Opportunists Seize Power in a Crisis. It’s on Us to Stop Them.

Let’s Not Have This be our Reichstag Fire Moment

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

The Prime Minister of Hungary declared a state of emergency to stop the spread of Coronavirus. People can now face up to eight years in prison for violating lockdown and five years for spreading information that could hinder the government’s response to the crisis (with some very unclear limits on what this could include).

Oh yeah, and the Prime Minister can rule by decree, sidestepping Parliament to create new laws and revoke existing ones. To further control the crisis, they also decided to suspend future elections until the national emergency is over — a determination that is in the sole hands of their Prime Minister.

What happened to drive Hungary into these draconian measures? At the time, they had 447 confirmed cases and 15 deaths. In a country of nearly 10 million people, this was the cause for their government to take steps towards a legal dictatorship.

Hungary isn’t alone in this reaction. Thailand’s government has taken steps to censor journalists critical of the government’s response. Bolivia suspended presidential elections. Chile sent their military into public areas that previously occupied protesters. And Israel’s prime minister ordered the closing of courts, delaying his own appearance to face corruption charges.

Great Britain pushed a Coronavirus bill through Parliament that lets the government isolate people indefinitely, including allowing border agents to detain people with little oversight. And in the United States, the Department of Justice quietly proposed a plan to eliminate legal protections for asylum seekers and allow courts to pause proceedings in the event of emergencies — effectively letting them detain people without trial.

All over the world, there are examples of countries taking steps towards autocracy in these times of crisis. One can’t help but draw comparisons to a certain 1933 fire.

People tend to forget that Hitler’s rise to power came largely through democratic means. But four weeks later, when the German parliament building, the Reichstag, caught fire, a state of emergency began. The Nazi party issued an emergency decree the next day to suspend civil liberties, including habeas corpus, the right of assembly, and the freedom of the press. They banned publications that weren’t aligned to Nazi views. Now that they could indefinitely detain potential suspects, the Nazis were able to arrest their political rivals. They gained a clear political majority and pushed the Enabling Act through their parliament — effectively allowing Hitler to rule by decree.

Germany remained in this “state of emergency” for the next twelve years, until the end of World War II and millions of people had lost their lives.

It’s often said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And wow this sounds familiar.

The idea of a Reichstag Fire moment isn’t that we’ll all inevitably find our ways into fascist societies — it’s that authoritarians will seize on these moments of confusion and concern to push their own agenda. Never forget that for those who are convinced that they have all of the answers — those who are so committed to their own agenda that every opposing view is seen as a threat — democracy is an impediment. If you have all the answers, then democracy only limits your authority. It’s an obstacle that slows you down in taking the actions that you know are right. .

Demagogues and opportunists will always seek to exploit these moments of crisis. Crises create confusion. And when things become confusing, people look for simplicity. Authoritarians recognize this and offer it to people. They preach familiarity and sameness in the face of change. And there’s never any shortage of scapegoats for everyone to blame.

President Trump recently warned that the cure shouldn’t be worse than the disease. And on that point, he’s right. Not about the economic impact, but in trading away our rights in a moment of panic. As Timothy Snyder warned,

“For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission. For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of our institutions.”

How do we fight this? By speaking out and making our voices heard. Ultimately, a population that’s unwilling to succumb to authoritarianism in the face of crisis will not fall into this trap. You cannot control people that are unwilling to be controlled.

But we also fight it by reducing the panic — by reducing the confusion. We fight it by taking away the opportunity for authoritarians to push their agenda. We fight it by practicing social distancing to reduce the burden on health care workers. We fight it by sharing, donating, and supporting others however we can. And we fight it by rejecting calls for divisiveness and chaos. We are all in this together — regardless of borders or political views — and we should all be part of the solution.

Authoritarians look to exploit divisiveness and confusion. Do not give them the chance.

Writing helps me realize just how little I know.