What Do We Call It?
It could have been any week of the Trump presidency-a week when he kept contradicting the government's experts on the COVID-19 pandemic, or a week when he was railing against Supreme Court justices, or a week when he humiliated his own cabinet members in public. Take one week in October 2019. It was a month into the impeachment inquiry in Congress and just over a thousand days into Donald Trump's presidency. The acting ambassador to Ukraine, William B. Taylor, Jr., testified about waging a losing battle against Trump and his people to pursue a foreign agenda consistent with government policy and practice. House Republicans stormed a closed impeachment-inquiry hearing in a bizarre direct action of Congress members against congressional practice. Trump's personal attorney William Consovoy argued in court that his client was immune from any prosecution-including, hypothetically, for murdering someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue-as long as he was president. And on Friday morning, The New York Times website had two headlines stacked on the left side of the home page. The top one reported that the Justice Department had launched a criminal probe into its own investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The headline directly below announced that the secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, had been found in contempt of court for continuing-in direct contravention of judicial decisions-to collect student-loan payments from former students of defunct for-profit colleges. The government seemed to be at war with itself on every front.
Trumpian news has a way of being shocking without being surprising. Every one of the events of that week was, in itself, staggering: an assault on the senses and the mental faculties. Together, they were just more of the same. Trump had beaten the government, the media, and the very concept of politics into a state beyond recognition. In part by habit and in part out of a sense of necessity, we continued to report the news and consume the news-this presidency produced more headlines per unit of time than any other-but at the end of each of his thousand days of presidency we seemed hardly closer to understanding what was happening to us.
The difficulty with absorbing the news lies, in part, in the words we use, which have a way of rendering the outrageous ordinary. The secretary of education was held in contempt, and this astounding event was narrated in normalizing newspaper prose: probably the strongest description called it an "exceedingly rare judicial rebuke of a Cabinet secretary." This could not begin to describe the drama of a cabinet member remaining unrepentant for her agency's seizure of assets from people whom it had been ordered by the courts to leave in peace-sixteen thousand people. And even when we could find the words to describe the exceptional, barely imaginable nature of Trumpian stories, that approach could not scale. How could we talk about a series of nearly inconceivable events that had become routine? How do we describe the confrontation of existing government institutions with a presidential apparatus that wants to destroy them?
I found some possible answers in the work of Hungarian sociologist B‡lint Magyar. In struggling to define and describe what had happened in his country, Magyar had realized that the language of both the media and the academy was not up to the task. After the Eastern Bloc collapsed in 1989, both local and Western commentators adopted the language of liberal democracy to describe what was happening in the region. They talked about elections and legitimacy, rule of law and public opinion. Their language reflected their assumptions and their limitations: they assumed that their countries would become liberal democracies-this seemed the inevitable outcome of the Cold War; and they had no other language at their disposal anyway. But if we use the wrong language, we cannot describe what we are seeing. If we use the language developed for describing fish, we cannot very well describe an elephant: words like "gills," "scales," and "fins" will not get us very far.
When some of the post-Soviet societies developed in unexpected ways, language impaired our ability to understand the process. We talked about whether they had a free press, for example, or free and fair elections. But noting that they did not, as Magyar has said, is akin to saying that the elephant cannot swim or fly: it doesn't tell us much about what the elephant is. Now the same thing was happening in the United States; we were using the language of political disagreement, judicial procedure, or partisan discussion to describe something that was crushing the system that such terminology was invented to describe.
Magyar spent about a decade devising a new model, and a new language, to describe what was happening in his country. He coined the term "mafia state," and described it as a specific, clan-like system in which one man distributes money and power to all other members. He then developed the concept of autocratic transformation, which proceeds in three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation. It occurred to me that these were words that American culture could now borrow, in an appropriate symbolic reversal of 1989: these terms appear to describe our reality better than any words in the standard American political lexicon. Magyar had analyzed the signs and circumstances of this process in post-Communist countries and proposed a detailed taxonomy. But how it might happen in the United States was uncharted territory.
Waiting for the Reichstag Fire
Immediately following the November 2016 election, the defeated majority of Americans who had voted for Hillary Clinton seemed to split into two camps, distinguished by the degree to which they were panicked. One camp was exemplified by outgoing president Barack Obama, whose goal, in the days after the vote, seemed to be to reassure Americans that life would go on. On November 9, he gave a short, dignified talk in which he made three points-most memorably, that the sun had risen that morning.
Yesterday, before votes were tallied, I shot a video that some of you may have seen in which I said to the American people, regardless of which side you were on in the election, regardless of whether your candidate won or lost, the sun would come up in the morning.
And that is one bit of prognosticating that actually came true. The sun is up.
Obama acknowledged his "significant differences" with Trump but said that his phone conversation with the president-elect in the wee hours had reassured him that in the end, Democrats and Republicans, he and Trump, had shared goals.
We all want what's best for this country. That's what I heard in Mr. Trump's remarks last night. That's what I heard when I spoke to him directly. And I was heartened by that. That's what the country needs-a sense of unity, a sense of inclusion, a respect for our institutions, our way of life, rule of law, and respect for each other.
Obama finished on an optimistic note.
The point, though, is that we all go forward, with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens, because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy. That's how this country has moved forward for two hundred forty years. It's how we've pushed boundaries and promoted freedom around the world. That's how we've expanded the rights of our founding to reach all of our citizens. It's how we have come this far. And that's why I'm confident that this incredible journey that we're on, as Americans, will go on.
Every president is a storyteller-in-chief. The Obama story, which drew and built on the stories told by his predecessors, was that American society was on an inexorable march toward a better, freer, fairer world. It may stumble, the story goes, but it always rights itself. This was the meaning to which Obama adapted his favorite Martin Luther King, Jr., quote: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." This is also the premise on which the belief in American exceptionalism, or what the legal scholar Sanford Levinson has called the "American civil religion," is based: that the United States Constitution provides an all-but-perfect blueprint for politics, in perpetuity. In 2016, as Trump emerged the frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination, many of us reassured ourselves and each other that American institutions were stronger than any one candidate or even any one president.
But after the election, this reassurance rang hollow. Writing in The New York Review of Books on the day Obama celebrated the sun's rising as scheduled, I warned readers, "Institutions will not save you." I was drawing on my experience reporting on Russia, Hungary, and Israel-three countries that were very different from the United States, to be sure, but also different from one another. Their institutions had folded in remarkably similar ways. I couldn't know that American institutions would fail similarly, but I knew enough to say that absolute faith in institutions was misplaced. Many people shared this intuition. They were the more panicked camp. A common expectation took hold among them: the expectation of the Reichstag Fire.
The actual fire in the Reichstag-the German parliament building-burned on the evening of February 27, 1933. Adolf Hitler had been appointed chancellor four weeks earlier, and already he had begun placing restrictions on the press and expanding the powers of the police. But it is the fire, rather than Hitler's toxic first steps, that is remembered as the event after which things were never the same, in Germany or in the world. The day after the fire, the government issued a decree allowing the police to detain people without charges, on the grounds of prevention. Activists were rounded up by Hitler's paramilitary forces, the SA and the SS, and placed in camps. Less than a month later, the parliament passed an "enabling act," creating rule by decree and establishing a state of emergency that lasted as long as the Nazis were in power.
The Reichstag Fire was used to create a "state of exception," as Carl Schmitt, Hitler's favorite legal scholar, called it. In Schmitt's terms, a state of exception arises when an emergency, a singular event, shakes up the accepted order of things. This is when the sovereign steps forward and institutes new, extralegal rules. The emergency enables a quantum leap: Having amassed enough power to declare a state of exception, the sovereign then, by that declaration, acquires far greater, unchecked power. That is what makes the change irreversible, and the state of exception permanent.
Every galvanizing event of the past eighty years has been compared to the Reichstag Fire. On December 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov, the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad, was murdered by a lone gunman. The assassination is remembered as the pretext for creating a state of exception in Russia. Show trials and mass arrests followed, swelling the Gulag with people accused of being traitors, spies, and terrorist plotters. To handle the volume, the Kremlin created troikas-three-person panels that doled out a sentence without reviewing the case, much less hearing from the defense.
More recently, Vladimir Putin has relied on a succession of catastrophic events to create irreversible exceptions. In 1999, a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and cities in southern Russia killed hundreds. This allowed Putin to proclaim that he could summarily execute those deemed "terrorists"; it also became a pretext for a new war in Chechnya. In 2002, the three-day siege of a Moscow theater served as a demonstration of the principle of summary execution: Russian law enforcement pumped the theater full of sleeping gas, entered the building, and shot the hostage-takers as they lay unconscious. The Kremlin also used the theater siege as a pretext to ban the already cowed media from covering antiterrorist operations. Two years later, more than three hundred people, most of them children, died following an attack on a school in Beslan, in southern Russia. Putin used this catastrophic event to cancel the elections of local governors, effectively abolishing the country's federal structure.
The thinking that transforms tragedy into crackdown is not foreign to the United States. During the crisis that followed the Alien and Sedition Acts at the end of the eighteenth century, the ruling Federalists and the opposition Republicans accused each other of treason and a fatal lack of vigilance, of being Jacobin puppets. The courts, stacked with Federalist appointees, wasted no time shutting down opposition newspapers. Half a century later, President Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, the right not to be imprisoned without civilian judicial review. He did this to be able to indefinitely hold rebels whom he judged a danger to the Union-but whom, he said, "the courts, acting on ordinary rules, would discharge." It wasn't until 1866 that the Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional.
The next major war was the First World War. Now speech perceived as critical of or detrimental to the American war effort was punished with prison sentences as long as ten years. Historian Geoffrey Stone has called Woodrow Wilson's Sedition Act of 1918 "the most repressive legislation in American history." Thousands of people were arrested-many without a warrant-and two hundred and forty-nine anarchist and Communist activists were deported to Soviet Russia. It wasn't until later that Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Louis Brandeis started on a dissenting streak that ultimately restored and clarified free-speech protections.
During the Great Depression, state courts, legislatures, and law enforcement acted in concert-and with the tacit agreement of the federal government-to denaturalize and deport hundreds of thousands of Mexican Americans, a majority of whom were birthright citizens.
The Second World War brought another presidential assault on the Constitution: the internment of more than a hundred thousand Americans of Japanese descent. Then came the McCarthy era, when the government took up spying on the enemy within, and accusations of treason, whether or not they were supported by evidence, ruined life after life. The next generation of Americans lived through the secrecy, deceit, and paranoia of the Vietnam War years, which culminated in a president who had his opponents prosecuted and wiretapped.
In the twenty-first century, Congress granted sweeping surveillance powers to intelligence agencies and domestic law enforcement. George W. Bush's administration lied to the world in order to start a war in Iraq and created an elaborate legal mechanism to facilitate torture. Obama's administration continued to concentrate power in the executive branch, using executive orders and pushing the limits of policy-making by federal agencies on the one hand and suppressing whistleblowing and keeping the media at arm's length on the other.
In other words, every generation of Americans has seen the government claim exceptional powers to repressive, unjust ends. These intermittent states of exception rested on the fundamental structural state of exception that asserts the power of white men over all others. Trump emerged not as an exception to this history but as its logical consequence. He was building on a four-hundred-year history of white supremacy, and he was building on a fifteen-year-long mobilization of American society against Muslims, immigrants, and the Other. A future historian of the twenty-first century might point to September 11, 2001, as the Reichstag Fire of the United States.