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Jan. 6 Was the Warning We Fail to Heed at Our Own Peril
President Biden's speech was a warning about how close we are slipping into full-on fascism. This is our 1930's moment.
Image credit: Fabius Maximus
"Rioters rampaging, waving for the first time inside this Capitol, the confederate flag that symbolized the cause to destroy America, to rip us apart. Even during the Civil War, that never, ever happened. But it happened here in 2021."
Biden wasn't merely recounting a detail from last January sixth.
He was warning us.
The fact domestic terrorists brandished within the citadel of democracy the same symbol traitors intent on destroying democracy did during the Civil War represents how near we are to losing that democracy.
More pundits, bloggers, journalists, historians, and even former presidents, lately have been weighing in on this precarious moment in our history, when the most violent attack on our Capitol since the War of 1812 should have shocked us back into wanting to defend our democratic ideals against all enemies foreign and domestic.
But that isn't what happened.
Instead, over the past year, we have seen more evidence America is closer to fascism than ever.
"One year ago, a violent mob, guided by unscrupulous politicians, stormed the Capitol and almost succeeded in preventing the democratic transfer of power. One year on, promoters of the lie that the election was stolen have taken over one political party and stoked distrust in our electoral system. These forces exert power and influence through relentless disinformation, which continues to turn Americans against Americans."
America has traditionally regarded itself immune to the fissures that condemn weaker democracies.
We hail ourselves as the exemplar of elections, peaceful transitions of power, and civilized political discourse.
We understand intellectually we are imperfect and have done things for which we should not be proud and for which we must atone, like slavery, segregation, and the genocide of Indigenous Americans.
We have supervised elections in other countries to ensure honesty and transparency.
While economic interests and hubris have too frequently been behind our decisions more than good intentions, we want democracy to grow across the globe.
Yet here we are, beginning to look more like Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Hungary, India, Mauritius, Namibia, Slovenia, and Poland, countries the Global State of Democracy (GSoD Indices) report from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance states the United States' “backsliding” democracy is beginning to resemble.
A week later, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz teamed up with former Trump adviser (and recently indicted) Steve Bannon on the idea of forming an “army of patriots” and “shock troops” to be prepared take over the government if former President Donald Trump were to run and win the White House again in 2024.
This wasn’t the first time Bannon proposed something like this.
Back in October, he called for “shock troops” to quickly “deconstruct” the state in a telephone interview on NBC News after meeting with obsequious Trump-loving republicans at which he encouraged them to be prepared to “reconfigure the government”.
There was a time when we could reasonably shake this off as tormented bluster.
But that was a time before we witnessed hundreds of armed and angry Trump loyalists descend on the Capitol intending to violently subvert the constitutional process of certifying states’ electoral votes.
This no longer falls into the “tormented bluster” category.
Over the past forty years, we have been in the midst of a slow-moving coup that got accelerated five years after Donald Trump’s election.
Trump wasn’t the cause, but he is the metaphorical gasoline people like Bannon, Michael Flynn and his brother Charles, and congressional lawmakers and governors afraid to stand up to Trump throw into the fire.
As Chauncey DeVega wrote in his recent Salon piece, "With fascism coming, America responds: LOL who cares? Let's Netflix and chill":
"Military leaders were seriously concerned that Trump might order the National Guard to intervene on his behalf on or around Jan. 6 by invoking the Insurrection Act. If he had given such an order, the country would have come dangerously closer to an authoritarian takeover and perhaps widespread violence, with elements of the military battling one another. Experts on civil war have warned that the U.S. is well along such a path.
"Domestic terrorism experts have also warned that right-wing extremists and paramilitary groups are organizing on the local and state level to intimidate, harass and target 'liberals,' Black and brown people, Muslims, Jews, immigrant communities and others deemed to be their enemies. This is part of a nationwide campaign by Republican fascists and the larger white right to attack American democracy on the local and state level in order to facilitate Trump's return to power (or the 'election' of his designated successor)."
The problem, though, is not just republicans and Trump loyalists.
They can only be stopped when enough people notice they're a threat.
And right now not enough Americans care enough to recognize them as a threat.
Therein lies our potential destruction.
If we were to stop random Americans on the street and suggest we're headed in the direction of fascist authoritarian regimes, they might call you an "alarmist."
They'll think you're being hyperbolic.
Likely, they won't even know what "fascism" means.
"We're Americans, after all," they'd proclaim. "We're not like those countries."
Maybe not yet.
There's historical precedent for this.
Milton Mayer was a reporter for the Chicago Sun in the 1940s and 50s.
Ten years after World War II, he wondered how Germany, the most cultured country in Europe with a strong democratic republic, could have slipped into fascism so quickly.
So he traveled to Germany and befriended 10 average German citizens: a college professor, high school teacher, baker, janitor, tailor’s apprentice, cabinetmaker and volunteer firefighter, salesman, bill collector, bank clerk, and a police officer.
What they told Mayer, chronicled in his book They Thought They Were Free, should serve as a warning to all–even the “invincible” United States.
The college professor reported:
“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.”
Explaining what happens when we “put our heads down” and try to just get on with our lives, he added:
“You see, one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next.
“You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not? Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.
“Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, everyone is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none.
“In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, ‘It’s not so bad’ or ‘You’re seeing things’ or ‘You’re an alarmist.’
“And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic.
“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and the smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked – if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33.
“But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.
“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jew swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.
“The world you live in – your nation, your people – is not the world you were in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays.
“But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God.”
With our elections under assault, republicans distracting their base with "critical race theory" canards and blind antipathy toward anything resembling equity and--that word again--democracy--the merger of state and corporate interests that defines fascism is inevitable.
All we need is to allow our elections be rendered irrelevant and turn an apathic eye to the little signs–like calls for “shock troops”–to wind up like Milton Mayer's ten Germans who watched their sophisticated, prosperous nation flip into authoritarianism.
Once it's here, it will wreak oppression for generations before we get back what we lost.
If we get it back at all.
The Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum wrote in a recent piece titled, “The Bad Guys Are Winning“:
“If the 20th century was the story of liberal democracy’s progress toward victory over other ideologies—communism, fascism, virulent nationalism—the 21st century is, so far, a story of the reverse.”
Our “Great Depression” of the 1930s was part of a global depression that sent people scrambling for anything and anyone who would promise them respite, succor, and hope.
Most European countries embraced fascists, namely Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
Japan did as well.
We could have gone that way too.
Instead, we elected Franklin Roosevelt, who not only promised relief from our economic and social woes, but returned us to a more democratic, prosperous society by implementing progressive reforms intended to lift people up instead of cutting them down.
If we hadn’t risen to the challenge, we likely wouldn’t have been prepared to take on and ultimately defeat European fascism when it came to our shores.
Don’t think there weren’t Nazi sympathizers and fascists among us.
The difference was, we chose democracy, for all its frustrations and imperfections.
We still can.
The first thing we need to do is get up off the couch and demand the democracy we deserve.
Authoritarians thrive on limited civic engagement.
Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
One of the things that made Franklin Roosevelt and other successful presidents who followed him, like Lyndon Johnson, successful was people vociferously demanding change.
President Biden laid it all out for us in what may have been the most important speech of his presidency:
“At this moment, we must decide what kind of nation are we going to be? Are we going to be a nation that accepts political violence as a norm?”
We must decide.
As a country.
As a people.