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Trump’s Reichstag Fire

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The burning of Minneapolis gives Trump a powerful new weapon to use in his bid for re-election. He can argue—indeed, he already has, on his Twitter feed—that he is the only person who can stand between the forces of disorder and lawlessness, on the one hand, and order and stability, on the other—and he can offer a case that the Democratic Party has become the home of chaos, criminality and the breakdown of civic stability.

That’s a good argument. It will obviously appeal to his law-and-order base, but it might attract some waverers in the middle who, alarmed at what went down in Minneapolis, and fearful the violence might presage some kind of national breakdown, could put aside all their pre-existing concerns about Trump and vote for him anyway.

History witnessed something akin to this situation nearly 90 years ago, when the German Parliament (Reichstag) Building burned down on the night of Feb. 27, 1933. Adolf Hitler had been in power only little more than one month, but the arson-ignited blaze gave him the pretext to blame “Communists,” after which he began solidifying the national-security state that led to his dictatorship and, of course, to World War II. Historians now believe (and many already did at the time) that it was not Communists that started the fire, but Hitler’s own men, under the direction of his Interior Minister, Hermann Goring. The fire and its aftermath are now known collectively as The Reichstag Fire, and serve as a metaphor for a deliberate act of espionage, deception and destruction that gives a would-be dictator an excuse to crack down on his opposition and scare the living hell out of his country’s citizens.

In Minneapolis the destruction of a large part of the city is the equivalent of the burning of the Parliament Building. In Donald J. Trump we see the equivalent of Hitler, a conservative, angry and mendacious man, eager to amass all power at whatever cost, and surrounded by a violent clan of rightwing fascists eager to do his bidding. But who are the “Communists” that Trump is blaming for the destruction?

Just look at his tweets today. Leftists, obviously. Thugs. The radical left. Democrats. In other words, the usual scapegoats Trump uses to rile up his base. But let us look deeper. Who really committed the violence in Minneapolis?

All the reporting suggests that the overwhelming majority of the thousands of demonstrators who showed up to protest the murder of George Floyd were peaceful. They gathered (as is their Constitutional right). They marched, and held signs, and chanted slogans, just as Americans have done since founding of the Republic. They watched the buildings erupt into flames, but they did not start the fires. Then who did?

I need to segue for a moment back to 2011, when the Occupy Movement—which came of age here in Oakland—held a massive rally to protest economic inequality and racism. On the Tuesday night of Oct. 25, a huge crowd surrounding City Hall was broken up by police, who, after repeated warnings urging them to disperse, fired projectiles at them. One man, a former Marine named Scott Olsen, was hit in the head, and suffered a serious skull fracture.

Immediately following the outbreak of violence, the crowd of thousands scattered in all directions. I know; I was among them, having marched with Occupy out of sympathy with their ideals. I soon found myself in a sub-group of perhaps several hundred people, chaotically running away from the fighting and violence surrounding City Hall. There was a young man, running next to me, dressed all in black, with a black bandana covering his face. I was noticing him when he reached into his pants leg and pulled out a crowbar, with which he systematically began smashing car windows at random, store windows at random, and anything else he could find.

Shocked, I approached him and asked him what was doing. “Why are you breaking stuff?” I said. “This is our city. You don’t even know whose cars they are.” In response, the young man pushed me, hard. I decided not to experiment with my karate skills, but instead let him disappear back into the throng and the night.

We learned soon enough that a small band of agents provocateurs had infiltrated the thousands of peaceful demonstrators. They were determined to cause violence, vandalism and mayhem. They were called The Black Bloc.

They were entirely anonymous, and they kept their secrets well. Nobody seemed to understand their motives. Were they Communists? Libertarians? Anarchists? Anti-fascists? These conjectures all assume they dwelled on the Left side of the political spectrum, but many, including me, soon began to suspect they were actually from the far Right. Just as Goring’s thugs had started the Reichstag Fire to solidify Nazi control of Germany, so it seemed possible that rightwing fascists were stoking public fears, to cast doubt on liberal democracy and to make the people long for an authoritarian figure who would restore safety to America.

We don’t know to this day whom the Black Bloc really was (although there are people in my neighborhood who, I am convinced, were part of it, and they do tend to dress all in black, like Goths). But yesterday’s events in Minneapolis also seemed to have been caused by latter-day descendants of the Black Bloc. And what of the thousands of other demonstrators, in whose midst these Black Bloc thugs did their dirty work? They were—in the term Lenin is said to have used“useful idiots,” people who propagandize for a cause without fully comprehending the cause’s goals, and who are cynically used by the cause’s leaders. In this case, the majority of demonstrators did come from the Left; but the people who cynically “used” them were the Black Bloc, the same rightwing agents provocateurs I saw destroying Oakland in 2011.

I hope that the media and law enforcement do a much better job of singling out and identifying these Black Bloc criminals, and explaining their political connections to rightwing militia and survivalist groups, including those so prevalent in the Trump administration. There was a true failure of investigation back in 2011; we have got to do a better job understanding who these people are, their real nature, who is supporting them financially and spiritually, and what their precise goals are. I firmly believe there are ties between the Minneapolis arsonists and the Trump administration. William Barr’s Justice Department will do everything in its considerable power to hide those connections; but they exist and can and must be ferreted out.

  1. David Sieser says:

    Someone needs to get to the bottom of this:

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