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My Turn/Newman: Inevitable demise of democracy won’t be all Trump’s fault

  • NEWMANGORODN DANIELSAtty Bill Newman in his Northampton office NEWMAN



Monday, January 16, 2017

One year ago, I could not have imagined asking or being asked the question, “is fascism at America’s door?” Now I find it critical to contemplate the answer.

The question takes me back to my senior year at Antioch College in 1972 when I was taking a course taught by Mary Kaufman. She had been a prosecutor of I.G. Farben, Germany’s WWII chemical, industrial and financial war machine. Mary knew a thing or two about fascism.

In her class we read Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court decision which held that President Roosevelt’s executive order during WWII to forcibly remove over 100,000 citizens from their homes, herd them into jails, and hold them indefinitely with no charges because of their ethnicity violated no Constitutional right. During a discussion, one student referred to those prisons for Japanese-Americans as concentration camps. Another student objected. She argued that although those incarceration facilities in Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and California were horrifying, racist and jingoistic, they did not constitute the moral or functional equivalent of the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau.

The class exploded. The war was raging in Vietnam, and a war against the war was raging across America and on our college and university campuses. Anti-war activists in conversations with their compatriots often could label America’s war makers, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and their ilk, as Nazis or fascists without engendering much complaint or comment.

But not this time. The arguments were fierce, but that student held her ground. She asserted that while Nixon was a war maker and Kissinger a war criminal, they were not Nazis. Political monikers matter, she said, and the equivalence being drawn wrongly diminished the lives and memories of the 6 million. Forty-five years later, I still remember that class. For me, the woman arguing for accuracy was right.

Fascism, a political system and ideology, has specific identifiable components. Almost always there is a narcissistic, self-aggrandizing leader, a man who asserts that he alone can solve the nation’s problems. That man, who regularly exaggerates his popularity, and feeds off the frenzy of his large crowds, can brook no criticism. He delegitimizes his political opponents and threatens to jail them. He rises to power by exploiting the frustrations and economic hardships of the lower-middle class. He stokes fear of outsiders and foreigners, unleashes racism and antisemitism, and berates others, including those with disabilities, as lesser human beings. His crowds, in turn feed off the hatred and ostensible populism that he supplies, an angry elitism that proclaims we are better than the others.

The matrix consists of more than just the man, however. Importantly, the ruling class or party creates a propaganda machine where facts no longer matter, and lies and false news stories drown out truth. Jingoism, engineered by his repeated rallying cry to restore national greatness, becomes a currency of the realm. The government at first threatens, and then effectively neuters a free press. Aggressive masculinity, including the exploitation of women and girls, a call to arms, and an exultation of military might all become normalized.

Right, Trump meets the criteria. But fascism, with Trump leading the troops, will not goose-step its way into America. The more realistic risk we face is that democracy will erode away with an under-reported forfeiture of a First Amendment freedom of speech right here, a Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure right there, a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection right everywhere — compounded, and sometimes caused, by the diminution of the Fifteenth Amendment right to vote as well. Some losses of liberty will receive media attention, such as when Trump’s Supreme Court rules that the government should effectively be empowered to make reproductive choices for women. The responsibility for the demise of democracy, of course, will not be Trump’s alone. The path to authoritarianism will be paved by Congress’ acquiescence and the Supreme Court’s imprimatur of constitutionality. Americans, as always, will find comfort in ostensible legal legitimacy.

Additionally, we can count on a veneer of rationality. Autocratic rule often offers justifications to propagate and perpetuate itself — the need for law and order, the imperative of protecting our borders, the requirement to feed the insatiable surveillance appetite of the national security state, for example.

If fascism connotes only Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, then as of today fascism is not punching its way through America’s front door. But take little comfort in that.

Trump’s control of all branches of government could transform the much ballyhooed concept of checks and balances into a frayed and unreliable, perhaps impotent, defender of freedom. All the while the powerful oligarchs who would destroy democracy will be busy wrapping their package of deceit in the red white and blue.

Attorney Bill Newman is director of the western Massachusetts Office of the ACLU, host of a WHMP weekday program and author of “When the War Came Home.”