By the age of 12, I had a deep interest in, and budding knowledge of, history. I had read some books on events in world and American history, and some newspapers which my father had kept as mementos about major events in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, including the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. I may have been both precocious and prescient, for I recognized propensities in American history which were similar to those in Germany before and during the Third Reich. Ever since, I have believed in the possibility of a fascist regime in America in my lifetime. Knowing about anti-communist Palmer Raids, anti-Japanese internment camps, American-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay Camp 7 torture center for terrorist suspects has done nothing to discredit that belief.
In several important ways, Germany then and America now resemble each other. Many fears about German economic conditions were realistic because the enormous costs of the First World War and the punitive terms of peace brought a depression with hyperinflation to Germany. In two secret drawers in a desk imported from Germany after the Second World War, my parents found packets of billion-mark Weimar notes, valuable when hidden and forgotten when worthless. The truths about the costs of the war and the peace were well known, but the solutions were not. Fascists on the right fought socialists and communists on the left, and ultimately prevailed because of their skill in targeting scapegoats as the causes of complex economic and political issues.
Even before Hitler assumed leadership, fascists appealed to widespread, though heretofore mostly latent, anti-Semitism, among Catholics in the agricultural south and east, and among Lutherans to the commercial/industrial north and west. In his appeal to the “volk,” or the “people,” Hitler emphasized the anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, anti-modernism, and anti-cosmopolitanism virulent in the countryside and identified Jews as their prime representatives and chief proponents. Reviled for these “isms,” Jews became scapegoats for Germany’s ills, real and perceived. Hitler was obsessed by anti-Semitism, Germans indulged it, and together they distracted themselves from the country’s real problems; indeed, Hitler prioritized the destruction of Jews over the protection of the country when his aggressions faltered.
Hitler was able to prop up an unsustainable totalitarian regime by restructuring German’s institutions to support a tyranny. The Weimar Republic was a weak and progressively weaker democracy as anti-democratic forces eroded the principles and values required for democracy. Hitler disrupted assemblies of opponents, attacked leaders of non-fascist parties and organizations, and vilified the press. When he came to power, he imprisoned opponents, controlled public assemblies and the press, converted the Reichstag into a rubber stamp for Nazi laws, corrupted or appointed judges to serve Nazi Party purposes, suborned the police, tamed the army and the Prussian aristocracy, and pursued policies of repression targeting not only Jews, but also minorities like the Romani and what we would call today the LGBTQ communities.
The tendencies of Trump’s presidency and a Republican Congress are following the same trajectory. Trump may be today’s arch-villain, but Republicans have distilled similar propensities in America since its founding—a point deferred for a moment, to allow for a comparison of economies. America is presently recovering from the Great Recession begun in 2007, but the recovery has been slow and uneven, more in rural than urban areas, more in small towns than in metropolises. Worse, the economy now suffers from the inevitable consequences of internationalism on a far vaster scale than ever. Modern communications and transportation make the international movement of ideas and information, and goods and services easy, inexpensive, and thus competitive almost everywhere. These trends are unsettling to previously isolated or insulated businesses—agricultural, commercial, industrial, financial—and irreversible. Yet the current theme is that other countries are exploiting American weakness. More threatening are the power, pace, and pervasiveness of new technologies likely to produce almost unimaginable but already feared consequences for employment in the not far off future. A few decades ago, a high-school diploma was sufficient for many jobs; more recently, a two- or four-year college degree was necessary. Now, the employment of even those with advanced degrees is threatened by artificial intelligence and big data; levels of employment and wages in the next decade or so are not promising. The middle class, already shrinking, is also weakening; the lower class, a population expanding rapidly, is sliding into poverty. Declining economic conditions are matched by growing inequalities of personal wealth and political strength.
In a country increasingly fearful of its future, with many fearful of their own futures, in a world increasingly interconnected and complicated, many are unable to understand the problems, much less imagine solutions. They feel betrayed by, or alienated from, the educated, the experts, the elites, the elected; they feel themselves disrespected, ignored, powerless, or disadvantaged by groups imagined to receive special treatment. They release the resulting anger against scapegoats: messengers with bad or baffling news (i.e., the media); sophisticates of coastal urban areas and major research universities; insiders in federal and state governments, especially in Washington, D.C.; and “others”: non-white, non-Christian, or non-straight people like immigrants, racial minorities, Muslims, Jews, and the various LGBTQ communities.
As anti-Semitism was endemic in Germany, so racial prejudice is interwoven into American politics from its first days. The link between governance and race in what was to become the United States was established before the Puritans arrived at Plymouth in 1620. In 1619, Virginia elected its first General Assembly of Virginia and received its first shipments of African slaves (technically, at that moment, indentured servants). In just over 150 years later, the Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal” and governments rested on “the consent of the governed.” Yet just over 10 more years later, the Constitution erased all recognition of equality and any concern for the consent of half a million black slaves, almost all in southern states, but permitted them to be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of the census and thus state representation in Congress. The disregard of founding principles entrenched slavery and meant that its eradication would prompt The Civil War. That war and its three post-war amendments ended slavery but led to reaction in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws to maintain white supremacy in the South. A 100 years later, various civil rights and voting rights acts implemented founding principles but have come under vigorous attack in recent decades. Several Republican-controlled state governments are shrinking or attempting to shrink the franchise with legislation disproportionately affecting minorities, seniors, students, and the poor. As if to encourage these racist state governments, especially in states of the former Confederacy, the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that racism is no longer a factor in their elections which, on the basis of past history and present practice, required the protections of the Voting Rights Act. The result is that many states are claiming voter fraud to restrict the franchise. Meanwhile, many state and local police departments continue to operate as if they are agents of White Citizens Councils. Today, major Trump administration’s domestic and foreign policies and practices, and major Republican congressional legislative efforts are reflexive racist responses to undo anything and everything, good or bad, done during the Obama’s presidency, as if to erase the fact of the election and re-election of America’s first black president. Together, the White House and Congress are reducing or eliminating programs which help millions of American citizens because they see them as serving only non-whites, non-Christians, or non-straights. Dominated by racism and dedicated to making a federal government too small to enhance equality and freedom, Republicans are distracted from addressing solutions to America’s real problems of economic fairness, educational excellence, environmental quality, health assurance, and equal justice for all.
Although racism is widespread in America, it is concentrated in and indispensible to the modern Republican Party, with commitments to small government (states rights) and large wealth (unregulated capitalism). In 1964, impending civil rights legislation spurred Republican conservatives, mostly southern and western, to support Barry Goldwater, who vigorously opposed it with the same appeals to states rights which had rationalized southern succession leading to the Civil War, and to repudiate Nelson Rockefeller. The nomination of the Arizona senator over the New York governor marked the demise of Republican liberals; today, even Republican moderates are a small and disappearing breed. In 1968, in Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, his Southern strategy appealed to the racism of southern whites, who abandoned the Democratic Party because its southern senators and representatives could no longer protect white privilege and prevent the legal end of segregation. Although racism exists elsewhere in America, its concentration in the Republican Party has probably done more to divide the parties and destroy bipartisanship than any other factor. Republicans exploit racism wherever possible to hold on to power—thus, their efforts to disenfranchise voters thought likely to vote Democratic or to gerrymander electoral districts in rural areas where Republican support is strongest.
So, when Trump uses code words and dog whistles to exploit, and Congressional Republicans elide, excuse, or expand, his racial, religious, and gender prejudices; his bigotry targeting immigrants; his attacks on opponents, the media, and the institutions of the legal system; his inclinations to physical violence, including torture; and his displays of contempt for expertise, his disregard of truth, and his scorn for law, decorum, decency, or other norms—we are entering the moral chaos and political anarchy in which fascist autocracy flourishes. The obvious attempts of the President and Congressional Republicans to undermine, redirect, or end the investigation into Russian meddling in the last American presidential election is further evidence of the Republican Party’s betrayal of the county. These elected and appointed Republican officials are abandoning their oath to uphold the Constitution, specifically, to protect the country from foreign as well as domestic enemies. They no longer deserve the benefit of the doubt; they must be suspected of treasonous impulses until they can demonstrate their commitment in their official capacity to support American democracy.
At important moments in our history, Americans have roughly divided themselves into three groups. During the American Revolution, the population of the colonies was roughly divided into thirds by their position on the war. One third supported the crown; we called them Tories or traitors. One third supported the colonies; we called them Americans or patriots. One third cared not; we might call them Independents. We are still divided into thirds: Republicans, who think of themselves as the “real Americans”; Democrats; and Independents. The basis of these tripartite divisions remains much the same: allegiance to power versus allegiance to principle versus indecision or indifference, respectively. The reasonable alignment of Tories and Republicans justifies a view of them as anti-democratic in their politics and treacherous in their loyalties. (Is not Trump and are not Republicans now favorably disposed to Putin and Russia?) This rabid minority of Americans, content and quiet while prosperous, is now disgruntled and vocal while fearful of their future and freed by a president and his party to indulge their bigotry. Undermining or undoing democratic principles and values no longer to their liking because of a growing non-white populace, Republicans threaten to transform American democracy into a Fourth Reich—my childhood nightmare come true.