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Mark Meadows' PowerPoint is about more than Jan. 6

Mark Meadows's Jan. 6 entanglement has some revealing historical lessons.

Autocrats love states of emergency. Often declared in the wake of some real or invented crisis, states of emergency give illiberal leaders expanded powers, letting them do things they’ve wanted to do anyway — crack down on the opposition, purge their parties and parliaments or carry out coups to maintain their own power.

The Jan. 6 riot may have failed in its goals. But coups and the states of emergency that follow them have long driven authoritarian history.

That's why it's not surprising to find "Declare National Security Emergency" among the instructions in the PowerPoint titled "Election Fraud, Foreign Interference & Options for 6 JAN" that circulated among former President Donald Trump's inner circle one day before the assault on the Capitol. Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows gave the presentation, which retired Army Col. Phil Waldron circulated to Trump's inner circle, to the House committee investigating Jan. 6. It outlines scenarios to overturn the 2020 election results, such as declaring them invalid because of "foreign interference." (After an unanimous vote in the House subcomittee Monday night, Meadows is now one step closer to contempt charges.) The resulting crisis would not just lead to Vice President Mike Pence’s delaying the certification of Joe Biden's victory but also open a window for exceptional actions that would interrupt the transfer of power and keep Trump in the White House.

The Jan. 6 riot may have failed in its goals. But coups and the states of emergency that follow them have long driven authoritarian history. Coups have accounted for 75 percent of democratic failures globally from World War II to the year 2000, and it's instructive to see this coup attempt in that light.

Just as Jan. 6 is billed by Republicans as a patriotic act against Democratic treachery ("stop the steal"), coups around the world have been justified as "saving the nation" from corruption and tyranny. Propaganda presents the repression that accompanies states of emergency, like arrests and killings of opposition politicians, as necessary to protect the people.

Since many people in the U.S. associate states of emergency with benign government actions, like boosting assistance to populations after natural disasters, a few examples of the uses autocrats make of them can help us grasp the gravity of the threat represented by Trump and his Republican co-conspirators.

Some states of emergency help authoritarians on the rise to consolidate their power. Italian fascist Benito Mussolini started a custom that continues today when he declared a state of emergency in 1925 to escape political ruin from an investigation into his corruption. The measures imposed by the Laws for the Defense of the State, which created the world's first right-wing dictatorship (secret police, new courts for political crimes, prohibitions on strikes and unions, bans on opposition press and parties) made him untouchable.

Some states of emergency help authoritarians on the rise to consolidate their power.

Others help autocrats in power stay on top. Augusto Pinochet used a state of emergency to secure control for the Chilean junta after the 1973 military coup, which he justified as a healing act in a country sick with socialism. “It’s like when you amputate the arm of a sick person, it’s hard to predict how long they will take to recover,” he said, telling journalists he could not be sure when the state of emergency would end.

In fact, some states of emergency, which are meant to be temporary, can stretch on for years. That was the case in Turkey after the July 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. As state reprisals spread from the military (where the coup had originated) to other categories of people Erdoğan wanted to persecute (the Kurdish opposition, journalists, members of the judiciary), the state of emergency continued. By the time it ended after two years, the crackdown had become normalized.

More recently, unscrupulous leaders have used the pandemic as an excuse to declare states of emergency that advance their political powers, as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán did, instituting rule by decree for several months last year. Trump Attorney General William Barr tried an allied tactic: When Trump declared a state of emergency in early 2020 because of the pandemic, Barr asked Congress to grant the Justice Department the authority to ask judges to detain people indefinitely without trial.

Barr may have prudently removed himself from Trump circles since then, but the spirit of using spaces of exception to advance authoritarian agendas lives on — Jan. 6 is proof of that. That's why the Democrats' Protecting Our Democracy Act, which passed the House on Dec. 9, includes a specific provision to strengthen congressional oversight of presidential emergency declarations and would require the president to provide all Presidential Emergency Action Documents to Congress.

It's telling that the bipartisan sponsorship of the 2019 bill this provision is modeled on has vanished: Almost all Republicans opposed the Protecting Our Democracy Act. Today's GOP has made it clear that it will stop at nothing to get to power and stay there. A failed coup often begets a successful one, and we may yet find ourselves hearing about a trumped-up "national security emergency" like the one outlined in Meadows' PowerPoint. What could come after that, history tells us, won't be pretty.