This imperiled republic: A wannabe dictator, an anguished nation, and the fascist impulse

The election in November will quite possibly be the last chance to save the republic without another revolution.

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The year is 1968. It’s April 4, peak cherry blossom time in Washington, D.C. Lyndon Johnson is president. Richard Nixon is poised to succeed him. But on this day Martin Luther King is assassinated when he steps out his room onto the balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The killer was an escaped convict from a Missouri prison named James Earl Ray.

The Day Paradise Erupted

What followed was a civic uprising in more than a 100 U.S. cities. The biggest demonstrations occurred in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Baltimore, all with large African-American populations, but D.C. was the only black majority big city in America. Looking back in 2018, Michael Ruane wrote, “Some people called D.C. ‘the colored man’s paradise.’ Then paradise erupted.”

In D.C. the mass protests went on for several days and turned violent. Very violent—rioting, looting, vandalism, arson. I know because I was there. All hell broke loose. The city was burning. The air was acrid, as thick black smoke rose into the heavens. Cars were overturned and set on fire.

I was in grad school in a building across from the Brookings Institution on Massachusetts Avenue a short distance from DuPont Circle. At first nobody knew what was happening, only that there was some major disturbance somewhere in the city. Sirens were wailing. The fear was palpable.

On my way home that afternoon, my car was nearly hijacked a few blocks from the school. When calm was restored four days later, 13 people had been killed in fires, by police officers, or by rioters, nearly 1,100 people were injured, and over 7,600 people were arrested. Property damage was extensive. It would be decades before the rubble was cleared on some blocks.  Even then the scars would remain to this day.

Then And Now: Has Anything Changed?

Fast forward to May 25, 2020, the day a white police officer named Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while Floyd slowly died as onlookers pleaded with the Chauvin and three other police officers to stop. “I can’t breathe,” he had gasped. There were witnesses. It was captured on video. 

To all appearances, it was a case of police brutality at its worst—a man was executed in the street. No due process. No right to legal counsel. No right to a speedy trial. No mercy.

Forget the Eight Amendment protection against “cruel and unusual punishments.” This was the moral equivalent of a lynching only the method of asphyxiation was an officer’s knee rather than a rope.

The public response, the mass protests, the furor and despair, the outpouring of sorrow and rage against the system and the white men who dominate it is without precedent in postwar history. Even the mass protests in 1968 did not compare in size and length to what is happening in America today. Nor did the antiwar protests that occurred in the years to follow and did not end until America’s longest war finally ended—in defeat—in 1975.

The Kent State Massacre

What happened across from the White House in Lafayette Park, last week is eerily reminiscent of the Kent State massacre fifty years ago. On May 1, 1970, students at Kent State University staged what began as a peaceful protest against the Vietnam War. That fateful decision led to violent confrontations over the next few days and ended in tragedy: on May 4, guardsmen opened fire on students on the Kent State campus, killing four and wounding nine. Millions of students from coast to coast turned out to protest; in retrospect, it was the beginning of the end of a terrible war—and a terrible president. 

That president, of course, was Richard Nixon, whose instincts as commander-in-chief were all about what some scholars have taken to calling executive or presidential overreach. The vast expansion of presidential power began over a half-century ago; it did not start or end with Nixon.  In fact, according to presidential historian Robert Dallek, it can be traced to John F. Kennedy and forms a common thread through both Republic and Democratic presidencies all the way to Barack Obama. 

The Fascist in the White House

Dallek was writing in 2011, when the White House was only a gleam in Donald Trump’s evil eye. Back then, who would have believed the Squinty Eyed One would be elected president? His unfitness for the nation’s highest office was glaringly evident during the 2016 campaign, but that did not deter Republican voters from uniting behind him or, despite his daily displays of atrocious behavior, from continuing to support him against all reason.  “No matter what the Never Trumpers in your Twitter feed tell you, Trump — win or lose — will have the support of more than 90% of his party,” predicted Scott Jennings, a former advisor to George W. Bush and Mitch McConnell (LA Times, January 5, 2020).

Trump’s most culpable enablers, however, are on Capitol Hill. Senator Majority Leader McConnell had a golden opportunity to rid the nation and the world of this unfit president from office at the beginning of 2020. Then came the pandemic and a mismanaged White House response. Is it mere coincidence that the United States accounts more than a quarter of all the Covid-19 fatalities worldwide?

Donald Trump is not just another example of an overreaching executive. He is not simply one in a long line of chief executives who have sought to expand POTUS power.

Donald Trump is a president without precedent in American history. Trump’s will to “dominate” was clearly on display last week when he decided to use a show of force—tear gas and rubber bullets—against peaceful protestors in Lafayette Park for the sake of photo op in front of St. Johns Episcopal Church. 

On June 2, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich tweeted: 

I have held off using the f word for three and a half years, but there is no longer any honest alternative. Trump is a fascist, and he is promoting fascism in America.

Reich is in good company.  According to Adam Weinstein, the national security editor for The New Republic, “Donald Trump and the Republican Party operate an American state . . .  increasingly organized on fascist principles.”  Anne Applebaum writing in The Atlantic asks, “What would it take for Republican senators to admit to themselves that Trump’s loyalty cult is destroying the country they claim to love.” On June 1, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) tweeted that Donald Trump’s “fascist speech . . . just delivered verged on a declaration of war against American citizens.”   

The Great Unraveling

Things are finally starting to come unraveled for the psychopath in the White House. According to the New York Times, former President George W. Bush will not support Trump’s re-election. Neither will Mitt Romney, Colin Power, Gen. John Allen, or Jim Mattis.

The most recent polls show Biden with a 10-14 point lead over Trump nationwide, while only 44% approve of the job he’s compared to 56% who disapprove. In addition, Trump trails Biden in key battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, and Arizona. Biden is also outpolling Trump among seniors and white working-class women. 

And then there is the unprecedented nationwide display of shock, outrage, and solidarity at the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. This time it really does look different, like something fundamental has changed in a society too long in denial over race relations and the meaning of equal justice.  

So long as Donald Trump is in power, democracy in America is in jeopardy. The election in November will quite possibly be the last chance to save the republic without another revolution.

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