Today’s writing prompt: Suspicious.
I recently finished reading Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law by James Whitman. The Germans, being the methodical bureaucrats they’ve always been, had transcripts of several of the most important meetings where the tools for the Nazi state were forged, where the Nazi ideology was translated into jurisprudence. Whitman focuses on one meeting in June of 1934, during which several jurists worked on three aspects of race law: anti-miscegenation laws which would forbid marriage between Aryans and Jews; a differentiation between “real” German citizens and others, including immigrants; and an unambiguous definition of a “Jew”.
It had been practice in Germany since halfway the nineteenth century to base new German laws as much as possible on existing law. In preparation for building the Third Reich, the Nazis researched race laws in other countries. They found that America had by far the most extensive race laws in the areas of anti-miscegenation, immigration and second-class citizenship. The transcript of the meeting, which led to the Nuremberg Laws, shows exactly how meticulous these lawyers and jurists were in their studies, and it shows to what degree the Nazis were influenced by the American race laws; spoiler alert: it’s considerable.
I’m sure I’ll come back to this book again. For this post I want to focus on the conclusion. Whitman repeatedly states that the fact that the Nazis studied America’s race laws in the 1930s doesn’t mean that America was or is a fascist country. But when the Nazis were ready to create their race laws, they did look to America for inspiration and examples.
So was America a fascist country in the 1930s? In this context Whitman discusses The American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, a book by Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal (1944). Myrdal asks himself if the American South was fascist. He decides it wasn’t, because though the Southern states were, for all intents and purposes, one-party states, Southern state governments really weren’t central governments in any meaningful sense, and they were more governing against something (the rise of the Negro) than for something.
Whitman points out that the South was for something; they supported Roosevelt’s New Deal, especially the anti-poverty programs, and the Nazis were also against something: Jews. (And Whitman makes the point throughout his book that the Nazis didn’t only look at the Jim Crow laws of the South, but also at the anti-miscegenation and immigration laws that were in effect in other states as well.) Race laws in America had to be covert to evade the Fourteenth Amendment, especially those that created second-class citizens during Jim Crow, while the Nazi laws, on the other hand, were quite explicit.
Ultimately, though, Myrdal argues that the critical difference was that America lacked an organized racist/fascist state. I agree that that’s a critical difference. In a fascist state everything is per definition prescribed by the central government. The Nuremberg Laws were in part a response to the street violence that had broken out in Berlin in the summer of 1933 — the Nazi Party feared chaos because it made them look weak; they wanted total control by the central government, including control of antisemitic violence. In America no government body was trying to appropriate lynchings and other forms of violence against non-whites; they were perfectly happy to leave those up to The (white supremacist) People.
So we can breathe a sigh of relief, right? After all, the separation of powers and the division of government over many rather separate departments will keep anything like that from ever happening in America.
The separation of powers is guaranteed because the Executive Branch (the president), the Legislative Branch (Congress) and the Judicial Branch (the Supreme Court) all have equal power. No one branch answers to another so no branch can ever have total control. But is that really guaranteed? Only as long as everyone involved agrees to it and behaves accordingly. Trump clearly doesn’t agree. Or rather, he doesn’t care about democracy; he wants absolute power. He demands loyalty from everyone he appoints.
Although the FBI does answer to the Attorney General (head of the Justice Department), who answers to the president, it has always been understood that the FBI operates independently and on the basis on non-partisanship. Trump refuses to accept this. Let’s set apart what happens to the special investigation if Trump fires Robert Mueller. Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, has recused himself from the Mueller investigation, so it now falls under the deputy attorney general. If Trump wants the deputy attorney general to fire Robert Mueller because he isn’t loyal to Trump, and if he fires the deputy attorney general if he/she refuses, and if he keeps on firing folks until he gets a deputy attorney general who will do his bidding, then the FBI — and the Justice Department as a whole — will no longer be independent. The same could happen in other departments.
Trumps also seems to think Congress answers to him; when members of Congress criticize him, he tweets his ire and calls them un-American. Rational Americans hope that the midterms will result in a Democrat majority in Congress, but what if they’re wrong? What if Trump’s nationalism wins out? What if, gradually, the only way for most members of Congress to hold on to their seat is to be loyal to Trump, or at the very least not be too critical of him? If you think it’s impossible, you were probably one of the folks who thought Trump was never going to win — no way.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has wanted to join the intelligence community for some time. They would then have access to sensitive (cyber) information and more sophisticated surveillance in their search for illegal immigrants. With Trump as president this dream could very well become reality. He loves ICE. The less mercy they show the better. More parents yanked away from their children, more teens sent to countries they don’t know — it’s all more support from Trump’s base.
Oh, and by the way, the Department of Justice would like the Census Bureau to add a question about citizenship to the census.
(For non-Americans: the census is a questionnaire that Americans fill out every ten years, if they feel like it. This is how the government gets an approximation of the demographics of the country, states and cities. (Yes, really.) Federal, state and local government budgeting and policy are based on this voluntary, once-in-a-decade census. (I’m serious.) So starting this year every level of government has an elaborate and undoubtedly expensive campaign to drive home the importance of filling out the census form in 2020.)
The Census Bureau is understandably worried that less people will participate in the census if they have to inform the government about their immigration status or citizenship. So the next logical step would be for the Trump government to make participation in the census mandatory.
It’s too easy to picture too many parts of government coming together under Trump. There’s already one Supreme Court Justice whose appointment doesn’t pass the smell test; Trump could work his way down the line in the Justice Department until he gets someone who’s loyal to him; ICE could very well merge with the intelligence community; and the Justice Department could demand that the census aids in the persecution of undocumented immigrants. And that’s just one area of government. Imagine, for instance, if the Education Department starts cooperating with ICE.
Centralization of government can come in one fell swoop, like it did when Hitler became chancellor of Germany and the Nazi Party took over, or it can come in small steps. As the Nazis pointed out: while they were explicit about their intentions, the Americans were masters at evading the constitution with lots of smaller, covert laws that led to the same results.