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What happens when democracy is attacked and people look away?

We failed Spain and its democracy in the 1930s. We have a chance to save a democracy now.

Tear gas is released into the crowd of rioters during clashes with Capitol police on January 6.
Tear gas is released into the crowd of rioters during clashes with U.S. Capitol police on January 6.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

“Will we adhere to the rule of law? Will we respect the rulings of our courts? Will we preserve the peaceful transition of power?” Rep. Liz Cheney asked these disturbing questions at the House hearing on July 27 to investigate the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. She warned that unless there is accountability for the insurrection, “This will remain a cancer on our constitutional Republic. … We will face the threat of more violence in the months to come and another Jan. 6 every four years.”

We know what happened: Thousands of angry people, incited by Donald Trump’s assertion that the election was stolen from him, tried to capture the Capitol. Insurrectionists included white nationalists, anti-Semites wearing “Camp Auschwitz” shirts, racists with Confederacy regalia, and heavily armed people determined to defy the election results at all costs and to stop the legitimate transfer of power.

Five people died and at least 140 people were injured; Capitol police were brutally assaulted; videos of the terror and mayhem looked like a chaotic attack in a failed state, not in the leading nation of the free world.

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A red line crossed

There has been debate over an appropriate political label for the rioters and for Trump himself. I have come to agree with Columbia University historian Robert Paxton. An expert on fascism, the day after the Capitol attack, he wrote, “I have been reluctant to use the F word for Trumpism, but yesterday’s use of violence against democratic institutions crosses the red line.”

Many experts agree with Paxton: We crossed that red line.

It was crossed when people in positions of power willingly abandoned the rule of law, the decisions of the courts, and the peaceful transition of power, all of which Cheney cited in her remarks. These foundational principles of our democracy were utterly irrelevant in the face of powerful incitements to rebellion.

In a recent poll in Business Insider (June 28, 2021), fully 26% of Americans scored high on right-wing authoritarianism, defined as “a desire to submit to some authority, [with] aggression directed against whomever the authority says should be targeted, and a desire to have everybody follow the norms and social conventions that the authority says should be followed.” About a third — 34% — of right-leaning adults and 26% of high-right-wing respondents said the Capitol rioters were protecting the government when they stormed the building.

Many Americans refuse to admit the truth of what happened, or to support an investigation, or to assume responsibility. They have a mix of apathy, resignation that we should just move on, and, of course, the view that there was nothing illegitimate. The Republican support for the rioters, including from members of Congress, is beyond belief.

What happens if we look the other way?

In 1936, the democratically elected government in Spain was challenged by fascists, conservatives, right-wing military leaders, rich and powerful oligarchs, and reactionary members of the populace. They were enraged over democratic hopes of equality for women, more equitable resource distribution for the poor, universal education, and loosening the stranglehold of the Catholic Church. This challenge turned into a coup against the fledgling democracy.

People around the world were paying attention. More than 40,000 volunteers from 52 countries traveled to Spain to fight on the side of the Loyalists, the pro-democracy advocates, against the military and their supporters. Among those volunteers were 2,800 Americans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – men and women of all backgrounds who had one goal: to defeat fascism in Spain.

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The leading supporters of the fascist military side, known as the Nationalists: Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

A proxy battle

The ensuing Spanish Civil War was more than a battle within Spain. It was a proxy battle between fascism and democracy and a rehearsal for the looming cataclysm throughout Europe.

The outcome was tragic. Over the course of three long and brutal years, the fascists gained control of Spain and remained in power until Gen. Francisco Franco’s death in 1975.

The United States’ position was isolationist. The Soviet Union and Mexico were the only countries to come to Spain’s aid against fascism. Hitler, however, sent thousands of fighters, pilots, bombs, planes, ships, and artillery, along with money and training, to obliterate Spain’s democracy. Mussolini did likewise.

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
The Nationalists set up more than 190 concentration camps throughout Spain that held hundreds of thousands of prisoners. The death tolls in the camps, the military battles, and the civilian tolls were horrific: 500,000 people, including 681 Americans of the Lincoln Brigade, perished from warfare and torture, not counting deaths from starvation and disease.

Several years ago, I stood at Spanish battlefields where the pro-democracy forces tried to hold on. It was December, cold, gray, and windy. I wept for the loss – not only of the lives, but for the loss of a better society that people from all over the world had tried to build in Spain.

The volunteer fighters gave their lives for what they saw as the biggest battle in the world: the battle against fascism.

We failed Spain and its democracy in the 1930s. We have a chance to save a democracy now.

Will we – can we — save democracy in America?

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World Without Genocide is hosting a public webinar on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 7-9 p.m. CDT on Zoom, titled “Incitement, Hate and Genocide.” Featured speakers include U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, who was the lead manager of the second Donald Trump Senate impeachment trial; Mark Potok, former senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center; and Imran Ahmed, CEO, Center for Countering Digital Hate. Registrations by Aug. 9 at  $10 general public, $5 seniors and students, $25 lawyers for Minnesota CLE elimination of bias credits (pending).

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and an adjunct professor of law.


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