounding the election in “the authoritarian language of a coup d’etat.” Predicted Snyder: “It’s going to be messy.”
Trump enablers such as Sen. Lindsey Graham scoffed. “With all due respect to @Milbank, he’s in the bat$hit crazy phase of Trump Derangement Syndrome,” the South Carolina Republican tweeted, with a link to my column.
But now we know that 1933 was very much on the mind of the nation’s top soldier, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “This is a Reichstag moment,” Milley told aides of Trump’s “stomach-churning” lies about election fraud. “The gospel of the Führer,” Milley labeled Trump’s claims.
Milley, as reported in a forthcoming book by The Post’s Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, feared that people around Trump were seeking to “overturn the government,” saw that pro-Trump protesters would serve as “brownshirts in the streets” — and was determined that “the Nazis aren’t getting in” to block Joe Biden’s inauguration.
American democracy survived that coup attempt on Jan. 6. But the danger has not subsided. I called Snyder, who accurately predicted the insurrection, to ask how the history of European authoritarianism informs our current state.
“We’re looking almost certainly at an attempt in 2024 to take power without winning election,” he told me Thursday. Recent moves in Republican-controlled state legislatures to suppress the votes of people of color and to give the legislatures control over casting electoral votes “are all working toward the scenario in 2024 where they lose by 10 million votes but they still appoint their guy.”
History also warns of greater violence. “If people are excluded from voting rights, then naturally they’re going to start to think about other options, on the one side,” Snyder said. “But, on the other side, the people who are benefiting because their vote counts for more think of themselves as entitled — and when things don’t go their way, they’re also more likely to be violent.”
The extinguishing of our Reichstag fire on Jan. 6 made Trump’s failed coup less like 1933 Germany than 1923 Germany, when Hitler’s clownish Beer Hall Putsch failed. Historically, most coup attempts fail. “But a failed coup is practice for a successful coup,” Snyder said. This is what’s ominous about the Republicans’ determination to sabotage investigations that could help us learn from the Jan. 6 insurrection. Also ominous is the move in many Republican-controlled states to ban schools from teaching about systemic racism — “memory laws,” Snyder calls them — which “feeds into this authoritarian turn” by providing cover for the new attempts to disenfranchise more non-White voters. “They’re trying to ban the discussion of things like voter suppression, and it’s precisely the history of voter suppression which allows us to see it for what it is,” Snyder said.
It all boils down to this: “One of our two political parties is currently on an undemocratic track. That’s just the way it is, I think, for the 2022 and 2024 cycles.”
Many others are sounding similar alarms. A survey of 327 political scientists released this week by Bright Line Watch, a project by scholars at Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago and the University of Rochester, found widespread concern: The experts collectively estimated a 55 percent likelihood that at least some local officials will refuse to certify vote counts in 2024, a 46 percent likelihood that one or more state legislatures will pick electors contrary to the popular vote, and a 39 percent likelihood that Congress will refuse to certify the election.
This is why I write column after column not on the Biden administration, which is governing in conventional ways, but on the totalitarian lurch of the Republican Party. Admittedly, I’m partisan — not for Democrats but for democrats. At the moment, they are one and the same. Republicans have become an authoritarian faction fighting democracy.
This is also why the attempt in Washington to protect voting rights must have primacy if we are to arrest the slide into political violence. “Voting rights is critical,” Snyder explained, because “it makes violence less likely” and it “will make the Republicans become a party that competes again instead of a party which just tries to rig the game at every stage.”
At the moment, Republicans are “digging themselves ever deeper into becoming a party which only wins by keeping other people from voting, and that’s a downward spiral,” he argued. The way to extinguish the next Reichstag fire is to demand — and require — that Republicans honor the right of all Americans to vote.
Dana Milbank is a nationally syndicated op-ed columnist for The Washington Post. He also provides political commentary for various TV outlets, and he is the author of three books on politics, including the national bestseller “Homo Politicus.”