Beware Trump's Reichstag fire

There will almost certainly be a terrorist attack on U.S. soil over the next four years. Here's how President Trump might try to exploit it.

Be prepared.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

I like to think I'm a little less prone to panic than some of my liberal brethren. I haven't called President Trump a fascist, mostly because the idea of him having a coherent ideology is absurd. Much as I fear how he'd act in a crisis — a fear that has only grown since he became president — I grant that most of what he'll do in office is exactly what any Republican president would do. I don't doubt that there will be an election in 2020. And while Trump has a remarkable lack of human virtues and an even more remarkable set of character flaws, I don't think he's Hitler.

That doesn't mean, however, that certain historical events don't offer us a warning of the kind of thing we should watch out for. In particular, the Trump administration's move to shut America's doors to refugees and stop all entry from nationals of seven Muslim countries has me thinking more and more about the Reichstag fire. There will come a moment when something awful happens, and Americans need to be ready for the Trump administration's effort to exploit it.

In February 1933, an arsonist set fire to the Reichstag, the German parliament building. When a young communist was arrested for the crime, Adolf Hitler, who had become chancellor one month before, declared that it was part of a communist plot to overthrow the government. The next day, a law was signed essentially suspending all civil liberties, and Hitler quickly purged his political opponents from government and consolidated the Nazi Party's grip on power.

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Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that President Trump is going to turn the United States into a genocidal dictatorship. But we should understand that eventually, there will be some kind of terrorist attack on U.S. soil — perhaps one that fails, or one that succeeds in killing a few Americans, or more than a few. While we have been remarkably safe from terrorism since September 11 — fewer than 100 of us killed by jihadi terrorists over those 15 years — such attacks do happen from time to time. And when the first one of Trump's presidency occurs, he will probably move quickly to take advantage of it. In fact, I'd be surprised if Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller aren't already working on a plan for what to do when they get the chance.

When Trump signed that executive order on refugees, immigrants, and travelers, he was keeping a campaign promise, even if it was one that shifted around depending on the week. It started as "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," then it became a shutdown of people from "certain regions" entering, then it became seven countries — despite the fact that no national of those seven countries has killed an American on U.S. soil. But the real promise wasn't so specific. It was more that as president he'd keep Them out, and you know who Them is. He may not be able to do it all at once, but he was on his way.

That is, until one judge and then others struck down the order. Trump went on the predictable Twitter rant, criticizing the "so-called judge" and decrying the fact that the judiciary can restrict his ability to do what he wants. It culminated in this:

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As Harvard Law School professor and former Bush administration official Jack Goldsmith suggested, this could have two purposes, should there be a terrorist attack. "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."

What precisely might Trump do? We know that unlike President Obama, he won't try to calm people down or remind them of how safe we are. He'll do exactly the opposite: ramp up people's fear and anger, using the attack (now matter how minor it might have been) as justification for a range of policy moves. He said during the campaign that he wanted to put mosques under surveillance; that could be just the start of a range of harsh actions directed at American Muslims. More restrictions on travel and immigration would be almost guaranteed. He might well order mass deportations. And given his regular, personal attacks on judges that don't rule as he'd like, there's a genuine question of whether he'd obey lawful court orders that restrained him in a situation where he felt he had the advantage.

Trump has made no secret of his admiration for authoritarian leaders, whether it's Vladimir Putin, the Chinese Communist Party (whom he praised for the crackdown in Tiananmen Square, saying, "They put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.") or Saddam Hussein ("He killed terrorists. He did that so good."). In an atmosphere of fear, he'd likely have the support of the Republican Congress for a new version of the Patriot Act, perhaps making it easier for the National Security Agency to monitor Americans or cutting back on due process protections.

These are just guesses. I have no idea what Trump is planning, or if he's already planning anything. But there will be some kind of attack eventually, and Trump will try to exploit it. The more we understand that now, the better prepared we'll be to push back when the time comes.

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