Demoralized by military defeat and economic depression, the Weimar Republic, Germany’s post-WWI parliamentary democracy, was destroyed by competing anti-democratic groups—fascists, aided by aristocrats and corporations, and communists—using propaganda and street gangs to fight for power. The right’s tactic to win support from the discontented was targeting Jews. Vilifying them and “foreign” influences led to restrictive legislation, violence, and the Holocaust. No one thought it could happen in an educated, industrialized country like Germany.
No one thinks that it can happen here, no one is talking about it happening here, but we had better think and talk about the possibility before it realizes itself. Already in our time of social turmoil and economic stress, the barriers of personal decency and political tolerance are giving way to the inchoate forces of American bigotry. Its renewed energy reflects insecurity and fear caused by bad times in employment and housing. Many white Christians and some white Jews respond by making scapegoats of minorities. Their prejudices link bad times to a black president.
History teaches two lessons about bigotry in politics. One, bigotry has no bounds and transfers itself from one target to another as politically convenient. Two, those who acquire and retain political power by demonizing and exploiting fear of others begin as threats to, and end as destroyers of, democracy. The dominant campaign tactic of the Republican Party is fear of them. “Them” is whomever they choose to demonize: blacks, “illegal immigrants,” Hispanics, Muslims, homosexuals, communists, fascists, socialists, liberals, progressives, Democrats—who next?
Those who respect historical facts know that yesterday’s GOP appealed to racists opposing civil rights laws and regulations. The Republican “Southern Strategy” was a largely successful attempt to win white Southerners, and a partially successful effort to win northern urban Catholics, from their affiliation to the Democratic Party.
Those who respect facts of current events know that today’s GOP appeals to bigots of all kinds: race bigots skilled in denial of their racism (they say that the NAACP is racist); religious bigots unabashed in pushing the president-as-Muslim lie and in abridging the religious freedom of Muslims (they oppose mosques in downtown Manhattan or mid-state Tennessee); and ethnic bigots inflamed by Mexican immigrants (they say that foreign invasion threatens national security). This Republican strategy, assisted, if not instigated, by various branches of the Tea Party, intends to inflame all white Americans.
The threat is serious when the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, a Jewish organization committed to freedom of religion, betrays its principles by opposing the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero. Its official explanation about compassion for victims’ families is plausible; so, too, in the context of anti-Muslim hostility and a “Christian Nation” crusade, its fear that Jews may be targeted next. If so, abandoning its principle seems a calculated move to prove the “real American” purity of American Jews and to disarm those who might raise that dual-nationality canard about them.
The good news relies on the past as prologue to the future. Americans have always pulled back from indulgence of fears and insecurities. Spasms of paranoia have gripped this country in the past century: the first “Red Scare,” with the Palmer Raids of 1919; the fear of anarchists in the 20s; and, of course, the second “Red Scare,” with its hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 40s and 50s. In all three episodes, mainstream Republican and Democratic leaders proved resistant to the hysteria.
The bad news is that the GOP no longer has mainstream Republican leaders willing or able to resist hysteria and oppose bigotry. Fringe bigotry is becoming party bigotry as functionaries curry the fringe’s favor. Thus, the prejudices of Sarah Palin (too many of “them” at her Hawaii college, according to her father), Newt Gingrich, and leading House Republicans like John Boehner and Eric Cantor. The party is mounting a tiger to ride into the fall election but will have difficulty dismounting. If exploiting bigotry enables the GOP to acquire power, it may have to continue to exploit bigotry to retain power, regardless of damage to American democracy.
For its great concern is losing power, perhaps permanently. Demographic trends are reducing a white majority to a plurality. Because of its whites-only appeal, the GOP has opposed civil rights for minorities since the 60s and is attacking ethnic, racial, and religious minorities now. (It opposed women’s rights in the 70s.) By challenging post-Bill-of-Rights amendments, including those defining citizenship and enlarging the franchise, the party re-iterates its exclusionary, anti-democratic appeal—neither a demographically nor a democratically winning strategy.
The bigotry which the GOP is endorsing, arousing, or exploiting is consuming the party. The Gathering of Prejudices has become so racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic that it is acting, not on informed self-interest, but on all-corrupting fears and hatreds which threaten American democracy. “Land of the free, home of the brave”— how long? Apartheid America—how soon?