Even the usually restrained Barack Obama warns Americans we're slipping dangerously close to authoritarianism.
President Obama has come right out and said it: "You have to tend to this garden of democracy, otherwise things can fall apart fairly quickly. And we've seen societies where that happens."
Yes, he invoked Nazi Germany, adding, "Now, presumably, there was a ballroom in Vienna in the late 1920s or '30s that looked and seemed as if it -- filled with the music and art and literature and the science that was emerging -- would continue into perpetuity. And then 60 million people died. And the entire world was plunged into chaos."
It was a shocking reminder of Milton Mayer and his seminal work, They Thought They Were Free, first published back in 1955 by the University of Chicago Press.
Shortly after World War II, Mayer, an American journalist and college instructor, went to Germany and befriended a small group of 10 "ordinary Germans" who had lived and worked through the war, and interviewed them in depth.
Mayer's burning question was, "How does something like Nazi Germany happen?"
What he learned was every bit as shocking as President Obama drawing the same parallels. He wrote, presciently, "Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany -- not by attack from without or by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler. It was what most Germans wanted -- or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.
"I came home a little bit afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under combined pressure of reality and illusion. I felt -- and feel -- that it was not German Man that I met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I.
"If I -- and my countrymen -- ever succumbed to that concatenation of conditions, no Constitution, no laws, no police, and certainly no army would be able to protect us from harm."
Mayer tells the story largely through the words of the Germans he got to know during his year in Germany after the war. One, a college professor, told him:
"What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security....
"This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter. ...
"To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it -- please try to believe me -- unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop.
"Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, 'regretted,' that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these 'little measures' that no 'patriotic German' could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head."