With reports that white supremacists instigators are behind instances of violence at protests across the nation, with the military standing by to take control of the streets, and with Donald Trump tweeting out that the blame for violence entirely lies with the “radical left,” it raises an obvious question: Is this Trump’s Reichstag fire moment? Is this the point at which Trump uses the events of the news cycle to justify the destruction of democratic institutions and the sitting aside of legal protections, in the name of racism, divisiveness, and hate?
The answer is no … and also yes. Because for Donald Trump, every moment is a Reichstag fire moment. Every moment is an excuse for hate. Every moment is an opportunity to erode civil liberties. Every moment is a chance to consolidate authoritarian control. Trump lives in Reichstag fire mode 24/7, and his election started the fire that is burning down the nation.
Just a month after Adolf Hitler was sworn into power, an arson attack on the home of the German parliament was swiftly blamed on “communist agitators” and used as an excuse to silence, imprison, or murder those whose political positions fell to the left of Nazism. But many historians believe, based on very good evidence, that the fire was actually set by the Nazis themselves, to provide justification for going after other political parties.
Since Trump’s election, there has been a continual concern about what might serve as his Reichstag fire moment. What might Trump used as a casus belli on democracy? The answer is everything.
Investigating the over 100 connections between his campaign and Russian officials was a Reichstag fire. Impeachment was a Reichstag fire. Actually exercising democracy by keeping Republicans out of control in the House in the 2018 election was definitely a Reichstag fire. But her emails was a Reichstag fire, James Comey was a Reichstag fire, Robert Mueller and unmasking that never happened and the World Health Organization and studies that come out against hydroxychloroquine are all Reichstag fires.
For Trump, the Reichstag fire isn’t an event, it’s a way of life. It’s how he governs every day—from a place that seeks to lever open racial, social, and political gaps for the purposes of furthering his own power.
So of course Trump will treat the protests against police violence are a Reichstag fire. He will make, as he always seems to, some offhand claim to seeking unity—in this case by calling the family of George Floyd—but when that action isn’t immediately greeted with universal praise and a special Nobel Prize minted in his honor, he will flip around to use this moment as an assault on everything who isn’t one of his “very fine people.” Even if those very fine people turn out to be the root cause of violence.
Trump has spent a lifetime dehumanizing Black people, from denying them apartments in the 1970s to taking out a full-page ad calling for the death of five Black teenagers, to repeated that desire for bloodshed long after he knew those teenagers were wrongfully accused. Racism is in Trump. To the bone. On top of this, Trump has used the language of “enemy of the people” in describing the media. In just the last week, he retweeted a message saying that the “only good Democrat is a dead Democrat,” and he spent the morning defending white supremacists.
Is this a Reichstag fire moment? Of course, it is. Just like every moment, of every day, watching democratic institutions wither and die under Donald Trump.