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Reader Request Week 2021 #5: American Fascism

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Rick asks:

Being a child of the late 20th century, I always thought the USA was somehow immune to fascism, and I’m honestly surprised to discover recently that this isn’t the case. Is this simple naivete, or have things fundamentally changed in American politics?

Well, you know. In 1939 American Nazis held a rally at Madison Square Garden. It was very well attended! And among other things they hung a big damn portrait of George Washington between their swastikas, with full intent:

That giant portrait of George Washington was no afterthought. “One of the things they tried to do was to say that this is what America has always been and this is what the Founding Fathers would have supported,” said Churchwell. Indeed, they referred to Washington as “America’s first fascist.”

And they might have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that meddling World War II and Germany (and Nazism) becoming the enemy. Inconvenient for the American Nazis, that. Set the whole fascist movement back decades in the US.

At least, the part that overtly called itself fascism. But otherwise it still managed. McCarthyism? That was fascism. Jim Crow? Fascism. Definition nerds will quibble about whether America’s long-standing authoritarian, anti-democratic impulses qualify as true fascism, but two things here. One: If it quacks like a duck, etc. Two, let us recall that when actual no-shit fascists were looking at ways to codify their power and to demonize their enemies, including and specifically the Jews, where did they look for useful examples? If your answer is anything other than “Why, at the United States and its systemic suppression of its own minorities over the years,” then, surprise! Here’s a reading list to catch you up.

To be clear, the US is not (directly) responsible for the rise of Nazism and the horrors it perpetrated on the Jewish population of Europe. Hitler was fucking evil, and Europe was not exactly new to anti-semitism in the first half of the 20th century. Hitler would have found a way to get where he wanted to go, and the German nation would have gone along, as it largely did. But this doesn’t change the fact that when the Nazis were looking for pertinent examples for legally disenfranchising parts of its own population, the United States was there for it, with laws that, if not technically fascist in themselves (quibble away, definition nerds!), were certainly proto-fascist.

In a larger sense, the history of the United States is a history of Will to Power, competing neck-to-neck with what we prefer to see as our more noble and democratic Power to the People. What is “Manifest Destiny” if not Deus Vult in mid-18th century dress? Did the US not essentially pick fights with Mexico and Spain for land and political influence? Did it not ignore whatever treaties it made with the Native Americans whenever it felt like it? Did it not rise to prominence on the labor and pain of African slaves, and tear itself apart because the South decided it was better to gamble on a quick war to keep those slaves, than to imagine them as people? And then, having freed those slaves, did the US then not engage in a century-long effort to keep those slaves and their descendants as legally close to a slave state as possible? Did the US not likewise demonize and restrict the rights of Chinese and other Asians? In the end, who benefited from the United States, who still benefits from it, and how was it managed that only they received the vastly largest share of the benefit?

If you know the answers to these questions, and yet still wonder how the United States might not be immune to fascism, the likely problem is that you’re hung up on the word “fascism” rather than the conceptual, social and political elements that allow for fascism.”Fascism” is a brand. Authoritarianism is the substance inside the can. The United States has had all of the ingredients for authoritarianism as long as it’s existed, and we make a fresh batch of it whenever we feel like it.

To go back to World War II, one of its side effects was that for as long as the generation who fought it was the engine of the economy and politically active, overt fascism was more difficult to support in the US — we could manage it if we could, say, argue we were doing it to fight communism or something, but indulging in it purely for its own sake was a bad look. But the generation that fought World War II is mostly dead now, and a lot of their (white) children are of the opinion that maybe fascism got a bad rap — it’s not so bad, it’s just how it was done before that’s the problem. Creeping fascism has been the goal of the US Republican Party for a while now, what with its policy of steadily eroding and ignoring democratic norms, and its strategy of creating economic and informational insecurity to scare poor and working class whites, with the goal of inflaming their systemically-inculcated bias toward racism, for the benefit of the wealthiest of its party members, and to retain power even (especially) as the majority of US citizens have left it and its political interests behind.

And it certainly got a boost in that from Donald Trump! If someone like Mitch McConnell is the GOP’s ego, Trump is its id, a loud, proudly ignorant racist and buffoon who doesn’t give a shit about democracy, admires dictators, was enraged he wasn’t treated as a king, and who ended his presidency with an attempted putsch against his democratically chosen successor. Trump may not have come into the White House as a fascist, but he certainly left as one. His party — with some notable exceptions — gave him aid and comfort in his transformation and in his attempt to overthrow democracy in the United States. Moreover, it is now actively, unapologetically and with full fervor attempting to curtail the ability of United States citizens to participate in the democratic process, in a manner we haven’t seen so openly since the time when the Nazis were looking for a legal model for the persecution of the Jews and everyone else they found inconvenient. That is in fact actual fascism. You could say fascism has captured the GOP, but that ignores that fascism (and specifically, white christianist fascism) was always the plan, from at least Newt Gingrich onward. The Republicans meant to get here. And now they are here.

But again: We have always been here, in one way or another, here in these United States. The greatness of the US, its ability to be an actual force for good, and for hope, and for the democratic model of governance, has always gone hand in hand with its ability to be the worst of nations, and to indulge in authoritarianism, imperialism, bigotry and, yes, fascism. What we work for — what you should be working for, anyway — is to have the better aspects of our nation to be in the fore, so it may be the sort of country that fascism can’t provide: Tolerant, wise, open, diverse and focused on the common weal.

During the Trump administration I would occasionally see on Twitter: “If you you were wondering what you would have done in Germany during the rise of the Nazis, it’s whatever you are doing now.” That was true! Just remember it’s always been true, in every time, here in the United States. Our nation’s darker nature is always there, and is always waiting for good people to lack conviction and to do nothing. Whatever you’re doing now, that’s what you’re doing to fight that darker nature. Or not! It’s up to you.

(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)

— JS

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SteveRB511
290 days ago
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The Plague and the President

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Headlines about Trump contracting the virus, with a plush toy of a plague doctor in the foreground.

John ScalziThere is of course irony, of the cheap, Alanis Morissette sort, of a man so heavily invested in denying the reality and severity of the COVID-19 virus contracting the thing and joining the millions of his fellow Americans who have suffered from it, and risking becoming one of the more than 200,000 who have died from it. It does not escape notice that, like many if not most of those, the president might not have had to suffer this particular calamity if the federal government had not had a shambolic response to the virus, in no small part due to Trump himself being the largest vector of disinformation about it. And of course, the fact that Trump has repeatedly disdained wearing face masks as a protective measure, and repeatedly mocked and criticized Joe Biden for doing so, up to and including at this week’s debate, certainly adds a mordant bite to his diagnosis.

No one deserves to contract a virus which can damage multiple organs, cause lungs to malfunction, require its victims to be hooked up to respirators to keep their bodies alive, and force people to die alone, away from the touch and comfort of family and loved ones, not even a man, who, when confronted with the deaths the virus and his policies regarding it wrought, merely said “It is what it is.” But it’s possible some people might find they have less sympathy for a man who so heavily politicized the national response to this disease, and actively prioritized his own re-election strategy over helping contain the spread of the virus, than they might have for others.

All of this is true. But for me, this is a reminder of a thing that has been true from the beginning, regardless of how much so many, including and indeed primarily Trump himself, thought and wished it otherwise: The virus doesn’t care about your politics. It doesn’t care about your party affiliation, whether you believe in God or not, what your opinions are about science or vaccines, your feelings about what is “masculine” or “alpha” behavior, or whether you think it’s an intrusion on your rights to be told what to put on your face or how to act in a retail establishment, or a school, or anywhere else. It doesn’t care about anything. The only thing it wants is to make more of itself — and it will, when offered the opportunity.

Trump, through his actions, and inaction, has offered the virus that opportunity, over and over again. He’s now done it personally, offering up his own body to its tender predations — and if that was the extent of it, then that would simply be his own karma. Trump is like a man who sees a sign warning against alligators lurking in a swamp as a dare to take a swim, and when the alligators spin him under the water, no one could say he wasn’t warned. Unfortunately, he hasn’t confined his heedlessness to himself. How dare this sign tell us where we can and can’t swim, it’s a liberal plot to take our freedoms! And then suddenly legions are splashing into the swamp, dragging unwilling others with them, to be a feast for the creatures that dwell there. And Trump, chest high in the swampy water, chortles to himself that the signmakers will be blamed for it all, even as the alligators close in on him.

The president is 74 years old and very obviously in less-than-great physical and mental shape; it seems likely he has some of the various comorbidities that exacerbate the severity of the virus. He is fortunate that thanks to his position, he will receive a level of health care that his administration is currently trying to strip from millions of other Americans. For this reason among others, I think it’s possible, indeed, probable, he’ll get through this diagnosis just fine, unlike so many others of his general age and infirmity.

If and when he does, it will be interesting to see how he reacts to having contracted the virus. One would like to hope that it causes him to reassess his previous positions and actions, but I think we all know it won’t. If Trump has a mild case and bounces back, it’ll just be proof to him that he was right all along, and off he’ll go, telling people to come on in, the swamp water’s fine. And in they will go.

It would be karmically disadvantageous to wish on Trump a level of viral severity that makes it sink in, even to him, how bad this disease can get, and how foolish he has been to deny it, as it burned through the country, taking hundreds of thousands with it, and obliging countless more to deal with chronic health issues springing from having contracted it. Rather, I wish him a full and quick recovery, and that with the recovery comes wisdom, knowledge, and a desire to help his fellow Americans — all of them, not just the ones he think might be useful to him.

I acknowledge the latter parts of that are the very definition of wishful thinking. But if they came true despite my doubts, well. That would be ironic.

— JS

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SteveRB511
471 days ago
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Becoming a Democratic voter

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This month, I did something I once thought I would never do.

Screenshot of the online voter-registration form on the California Secretary of State's website, with my party preference filled in as Democratic.

My whole adult life, I have been what’s known as a “no party preference” or NPP voter. (Sometimes called “independent”, but this is ambiguous as there is a party called the American Independent Party, and they are very much not centrist or big-tent.)

Largely this has been because I don’t like political parties. And I still don’t. In theory, they’re money and resource pools for candidates to draw on; in practice, we often see them working against insurgent candidates who are proposing change. I’d much rather have campaign finance restricted to some equal share of a publicly-funded pool, with strict laws and even stricter enforcement. (Yes, I know there are risks there, too. There are no perfect solutions.)

I also have always held a somewhat idealistic openness toward third parties, largely as a result of all of the shitty things that politicians of both major parties and the parties themselves have done—some credible competition might help keep them honest.

But now?

John Wick, from the first movie, with his lines changed to “People keep asking me if I have a party preference. And I haven't really had an answer. But now yeah… I'm thinkin' I've got a party preference!”.

On top of the significant difference between the two major parties these days, there is also some realpolitik involved.

For one, I’ve accepted the fact that as long as we have a first-past-the-post voting system, our elections will always tend toward two polar parties, with all the other parties and all the candidates and voters arrayed around them like iron filings around a bar magnet. Ranked-choice voting is a prerequisite (but not the only step by any means) to dismantling the two-party binary. And until we get there, power resides with the two major parties and power must be won and wielded to make change.

But more immediately, the current election in California, which started this month and ends March 3rd, is not only a primary—it’s also used by various Democratic Central Committees (county party organizations, basically) to elect their board members.

As a NPP voter, the Democratic Party in California would let me vote in their Presidential primary—this is called requesting a crossover ballot, and it’s done through the same form through which you request a vote-by-mail ballot. You then get a ballot for NPP voters that includes the Democratic Presidential primary.

But a NPP voter cannot vote in their county’s DCCC election. That’s for registered Democrats only.

So that’s what pushed me over the edge. In San Francisco, we have two roughly-defined slates of candidates running, one formed of current and former elected officials looking to transition from holding power in state or City government to holding power in the county Party, and the other a slate of activists who want the Party to drive progressive change.

One of those Democratic Parties sounds a lot better to me—and I want to cast my vote accordingly.

As I mentioned, the election has already begun—I had already received my crossover ballot when I made the decision. I emailed the SF Department of Elections and got confirmation that once I re-register (and check the box to receive mail-in ballots, same as I did last time), a new ballot would automatically be sent to me. So I did the thing, got my new ballot, and will discard my crossover ballot.

(If you want to do this, the deadline to register and get a Democratic mail-in ballot was February 18 here in California, but you can do Conditional Voter Registration at any polling place/voting center in your county. If you’re in another state, check with your Secretary of State or county Department of Elections.)

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SteveRB511
694 days ago
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Trump’s quest for revenge could mean the end of whistleblowing - The Washington Post

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SteveRB511
708 days ago
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I don't think that this is an end to whistleblowing. This is something that should not be easy to do or without potential cost, otherwise we get into too many frivolous accusations. Having said that, one has to admire the courage it took for these people to stand against a highly corrupt presidency.
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Americans think “made-up news” is a bigger problem than climate change

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U.S. adults are more likely to say that “made-up news/info” is a big problem than they are to identify climate change, racism, terrorism, or sexism as such, according to a study out from the Pew Research Center Wednesday: Fifty percent of those surveyed said made-up news (the artist formerly known as “fake news”) is a “very big problem” in the United States. By comparison, 46 percent called climate change a “very big problem”; 40 percent said the same about racism; 34 percent said the same about terrorism.

“Made-up news/info” can’t touch some other issues, though — like drug addiction and affordable health care. It ranks only a hair behind income inequality.

The report is the bleakest I’ve seen when it comes to the partisan divide in the United States around fake news. Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to identify made-up news as a “very big problem.” (They are, after all, told it’s a huge problem repeatedly by the president.) They are also more likely to say that they see it “often,” and they are three times as likely as Democrats to blame journalists for creating it. Republicans are also more likely to say that they have “reduced the amount of news they get overall” out of their concerns over fake news.

Here, for instance, are Americans overall:

And here are Republicans:

Seventy-nine percent of Americans think “steps should be taken to restrict made-up news and information intended to mislead” — a statistic that is frightening for journalists considering that Republicans are more likely to think fake news is a big problem and to blame journalists for it, and when you consider that some of the harshest “fake news” bans have come from countries with authoritarian governments where the bans can be seen as clamping down on journalism and free speech. Pew didn’t ask, in this survey, precisely what measures Americans think should be taken to reduce fake news — but 53 percent of survey respondents said the greatest responsibility comes from “the news media,” compared to only 9 percent who said the same about tech companies.

In addition to the political divide, Pew identified other demographic differences in Americans’ concerns about fake news. 18- to 29-year-olds are less concerned about fake news than those ages 50 and older, are less likely to say they encounter it often, and are less likely to blame journalists for it. In fact, “the only group that the youngest adults put somewhat greater blame on is the public (30% vs. 23% of the oldest age group).” 18- to 29-year-olds are also more likely than older age groups “to have taken certain steps to combat [fake news] or to limit their exposure to it.”

The full report is here.

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SteveRB511
956 days ago
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One issue with the perception and lack of critical thinking in regards to real and imagined fake news is that it affects the results of how people view all of the other problems listed
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2 public comments
betajames
956 days ago
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WTF
Michigan
cjmcnamara
956 days ago
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very normal and cool

The Manchurian Idiot

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After Helsinki, Trump isn’t as useful to Putin as one might think.
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SteveRB511
1277 days ago
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Pretty much sums it up...
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