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Donald Morrison: Trump's big lie and Jan. 6 insurrection a troubling omen for democracy

Adoph Hitler speaks

German chancellor Adolf Hitler speaks to 30,000 uniformed Nazi storm troopers at Kiel, Germany in May 1933. Just a few months earlier, a fire at the Reichtag building gave him justification for seizing power.

On a cold winter’s night in 1933, a devastating fire broke out in Berlin’s Reichstag building, seat of the German legislature. Adolf Hitler, head of the minority Nazi Party and the country’s new chancellor, blamed Communist Party operatives.

The explanation was widely suspected to be a lie. But that didn’t stop Hitler from responding swiftly and dramatically to the blaze. He suspended civil liberties, forced Communists and other opposition deputies out of the legislature (giving the Nazis a majority) and pushed through an emergency “Enabling Law” that let him rule by decree.

A year ago this week, the U.S. legislature was attacked by supporters of Donald Trump. They were seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election and keep their guy in the White House.

We may never know how close our democracy came to suffering the same fate as Germany’s did 88 years earlier. We do know that some of Trump’s operatives advised him to use the chaos at the Capitol as an opportunity to declare a national emergency, as Hitler did, and to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act and deploy the military to seize voting machines.

As investigations into the Jan. 6 Capitol attack grind on, Americans are getting worried. In a new NPR/Ipsos poll, nearly two-thirds of respondents said our democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing.” The poll also found that about a third of Republicans and one-fifth of Democrats say it’s permissible to use violence to attain political ends. In a healthy democracy, those numbers should be close to zero.

One year later: Where are the cases of three Berkshire County men charged in connection with Jan. 6 Capitol riot?

Democracy has flourished as a popular and effective form of government for the past two centuries, but it is currently under threat in a number of places: Poland, Belarus, Turkey, India, Brazil, Hong Kong. Each case is different, of course, but a pattern seems to be emerging.

In their 2018 bestseller, “How Democracies Die,” Harvard professors Steven Levitski and Daniel Ziblatt say the biggest problem is not revolutions or military coups. Instead, democracies perish because of elected leaders — especially ones who refuse to accept a loss at the polls, who overturn political norms, lie prodigiously, cultivate support among the police and armed militias, gain control of the justice system and the press, and offer voters what the authors call “the sugar high of populism, nativism and demagoguery.”

The U.S. now ticks all those boxes and more. Republican legislators in 41 states have introduced — and, in many cases, passed — bills to limit access to the polls by the opposing party’s likely voters, redraw electoral maps to favor Republicans and put their own appointees in charge of elections.

The GOP, which has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, is setting itself up to rule as a permanent minority party. Two of those minority presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, were able to appoint most sitting Supreme Court justices, a conservative majority that is crafting the Court’s increasingly Republican-friendly decisions.

What can we do to make sure the U.S. does not slip into partisan authoritarianism? A good start would be to prosecute not only the people who attacked the Capitol last year, but also those who exhorted them to do so — including a certain former president. Another crucial step would be to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Likely to be reintroduced this month, it would help roll back recent attacks on the electoral system and prevent new ones.

If we don’t do these things, the enemies of democracy will keep trying to impose their rule on the rest of us until they succeed. After all, Hitler became a dictator, after several failed attempts, because Germans didn’t stop him when they had the chance.

Unless Americans act to protect democratic government right now, they may not get another opportunity for quite a while. Hitler and his Enabling Law remained in place for a dozen years. During that time there were no competitive elections.

Only after Germany lost World War II — and many lives — did it become a free country again. To this day, nobody really knows who set the Reichstag fire.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and co-chairman of the advisory board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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