As long as we're making World War II comparisons...

A new book, I Alone Can Fix It, reports that chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley feared that former president Trump would stage a coup in the aftermath of the 2020 election.  Apparently, he feared that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act.  He referred to pro-Trump participants in a rally as equivalent to Nazi brownshirts and said this whole period was a Reichstag moment.

There are legitimate comparisons to current events with the Nazi reaction to the 1933 Reichstag fire, but the analysis the book attributes to General Milley is backward.  The more accurate analogy is not brownshirts and Trump supporters, but Hitler and Biden.

When the Reichstag burned, Hitler had become Chancellor, but Germany was terribly divided, and his authority was not secure.  Because a demented Dutch communist was accused of setting the fire, Hitler manufactured what would be termed today an existential national crisis.  The Nazis termed the fire a prelude to an uprising or insurrection.  He arrested many communists and managed to get enacted emergency powers.  A law titled the Enabling Act gave him new powers of suppression with authority to pass laws by executive order, without involving legislative bodies.  Ultimately, he manipulated the existential crisis to suppress all opposition, including the communists and social democrats.

Biden assumed the presidency of a deeply divided nation.  Some 75 million Americans had voted for Trump, the Senate was split 50-50, and the Democrats had lost many seats in the House, barely retaining a majority.  The Biden administration's reaction to the January 6 Capitol riot has similarities to the Nazi reaction to the Reichstag fire in three ways.

First, the administration exaggerated the extent of the threat to the nation.  There are many, many examples, but here are a few.  Senior officials equated the incident with Pearl Harbor and 911.  Attorney General Merrick Garland testified before Congress that January 6 was the most dangerous threat to our democracy.  The National Guard deployed thousands of troops to protect the Capitol, and they were kept in place for months.

Second, in the same way that the Nazis made the Reichstag fire a broad conspiracy, the administration has broadened the incident itself to suggest a widespread violent white supremacists conspiracy.  There were reports of white supremacy in the military, and numerous news reports claimed veteran and active-duty military involvement in the riot.  However, CBS, citing acting deputy attorney general John Carter at the end of February, reported that of the over 280 riot participants arrested (with files opened on around 540), 23 were veterans, with two active Army Reserve and one active National Guard.  The number of arrests has risen to over 500.  This is hardly evidence of a massive conspiracy in the military.  Still, secretary of defense Lloyd Austin ordered a one-day stand-down of the military to purge the ranks of extremists.  Thirty-four of the 280 were connected to groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.

Third, there has been an attempt to widen the definition of extremist to include anyone the administration chooses.  General Milley's equation of participants at a Trump rally to Nazi brownshirts is part of this effort.  A consistent storyline on CNN, MSNBC, and many others is that Trump continues to radicalize his supporters with the big lie about the stolen election and that large numbers of those supporters buy into the lie.  In other words, supporting Trump makes you a potential extremist.

Hitler (and Stalin with his purges after the Kirov murder) moved more quickly and violently.  The United States has a developed democracy, which makes such blatant and violent maneuvers more difficult.  But broad outlines for suppression of opposing thought in the Biden administration's utilization of the Capitol riot are there.  Biden is taking a page from Hitler's Reichstag fire book.

F. Charles Parker IV is a retired U.S. Army colonel.  One of his jobs in the Army was speechwriter for General John Vessey, who was at that time vice chief of staff of the Army.  He later became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Parker has a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University and is the author of a 1989 book titled Vietnam: Strategy for a Stalemate.  He worked on the International Staff at NATO after retirement from the Army in 1996.  He lives in Belgium.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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