Donald Trump’s Enabling Act
Quick review! The Enabling Act was the emergency measured passed by the German Reichstag in March 1933 in response to the Reichstag fire, giving the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, the power to pass laws as he saw fit until the emergency passed.
It was supposed to last only a year to deal with the Communists, who were, to be fair, almost as bad a choice for Germany as the Nazis. Of course, Hitler used it to outlaw all other parties and to seize the presidency once the august Paul von Hindenburg died in 1934.
It is entirely a fair question of whether or not Donald Trump’s administration is building towards, or would seek after an emergency, something akin to an Enabling Act. One could argue the Patriot Act is a bit like the Enabling Act, granting the president sweeping powers in the name of fighting terrorism, but the Patriot Act has not acted like the Enabling Act did in Germany.
If Trump and the GOP do want a one-party state, what has to happen first?
Step 1: The perception of chaos
You don’t actually have to have a civil war, or out and out, street-by-street civil unrest for people to feel like things are out of control. The 1992 LA Riots were nuts, but they were not accompanied by a society-wide feeling that chaos was the order of the day and the president needed extra powers to set the ship right.
Numbers don’t matter here nearly as much as feeling: murders can be dropping yet people can still feel unsafe in southside Chicago or New York City. That can be enough to propel policy.
Case in point that perception drives policy? The recent visa and refugee restrictions, which targeted countries that have almost never had citizens attack the United States (the only exception is Somalia, if you count a Somali refugee who attacked students with a car and butcher knife at Ohio State University in November 2016).
It isn’t hard to see this happening. The Dallas police killings, the Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Ferguson riots, and the steady drip of small-scale terrorism are amplified by a drama-hungry media that hates to admit that what bleeds leads. At the rally in Battery Park yesterday, most of the speakers told the crowd they should thank NYPD and hold their fellow protestors accountable in order to avoid just that. Remaining friendly with cops and self-policing are two key ingredients to ensure that there are no smoking piles of garbage for the media to amplify into social anarchy.
Yet it seems unlikely this will remain the case. Discipline is for early days: the odds of a splinter group grabbing attention via violence is high. This is the era of lone wolves and mass shooters. Whole movements are readily tarred by just one person these days.
Step 2: A calculation by the GOP that to lose power is to be annihilated
When German conservatives turned to Hitler, they feared more than anything a Communist revolution wiping them out. In Stalin’s era, that didn’t have to be metaphorical: as the Weimar Republic strained and buckled, Stalin was in fact murdering millions of recalcitrant Ukrainians with a man-made famine.
But such a fear doesn’t need to be rooted in fear of violence. It could just be a fear of becoming a minority party forever. If under the strain of chaos the GOP realizes it will soon lose power permanently, GOP politicians may decide they have to drastically rewrite the system to ensure that doesn’t happen.
We’ve seen bits of this: hard-right gerrymandering that has, thankfully, been struck down by the courts, has been tried, as has voter suppression tactics. Those tactics are terrible for democracy, but good for a GOP that cares only about power.
The Tea Party Republicans have made it clear they care about power more than principle: their flocking to Trump, barely a conservative until a few years ago, is proof of that. That there is a hard right faction of Republicans that care only about control is worrying; the question is, will the rest of the party follow?
Step 3: A GOP plot to establish order on their terms
An American Enabling Act would have to take on the media first. Arguing that unfriendly media sources are a threat to national security, the FCC could go from regulating swear words to deciding what topics a talking head is allowed to discuss. Something like a “Media Decency Act” seems right, with “decency” defined by the president.
The FCC would browbeat opposition media outlets through fines and threats of taking away licenses. It could then hit the Internet, allowing the FCC to shut down hostile websites. Even Medium.com could be targeted: too much “fake news” could get a site shut down in the United States, and user-driven sites would be prime targets.
With the media muzzled, the GOP would then need to crack the courts’ power to disrupt their plans. That too is possible, since judicial review is not explicitly in the Constitution. If the GOP concluded courts should no longer overturn rulings or executive orders, it could strip the courts of this power by whipping up Constitutionalist nationalism. With only a sycophantic media left, the GOP could curtail judicial review near to the point of irrelevance through a new constitutional amendment.
At last, the GOP could move on the Democrats, or what would be left of them. Through aggressive gerrymandering unchecked by the courts or media, the GOP could isolate Democrats into a handful of symbolic strongholds on the coasts and in big cities. Much of this would be racial gerrymandering as well, reinforcing the white nationalism of the GOP’s new base. There would be an opposition, but it would be feckless, pointless, weak. Protests would happen only in Democratic echo chambers: Democrats would never get their message to the critical heartland. Unable to win nationally, the party would whither to irrelevance.
Step 4: Establish the illiberal democracy of the GOP
There would be no need to name Trump president-for-life; the GOP would have essentially built a single party state, anchored on white nationalism, trade barriers, America First rhetoric, and endless GOP electoral victories. Aggressive wars abroad would fuel the GOP machine, with the GOP holding victory parades to restore American military honor.
Meanwhile, large swathes of the American people would be stripped of their basic rights, with the emergency actions of Congress unable to be challenged by a neutered media or courts. In tandem with the White House, the GOP would turn America into something much more like Russia or Hungary.