Black Lives Matter protesters try to move a projectile launched by federal officers at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on July 24, 2020, in Portland, Oregon, US. Image Credit: AP

No people has found the American lurch toward authoritarianism under President Donald Trump more alarming than the Germans. For post-war Germany, the United States was saviour, protector and liberal democratic model. Now, Germans, in shock, speak of the “American catastrophe.”

A recent cover of the weekly magazine Der Spiegel portrays Trump in the Oval Office holding a lighted match, with a country ablaze visible through his window. The headline: “Der Feuerteufel,” or, literally, “the Fire Devil.”

Germans have a particular relationship to fire. The Reichstag fire of 1933 enabled Hitler and the Nazis to scrap the fragile Weimar democracy that had brought them to power. Hitler’s murderous fantasies could now become reality. War, Auschwitz and the German catastrophe followed.

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I have known many thoughtful German diplomats over the years, including Michael Steiner, who laboured to stop the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to the United States. It always seemed to me that their particular passion for freedom, democracy and openness stemmed from the knowledge of how easily these are lost.

Michael Steinberg, a professor of history at Brown University and the former president of the American Academy in Berlin, wrote to me this week:

“The American catastrophe seems to get worse every day, but the events in Portland have particularly alarmed me as a kind of strategic experiment for fascism. The playbook from the German fall of democracy in 1933 seems well in place, including rogue military factions, the destabilisation of cities, etc.”

The [US] president says he wants to protect law-abiding citizens. In 1933, after the Reichstag burned, Hitler issued the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State” as his means to seize power.


Steinberg continued, “The basic comparison involves racism as a political strategy: a racist imaginary of a pure homeland, with cities demonised as places of decadence.”

Trump provokes outrage in a cascade designed to blunt alarm. He deadens reactions through volume and repetition. But something about the recent use of unmarked cars and camouflage-clad federal agents without clear identifying insignia detaining protesters shattered any inclination to shrug.

From the deployment of those federal units in Portland, Oregon’s largest city, where protesters have been demanding racial justice and police accountability, it’s not a huge leap to the use of paramilitaries (like the German Freikorps in the 1920s) to buttress a “Law and Order” campaign. The Freikorps battled communists. Today, Trump claims to battle “anarchists,” “terrorists” and violent leftists. It’s the leitmotif of his quest for a second term.

Paramilitary-style units join Portland crackdown

Perhaps the years I spent covering Argentina in the 1980s, in the aftermath of the military junta, made me particularly sensitive to the use of unmarked cars — in the Argentine case, Ford Falcons — to grab left-wing political opponents off the street. They were “disappeared,” a word whose lingering psychological devastation I measured in countless tear-filled rooms. Later I went to Berlin, where there was only one story: totalitarian tragedy and the labours of democratic salvation.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection confirmed this week that it has deployed officers from three paramilitary-style units to join the federal crackdown in Portland. The Trump administration, facing lawsuits, has cited post-9/11 legislation establishing the department to justify its action. Chicago is now among several cities being targeted as Trump seeks to foment confrontation.

As Tom Ridge, a Republican who was the first head of the Department of Homeland Security, noted in an interview with the Sirius XM host Michael Smerconish, the department was “not established to be the president’s personal militia.”

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In wartime, the Third Geneva Convention, to which the US is a party, requires even irregular forces to wear “a fixed distinctive sign recognisable at a distance.” This is critical not only to protecting civilians but also to ensuring accountability for misconduct.

When paramilitary-style units have no identifying insignia, there is no transparency, no accountability — and that means impunity. Democracy dies. Think of all this as setting the scene for Trump’s own “state of emergency” if he does not like the November election result. Social media is combustible enough for a physical fire to be unnecessary.

The president says he wants to protect law-abiding citizens. In 1933, after the Reichstag burned, Hitler issued the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State” as his means to seize power.

German horror at Trump has many components. He’s the fearmongering showman wielding nationalism, racism and violence as if the 20th century held no lessons. He’s the would-be destroyer of the multilateral institutions that brought European peace and made it possible for Germans to raise their bowed heads again. He is a fascist in the making.

The magic of Merkel

As Ian Beacock argued recently in The New Republic, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, got it right on the virus. Not for her the imagery of war — all that talk of the silent, invisible enemy to be vanquished. No, for her the challenge of the virus has been a lesson in the power of democracy.

“We are not condemned to accept the spread of this virus as an inevitable fact of life,” she said. “We thrive not because we are forced to do something, but because we share knowledge and encourage active participation.” She went on to say that success largely depends “on each and every one of us.”

It worked. Merkel was addressing all democratic citizens, Americans included. No wonder Trump cannot stand her, a woman trained as a scientist whose life lesson has been the sacred value of freedom.

— Roger Cohen is an opinion columnist of The New York Times. He writes on international affairs and diplomacy.