When my siblings and I were growing up and we did something untoward that got us into trouble my mother would say, “Let that be a lesson to you!”
I’ve remembered that line whenever someone thinks I’m overreacting when I say the Trump administration opened the way to a functioning autocracy that is rapidly morphing into full-blown fascism.
I think about the truism that the past is prologue. We should be taking that truth more seriously.
A chilling December article in The Guardian by Jason Stanley revealed why. “America is now in fascism’s legal phase,” Stanley posits.
His article begins with a 1995 quote by the late Toni Morrison. “Let us be reminded,” the writer said, “that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.”
Morrison recognized the connection between racist, antisemitic and fascist movements propagated by and aligned with oligarchs, as Stanley does. His compelling article lays out the various ways in which Trump led us to the tipping point “where rhetoric becomes policy.”
Among the issues Stanley discusses are the takeover of our courts by Trump appointees, right-wing attempts at voter suppression, increasing corporate influence, the crackdown on reproductive rights and enforced gender roles, Jim Crow laws and controlled school curricula, increased political and police violence, mass incarceration particularly among Blacks, threatening vigilante groups and punitive actions toward journalists and non-loyalists. It’s a gobsmacking portrait of where we are now as a country on the brink.
This isn’t the first time America has had to confront insurrection and political violence, but it is a time to consider history, and to remember that this isn’t America’s first fascist threat.
The lessons of history include a close look at all dictatorships. In this moment, it is urgent that we consider Hitler’s rise to power. As Stanley and others make clear, Hitler and his minions were adept at using propaganda and lies to create a narrative that led to his election and his subsequent hideous policies.
Citing “the big lie” that the last election was stolen, Stanley notes that “we have begun to restructure institutions, notable electoral infrastructure and law” and that “the media’s normalization of these processes encourages silence at all costs.”
German fascism didn’t arise overnight. Germany’s National Socialist Party began small, but extremely right-wing and anti-democratic, according to historians. Masked in nationalist rhetoric, its agenda resonated with people who felt worried and humiliated. They welcomed scapegoats.
Stanley put it this way: “The central message of Nazi politics was to demonize a set of constructed enemies, an unholy alliance of communists and Jews.” Nazi leaders “recognized that the language of family, faith, morality and homeland could be used to justify especially brutal violence against an enemy represented as being opposed to all these things.”
Sound familiar? We’ve already heard talk of book burning, spying on each other and Jews altering their behavior as precautionary measures. We’ve witnessed racist violence, attacks on peaceful protesters and acts of white supremacy grounded in the claim that we are a Christian nation. Congress has its share of pro-autocracy politicians, and our local and state governments have all been infiltrated. Vigilante groups prowl the streets, guns and hate placards waving.
What more do we need to wake up?
This is not the first fascist threat to American democracy but the pro-Nazi movement of the 1930s and early 1940s was the most frightening to date. Characterized by a 1939 event at Madison Square Garden, a rally of 22,000 members of the German party known as the Bund, saluted large banners in Nazi fashion. The banners showed George Washington surrounded by swastikas.
The movement included summer camps for children, billed as family friendly venues, where Nazi indoctrination took place. At one of them in New York an annual German Day festival attracted 40,000 people. Germany’s brown-shirted camp kids later became SS thugs.
The American Nazi movement, with which Charles Lindbergh sympathized, came to an end only after the 1939 invasion of Poland by Hitler, followed by the Bund being outlawed in 1941. All of this is captured in Philip Roth’s semi-autobiographical novel “The Plot Against America.”
Nevertheless, America has continued to witness Nazi inspired acts. Trump co-opted a German slogan in “America First” as support for anti-immigration sentiments. And now white supremacist rhetoric is being spewed as it was in Charlottesville in 2017. A year ago, a massive crowd of insurrectionists stormed the Capital wearing T-shirts embossed “Camp Auschwitz.”
In her speech at Howard University, Morrison asserted that fascism relies upon media to convey an illusion of power to its followers. Now, finally, the media is listening to booming alarm bells and the military is preparing for an all-out coup that could happen in 2024 if not before.
It’s time now to ask for whom the alarm bell tolls. As Ernest Hemingway knew, it tolls for all of us.
Elayne Clift is Vermont-based writer. More at elayne-clift.com.