James Comey, the Reichstag burning, and the Donald Trump big lie

Burning of the Reichstag 1933. Germany / Mono Print

Burning of the Reichstag 1933. Germany / Mono Print

Is FBI Director James Comey’s October 29th memo to Congress about Clinton emails the Trump campaign’s ‘burning the Reichstag’ moment? The sinister undertones of the  campaign have been evident from day one, with Trump’s notorious statement in his announcement speech that “when Mexico sends its people…..they’re sending people that have lots of problems….They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”.  Parallels between the Trump campaign and the ‘big lie’ road to power of the Nazis in the 1930s might seem overheated, yet they have been drawn repeatedly by observers who generally are known for their sobriety. (I link below to a sampling of excellent analyses along these lines.)

Time is running short and, if things go badly   James Comey’s  weekend memo could well, viewed through the lens of history, be seen as a 2016 presidential campaign echo of Nazi Germany’s Reichstag burning.

The burning of the German Reichstag (‘parliament’) on February 27, 1933 was a crucial step in the Nazi seizure of power. As of late 1932, it seemed that the popularity of the Nazis may have peaked. They  won 37.4 percent of the vote (13.7 million votes and 230 Reichstag seats) in elections of July 1932. Political crisis followed immediately, and in a repeat election in November 1932  the number of Nazi votes fell to 11.7 million (and 196 seats). Though Hitler nonetheless was appointed Reich Chancellor in 1933, many among the German elites were complacent. “Within two months”, vice chancellor Franz Von Papen told a conservative acquaintance, “we will have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeak”.

We can’t know whether or not Comey intended to give the Trump campaign a propaganda gift by sending to Congress a memo laced with innuendo about Hillary Clinton but wholly devoid of content. But we do know that the memo has fanned the flames of overheated rhetoric, and given new momentum to Trump’s deplorable campaign.

There’s no certainty either on the details of the ‘Reichstag fire’ plot. The Nazis (with no evidence) blamed the communists for starting the fire. The communists (and some contemporary historians) have suggested that the fire was a plot by the Nazis. The usual explanation is that it was the work of a troubled, young Dutch anarchist construction worker, Marinus van der Lubbe.

Regardless of actor and intent, there is no ambiguity about the consequences of the Reichstag fire. Here is how they are described by the historian Richard Evans in his book The Coming of the Third Reich: Rudolf Diels, the (non-Nazi) head of the Prussian political police, summoned to report to the group of leading Nazis encountered a scene of frightening hysteria…. Hitler shouted as if he wanted to burst: ‘There will be no more mercy now; anyone who stands in our way will be butchered. The German people won’t have any understanding for leniency…. These subhumans don’t suspect at all how much the people is on our side…. The psychologically correct moment for the confrontation has now arrived….’. A new decree was drafted, suspending several sections of the Weimar constitution, particularly those governing freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly… The Nazi seizure of power could begin in earnest.” In an election in March 1933, the month after the Reichstag burning, the Nazis and their Nationalist allies won 52 percent of the votes.

Yes, if  (god forbid….) Trump were to win there are many steps from electoral triumph to the emasculation of the American constitution. Many checks and balances stand in the way of a  ‘Reichstag fire’ moment of a kind which destroys citizen rights. Hopefully, we won’t find out what such a journey could look like. So in that sense this post is a cautionary tale in the sense of  George Santayana’s aphorism that  those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. [Finally, as promised, you’ll find below links to  some powerful recent articles which draw the analogy between the Trumpians and the Nazi rise to power:

Rowan Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury), A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Andrew Sullivan (former editor of The New Republic America has never been so ripe for tyranny

Michiko Kakutani (book review editor of the New York Times In ‘Hitler’ an ascent from dunderhead to demagogue

Eric Weitz, Professor of History, City College of New York Weimar Germany and Donald Trump