Extremists have attacked the Capitol building. Expect calls to give the new President emergency powers to deal with this, the covid epidemic, and other great emergencies of our time. In times like these, we must bypass the delays inherent in legislative bodies like Congress. We need the President to take direct action, executive orders, relying on the best scientific advice from non-political career civil servants. Politicians are constantly looking over their shoulders at a fickle electorate composed of people too simple to understand the complexity of economic, social, and scientific policy. “Rule by committee” takes forever to react in a crisis. We need strong leadership, not divided government and perpetual electioneering.
To be sure, the President is old and feeble. We should grant the powers to his energetic and charismatic vice-president, despite a somewhat shady past. The more conservative Wall Street people in the coalition will be able to control the vice-president easily; don’t worry about past radical rhetoric. Of course, there should be a requirement to consult the President, reserving special powers for actions truly necessary for the emergency.
The night of the January 6 invasion of the Capitol building, I immediately thought of the 1933 Reichstag Fire, when Nazi Brownshirts helped a foolish Communist set fire to the German parliament house and used that as an excuse to arrest the leaders of the German Communist Party and pass an act giving Chancellor Hitler emergency powers for four years to deal with the Communist threat. But most people don’t know any history, and I had to go refresh my own memory on the details. It’s a fascinating story.
Hitler didn’t come to power via a coup. He tried to in 1923 but he failed miserably. That was the Beer Hall Putsch, named after the building in Munich that was pretty much the extent of his conquests before the army crushed him and he went to jail. He used his jail time well, writing Mein Kampf, “My Struggle”. His party remained small for years thereafter, but he had learned his lesson: don’t tangle with the army until you obliterate everyone else first. He was careful to keep the army neutral by not doing anything to offend it and he alternately blackmailed and wooed big business to get political funding. He restricted violence to the petty level of the Brownshirts, his club of young men who liked to hurt people, break windows of Jewish businesses, and have rumbles with their equivalents from the Communist Party.
Hitler was patient. He waited. The Great Depression was what he needed. Voters were fed up with the incumbent parties, and the Nazi Party started getting significant numbers of votes. In the November 1932 election, it became the largest party in the Reichstag, though not a majority, and although Hitler lost the race for President to old General Hindenburg. The conservative parties formed a cabinet, but it was hard to get anything done in the Reichstag without the Nazis, the largest party. The Communists and the Social Democrats (socialists) were the conservatives’ old enemies, and the aptly named Center Party (the Catholic Church’s party, the christian democrats) had long been on bad terms with the conservatives. After a frustrating couple of months, the conservative Chancellor Schleicher destroyed his political base when he made a speech advocating a planned economy with price controls, an end to wage cuts, and confiscation of the nobles’ estates for the peasants. His backers in business and the nobility decided Hitler was at least no worse than Schleicher. Nazi leader Goebbels wrote that the Nazi’s dangerously low financial situation “fundamentally improved overnight”, and President Hindenburg fired Schleicher as Chancellor.
And so in January 1933 the establishment conservatives decided to make an alliance with the National Socialist Party, which although uncouth, crazy, violent, and semi-socialist, did have more activist energy and voter support than any other party. The Nazis had no experience in running a government, even at the state level (Germany was divided into states—Prussia, Bavaria, Hamburg, etc.). It was expected that they would be ineffective in running Cabinet departments, overawed in Cabinet meetings and manipulated by their career civil servants. They only were allowed to hold one important Cabinet position and two minor ones.
The unimportant ones were Hermann Goering as Minister without Portfolio and Wilhelm Frick as Minister of the Interior (which did not control the police force). The treasury, the foreign service, and defense were in the hands of establishment conservatives. The only important Cabinet position the Nazis got was Chancellor, held by Hitler himself. That, indeed, was the top job. The President, Hindenburg, was more important, but the Chancellor headed the Cabinet. The symbolism was great, the conservatives thought. Here was General Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg, the 85-year-old aristocratic hero of the battle of Tannenburg, the Hindenburg Line, and many other battles, grave, solemn, and dependable even in his declining years. Standing next to him was 44-year-old Corporal Adolf Hitler, low-born son of the bastard Alois Schicklgruber but nonetheless another genuine war hero, who won the Iron Cross for heroism as a “runner” carrying messages through the trenches. Hitler provided fire and humor to complement his boss’s gravitas. Truly this was a diverse government, representing both the Germany’s past and its present, the aristocracy and the common man.
And so we come to the Reichstag fire. In February 1933 the Reichstag building went up in flames. A young Communist named Marinus van der Lubbe was caught immediately and confessed. What was not confessed was that (though this is disputed) before van der Lubbe set his fire, the Brownshirts took a tunnel from the office of Reichstag President Goering to the Reichstag building one night and left flammable chemicals in strategic places in the building. Van der Lubbe was guilty, but he was a sucker, set up to take the fall. Four top Communist leaders were also arrested. They were not guilty. We know that because when the trial of the five arrested for the fire ended a year later, van der Lubbe was convicted, but all four leaders were acquitted by the court, even though by that time the Nazis had made Hitler dictator. It was an embarrassing acquittal, but it came too late, since by that time simply being a Communist was sufficient to land you in a concentration camp. In 1933, all that mattered was the announcement that the Communists had set the fire and four of their leaders had been arrested along with one low-ranking flunkey.
Why did that announcement matter? –because the day after the fire, Hitler with the help of Hindenburg’s son Oskar, “who was not noted for a brilliant mind or a strong character,” persuaded old President Hindenburg to sign a decree giving the Chancellor emergency powers. Historian William Shirer says:
“It was generally believed in Nazi circles that Hitler made both offers and threats, the latter consisting of hints to disclose to the public Oskar’s involvement in the Ostlife scandal and the tax evasion on the Hindenburg estate. One can only judge the offers by the fact that a few months later five thousand tax-free acres were added to the Hindenburg family property at Neudeck and that in August 1934 Oskar was jumped from colonel to major general in the army.” (William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, p. 181)
Thus Hitler obtained Hindenburg’s consent to the presidential decree he needed, which said:
It is therefore permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom, freedom of expression, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications. Warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.
That was just the start. Hitler called a new election. He used his emergency powers to terrorize the parties not in his coalition, though he did not ban the Communists, whom he hoped would split the left-wing vote with the Social Democrats. Amazingly, it didn’t work. The Nazi share of the vote only rose from 34% to 44% and his coalition only got 340 of the 647 seats, a bare majority. But that was enough. They banned the 81 Communist Party deputies after the election, which helped increase the majority enough that they didn’t need their conservative allies any more.
And so came the crucial step in Hitler’s legal seizure of power: the “Law for Removing the Distress of People and Nation.” It was quite simple. The law gave the Chancellor power for four years to make laws without the legislature’s consent, whether or not the laws violated the constitution. This was safe because the Chancellor promised he wouldn’t abuse his new powers. President Hindenburg told the Reichstag, “The Chancellor has given me assurance that even without being forcibly obliged by the Constitution, he will not use the power conferred on him by the Enabling Act without having first consulted me.” Even more reassuringly, Hitler said,
The Government will only make use of these powers insofar as they are essential for carrying out vitally necessary measures. Neither the existence of the Reichstag nor that of the Reichsrat is menaced… The number of cases in which an internal necessity exists for having recourse to such a law is in itself a limited one.
With such assurances, the bill was able to pass with the 2/3 majority necessary for overriding the Constitution. The Roman Catholic Center Party joined the conservative/Nazi coalition, and the vote was 441 for, 94 against. After that it was easy. On June 22 the Chancellor banned the Social Democratic Party, who had voted against him. On July 5, he banned the Center Party, despite their voting with him. The conservative parties, his coalition allies, lasted until July 14, when all parties except the National Socialist German Workers’ Party were banned. And this was all legal, done in accordance with the Constitution.
What is the point? The point is that in 1933 Germany, the most respected, conventional, educated, Establishment people in Germany supported Hitler’s coalition, though they mostly preferred his conservative partners, and they allowed him to take power legally. They disliked the Brownshirts and Hitler’s coarse anti-semitism, to be sure, but the Communists worried them more than the Nazis, and Hitler deliberately de-emphasized Jews and focussed his attacks on Reds for the 1932-33 elections. The Communists were very bad people—recall this is the time of Stalin— but they were never a real threat to German democracy. Nonetheless, the newspapers and the opinion leaders made it out that the Communists were always about to take over. Nice, university-educated, well-mannered, people in Germany believed it, as Establishment people everywhere tend to believe what they read in the newspapers. If it was in the mainstream media, how could it be wrong? They liked it that Hitler came down hard on the Communists and the Social Democrats, they perhaps foresaw that he’d eventually turn on his own Brownshirts and destroy them to please the army (the Night of the Long Knives in 1934), but they never imagined he’d go after his coalition partners, the ones who held the important Cabinet seats.
And so we come to the present day. If you like it straight, reread the narrative above with the following analogies in mind: Joe Biden = President Hindenburg, Hunter Biden = Oskar von Hindenburg, Kamala Harris = Adolf Hitler, Silicon Valley = the Ruhr Valley, the Capitol Building = the Reichstag Building, Antifa/BLM = the Brownshirts, the buffalo guy with no shirt = Marinus van der Lubbe, the Clinton Democrats = conservatives, the Nazis = Berniebros, Communists = U.S. conservatives, Social Democrats = the establishment Republican Party, Center Party = Never-Trumpers. These are not strict, of course. The Biden Line is composed of words, not trenches, and I am not saying that Hitler got his start by dating the mayor of Munich. But we do have cause for worry. Here are some items I found from my Twitter feed over just a three-hour period:
Not a single demonstrator fired a shot, but Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said:
We came close to half of the House nearly dying on Wednesday … We must have accountability because without it, it will happen again.
Senator Sherrod Brown wanted to expel his fellow senators:
Both @HawleyMO and @SenTedCruz have betrayed their oaths of office and abetted a violent insurrection on our democracy.
I am calling for their immediate resignations.
If they do not resign, the Senate must expel them.
RESOLUTION Directing the Committee on Ethics to investigate, and issue a report on, whether any and all actions taken by Members of the 117th Congress who sought to overturn the 2020 Presidential election violated their oath of office to uphold the Constitution or the Rules of the House of Representatives, and should face sanction, including removal from the House of Representatives. …
Whereas in a politically motivated and last-ditch effort to overthrow the election, over 140 Members of Congress, led by Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, have taken unprecedented steps to defy the will of the American people who overwhelmingly voted for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris by voting against the certification of the votes of the Electoral College…
Whereas House Republicans have refused to vote in support of voter protections aimed at supporting disenfranchised Black, Brown, and Indigenous voters, including H.R. 1, the For the People Act and H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, in the 116th Congress, and the Republican Senate majority has been a legislative graveyard for these critical efforts …
Resolved, That— (1) the Committee on Ethics shall investigate, and issue a report on, whether any and all actions taken by Members of the 117th Congress who sought to overturn the 2020 Presidential election violated their oath of office to uphold the Constitution or the Rules of the House of Representatives, and should face sanction, including removal from the House of Representatives; and (2) the House of Representatives condemns all targeted and malicious efforts to disenfranchise Black, Brown, and Indigenous voters.
Or maybe a better reason to expel the Republican Congressmen is as a public health measure. A Democratic staffer tweeted that it was absurd and unsafe for him to have to work in the same building as Republicans:
As a Capitol Hill staffer, it feels insane that we’ll be going back to work with the same people who incited and in some cases may have helped organize a deadly fascist attack on us.
Like, I walk by these people in the hallway. What am I supposed to do with that?
Of course, President Trump is to be purged. Jay Nordlinger, of the formerly conservative magazine National Review says:
There must be consequences. This mob was whipped up by Donald Trump and his allies, in their months-long campaign of lies. For the sake of political hygiene, for the sake of national honor — and to deter would-be authoritarians in the future — impeach, convict, and remove. (January 10, 2021)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would like to avoid impeachment. It is cleaner and avoids public debate to just pretend he is insane. She announced that the House would take up a resolution calling on Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment and “declare the President incapable of executing the duties of his office.”
I haven’t talked about measures Hitler took after 1933 much, but an early one was to expel Jews from government employment and the legal profession. The school board of Allentown, Pennsylvania has already started:
“On January 7, 2021, the Allentown School District (ASD) was made aware of a staff member who was involved in the electoral college protest that took place at the United States Capitol Building on January 6, 2021,” the written message from the Pennsylvania school district’s superintendent said.
“We understand that many members of our community are upset by the image. At the same time, the district has an obligation to respect the First Amendment rights of our staff and students,” the message noted. “Because of the emotion and controversy stirred by the events of January 6, 2021, the teacher has been temporarily relieved of his teaching duties until the School District can complete a formal investigation of his involvement.”
Yale Law School alumni and students organized a petition to disbar the two Republican senators with Harvard and Yale legal training. Over 1,300 lawyers signed it. Yale Law School has much higher intellectual standards than the U.S. Congress or National Review magazine, so this shows how our real elite thinks:
We, the undersigned members and students of the legal profession, call on the Missouri, Texas, and District of Columbia Bars to immediately begin disbarment proceedings against Senator Josh Hawley and Senator Ted Cruz…
Senators Hawley and Cruz publicly announced their intentions to object to Congress’s certification of the Electoral College’s votes set for January 6, 2021.
In doing so, Senators Hawley and Cruz directly incited the January 6th insurrection, repeating dangerous and unsubstantiated statements regarding the election and abetting the lawless behavior of President Trump. A violent mob attacked the U.S. Capitol. Five people have died. The nation and the world watched as rioters took over the very halls and chambers that embody our democracy. Yet after the violence and terror of the day’s events, Senators Hawley and Cruz still chose to stand in the chamber of the U.S. Senate and persist in their baseless objections to the will of the people.
These actions prove Senators Hawley and Cruz fundamentally unfit for membership in the legal profession. Both have flagrantly violated some of the most elementary ethics rules governing the legal profession. In inciting and encouraging a violent insurrection against the U.S. government, they have potentially committed “a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.” And by fanning the fury of aggrieved constituents through false claims of voter fraud, all for their own political gain, they have engaged in “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.”
Most importantly, lawyers who betray the very democratic institutions they are charged with protecting and improving as “public citizens” are definitionally unfit for the legal profession…
What provoked this? Consider the criminal complaints for those arrested so far. Matthew Council was arrested for “pushing against the barrier”. Hapless, lawyerless, Thomas Baranyi volunteered that “we tore through the scaffolding”. More seriously, Hunter Seefried and Hunter Ehmke broke windows (the identical first names are coincidental) and Robert Sanford was arrested for throwing a fire extinguisher at police. David Blair was arrested for hitting policemen with “a lacrosse type stick”. He said he was “being an idiot, pumped up and didn’t move back. Accept everything. I’m sorry, I got hit four times, I had a knife in my bag because I was scared of ANTIFA jumping me on the way back.” But where did all the other desperadoes disappear to? The rest of the list is made up of people arrested for carrying guns, one for punching a policeman (he apologized immediately afterwards), for stealing a letter, for staying in the building until five hours later when it was broadcast that everybody had to leave, and for just being in the Capitol, even without evidence they’d broken in rather than just walking in afterwards. Almost all of the arrests were for acts either minor or noncriminal (though Lawfare has a very professionally written article by an attorney musing on whether they could be sentenced to life for the death of the one police victim using the felony murder rule). I wonder whether many entered the Capitol building because the mayor of Washington DC, a Democrat, provided many fewer port-a-potties for this rightwing protest than it routinely does for leftwing ones. The MAGA radicals may have been less eager to flush the Capitol’s swamp creatures than its toilets.
More likely, the break-in was the classic pump and dump tactic of the agent provocateur, who incites the crowd, storms the barricade, and then quietly disappears before anybody gets arrested. The only leader arrested was John Sullivan, a well-known left-wing activist who was accompanied by a freelance photojournalist, Jade Sacker, who has worked for CNN, NPR, and various other media outlets. It has also been noted that the 2,300 members of the Capitol Police (more police than for all of Atlanta or Baltimore) were peculiarly unwilling to stop the hundreds of protesters. Like the CDC with stopping epidemics, the Capitol Police only had one job and failed at it spectacularly. Why? The Capitol Police are the only police force answerable exclusively to Congress. We should ask Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader McConnell what instructions they gave the police for the rules of engagement.
The people who launch coups in civilized places like America and Germany don’t do it by wandering around government buildings and don’t announce that they’re launching coups. They do it with the help of the media and lawyers. They seize on an excuse to “temporarily” abandon the usual rights of free speech and assembly; they expel “members inciting violence” or “chief executives mentally incapable of fulfilling their duties”; they get opposition ethnic and political groups fired from their jobs for being “intolerant” or “associating with violent extremists”. They use the full power of the police and the law to arrest people in the opposition, while telling the police to let go any of their own people who engage in violence against property or person. In short, they behave like the Democratic Party of January 2021.
My initial plan for this essay was just to lay out the historical narrative since I fondly thought the reader could draw the parallels himself. On second thought, I added the paragraph of equations you read earlier and I will add a coda inspired by what a highly intelligent economist said in response to my Reichstag tweet:
I don’t see a reference to untermensch, that’s something you’ve added. On the other hand, here is evidence of such support from your side.
Eric, You’re looking at the wrong side for connections to Nazi Germany.
This reminds me of the joke about the MBA student who sat through an economics lecture about supply and demand. The professor used the market for automobiles example to show how shifting the supply curve out would raise price and quantity. When he got home that night, his wife asked him, “Honey, what did you learn in class today?” His reply: “I learned that we should buy a new car. The quantity of cars is now 1,000, and the price is only 500!”
Use your brain a little. Don’t take things literally. Metaphors, jokes, analogies, graphs, and models are wonderful ways to make ideas delightful and succinct instead of spoonfeeding your readers by laying everything out at twenty times the length with less precision and clarity. I’m not saying that American liberals follow the policy positions of the Nazi Party. True, they are hostile to business and want to see it controlled by the government, with most of them nonetheless favoring private ownership and in favor of leaving billionaire’s fortunes intact. True, they favor intervention in foreign affairs, comparable to the Nazi intervention in the Spanish Civil War. But only a small minority of its leaders are anti-semitic and the party is uniformly hostile to nationalism. No: the similarities lie elsewhere, as I hope you will discover if you ponder the Reichstag story and read more about how the Nazis gradually consolidated their power in the Gleichschaltung that followed Hitler’s accession to power.
I was frankly astounded that the intelligent economist missed the point. Maybe that is evidence of how valuable a liberal education in history and literature can be even to someone with a high IQ. At the same time, his answer gives me hope, because it is also evidence for Leo Strauss’s 1941 idea in “Persecution and the Art of Writing”. Strauss had himself left his native Germany in 1932. His thesis was that in most times and places free speech has been suppressed and philosophers have been in danger of their lives if they spoke the truth. Thus, they have responded by writing elliptically. In Nazi Germany, for example, you might want to write an essay vilifying Stalin’s Russia for dictatorship, oppression of ethnic minorities, spending too much on the military, a stupid bureaucracy of party cronies and sycophants, and so forth. The Nazi censors, being people who were eager to fill that job, would be too stupid to get the point and they’d give you permission to publish. Your audience—open-minded young men—would get the point instantly. So if darkness does close over America, remember Leo Strauss.
Postscript: If you wish to read more on how Hitler took power, I recommend William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Republic, William Manchester’s The Arms of Krupp, Alan Bullock’s two books Hitler and Stalin and Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, and Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich. All show insight and are highly readable.
Eric Rasmusen is an economist who has held an endowed chair at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business and visiting positions at Harvard Law School, Yale Law School, the Harvard Economics Department, Chicago’s Booth School of Business, Nuffield College/Oxford, and the University of Tokyo Economics Department. He is best known for his book Games and Information. He has published extensively in law and economics, including recent articles on the burakumin outcastes in Japan, the use of game theory in jurisprudence, and quasi-concave functions. The views expressed here are his personal views and are not intended to represent the views of the Kelley School of Business or Indiana University. His vitae is at http://www.rasmusen.org/vita.htm and his Email Contact is [email protected]