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Hayward, California, 1942. Members of the Mochida family awaiting evacuation bus. Identification tags are used to aid in keeping the family unit intact during all phases of evacuation.

The Reichstag Fire Next Time

If there is a major terrorist attack on American soil during the Trump Administration, things are going to get ugly.

Last week, we saw President Trump us the word “animals” in describing the gang MS-13. Or immigrants. Or, probably both.

Listening to the words, I was rather confused: it seemed at some level, he was talking about the gang- which is not the best way describe them at least in public, but understandable. However, the cloudy phrasing could try to mix up MS-13 with other immigrants. Since Trump has called Mexicans rapists, you could see how the slur could be alluding to all immigrants and not just one gang.

But maybe that was by intent. Maybe Trump was clouding up stuff so that people could start thinking that Jose from Honduras is gang member ready to rape American girls. What if the phrase “animal” was said in a way to leave it open-ended, to get people to start thinking of any innocent immigrant is ready to kill Americans to and fro.

Megan McArdle is correct that even if you think Trump said “animals” in context to MS-13, you have to take it within a much larger context, such as how the President referred to white nationalists:

It’s instructive to compare Trump’s harsh language about immigrant “animals” with his response to a direct question about a different group of people behaving badly. After white nationalists stagedmarches in Charlottesville, culminating in a death, Trump was at pains to distinguish the Nazis from the “people in that group that were there to innocently protest.”

He’s less careful when immigrants are involved. Immigrants actually have a lower crime rate than native-born Americans , yet Trump sure seems to spend an awful lot of time talking about the small fraction who are criminals. Nor does he make much effort to distinguish them from the overwhelming majority of immigrants who are just here to make a law-abiding life for themselves and their families.

Since then, Trump is doubling down on the “animals” reference. A recent press release from the White House, uses the word “animal” 10 times.

So, should we worry about his use of what is considered by many to be dehumanizing rhetoric? Or is it just Trump being Trump?

I think we should worry. Because all that is needed is for America to face a major crisis that could turn words into a dangerous action.

Writing in ArcDigital in February of 2017 Joel Looper shares a page from 20th century German history to see how bad things can get.

In February of 1933, a disturbed Dutch man burned the Reichstag in Berlin. The Reichstag was the home of the German parliment (and became the seat of the German legislature again in 1999). Adolph Hitler had been Chancellor of Germany for about of month. The fire gave him the excuse to go after his mortal enemy, the Communists and then led to the Enabling Act which basically ended German democracy and established the Third Reich.

Looper is not comparing Trump to Hitler, but he is saying that certain events can lead the nation down a very dark and dangerous path. He talks about his own experiences after September 11, 2001 and he concludes that America will not act like it did after 9/11:

Something has changed in America between September 11, 2001 and today. On September 11, America could sustain a terrible strike against one of its national symbols, the Twin Towers, and still maintain its identity as a multicultural, liberal democratic society. Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis was bandied about, the notion that “democracy was the end of history” ridiculed by many scholars, but America was still open to the world and it still believed that it could remake that world in its own image by hard work, diplomacy, and sheer charm.

As evidenced by the election of Donald Trump, a significant part of the American populace no longer believes this. There are “bad dudes” out there who would do us harm, “radical Islamic terrorists” who “hate us.” While technically correct, by emphasizing this theme to the extent that he has, Trump has taken what should be a minor concern and elevated it to a place where it actively contributes to the heightening of tensions.

According to some on the right, President Obama is a closet Muslim, and some in the Democratic Party are in collusion with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Muslim organizations that purportedly sponsor terror. A number of right-wing news websites, including Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News, sprung up to propagate these false theories because there was a market for them. Americans were ready to believe that there were many others out there in the world ready and waiting to hurt them.

Similarly to the situation in 1930s Germany with the Communists, there are reasons to take precautions against terror in the United States. President Trump is right to take national security very seriously — just as Adolf Hitler was right to take the threat of the German Communist Party seriously. Terror does indeed pose a threat to American interests.

But contrary to President Trump’s repeated statements, we already vet those who enter the United States with extreme care. Fingerprints are taken, background checks are run, and careful screenings are performed. Frankly, it is difficult to think of what else “extreme vetting” might practically entail.

Looper then opines what might an American Reichstag Fire might look like:

What might an American Reichstag Fire event look like?

Perhaps a large-scale terror attack perpetrated by a purported adherent of Islam. If such an attack, another attack on an American national symbol, took place on American soil today, Americans who have been sympathetic to the plight of Muslims or Middle Eastern refugees might rapidly swing toward Trump’s point of view. It happened quickly after the Reichstag fire in 1930s Germany, and it happened to some degree after September 11 in this country. We can count on the same today in the event of a major terror attack, and we can also count on a subsequent surge in hate crimes against immigrants.

It’s important to note that our government is based on the rule of law and the separation of powers. These are not negligible barriers against anti-liberal turns in society. Nonetheless, we can also count on Trump’s support in Congress rising overnight after such a terror attack, which means the congressional barrier to a prospective presidential power-grab (of whatever sort) could quickly evaporate. That would leave only a judicial barrier, and, with Trump appointing more than one hundred federal and Supreme Court justices, one can only wonder how strong that barrier will be.

I think all of this is true. But the thing is, we really don’t have to imagine an American Reichstag fire. We don’t have to imagine it, because it has already happened.

When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States finally entered World War II. But something else also happened. On the West Coast, there were over 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent were imprisoned, simply because their ancestory matched that of a current enemy.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, that caused the United States to formally enter World War II. The attack on American soil, rattled the nation and as what tends to happen during times like these, Americans started looking for scapegoats. There was a fear that the 100,000 plus Japanese Americans had loyalties to Japan that could have an effect in the war effort. In the eyes of millions of Americans, their fellow compatriots were viewed as traitors because they shared an ancestry with a current enemy.

Two months after the US declared war on Japan and Germany, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which allowed for the US government to incarcerate 110,000 Japanese Americans, along with lower numbers of German and Italian Americans. The Japanese Americans were forced to move to “internment camps,” giving up their homes and businesses. For several years, Japanese Americans, and I need to stress they were Americans, were incarcerated by the United States government, placed into camps situated mostly the in the Western US.

So, we don’t need to imagine a Reichstag fire in America, because such an event has already happened. The nightmare has already taken place. The question that hangs in the air is what will happen when a terror attack happens under President Trump. Because, when or if it happens, people of color, especially immigrants and Latinos will have a target on their backs.

Written by

A middle-aged pastor living in Minneapolis. I write about politics, religion, sexuality, and autism.

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