In a morally and politically “arresting” column last week, The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg noted that unidentified federal forces were snatching protesters from Portland’s streets without warrants. “Can we call it fascism yet?” she asked, citing the historian Timothy Snyder’s warning, in his truly arresting On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, that “When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.”
It has come, indeed, unless we stop it en masse. Now. Not from behind our computers but in the streets and in public buildings and in massive but disciplined non-compliance with government edicts that flout the rule of law. But disciplined non-compliance requires organizing and communicating effectively enough to dissuade protesters (and outside provocateurs) from giving Trumpists and sensationalist media reasons to to call the protests “riots.”
Days before his inauguration in 2017, Donald Trump started in on creating his own private security force, independent of the military and Secret Service. Discovering that a president has command of the National Guard unit in the District of Columbia, as governors do in their states, Trump’s transition team informed the DC unit’s commander that his dismissal would be effective at noon on Inauguration Day, in the middle of the ceremony, so that he wouldn’t even be able to supervise his troops’ return to their quarters. The American Prospect called the move “a precedent-breaking decision” that “raises troubling questions about transparency and accountability.”
Some of us had seen something like this coming even in 2014, when public massacres and murders of unarmed young blacks by whites were rising, and again in 2016, as candidate Trump announced that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue without losing his supporters. Ever since, he has excited a roiling horde of ‘militia’ members, authoritarian police, enthusiasts of ‘Stand Your Ground’ and ‘Concealed Carry’ laws and border walls.
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Last week, three days after Goldberg cited Snyder on fascism, he offered a thoughtful, historically rich explanation of why it is indeed upon us: Unidentified federal officers are testing the boundaries of government by, of, and for the people not just because the Department of Homeland Security is reliving 9/11 but because its overreach reflects a subtler but more devastating assault on the American people and their republic.
Drawing on his research on how fascism came to Germany less than a century ago, Snyder noted that it can come to any country not just when armed cadres of villains pop up but, long before that, when powerful social and commercial currents that seem morally and politically neutral — and that many of us ride on and seek to profit from – have hollowed out democratic and republican habits of the heart, leaving a political vacuum that authoritarians and desperate losers can sweep in to fill.
At that point, Snyder noted, citizens who cherish freedom have no alternative but to stand up in an organized fashion against their own “elected” officials and law-enforcement agencies en masse, with discipline and clear purpose, to recreate democracy itself. This happened in British India, in apartheid South Africa, throughout the Soviet bloc, and in the segregationist American South, an authoritarian society that covered its brutality with syrupy affectations of civility.
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Portland’s “Wall of Moms” and its emulators have stood up. They’ve set an example that we’ll need to follow, not merely by liking, tweeting, and signing petitions or attending gala celebrations of artistic resistance or otherwise scribbling our thoughts and sentiments online, as I’m doing right now, but by engaging personally, at some risk to our bodies and immediate material interests, in strategically coordinated civil disobedience. Americans from Nathan Hale to Rosa Parks to Edward Snowden and countless others unsung have done that. Will we?
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To understand what boundaries Trump is testing, know that nearly two thousand years ago the Roman Senate granted the republic’s first complete emperor, Augustus, what Edward Gibbon characterized as “an important privilege:… By a dangerous exception to the ancient maxims, he was authorized to preserve his military command, supported by a numerous body of guards, even in time of peace, and in the heart of the capital.”
Augustus’ Praetorian Guard metastasized from something like our Secret Service into a force that roamed the empire hunting down the emperor’s personal enemies, including Roman senators themselves. Gibbon wrote that Roman citizens became accustomed to the dark, seductive shift from republican ardor and eloquence to submission to force and fraud in political life. They “no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defense to a mercenary army….”
Several founders of the American republic read Gibbon. As Ben Franklin voted for the new Constitution in 1787, he warned that it “can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall have become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.” Founder Richard Henry Lee warned that “History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces.”
Gibbon might as well have been describing many people we know now when he wrote that “ The rich and polite Italians… enjoyed the present blessings of ease and tranquility, and suffered not the pleasing dream to be interrupted by the memory of their old tumultuous freedom. With its power, the senate had lost its dignity; many of the most noble families were extinct.”
Analogies to ancient Rome or Nazi Germany can be facile and even dangerous, but it would be just as dangerous to ignore history’s cautions unless we’re bent on repeating its follies. To avoid that, we need to confront not only Trump but the Ivy-bred “Good Shepherds” – the “rich and polite” people, in Gibbon’s account – who’ve shepherded us through a decades-long disintegration of civil society and republican governance, leaving New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina’s perfect storm of unchecked global warming, failed infrastructure, and corrupt politics in 2005, when the devastated city was patrolled by the private military Blackwater guards.
Trumpism has discredited conservatives who fantasize about restoring the capitalism of Adam Smith and John Locke, and it has sucked the wind out of the sails of leftists who fantasize that a precariat-proletariat will rise again. But the Wall of Moms (and now, of Dads, grandparents, and others) is standing up for a civic-republican way of life in which, as a commenter put it beneath one of my articles years ago, “all parties have a fundamental allegiance to getting along, and specifically to handling losses without developing longstanding brutal grudges. If a small group had ever gotten together and made an agreement to subvert the system and behave destructively in a coordinated manner, they could have done a lot of damage before the rest of us figured out what was happening – and then our only alternative would have been to terminate the system… Strong as our constitutional system is, I don’t think it was ever intended to resist a large-scale, long-term, tightly-organized effort to subvert it from within.”
We’re confronting not only a “tightly organized effort” that made its first move toward establishing a Praetorian Guard on Inauguration Day, 2017. We’re also confronting a regime within which CEOs, members of Congress, mindless administrators, and credulous strivers, some of them in our own families and, perhaps, in our hearts, are betraying the civic-republican ethos I’ve just sketched.
We can give it a new birth of freedom, as democrats have done against what seemed overwhelming odds in British colonial India, apartheid South Africa, the Soviet bloc, Jim Crow in our own South, and even in the sexism that the Wall of Moms has discredited unforgettably by staring down federal operatives dressed like Ninja Turtles and carrying big guns.
It’s important that demonstrations be well disciplined and ready for the worst. Trump is desperate to find his “Reichstag fire,” an American equivalent of the torching of Germany’s parliament building that gave Hilter an excuse to declare an emergency and assume dictatorial powers. Protesters must be told by credible leaders that any broken window or offensive graffiti, let alone looting, arms their oppressors. The civil-rights movement had to sideline Eldridge Cleaver and Kwame Toure; the anti-Vietnam War movement had to disown the Weathermen. The hard lesson is true power lies in massive non-compliance, not in handing photo-ops to authoritarians who want to shift the blame for violence.
For historical, conceptual, and practical guidance, I suggest the late Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, which shows how people in places like those just mentioned, and in the American Revolution, have transformed established power that was flouting real democracy.