The Slow Death of Democracy – Part One

Alan Zendell, June 10, 2020

There are many ways to know a thing. We start with facts to gain a cognitive understanding. We research context and solicit other people’s views to make sense of it. When possible, we observe it directly because just knowing a thing is very different from seeing and hearing it. And sometimes, whether willfully or not, we become immersed in it. Only then do we fully comprehend and feel it. 

That applies equally to the COVID-19 virus and the problem of reforming policing protocols and accountability. As critical as those challenges are, I’m more interested, today, in a subtler, more insidious danger – the diminution of our Constitution and the erosion of the principles and institutions that support our basic freedoms. 

Despite our problems as a nation, Americans tend to suffer from a smug complacency. We’re the greatest nation that ever existed, right? But many of us must be repeatedly reminded that the freedoms we take for granted do not come without a price. It’s a basic principle of nature that the universe tends continually toward disorder. If we don’t expend the energy required to defend our way of life, we will surely lose it. 

Many people have warned since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign that his populist, nativist appeal was an ominous warning sign. We’ve seen this play out many times in history, most often when people felt oppressed. We made epic films about slave uprisings in the Roman Empire. We wrote books and musicals and created more epic films about the French Revolution. And we studied the rise of Fascism in the 1930’s that resulted in the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese invasion of China, and ultimately, the second world war. 

When I was in school in the 1950s, I asked my teachers and parents how their generation let it happen. In retrospect, we see the horrors wrought by the rise of nationalism and Fascism in Germany, Italy, and Japan as an inevitable consequence of the failure of rest of the world to acknowledge what was happening and confront it. Those of us who were awake in history class saw how Mussolini and Hitler dismantled their republics and created police states. We watched incredulously as the diplomacy of appeasement fed the appetites of the oppressors. And those questions we asked our parents and teachers? The answers were simple in the clarity of hindsight – the Fascists succeeded because no one was willing to oppose them until they were fighting for their lives. 

In the 1930s, America and Europe were still recovering from the devastation of the First World War, and the world was reeling from the Great Depression. Does that apply to us? We’ve had financial crises in the late ‘80s and the years following the banking system crash of 2007, but nothing like the what happened in the ’30s. We’ve been bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly twenty years, but that hardly compares with the world wars. And yet, here we are facing a similar threat; it may look different, but its basic elements are the same. 

Its principle element is the attack on truth. Adolf Hitler coined the phrase “The Big Lie” in Mein Kampfwherein he proposed that revolution could be achieved by means of a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously”. Hitler’s Big Lie was that all of Germany’s problems were the result of Jewish sabotage, and that Jews controlled the media, the banking system, and the courts. Hitler understood that all he had to do to solidify power was give millions of suffering Germans a convenient scapegoat.  

When you hear people accuse Donald Trump of using the Hitler Playbook, that’s what they mean. Trump’s scapegoat is a moving target. First it was illegal immigrants, then it was legal immigrants. He quickly expanded that to the “liberal media,” activist progressive judges, welfare cheats, and all Democrats. The founder of Fox News, Roger Ailes, convinced Trump that there were millions of people in America who were angry, who felt disenfranchised by progressive political agendas, and specifically, by the presidency of Barrack Obama. All Trump needed to do was convince them that he knew who was causing all their problems. 

Trump modified the big lie theory by simply lying all the time and claiming that everyone who opposed him was part of the deep state/fake news conspiracy dedicated to destroying his presidency. And like the impotent opposition in Germany in the 1930s, Congressional Republicans, the only people who have the real power to stop him, lack the will.  

This will be continued over the next few days. Until then, remember – faced with the reality of Donald Trump, the Washington Post changed its motto to, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” 

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