A specter is haunting America—the specter of fascism. Conservative financial, political and religious powers are today interlocked into an unholy alliance to evade, eliminate or eviscerate long-held rights and protections of democracy.
Those words paraphrase Marx, but they apply to MAGA. Democracy is under attack around the world and here in a nation that calls itself the land of the free. After the recent FBI search of former President Donald Trump’s sprawling Mar-a-Lago manor added to Trump’s legal problems, right-wing threats against judges and law enforcement proliferated online, and a man who had been present at the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol Hill riot was killed by police in Cincinnati after he attacked an FBI office while armed with a nail gun and a rifle.
On Aug. 4, a distinguished group of American historians told President Biden that democracy is “teetering.” One of the historians, Sean Wilentz of Princeton, later said that “it’s going to be up to the voters to vote people in” who will resist authoritarianism in America. Harvard Law School Prof. Emeritus Laurence Tribe on Aug. 22 called Trump’s most rabid supporters “armed and dangerous,” and said that the U.S. cannot give in to them and remain a nation where no person is supposed to be above the law. Meanwhile, it was telling that crowds at the recent CPAC convention of conservatives in Dallas lionized both Trump and autocratic political strongman Victor Orban of Hungary. In his kick-off speech at CPAC, Orban threw rhetorical red meat to the cheering crowd, saying, “Politics are not enough. This is a culture war.”
There was a time when Republicans claimed to be a party of personal responsibility, respect for the rule of law and loyalty to American institutions like the peaceful transition of power. There was a time when GOP conservatives like Sen. Barry Goldwater told Richard Nixon that he faced impeachment for Watergate crimes. There was a time when Republican politicians like Jacob Javits opposed the war in Vietnam while backing civil rights and the labor movement here at home. There was a time when Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen worked with Democrats to pass the landmark Civil Rights Bill. Those times are no more. Today’s GOP is a Trumpublican Party in thrall of a frothing MAGA base that writer Peter Wehner called “unhinged and ominous” in his Aug. 11 article in The Atlantic, “Now They’re Calling for Violence.”
Even before the recent FBI search of Mar-a-Lago and before the MAGA mob stormed Capitol Hill last year, historians were sounding the alarm about threats to democracy. Just days before the 2020 election, “How to Keep the Lights on in Democracies: An Open Letter of Concern by Scholars of Authoritarianism” warned of dangers to an America that has long prided itself as a democratic republic. In a prescient foreshadowing of Jan. 6, the 2020 open letter decried “connections between those in power and those vigilante and militia forces using political violence to destabilize our democracies.” The letter also reminded readers that “the temptation to take refuge in a figure of arrogant strength is now greater than ever.” The letter did end on a hopeful note, saying that though democracy is at risk at home and abroad, “It is not too late to turn the tide.”
The tide of authoritarianism is loose, but there are signs of hope. A recent NBC News poll that asked respondents what they considered the most important issue facing this country said that concern over threats to democracy was higher today than worries over such current American issues as the cost of living, jobs and the economy, immigration, climate change, guns, abortion, crime or COVID. More than 60% of those polled said they’d be willing to spend a day carrying a sign with a political slogan of their choice.
One doesn’t have to look too far to see that democracy is embattled, but not down for the count. Whether our future is one of freedom or fascism may well depend on those mentioned in the opening lines of our imperiled Constitution: “We the people.”
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