It was 80 years ago, on Sept. 1, that Nazi Germany invaded Poland and launched World War II in Europe. The poet W.H. Auden called the period leading up to this disastrous conflict, in which more than 60 million people would die, a “low, dishonest decade.”
We may not like to admit it, but the term applies all too well to our times and our own country. We, too, are seeing relentless attacks on democratic institutions – the press, the courts, the civil service – and insidious efforts to turn us against each other.
But our democracy is strong; a fascist takeover here is impossible, right? In the mid 1930s, Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis — our fellow Minnesotan — wrote a novel on that very theme; in it, a president becomes a dictator to save the country from welfare cheats, sexual promiscuity, crime and a liberal press. Sound familiar? Maybe it’s time to go back and read or reread “It Can’t Happen Here.”
Because it COULD. In fact, in many ways the process has already started; if current trends are allowed to continue, our democracy, too, could wind up in shambles.
Majority was complacent, ineffectual and splintered
Hitler’s Nazi party rose to power in Germany without ever winning majority support in the polls. It was enough that his minority was determined, ruthless and unscrupulous while the majority was complacent, ineffectual and splintered. Once in power, Hitler seized control of the media and the courts, steamrolled opposition, and began a vendetta against Jews that we know as the Holocaust.
Of course, parallels with the Trump administration are inexact, but they are scary just the same. Witness President Donald Trump’s assault on the “mainstream media.” He calls media that don’t support him “the enemy of the people; “ news reports that do not flatter him or conform with his version of events are “fake news.” Having no patience with a free press, he had his (now former) spokeswoman cease the daily White House press briefings that had been a staple for accountability for decades.
The story is similar with the courts. Trump speaks of “Republican judges” and “Democrat judges,” displaying as little respect for an independent judiciary as he does for a free press, though both are enshrined in our Constitution. Aided by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he is packing federal courts with judges who promise to go along, not only with his right-wing agenda but also his moves against individuals or institutions who dare to challenge any of his diktats.
A nonpartisan civil service is another pillar of our political system, yet Trump treats career officials as part of a “deep state” set on undermining him. The Justice Department, Robert Mueller, the intelligence community and the State Department are favorite targets, but scientists in the Environmental Protection Agency and economists at the Federal Reserve have found themselves in the crosshairs of his tweet storms.
An office demeaned
Trump’s authoritarian impulses run contrary to the system of shared power, of checks and balances, that our Founding Fathers created and that has served us well for more than two centuries. His often-vicious personal attacks against groups and individuals violate the inspiring ideals of our founding documents; they also demean an office Americans long revered.
Trump will not change. He will only get more emboldened if given a second mandate. This is who he is. The question is: Who are we? Will we, like ordinary Germans in the ’30s, explain away each incremental step as freedom after freedom is lost and restraints on executive power loosened? Some of the conduct we see at Trump campaign rallies is far from encouraging. The chants, “lock her up” or “send them back” are disturbing echoes of the “sieg heils” and “Jews perish” of Hitler’s Germany.
To preserve our democratic soul, all of us will have to fight for it: judges to honor the rule of law, not personal whim, and politicians to put country — not party — first. Media to report fairly, objectively, and call out lies, even – especially – when they come from the highest office in the land. Civil servants to remain loyal to the interests of the nation, not an individual or party. Religious leaders to speak out firmly for morality in our public life — and to walk the walk, as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did recently in announcing it would offer sanctuary to immigrants.
We ordinary citizens must reaffirm our respect for people of different religions, political parties, ethnic groups, or sexual orientation. It is our commitment to this ideal that makes us a special nation; living up to this standard would truly make ours a more perfect union.
Finally, we need to participate in our public discourse – and vote. Only by doing so, and by choosing candidates who will uphold our values with conviction and courage, will we save our democracy. It’s up to us.
Dick Virden is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer. He lives in Plymouth.
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