It was my third grade homeroom teacher in Tennessee who spoke about the great melting pot or salad mixer.
Or maybe the Cub Scout trip to the local courtroom for a civics lesson toward a merit badge to see the judicial branch at work.
It was my Sunday school teacher taking her confirmation class to the Jewish synagogue, the Catholic church, a Baptist congregation, and open discussion about different faiths and different people sharing in the same sacred experience.
It was every morning, hand over your heart, reciting a pledge to a flag, and the one kid in class who had gotten permission to sit it out because his religion didn’t believe in swearing oaths, not even to the country.
Then there was the day the teacher absolutely would not stand for one of the terrible words a white student called a non-white student and the hours on hours we studied and admired the better words and wisdom of Dr. King.
It was the “city on a hill” painted on the front page of the English textbook or Mr. Briley’s history class discussion of Alexis de Tocqueville’s encounter of the American people, their spirit, and our democracy at work.
It was simple, really: a respect we were taught to give one another, that if a shared society could work, common ground was going to be necessary, and finding it depended on each of us to listen and to also hold one another accountable but with the sincerest humility and understanding.
And, perhaps the part in there we sometimes forget or ignore was the need to shame those whose goal was to tear at the fabric of this sacred society we were trying to build. Our differences were precisely what made us great. Our differences were what “united” us. But if you couldn’t celebrate the melting pot, you weren’t welcome to be a part of the conversation that made it work. We were all responsible for gate-keeping our democracy in that way.
That implied the only time we were right to shun someone for being different was when their “difference” was their hatred for our inclusive, liberal society. And that’s what kept evil and bigotry where they belonged on the fringes and as far from the mainstream as possible.
Of course, that’s not to paint growing up in 1990s America in some sort of rose-colored goggles, by any means. It’s merely to say that you could have grown up in the southern red states in America in a Christian church and come away believing in democratic values, believing those were tied to basic human decency. That was a possibility for me; it shaped me personally in a powerful way.
And yet everything I learned, every shining moment of democracy I was taught and came to admire, every shared experience that made us “us,” together, “American,” is now and quickly slipping into the darkness of a fascist regime where those ideals that were once sacred are typecast as “weak” or “foreign” or “un-American.”
This is the sinister rot at the very core of our country. And it is growing quickly. And many of the very people who taught me to “love your neighbor as yourself” are the same, sick people who have fallen under the cultish spell of this American moment.
For to be an American now, or perhaps as importantly, a Christian, one must be–above all else–loyal. There is no room for thinking differently, and orthodoxy, or right-thinking, follows solely from some authority above. The preachers, the politicians, all who answer to this godlike figure demanding loyalty, have received their talking points, what is from what isn’t acceptable, handed down from disinformation machines like Facebook or Twitter or Reddit.
Of course, loyalty can be a virtue, but at the expense of other virtues–that is, when loyalty is privileged as the greatest good–it serves only one purpose, namely to quiet the very dissent and critique that make democratic societies, well, democratic. And in demanding loyalty–not to a cause or a higher moral goal or a hope or dream or movement but to a mere person–authority that in a democracy normally derives “of the people, by the people, for the people,” instead derives solely from demagoguery.
It’s a smart tactic, frankly: appeal to the base nature of the people. Find what makes them angriest, most fearful, and claim that you and you alone can bring them their heart’s greatest desire so long as they remain loyal. The desperate, wishful, dreary will cling to anyone who offers them hope, even if it’s a false hope. And almost no amount of reasoned, intellectual argument can combat those who are skilled at taping into the longings we’ve sought since childhood.
So, it doesn’t matter if what these demagogues say or do is cruel. Cruelty, in fact, is the point. Not because cruelty in and of itself is a good they necessarily admire but because cruelty is regarded as the extreme opposite of what they consider and call “weak.” Cruelty allows them to demonstrate their masculinity the only way anyone with a superficial sense of self can.
So, then, as an example, children who legally came to the country seeking asylum were separated from their families, placed in detention centers where they were found drinking from toilets and forced to have a bag placed over their heads or sexually assaulted or left for dead. How do you deal, you figure, with children, especially children they surmise are likely to misbehave? You govern from a position of “strength,” which they interpret as might, and their brute force they believe sets the example for the others. This toxic masculinity combines with their total disregard for those with black and brown skin, those they regard either consciously or not as altogether non-human.
And when you govern by might against those who are different, the outcome is always cruelty, always death. And eventually, the detention centers, these concentration camps, are overrun and the costs of running them a burden. That’s precisely how it happened before: the original plan in Nazi Germany was the eventual deportation of the Jews to Madagascar, which is part of why the UN regards mass deportation as genocide, and yet the Final Solution came about as a cheaper option to deportation. That’s how gas chambers become part of the equation. The path to genocide is written into the present.
Mark my words, then, mass graves or plans for extermination or mass deportation to their deaths will be uncovered before this is all over.
Because this is a norm for all authoritarian governments: women, children, minorities, those who are ill or on the margins of society are seen and treated as though they are not human at all. And when humanity is removed from the equation, death is just around the corner.
Of course, that’s not to say they’re willing to admit this out loud, intentionally. Underneath it all is a kind of doublespeak. The lie is king even before they crown anyone. They hold in tandem the same sacred phrases we do: “love one another” still gets spoken in certain circles, but not in reference to those they have decided are not human. Or more insidiously, their “love” and their cruelty are no different. They simply come to define love differently than we do. Christian moral values are still important, they pretend, but there’s more grace available to the men who raped and pillaged so long as they are part of the in-group, whereas the out-group is torn apart, demonized for the same behavior, which is often a lie projected from their assumption that their enemies act with the same evil intentions as they do. In the long run, then, they may even point the finger elsewhere whether to distract you or to bold-face deny, deny, deny the truth.
Truth cannot come from multiple sources. It must be dismantled from as many angles as possible. And the old adage that a lie has circumnavigated the globe before the truth wakes up in the morning? They’re counting on that. This is why one of their tactics is to say one thing and twenty-four hours later say the exact opposite, in part because they hope you forget their previous statement, but in part because they hope to confuse and exhaust you to the point of apathy.
In all of this, your exhaustion and confusion is their greatest ally, because while you are stumbling on the ground trying to sort through reality, that is their opportunity to stomp it out, to lay final claim to it, to speak and hand down the talking points you and everyone around you is expected to report. This is why they always cry lügenpresse or “fake news,” because the facts must be the first to go. And they can’t have prophets speaking truth to power.
All forms of criticism and disagreement, no matter how well-reasoned, valid, or factual; no matter whether there was documented evidence or not: those must be silenced by whatever means necessary.
Meanwhile, the constitution remains sacred, they will claim, while simultaneously gutting it and establishing dictatorial edicts, or worse, letting chaos become the norm so that those who are perceived to speak with authority above the chaos are the loudest and firmest.
But where the constitution is most easily gutted is the institutions that have historically stood strong in support of it, and I don’t just mean institutions like the FBI or the courts or the legislatures, but even our smaller institutions: the local papers drying up and disappearing, the churches splitting and dying away over social issues or becoming loyal to what’s been decreed, the internet which once served as the great public sphere turned into a tool for disinformation.
They do all of this, succeeding in this destructive hateful torment on our sacred norms with no more than an average of 42% of the country backing them. That is the scariest, most astonishing, and perhaps most encouraging fact of all: that their authoritarian, anti-democratic campaign doesn’t even have the full support of the people. It’s a fact that provides a strange sense of false hope as though the people could, at any moment, rise up and reclaim their democracy, this mysterious 58% who already have taken to the streets in protest, voted in a democratic House, and fought back in civil society with some degree of small successes every here and there.
But they’ve done very well in stomping out those successes, packing the courts with illegitimate and unqualified judges, suppressing votes, relying on large-scale election fraud, tampering with voting machines, utilizing Russian and online trolls to game the system to their advantage, and inviting foreign influence to throw elections to their advantage.
So, too, whatever of our democracy hasn’t been bought up by the billionaires who game the stocks and make sure you’re overworked and underpaid just enough to keep you off the streets and ensure you are no threat to them, whatever of hope and resistance and rebellion and revolution you and I might dream of, is snuffed out by this authoritarian, oligarchic moment.
These are not the actions of a people who love democracy or of a people who love people or of a people who believe, at the very least, in open and fair elections.
These are the actions of fascists, plain and simple.
And the framers, violent as they were, would have already murdered these fascists. Fresh from the war with George III, they would have recognized these blatant attacks on our democracy as such and would have called for insurrection. Hell, they were ready to shed blood over some overtaxed tea. You really think they’d put up with this bullshit?
The Democratic party today, however, is too moderate, too weak-willed to so much as even call a fascist a fascist when the writing is so plainly on the wall, having forgotten the importance of gate-keeping and ensuring that the voices on the fringe are not welcome at the center. And while even I’ll concede that I’m no fan of the violence of the framers, or of much the framers did beyond handing us the most sacred living document in all of history, nor am I keen to want to make martyrs out of fascists, I also can’t say I’m too excited about the pandering too many of us do to give those we disagree with the benefit of the doubt when our differences are no longer a matter of mere debate but of foundational, sacred differences that get to the very heart of who we are as individuals and as a people.
So, no, I’ve no real interest in insurrection, at least for now, but I can appreciate the power of the unspoken, implicit threat the way MLK’s movement was surely bolstered by the fear whites held that more would take to Malcolm’s movement than Martin’s.
And, more importantly, I believe it worth noting: while they–the authoritarian State–will surely use violence as they have already, be it against migrants, minorities, the press, or any and all they might disagree with, be wary that they will simultaneously clutch their pearls the moment anyone righteously uses violence against them. To me, this is one of the more absurd realities and hypocrisies of our relationship as a people to the State, even before the rise of fascism within America–that the State can so brazenly claim it does no harm against its people or for which it is ever or at least rarely held accountable, yet its people are held to cruel and unusual account with regularity and often for things they never did. Is it really so surprising that they would turn to violence in such a reality?
We ought not turn to violence, ever. That does not mean violence is not well-deserved.
As for me, I would much like to see non-violent revolution. I would like to see a general strike if protests fail. I would like to see people remember that congeniality does not mean you entertain social niceties with fascists just because they’re family or friends or because you do not wish to offend. I would like to see well-intentioned liberals stop idiotically trying to reason with and love the fascism out of those who value, only, loyalty to and even seem to worship this regime as a replacement from whatever they once called God.
I would like to see and beyond all else continue to hope for a moment in which the workers of the world unite, the people rising from desperation of our economic shackles. But I will not judge those who, left little other choice, resorted to the worst of their own natures to correct this American moment that’s gone so astray from everything we deem sacred.
To everything there is a season, after all, and if this season is theirs to reign hell upon the earth, may it be ours to return hell in kind.