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Jonathan P. Baird: How to respond to authoritarian threats? Just look to history – Concord Monitor

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Unlike many nations, America, for generations, has had a two-party political system. That has long been the norm. Sometimes Democrats would win and sometimes Republicans would prevail. That old normal may soon disappear because one party (the Republicans) has degenerated into an anti-democratic cabal. They want to eliminate the possibility that Democrats could ever win a national election.

The process of degeneration has been multi-faceted. Our former president turned his party into a cult of personality devoted to his Big Lie of election fraud. If you are a Republican who does not agree with the Big Lie, you are likely to have been ostracized, threatened or punished. You will be primaried or forced to retire. Witness Liz Cheney, Anthony Gonzalez and Adam Kinzinger. You must pledge loyalty to the Big Lie.
The party, which used to be conservative, is now supportive of whatever Trump wants. Republican leaders like Marjorie Taylor Greene called Republicans who voted for Biden’s infrastructure bill “traitors.”
The Republicans have been taken over by extremists and QAnon conspiracists who had planned to keep Trump president indefinitely. In 2020, they came close to succeeding.
Their focus is now on gerrymandering, changing voting laws and election personnel to put into place their loyalists. The former Executive Director of the Michigan GOP Jeff Timmer summarized, “It’s kind of scary looking ahead because the Republicans are making no secret about their plans to create chaos and throw a monkey wrench in the gears of the next election trying to put people in place who will go beyond what the law allows and to do things in the next election that they didn’t feel they had people in place to do in the last one.”
Sadly, the Democratic response to the increasing authoritarianism is less than impressive. Not recognizing the urgency of the threat, the Democrats bicker among themselves, increasing the chance of Republican victory in 2022 and 2024. Most people don’t care about Senators Manchin and Sinema and excuses for failing to deliver. If you promise a lot, you must deliver.
Along with the lack of urgency among the Democrats is the weak response by the Department of Justice to the authoritarian threat. So far, Attorney General Merrick Garland has done little to hold Trump and his circle accountable for their crimes. Insufficient pressure has been exerted to punish Trump and his Jan. 6 co-conspirators. Apparently, with the notable exception of Steve Bannon, the DOJ only goes after little fish.
Time is of the essence as Trump is playing a delay game. I expect he is hoping to use court appeals to run out the clock in the hopes Republican wins in 2022 will squash investigations of his crimes. Delay has always been a key tool in his bag of tricks.
In surveying the big picture, I would suggest a relevant historical example from American history about how to counter rising authoritarianism. During the Great Depression roughly 90 years ago, America faced a homegrown fascist threat from the German-American Bund, America Firsters, Silver Legion and followers of Father Charles Coughlin. These were the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters of their day.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt effectively sidelined the fascist threat with his New Deal. Just to recall the time, tens of millions of Americans were desperate, thrown into unemployment and abject poverty. Many looked to Germany as an example for America to follow. This was before things in Germany seriously devolved into mass concentration camps and worse.
President Roosevelt led a radical program of massive government investment and intervention into the economy. The New Deal employed millions of jobless people. Roosevelt invested heavily in public infrastructure. He subjected Wall Street speculators and Big Business to strict regulation.
Roosevelt blamed economic royalists who had managed to gain economic power through what he called “concentration of control.” He warned that fascism was the result of democratic governments failing to enact bold agendas while protecting an economic status quo that enriched small elites at the expense of the masses.
While he can be legitimately criticized for failing to tackle racism, Roosevelt became a beloved figure to millions of Americans because he boldly addressed the economic inequality of his day. He went big and the American people re-elected him four times.
There is a lesson here for Democrats and progressives. We need to follow the FDR example. We need visionary politics that opposes a corporatist state that concentrates power in the hands of the super-rich at the expense of the many. We cannot go backward on the progressive agenda whether it is climate change, racism, women’s reproductive rights or economic inequality.
The Democrats and moderates who are saying we should just not be Trump are wrong. That agenda will lead to the return of Trump or a Trump surrogate. It doesn’t provide enough reason to vote.
To defeat the authoritarians, we must invest in our working class to restore faith in democratic government. Democrats are underestimating how much of a disaster it will be if they jettison their most popular initiatives in subservience to corporate donors.
For example, 82% of registered voters support adding dental and vision benefits to Medicare. 72% favor allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. 70% support paid family and medical leave. Polling by Priorities USA, a Biden-aligned firm, also found that raising taxes on the rich was the most popular economic proposal.
To the extent the Democrats fail to pass, water down or abandon their most popular initiatives, they will be shooting themselves in the foot. It is not unnoticed that the Democrats keep whittling down social spending on the Build Back Better plan. Nor that it is at the behest of corporate donors.
Corporations do vote-buying as they have done with Manchin and Sinema. It is a form of legalized bribery to buy their desired public policy. Whether it is Republican or Democratic, it is both corrupt and sickeningly familiar.
The best bet for saving our democracy is the passage of the strongest, most far-reaching Build Back Better social spending plan. That will motivate a broad array of voters and give citizens solid reasons to turn out and vote.
Beyond that, we need to create what the British writer Paul Mason has called “an anti-fascist ethos”. We need an alliance of all people of whatever political stripe who oppose fascism and authoritarianism. Trump created a boogeyman mythology around Antifa that is totally misleading.
To be anti-fascist is to be part of an honorable tradition. In World War II, almost 300,000 Americans fought and died, opposing fascism. In 2021, we need to resurrect anti-fascism so democracy can survive.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.)
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