A writer must “know and have an ever-present consciousness that this world is a world of fools and rogues… tormented with envy, consumed with vanity; selfish, false, cruel, cursed with illusions… He should free himself of all doctrines, theories, etiquettes, politics…” —Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?). “The nobility of the writer's occupation lies in resisting oppression, thus in accepting isolation” —Albert Camus (1913-1960). “What are you gonna do” —Bertha Brown (1895-1987).
by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
October 19, 2018
(This is adapted from the talk that
Matt Rothschild gave on October 18 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Racine.)
Let me cut to the chase here: I’m
worried to death about the health of our democracy. I’m fearful that our highly vaunted system of checks and
balances might not be up to the task right now. Our democracy is hanging by a
thread, and it might not hold.
We have several huge underlying
problems that threaten our democracy, and we have Donald Trump, and I’ll try to
address all of these.
But I’d like to do so in the context
of a book I’ve been reading by two Harvard professors (Steven Levitsky and
Daniel Ziblatt) that came out this year entitled “How Democracies Die.”
They, too, are wondering whether our system of checks and balances will hold,
and they have serious doubts.
They note that democracies die not
only by sudden military coups. A lot of times, they say, “The assault on
democracy begins slowly. For many citizens, it may, at first, be imperceptible.
After all, elections continue to be held. Opposition politicians still sit in
Congress. Independent newspapers still circulate. The erosion of democracy
takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.”
Part of that piecemeal erosion, they
argue, can be seen in the violation of unwritten democratic norms of behavior.
They cite two such norms—“mutual toleration” by competing parties and
candidates, and “forbearance” or restraint in the exercise of their powers.
They call these the “soft guardrails of American democracy,” and they argue,
and I agree, that these guardrails have been discarded.
It began with Newt Gingrich in the 1990's, and his
refusal to compromise on the budget, which forced a painful government
shutdown. And then, of course, there was Gingrich’s headlong rush to impeach
Bill Clinton on ludicrous grounds. This ushered in the era of “extreme
polarization” that we’re in right now, and extreme polarization, as the authors
note, is itself a threat to democracy.
Another glaring example of
discarding the guardrails was Mitch McConnell’s vow, when Obama was elected,
to make sure Obama was a failure.
And in 2016, McConnell’s decision
not to let President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, even get a hearing or a vote
on his nomination to the Supreme Court was a clear example of the lack of
forbearance and restraint by the Republicans. It’s all about power. It’s all
about winning, as Trump acknowledged after the Kavanaugh confirmation.
But before I get to Trump, I need to
mention a few other huge underlying problems that threaten our democracy and
that predate Trump’s descending of the escalator and announcing his candidacy.
One underlying problem is the
problem of money in politics. As
Jimmy Carter acknowledged a couple of years ago, we don’t really have a
democracy anymore. His direct words: “We have an oligarchy of unlimited
political bribery.” You and I and everyone in this room do not have the same
power to choose who gets elected and what laws are passed and what policies are
pursued as the giant contributors, like the Koch Brothers or Sheldon Adelsonor Richard
Uihlein -- or George Soros and Tom Steyer, for that matter.
So, you might say, there are
billionaires on the left and right so it balances out. It usually doesn’t
balance out, for one thing, because the big donors on the right tend to spend
more than the big donors on the left. But even if it did, our democracy isn’t
supposed to be a tug of war between a couple of billionaires on the right and a
couple of billionaires on the left. We’re not supposed to be reduced to mere
spectators in our democracy; we’re all supposed to have an equal tug on the
Another problem is the crisis
of journalism and the media in America. Newspapers are dying out. There are
fewer and fewer reporters to keep those in power accountable. Radio and cable
TV, after the Fairness Doctrine died
in the 1980s, have become shouting matches, or campfire rituals for whichever
camp you’re in. There are fewer and fewer places for real debate and civil
political discussion. We’re in separate camps; we might as well be in different
Yet another underlying problem
is our grossly unequal economy. When the economy predominantly
rewards the rich, they get even more say over who gets elected and what laws
are passed and what policies are pursued. We become less and less of a
democracy and more and more an oligarchy or plutocracy. Ultimately, capitalism
devours democracy, and it’s munching away at it right now.
A final underlying problem is
the culture of racism that rips apart the fundamental concept
that we are all created equal and that we all have equal rights and an equal
say. The election of President Obama gave a lot of people the false hope that
we were moving beyond this deeply rooted problem, but it has come back with a
vengeance with the brazen white supremacist movement.
Then there’s Trump.
The authors of How
Democracies Die say there are four key indicators of authoritarian
behavior, and Trump meets them all.
1. “Rejection of (or weak commitment
to) the democratic rules of the game.” Examples:
His bogus claims of millions of illegal immigrant voters. His assailing of
judges. His attack on Mueller.
2. “Denial of the legitimacy of
political opponents.” Examples: “Low Energy Jeb,”
“Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary” and “Pocahontas.”
3. “Toleration or encouragement of
violence.” During the campaign, you
remember there was a heckler at one of Trump’s rallies and Trump said, “Knock
the hell out of them. I promise you: I will pay the legal fees.” See also his
outrageous comments on Charlottesville. (Note: When I got home last night, I
found out that Trump had just praised Montana Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte
for assaulting that reporter last May. Trump said: “Any guy who can do a body
slam... he's my guy.”)
4. “Readiness to curtail civil
liberties of opponents, including media.” See
“Fake news” and “the media is the enemy of the people.” Trump has also
suggested that libel laws should be tightened so that he can’t be criticized so
much by the media. And he’s threatened to go after Amazon and Jeff Bezos, who
just happens to own the Washington Post. And here’s what Trump had to say about
the protests at the Kavanaugh hearing: “We shouldn't have to put up
with this kind of stuff,” and, “It’s embarrassing for the country to
allow protesters.” Or take his remark that NFL players shouldn’t be in this
country if they’re going to kneel during the national anthem. He has no clue
about the First Amendment!
Then there’s his assault on the
civil liberties of immigrants: Not just the Muslim ban, and not just the
hideous policy of tearing children from their parents, but also the executive
order saying that ICE agents could send back anyone not
only who’s been convicted of a crime but also those who are “chargeable” with a
crime. “Chargeable?” Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? In the
context of Kavanaugh and even the Saudi Royal Family, Trump claims to believe
in the “innocent until proven guilty” precept. But not when it comes to
So those are the danger signs,
according to these scholars.
Let me add my own concerns about
Trump: He’s not an out and out fascist, but he’s the closest thing that we’ve
ever had to a fascist in the Oval Office. He’s not Adolph Hitler. He hasn’t written an equivalent
to Mein Kampf; and his political views, at least until recently,
have been all over the map.
But he has many of the inclinations
of the fascist.
He loves strongmen, and not just Putin but Dutarte and others, including Kim Jong-un
and the Saudi royal family, it appears.
He fantasizes about being president
for life. When President Xi of China essentially became president for life,
Trump said: “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll want to give that a shot someday.”
Trump is a bully, and fascists revel in bullying, and their supporters
admire them for it. Orwell called such
admirers “bully worshippers.”
He also echoes the language of the
During the campaign and still
afterwards, he’s talked about “America First,” which was the slogan of the Nazi
sympathizers here in the US before Pearl Harbor. He can’t plead ignorance about
this because the Anti-Defamation League sent him a letter during his presidential
campaign and noted the ugly historical echo and urged him to stop using the
phrase. But he hasn’t stopped. He put it in his Inaugural Address, and he keeps
His constant invocation of “fake
news” has ugly echoes, too. The Nazis used the term “Lugenpresse,” which means
“lying press” in German. In fact, some Trump supporters have picked it up in
its original German. (See this Time magazine article.)
And Goebbels used “the enemy of the people”
to refer to Jews, and dictators throughout history have invoked this phrase
against one group or another.
There are a few other crucial trademarks
of the fascist that Trump embodies.
1. Incessant Lying
Trump has broken all the records for
Presidential lying. He can’t tell the truth even when he says hello and
goodbye. As of August 1, he had uttered 4,229 lies or misrepresentations,
according to the Washington Post’s tally. His flagrant
lying is a telltale sign. Here is the first sentence from another new and
disturbing book called The Death of Truth,
by Michiko Kakutani, who was the book editor at the New York Times forever and
“Two of the most monstrous regimes
in human history came to power in the twentieth century, and both were
predicated upon the violation and despoiling of truth.”
Or take Orwell again: “The really
frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits 'atrocities' but
that it attacks the concept of objective truth.”
2. Another trademark is racism
That Trump is a racist and that he
makes racist appeals is, at this point, incontrovertible. After all, he
wouldn’t rent his apartments to black people. He led the vicious campaign
against the Central Park Five and continued to vilify
them after they were exonerated. And, of course, he led the Birther Movement against
President Obama. And he launched his campaign with racist appeals against
Muslims and Mexicans. And finally, after Charlottesville, it became totally
3. Then there is
ultra-nationalism. Trump makes
no bones about being an ultra-nationalist. That’s what all the “America First”
talk is about. Or look at “Make America Great Again.” At bottom, that’s an
appeal to people’s sense of bereaved and betrayed patriotism, and that kind of
appeal has been crucial to fascists and authoritarians, like Hitler and
Mussolini and Pinochet and Franco. The University of Wisconsin’s great
historian of fascism, George Mosse, has stressed the central role of
ultra-nationalism in fascism.
Racism and ultra-nationalism are the
sperm and the egg of Fascism, and Trump’s doing some in-vitro fertilization
right there in the Oval Office.
4. Finally, fascism is a mass-based
movement, and Trump has a mass base. His
popularity can’t seem to drop much below 40 percent ever, no matter what he
does. And he has this zealous, over-heated base at his rallies. When Jim Acosta said, after a recent rally,
“It felt like we weren’t in America anymore,” that’s something to take very
seriously. And when you see the white supremacists and neo-Nazis parading
around in Trump paraphernalia, it’s hard not to conjure up images of the Brown
Shirts, especially when they chant, “Jews won’t replace us,” and when Trump
says some of those people were “good people.”
America is not a Fascist state yet.
If it was, I’d be arrested or beaten up as soon as I walked out the door, and
you might be, too. But we could get there, fast.
You might remember at the beginning
of my talk, I quoted the authors of How Democracies Die saying
that authoritarianism could creep in slowly, piecemeal, in baby steps.
But they also warn us that
democracies can die “in one fell swoop.” And that’s what keeps me up at night.
Here are three ways it might die in
one fell swoop, and I’m going to tell you about them so you too can be kept up
The first is what’s called Norm Ornstein’s “nightmare scenario”: Trump fires Mueller and pardons everyone (and I think
he’ll do that); then there are huge protests in the streets; Trump’s zealots
and the neo-Nazis attack some of those protesters; violence escalates; Trump
declares martial law.
The second is if the United States
is attacked again, even at one-tenth the size of
9/11. As the authors of How Democracies Die note, “Major
security crises—wars or large-scale terrorist attacks—are political game changers,”
and they represent “moments of danger for democracy. Leaders who can ‘do
whatever they like’ can inflict great harm upon democratic institutions.”
Madeleine Albright also mentions this dire possibility in her book, “Fascism: A
Warning.” Everything we know about Trump’s pathological personality suggests
that if we’re attacked again, all bets are off for our democracy.
Now you might think that my mention
of the possibility of “martial law” is hyperbole or some crazy talk by a loony
It’s not. Listen, General Tommy
Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq in 2003, said that if we’re ever attacked
again by terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, we might have to suspend
the Constitution. And Condoleezza Rice’s deputy at the National Security
Council, General Wayne Downing, said essentially the same thing: If attacked
again, “The United States may have to declare martial law.” So when the
generals talk in public about martial law, you can bet that their subordinates
have drawn up plans for it. That’s how the military works.
You remember Ted Koppel, don’t you?
He was the anchor of the news show “Nightline” for more than a decade. Well,
Ted Koppel warned about this, too, in a graduation speech he gave at Berkeley
in 2004. Here’s what he said: “More than likely, the use of a chemical or
biological weapon in a terrorist attack against the U.S. homeland would lead to
the imposition of martial law.”
I promise you, there are plans right
now for martial law on the shelves of the Pentagon or Homeland Security or the
FBI, and all Trump would have to do is pull them down off the shelf.
Here’s the last dire scenario, which
is less likely than the first two but not outside the realm of the possible,
given Trump’s personality, and it’s simply this: Trump is impeached by the
House and convicted by the Senate, but he refuses to leave. During Nixon’s impeachment hearings, some people were
worried that Nixon would call out the tanks to keep himself in power. And it’s
conceivable that Trump would, too. As Stalin said when he was told that the
Pope wanted him to stop persecuting Catholics, “How many divisions does the
Pope have?” Trump is commander in chief of the most powerful military in the
world. How many divisions does the House of Representatives have? How many
divisions does the Senate have? How many divisions does the Supreme Court have?
As I said, I think this one is less
likely, and the military chain of command might refuse to go along with Trump.
But if any of these three scenarios
came to pass and Trump declared martial law tomorrow afternoon, you can bet
your last dollar that tomorrow night Sean Hannity would be praising him for
doing so on Fox News.
It can happen here. That’s the stark fact of the matter, and it’s more likely to
happen here than I ever thought possible.
Here’s one indicator: A Washington
Post poll last year of
Republican voters found that 50 percent of them would be OK if there’s no
presidential election in 2020!
So why am I not going to draw a hot
bath tonight and pull out a razor blade?
Because I’ve studied fascism. I
studied it at college. I studied it at The Progressive. And I studied it again when Trump became
the Republican nominee. And what I learned from my studies is that even if the
fascist, or the fascist in the making, takes power, a country doesn’t descend
into full-blown fascism unless civil society collapses.
And the good news is that civil
society is not collapsing. Civil society is standing up to Trump!
The courts are standing up to him.
The states are standing up to him,
with many of them suing him.
The media is standing up to him,
with the exception of Fox and right wing talk radio.
The late night TV comics are
standing up to him, and their mockery is a balm to our spirits.
Even some Republican intellectuals
and pundits are standing up to Trump, like George Will, and David Frum, and
David Brooks, and Jennifer Rubin, and Steve Schmidt, who ran McCain’s campaign.
Even Morning Joe, who is not exactly an intellectual heavyweight, is standing
up to Trump. And I’ll applaud anyone who calls Trump out, no matter how
opportunistically. And that even includes Charlie Sykes.
But most important of all, the
people have been standing up to Trump since day one.
Or at least day two, with the
tremendous Women’s March in Washington.
My wife was there, with more than a million others. And I was at the march in
Madison, on library mall and State Street, 75,000 strong. And the costumes, the
home-made signs, and the spontaneous chants were exhilarating. I remember some
young women chanting: “We don’t want his tiny hands anywhere near our
underpants.” It’s that kind of attitude that’s going to get us through.
And then there were the great
immigrant rights rallies, first at the airports when Trump announced his Muslim
ban. Within minutes, people flocked to O’Hare and flocked to LaGuardia and
other airports around the country to demonstrate their support for immigrants
and asylum seekers.
And here in Wisconsin, Voces de la
Frontera has put on one amazing rally after another in defense
Then there are the protests in
defense of our environment, demanding action to address the climate change
crisis. There was the march of the scientists a couple of Earth Days ago; there
was the tremendous protest against the Dakota Pipeline, led by Native
Americans; and there have been many other protests since.
And the Black
Lives Matter movement has drawn much-needed attention to the
problem of police violence, and the “Me, Too” movement has done the same for
People, by the millions, aren’t
taking any of this stuff lying down!
And that’s not only a good thing;
it’s a promising thing. And we’re going to need more of it before we’re done.
Here in Wisconsin, there are also
There is a tremendous effort under
way by several great groups to get as many people as possible registered to
vote and enthusiastic about voting.
The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, the ACLU of Wisconsin, Vote Riders,
and Common Cause are all getting out there. And so is Wisconsin Voices, an
umbrella organization of more than 50 progressive nonprofits that I sit on the
There is also a mass movement in
Wisconsin to tackle the problem of money in politics that I mentioned. Led by an amazing group called Wisconsin
United to Amend, 132 communities in Wisconsin have passed
resolutions or referendums saying that they are in favor of amending the U.S.
Constitution to proclaim, once and for all, that corporations aren’t persons
and money isn’t speech! Wisconsin is second only to Massachusetts in the number
of communities that have climbed on board.
And there’s another mass movement in
Wisconsin: this one to ban gerrymandering and to demand fair political maps. Already, 41 of the 72 county boards have passed
resolutions that they are in favor of fair, nonpartisan, independent
redistricting, and these county boards have sent their resolutions on to the
state legislators to urge them to change the law and give us fair maps.
Finally, we’ve got a very impressive
progressive nonprofit sector in Wisconsin, and we’re all working
together. We’ve torn down our silos, and we’ve
shelved our egos (for the most part), and we’re all rowing in the same
direction. We meet regularly, we strategize together, we write op-eds together,
we share each other’s posts, we go to each other’s events; we understand that
none of us can get it done alone. We’re a model, I think, for progressive
nonprofits in other states.
And I take heart in the
inspirational words of Howard Zinn, who wrote A People’s History of the
United States, and in his last dozen years, he wrote a column for The
Progressive magazine. Here’s a nugget of his wisdom that I’d like to share with
you in closing:
"To be hopeful in bad times is based
on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of
compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we remember those times and
places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this
gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this
spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however
small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand Utopian future. … To live now
as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us,
is itself a marvelous victory."