Will Bunch: Yes, the Reichstag is on fire, but the American people have water to put it out

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Part of a life well-lived, I’ve come to realize, is hanging on to an old quote from a mentor or family member that over time has taken on much deeper meaning than when it was uttered to you as a clueless 16-year-old. For me, it’s the oxymoron that my high school football coach, Rob Pickert, used to teach how a defensive end must rush a quarterback — “with reckless abandon, but under control.” Over the next 45 years I’d see that’s the right way to tackle a lot of problems … including a vainglorious wannabe dictator poised to end U.S. democracy.

My thoughts on President Donald Trump’s open contempt for the American experiment — that he can’t commit to “a peaceful transfer of power,” in an election he falsely claims is chalk full of fraud before even the first vote has been counted — is that we should take him both literally and seriously. It’s what I’ve been saying consistently since the ominous winter of 2015-16, when I wrote that voters who thought Americans could never install a dangerous demagogue in the White House did so at great peril. Since Jan. 20, 2017, the 45th president has shown that a frequent liar and laughable fool can nonetheless take 244 years of our imperfect democracy to the edge of a cliff.

With the election that will decide everything little more than five weeks away, what scares me isn’t so much the seeming bluster of Trump’s threat to claim fraud and ignore the results, but the growing awareness that he’s been building the infrastructure to actually carry it out.

That starts with a thoroughly politicized and corrupted Justice Department under Attorney General William Barr that’s eager to misleadingly hype even a trivial voting glitch to support Trump’s claim of massive election cheating, and to make false claims about “anarchist jurisdictions” as a pretext for an armed federal presence in American cities where the president is unpopular.

But it also includes a shockingly compliant Republican Party now poisoned by Trumpian Kool-Aid — racing to install a new Supreme Court justice so the courts can determine the winner of the presidential election (which is not … normal) or entertaining the idea of picking Electoral College members regardless of the vote count. And then there is the loose but frightening alliance of law enforcement officers — fascistic police unions and Homeland Security “troops” — eager to become their president’s brownshirts-in-blue when everything goes south.

Don’t listen to me — an alarmist about Trump’s American authoritarianism since practically the day he came down the Trump Tower escalator. Listen to someone like Dana Milbank, a center-left paragon of Beltway conventional wisdom … and caution. But last week Milbank compared Trump’s strategy for not leaving office to Germany’s notorious 1933 fire that damaged the Reichstag (its legislative capital) and was seized upon by Adolf Hitler to blame the Communists — his version of “antifa” — and as a pretext to rule as a dictator and end democracy.

“America, this is not a drill,” wrote Milbank, noting that he and most mainstream commentators have spent five years trying to avoid Nazi comparisons but that Trump’s recent statements and actions have made it unavoidable. He quoted the Yale historian Timothy Snyder: “The language Trump uses to talk about Black Lives Matter and the protests is very similar to the language Hitler used — that there’s some vague left-wing conspiracy based in the cities that is destroying the country.”

Don’t listen to me but listen to Olivia Troye, the Homeland Security aide to Vice President Mike Pence who witnessed Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis firsthand, and who left the White House alarmed for the future of constitutional government. “This is the moment,” she wrote on Twitter after Trump’s transfer-of-power remarks. “The President just flat out told us he isn’t leaving if he loses. Every single American should be gravely concerned. He just announced our transition from a democracy to his dictatorship.”

Yes, this is the moment … America’s Reichstag fire. But what now? Frankly, my first reactions to last week’s dictatorial comments by Trump — as well as the speedy SCOTUS pick of right-wing judge Amy Coney Barrett, who will be quashing the rights of everyday Americans long after I’m dead — have been feelings of numbness and depression … not even sure what to say next. Which would be giving into exactly the vibe that Trump is going for.

The method behind the madness of Trump’s comments seems twofold. On one hand, there’s little doubt now that the president will do everything in his vast power to declare ballots for his rival Joe Biden — especially mail-in or drop box votes — as fraudulent in an effort to declare himself the winner. But even that may not work if Biden wins in a landslide, so his other goal is to make millions of Americans think that their vote and their voice will not count, and thus to discourage folks from even casting a ballot in the first place.

Simply put, while it’s perfectly normal to feel utter despair and panic about the state of America right now, if you give into those feelings you are doing exactly what Trump wants you to do. So don’t do that. Instead, imagine yourself as part of a glorious, hopeful mass movement — one that rejected the possibility of dictatorship in America — and then picture the role you will play to help get us there. Have a plan for how you will save U.S. democracy with reckless abandon, but under control. Think about three main pillars:

Have a plan for voting, and execute it. Make sure that you find out or confirm that you’re registered to vote — here in my home state of Pennsylvania, the deadline is Oct. 19, but DO NOT wait until the last minute — and, if necessary, sign up. Then learn the options for how to vote — how to get a ballot from your home county and place it in a drop box or (if absolutely necessary) in the U.S. mail, or where and how you can vote in person, either early (again, preferable) or on Nov. 3. Execute your plan at the earliest possible chance — to make sure your vote is counted!

Stop doom-scrolling. Get out and do something. Sitting on your couch and watching or reading Trump’s latest outrageous pronouncement is a recipe for learned helplessness. There are plenty of ways to get involved over the next five weeks. The coronavirus has, at least for most Democrats, put the kibosh on traditional door-to-door canvassing, but the Biden campaign and related efforts still hope to contact millions of voters digitally or by phone, and so they could probably use your help. Even better, there’s surely a nearby candidate for state legislature — the folks who will handle the coming reapportionment, as well as life-or-death issues like climate change — who desperately needs some extra help. Just texting three friends or family members to vote on Election Day has been shown to sharply boost turnout!

Also, have a plan for the days after Nov. 3. Trump’s dictatorial ambitions are also partly fueled by the notion that most Americans are too passive to stop such a power grab. For decades, we’ve watched masses of people in other nations — Belarus is just the latest — take to the streets to fight for their democracy, with the sense that it can’t happen here. Yet, it could happen here.

A coalition of activist groups (not all of them liberal … although many are, like the Trump resistance group Indivisible) isn’t passively waiting for Trump to declare victory on Nov. 3 based on partial returns. They’ve already formed a group called Protect the Results that’s ready to protest on behalf of a full and fair vote count. Please consider signing up — knowing that you’ve already been mobilized for any crisis that occurs.

Even though it’s naïve not to see Trump’s stance for what it is — the gravest threat to America since the Civil War — it’s also good to remember that a lot of things would have to happen for an actual coup to occur (including, probably, the backing of the U.S. military, which for now looks inclined to disobey unlawful orders). His biggest obstacle, though, is the power of at least 70 million of us ready and willing to vote for democracy — a battalion of firefighters that can extinguish America’s Reichstag fire with both hopefulness and a plan.

And the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself.



Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.


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