The Reichstag fire in February 1933 destroyed the German parliament building a month after Hitler's ascension to power. It is generally believed to have been caused by a lone arsonist, but falsely characterized by the Nazis as a Communist Party plot against the new regime, providing the pretext for the rapid destruction of civil liberties and democracy in Germany. Donald Trump, the impatient aspiring autocrat, has perhaps decided, though probably ignorant of history, to create what one might consider a 'Reichstag' incident -- massive voter fraud produced Hillary Clinton's popular vote victory -- until something better comes along. After all, when he eventually meets Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he would want to have proven his capacity to join their club: elected leaders who subvert their nation's democratic institutions.
Although serious journalists scoff and others play stenographer, Trump continues to contend his embarrassing three-million-vote loss of the popular vote to Clinton was a mirage. In his view, millions of illegal immigrants voted against him. While this "plot" to defeat him failed, he is still obsessed, angry and in denial that his triumph was not a reflection of the popular will; one can only imagine his reaction had Clinton won. Ironically, given his fan base, Trump's ticket to the White House -- the Electoral College -- was created by the Founding Fathers to thwart the potentially unruly passions of small landholders begrudgingly entitled to the franchise.
While Trump is delusional about voter fraud, he is a cunning opportunist. Moreover, his Machiavellian chief strategist and senior counselor, Steve Bannon, formerly head of Breitbart News, and the renowned political dirty trickster, Roger Stone, a longtime intimate, are masters of the art of propaganda. This troika appreciates that claims regarding voter fraud could be exploited to justify mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, limit legal immigration, and the suppression of non-white, largely Democratic, voters for 2018, 2020 and beyond.
Trump's designs to re-shape the electorate would, of course, require implementation by Congress and state governments. Even if legislators and governors know voter fraud is a fiction they also realize a sizable segment of their constituents believe the propaganda. The public positions and decisions of government officials, if not based on their own "drinking the Kool-Aid" or wealthy donor preferences, are invariably pragmatic, reflecting what they must pretend to believe to appease an aroused base. Regarding voter suppression, some might have benefited from it already, or believe they have or will. They need little prompting to make it even more cumbersome for those likely to be supporting Democrats to cast ballots.
Therefore, it is not enough for the media to expose the fallacious claims of Trump's latest outburst. They also need to consider what may be his more ambitious goal: de facto autocratic rule built upon and promoting white supremacy. Autocratic rule, or at least, a severely compromised form of democracy as one finds in Russia and Turkey, would require compliant legislative and judicial branches of government and an intimidated or weakened news media.
Efforts to decrease the potential number of Democratic-leaning voters are also required to sustain the sweeping Trump and GOP victories already accomplished. Therefore, enacting effective policies to disenfranchise non-whites, along with college students, while justifying them in the name of race-neutral "voter integrity," is perceived as critically important. Evidence suggests, however, that voter suppression now -- when non-Hispanic whites still make up about 62 percent of the population and Hispanic self-identifying whites another 8 percent -- is a less significant factor than the general demoralization of poor non-white citizens. Likely due to non-existent or ineffectual government programs, their perception is that voting makes little tangible difference in their lives. The malign neglect of this population by the Trump Administration's expected gutting of social services and health care, will probably have an even greater "selective" voter discouragement payoff. The potential caveat, however, is if the Ayn Rand devotees in the GOP Congress overreach and crush large swaths of their white supporters by taking away their safety net as well.
Racism -- the "dark-side" face of Trumpism -- might be an excellent "means to an end" for achieving autocratic rule; but, it could be an "end" as well. Trump has a long record of racist and ethnocentric words and deeds. Technically, "nationalism" -- the preferred term of those, like Trump and Bannon, who claim that they simply seek to support beleaguered and marginalized whites, not white domination -- is not as objectionable as its bedfellows -- "alt-right," "white nationalism," or, "white supremacy." However, given the enormous economic, political and cultural dominance of "whiteness" in the demographically inter-connected, largely urban, American economy, it is a fairy tale to deny their fundamental equivalence. There is no alternate reality in which "separate but equal" will ever exist in the United States or defending traditional white skin privileges won't disadvantage non-whites.
There will be many more opportunities for a future Reichstag pretext. Many will fail, but there will be others based upon imagined or exaggerated threats. Only a few need to succeed and correctly identifying them as such -- not merely as the reflection of a deranged personality -- is essential for those who would seek to defend our vulnerable democratic institutions.