Jonathan P. Baird: Shock treatment as a way to fascism

  • Germany’s Prime Minister Hermann Goering and his staff leave the Reichstag in Berlin on Nov. 4, 1933, following a trial in the February 1933 Reichstag fire. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 4/29/2017 12:20:06 AM

I would be lying if I did not admit that one reaction I have had to the presidency of Donald Trump is a paranoid fear that he represents a new form of American fascism. I know I am not alone in that view.

Part of what makes Trump hard to understand is that he is not a normal Republican. He is something different, and it is hard to peg that difference. He has often praised dictators. During the campaign, at one time or other, he praised Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. He retweeted Benito Mussolini. I would acknowledge, though, that it is hard to say he believes in anything – including fascist ideology.

While there are certainly ways Trump is not like other famous fascist leaders, it is impossible to ignore his megalomaniacal, authoritarian and racist tendencies. At the same time it would be wrong to look at him statically rather than as evolving. Like all past presidents, Trump’s presidency is subject to changing circumstances. What remains unclear is how Trump will respond to some as yet unforeseen crisis.

My own paranoid fear has been a scenario where a terrorist attack, a war, or some other disaster acts as a catalyst and justification for Trump to consolidate power and suspend rights previously taken for granted by Americans. The emergency would allegedly require greatly expanded executive powers to manage the public fear and terror.

Such a crisis could also be used as a vehicle to impose a speeded-up transformation of the economy more to the liking of the 1 percent – tax cuts, privatized services, cuts to social spending and deregulation.

Manipulating terror is now a time-tested strategy in the authoritarian leader playbook as exemplified by Putin.

In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein presents many examples of this type of scenario. For example, Klein looks at what happened in Chile after the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. In that instance, the trauma of the coup acted to facilitate the political adjustment to sudden, dramatic changes pushed by Pinochet. Klein calls it shock treatment.

Real American fascism would likely include: suspension of freedom of the press, speech and assembly; dissolution of opposing political parties; the end of checks and balances; no more due process of law; no right to a fair trial; and the arrest and imprisonment of activists hostile to the new regime.

Whatever the dramatic event or series of events that would shock the public, the process of becoming fascist is about removing obstacles to more centralized power.

The historical example that I have seen most cited to describe the process is the German Reichstag fire in February 1933. The Reichstag building housed the German parliament. No one ever learned who set the fire but the German Nazis used the fire as an excuse to suspend the rights of all German citizens.

In a very short time, the Nazis used the emergency to preventively detain political opponents, including Jews, liberals, social democrats and leftists of all stripes. They arrested thousands on no specific charges. The security forces put many into Dachau concentration camp and disappeared others. Even in the early Nazi years, hundreds of labor leaders, leftists and Jewish prisoners died in custody.

On March 23, 1933, a new Nazi-led parliament passed an enabling act that allowed Hitler to rule by decree. For the next 12 years until the end of World War II, Germany was a dictatorship and it remained in that state of emergency. The Reichstag fire had opened that door.

I would also mention the role of a German government campaign called Gleichschaltung, which means “coordination” or “synchronization.” With astonishing speed, in an act of anticipatory obedience, many Germans willingly placed themselves under the Nazi rule and command. Almost overnight, millions fell in line.

The best dramatization of this type of coordination is the play Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco. In the 1930s, Ionesco had watched the growth of the fascist Iron Guard movement in Romania. He saw many former friends transform into vicious anti-Semites. The Iron Guard was xenophobic, strongly nationalist, and it claimed all Jews were illegal immigrants in Romania. In the absurdist play, Ionesco had people turn into mindless, rampaging rhinos.

The coordination campaign was reflected in the new Nazi salute. By 1933, the expectation was that everyone would give the Hitler salute. The German public widely embraced the salute and people incessantly saluted each other.

It would be a mistake, though, to see German fascism as entirely sudden. Fascism evolved and worsened through multiple incremental steps, a cumulative radicalization.

Americans need to discard the notion that a fascist-type state could never happen here. Authoritarianism is very alive in the world. Many Americans believe we were immune from the awful things that have happened elsewhere. It is an American conceit that somehow we are beyond history.

On the positive, we do have far stronger democratic institutions than existed in Germany. Also, the American people are more rebellious, have a stronger tradition of dissent and will not be so easily coordinated as evidenced by all the anti-Trump demonstrations since his election.

Still it is sobering to know how few people in Europe actually opposed the fascists during their rise. Historians have estimated that only 2 percent of the French population, or 400,000 people, engaged in armed resistance during the Occupation.

How will Americans respond if fascism becomes real here? I think that remains an open question.

I admire the honesty of the response of Toivi Blatt, a Holocaust survivor, when he was asked about the human response to fascism he saw. Blatt, who was a Polish Jew, saw his whole family die in Sobibor extermination camp. At the age of 16, he was one of 300 prisoners who participated in an uprising at Sobibor. Two hundred escaped. Of those, 150 were captured and killed. Blatt was one of 50 Sobibor prisoners who survived the war. After the war he moved to the United States. This is what Blatt had to say about his experience:

“People asked me ‘What did you learn?’ and I think I’m only sure of one thing – nobody knows themselves. The nice person, on the street, you ask them, ‘Where is North Street?’ and he goes with you half a block and shows you, and is nice and kind. The same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist. Nobody knows themselves. All of us could be good people or bad people in these situations. Sometimes when somebody is really nice to me I find myself thinking, ‘How will he be in Sobibor?’ ”

(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot works at the Social Security Administration. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer.)




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