Democracy & Government

Who Says It Can’t Happen Here?

We have endured 40 years of creeping authoritarianism and it now appears that it may run right over democracy. We must resist and act in solidarity.

Who Says It Can’t Happen Here?

President Donald Trump is seen during a campaign rally at the AeroMod International hangar at Orlando Melbourne International Airport on February 18, 2017 in Melbourne, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s candidacy and now, presidency, have resurrected a public discourse not heard in this country since the Great Depression — an anxious discourse about the possible triumph in America of a fascist-tinged authoritarian regime over liberal democracy. It’s a fear Sinclair Lewis turned into a 1935 bestselling novel, It Can’t Happen Here — although, as Lewis told it, it sure as hell could happen here.

It did not happen, however. Not then, at least. Electing Franklin Roosevelt as president and taking up the labors of the New Deal, our parents and grandparents not only rejected the sirens of authoritarianism, they actually extended and deepened American freedom, equality and democracy. They subjected big business to public account and regulation; expanded the nation’s public infrastructure and improved the environment; empowered the federal government to address the needs of working people and the poor; mobilized farmers’ organizations, labor unions, consumer campaigns and civil rights groups and fought for their rights, broadening the “We” in “We the People.”

Undeniably, they left a great deal to be done. But they gave themselves the wherewithal to defeat fascism overseas and learned how to democratically rebuild the nation.

Now we find ourselves anxiously asking, Can it happen here? Trump has given us plenty of reason to worry. He has referred to Mexican immigrants as murderers and rapists; ordered mass deportations of the undocumented by resorting to what he himself describes as “a military operation;” spoken of creating a “Muslim registry” and sought to ban Muslims from entering the country. What’s more, he repeatedly has expressed admiration for Russia’s authoritarian strongman Vladimir Putin; called members of the federal judiciary “so-called judges;” and charged the news media with being “the enemy of the people.” He lost the popular vote but claims it was due to voter fraud, and has proceeded to “govern” as if he actually won a popular mandate. And his Cabinet appointments signal a determination to carry out a decidedly reactionary policy agenda long championed by the right wing.

When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press… And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator. I’m just saying we need to learn from history.

— Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)

Not for nothing did Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) tell NBC News’ Chuck Todd that we must be wary of our new president: “When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press… And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator. I’m just saying we need to learn from history.”

Yes, we do. And in that light, we should recognize that as much as Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric and executive orders are driven by his own demagogic nature, they are propelled by four decades of corporate class war, conservative culture war and neoliberal political economy and public policies intended to roll back the democratic rights and achievements of the 1960s and 1930s — including Social Security, which Trump’s own White House budget director has called “a Ponzi scheme.”

Recalling the democratic surge and initiatives of the FDR years, the 1960s witnessed a dramatic renewal of campaigns and legislation to make real the promise of equality and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — including for the poor. Pushed by the new democratic activism and inspired by New Deal precedents, President Lyndon Johnson called for the making of a Great Society and a War on Poverty. A liberal-led Congress moved to enhance American democratic life and enrich the public good. To guarantee civil and political equality, Congress passed historic civil rights, voting rights and fair housing acts and, eschewing racial and religious discrimination, enacted a major reform of the nation’s immigration law. To combat poverty, they made health care a right for the elderly and poor and expanded educational opportunities for children and young people. To assure citizens healthier and safer lives, they instituted laws and created agencies to clean up and make secure the environment, marketplace and workplace. And to advance the Founders’ democratic vision of an informed, culturally aware and historically conscious citizenry, they established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (subsidizing, in part, PBS and NPR) and the National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) and Humanities (NEH).

In those same years, the Supreme Court extended and deepened the reach of the Bill of the Rights by reinforcing the wall of separation between church and state, strengthening the rights of the accused, and acknowledging the right of privacy for women exercising responsibility over their own bodies. And many a state legislature north and west expanded industrial democracy by granting collective bargaining rights to public workers.

Yes, urban rioting and anti-war protests divided our citizens and often overshadowed democratic advances. Nevertheless, Americans had initiated a “rights revolution” and once again enlarged both the “We” in “We the People” and the powers of the people. In the background you could hear echoes of FDR’s famous speech on “The Four Freedoms.”

The democratic surge of the long 1960s terrified not only white supremacists in Dixie and political and religious conservatives and reactionaries nationally, but also corporate chiefs and executives.

The democratic surge of the long 1960s terrified not only white supremacists in Dixie and political and religious conservatives and reactionaries nationally, but also corporate chiefs and executives. They bristled at regulations from federal agencies old and new, and at paying taxes for government programs and “entitlements” (as well as a war in Southeast Asia). They felt threatened by labor unionists, movements of women and people of color, public-interest groups and an “adversary culture” of students, the media, and “value-oriented” scholars and intellectuals. At the same time, US companies were experiencing a “profits squeeze” due to foreign competition, and an oil crisis was contributing to economic “stagflation.” So business leaders called for concerted action against what they saw as “an excess of democracy” that urgently needed subduing.

Organized in such groups as the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce, the Trilateral Commission and the Business Roundtable, corporate executives mobilized to reverse the democratic tide. They undertook intensive lobbying campaigns to block labor, environmental and consumer-rights legislation; enlisted teams of lawyers to do battle with public interest groups and bust unions; underwrote think tank “scholars” to counter the work of liberal pundits and professors; and launched political action committees, public relations campaigns and advertising to propagate pro-corporate views, assail taxes and regulations, and back pro-business political candidates.

Meanwhile, ultra-rich magnates like the Coors and Koch brothers, along with the richly endowed Bradley and John M. Olin foundations, funded efforts to mobilize Christian evangelicals around “culture war” questions like school prayer and abortion and white working people around mantras of law and order and tax reduction. The last was most appealing. As companies moved operations and jobs first south and then overseas, as unionism took a beating, and as wages were frozen or reduced and benefits were cut, voting for politicians who promised to lower taxes seemed an attractive option for many workers, few of whom realized that the greatest tax cuts would go to the very rich.

Liberal and progressive forces sought to defend and advance past democratic achievements, but Democratic President Jimmy Carter turned his back on the legacy of FDR, LBJ and those we would come to call the Greatest Generation. Paving the way for the New Right Republican presidency of Ronald Reagan and the age of neoliberalism, Carter abandoned the liberal agenda of labor, environmentalism and consumer rights in favor of cutting government programs, lowering taxes and deregulating capital.

Republicans moved right, and under Bill Clinton, the Democrats followed suit.

Republicans moved right, and under Bill Clinton, the Democrats followed suit. Liberals and progressives scored occasional victories, especially regarding equal rights for gays and lesbians, but corporate and conservative reaction steadily advanced against freedom, equality and democracy.

In state after state, conservatives have acted to override or circumvent a woman’s right to choose by enacting laws intended to make abortions almost impossible to secure. In state after state, Republicans have sought to suppress the votes of people of color, the poor and students by enacting voter ID laws. After years of trying, they finally succeeded by way of Shelby County v. Holder (2013) in getting a conservative Supreme Court to disembowel the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And in state after state, the corporate and conservative rich have smashed labor unions and effectively suppressed the voices of workers by enacting so-called right to work laws — even, as in Wisconsin in 2011, rescinding the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Who now speaks of industrial democracy?

But Republicans have had no monopoly on subverting democracy and the rights of working people. When and where were workers and environmental activists heard when the Clinton administration negotiated NAFTA and the Obama administration negotiated the now derailed TPP — which Obama saw as central to his “legacy”? When and where were the American people brought into the conversation when the Obama White House negotiated the Affordable Care Act with Big Pharma and the health insurance industry, accepting concessions that would come home to haunt the early successes of the act? And let’s not forget that it was not only Senate Republicans who voted for the Bush administration’s USA Patriot Act in 2001, a law that has critically threatened the privacy of US citizens. Only one Democratic senator dissented, Wisconsin’s Russell Feingold.

We have endured nothing less than 40 years of creeping authoritarianism — and it now appears that it may run right over democracy. Jeff Sessions as attorney general — despite having once been denied a federal judgeship because of his racist proclivities — augurs nothing but ill for civil rights and voting rights. Tom Price as Secretary of Health and Human Services signals efforts to privatize Medicare and even Social Security. And Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education promises to speed up the transfer of dollars from public to private and parochial schools. Thrilling the Republican right all the more, the Trump administration wants to defund the Legal Services Corporation, which provides “financial support for civil legal aid to low income Americans,” the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the NEA and NEH.

Revealing their authoritarian inclinations all the more, right-wing Republican legislators in several states are introducing bills to criminalize protest activities — and, in Iowa, for example — to require that only Republicans be appointed to university faculties.

Roosevelt warned us of what might happen if we did not sustain the “march of democracy.” In a radio address on the eve of the 1938 congressional mid-term elections, with authoritarianism on the rise globally and conservative and reactionary forces in America organizing anew, he said:

As of today, Fascism and Communism — and old-line Tory Republicanism — are not threats to the continuation of our form of government. But I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, then fascism and communism, aided, unconsciously perhaps, by old-line Tory Republicanism, will grow in strength in our land.

The Fight for $15, the Moral Monday Movement, the anti-fracking and block-the-pipelines campaigns, Black Lives Matter, and the popular enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders’ run for the 2016 Democratic nomination indicated that Americans were, after many years, reinvigorating the nation’s democratic pulse. And both Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory and the massive turnout across the United States for the Women’s March on inauguration weekend make clear that our resistance is a movement of the majority.

But the resistance must be about more than Trump. The democratic energies we expressed in the years and months leading up to November 2016 must lead to a struggle for democracy, which means a sustained struggle against the authoritarianism of both Trump and the reactionary forces that enabled his rise to power and authority. We must resist the future now taking shape in the fevered imagination of those like chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, who once openly admitted to emulating Lenin in wanting to “destroy the state” and wants to push us further and further to the right.

The die is cast. To secure American democratic life, we must resist and overcome not only the initiatives of the greedy, corrupt, bigoted and narcissistic bully who currently occupies the White House, but also the anti-democratic ambitions and schemes of corporate capital and the right. If our parents and grandparents’ lives tell us anything, it is that it’s not just a matter of rejecting authoritarianism but of acting in solidarity to radically enhance freedom, equality and democracy.

Harvey J. Kaye

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster). He is currently writing Radicals at Heart: Why Americans Should Embrace their Radical History (The New Press).  Drawn from work on his new book project, these words were delivered as the Keynote Address at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Wisconsin League of Women Voters. Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye