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Who Says It Can’t Happen Here?

Posted on Feb 28, 2017

By Harvey J. Kaye / Moyers & Company

  Official portrait of Donald J. Trump, the 45th president. (The White House / CC-BY)

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Donald Trump’s candidacy and now, presidency, have resurrected a public discourse not heard in this country since the Great Depression — an anxious discourse about the possible triumph in America of a fascist-tinged authoritarian regime over liberal democracy. It’s a fear Sinclair Lewis turned into a 1935 bestselling novel, It Can’t Happen Here — although, as Lewis told it, it sure as hell could happen here.

It did not happen, however. Not then, at least. Electing Franklin Roosevelt as president and taking up the labors of the New Deal, our parents and grandparents not only rejected the sirens of authoritarianism, they actually extended and deepened American freedom, equality and democracy. They subjected big business to public account and regulation; expanded the nation’s public infrastructure and improved the environment; empowered the federal government to address the needs of working people and the poor; mobilized farmers’ organizations, labor unions, consumer campaigns and civil rights groups and fought for their rights, broadening the “We” in “We the People.”

Undeniably, they left a great deal to be done. But they gave themselves the wherewithal to defeat fascism overseas and learned how to democratically rebuild the nation.

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Now we find ourselves anxiously asking, Can it happen here? Trump has given us plenty of reason to worry. He has referred to Mexican immigrants as murderers and rapists; ordered mass deportations of the undocumented by resorting to what he himself describes as “a military operation;” spoken of creating a “Muslim registry” and sought to ban Muslims from entering the country. What’s more, he repeatedly has expressed admiration for Russia’s authoritarian strongman Vladimir Putin; called members of the federal judiciary “so-called judges;” and charged the news media with being “the enemy of the people.” He lost the popular vote but claims it was due to voter fraud, and has proceeded to “govern” as if he actually won a popular mandate. And his Cabinet appointments signal a determination to carry out a decidedly reactionary policy agenda long championed by the right wing.

Not for nothing did Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) tell NBC News’ Chuck Todd that we must be wary of our new president: “When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press… And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator. I’m just saying we need to learn from history.”

Yes, we do. And in that light, we should recognize that as much as Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric and executive orders are driven by his own demagogic nature, they are propelled by four decades of corporate class war, conservative culture war and neoliberal political economy and public policies intended to roll back the democratic rights and achievements of the 1960s and 1930s — including Social Security, which Trump’s own White House budget director has called “a Ponzi scheme.”

Recalling the democratic surge and initiatives of the FDR years, the 1960s witnessed a dramatic renewal of campaigns and legislation to make real the promise of equality and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — including for the poor. Pushed by the new democratic activism and inspired by New Deal precedents, President Lyndon Johnson called for the making of a Great Society and a War on Poverty. A liberal-led Congress moved to enhance American democratic life and enrich the public good. To guarantee civil and political equality, Congress passed historic civil rights, voting rights and fair housing acts and, eschewing racial and religious discrimination, enacted a major reform of the nation’s immigration law. To combat poverty, they made health care a right for the elderly and poor and expanded educational opportunities for children and young people. To assure citizens healthier and safer lives, they instituted laws and created agencies to clean up and make secure the environment, marketplace and workplace. And to advance the Founders’ democratic vision of an informed, culturally aware and historically conscious citizenry, they established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (subsidizing, in part, PBS and NPR) and the National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) and Humanities (NEH).

In those same years, the Supreme Court extended and deepened the reach of the Bill of the Rights by reinforcing the wall of separation between church and state, strengthening the rights of the accused, and acknowledging the right of privacy for women exercising responsibility over their own bodies. And many a state legislature north and west expanded industrial democracy by granting collective bargaining rights to public workers.

Yes, urban rioting and anti-war protests divided our citizens and often overshadowed democratic advances. Nevertheless, Americans had initiated a “rights revolution” and once again enlarged both the “We” in “We the People” and the powers of the people. In the background you could hear echoes of FDR’s famous speech on “The Four Freedoms.”

The democratic surge of the long 1960s terrified not only white supremacists in Dixie and political and religious conservatives and reactionaries nationally, but also corporate chiefs and executives. They bristled at regulations from federal agencies old and new, and at paying taxes for government programs and “entitlements” (as well as a war in Southeast Asia). They felt threatened by labor unionists, movements of women and people of color, public-interest groups and an “adversary culture” of students, the media, and “value-oriented” scholars and intellectuals. At the same time, US companies were experiencing a “profits squeeze” due to foreign competition, and an oil crisis was contributing to economic “stagflation.” So business leaders called for concerted action against what they saw as “an excess of democracy” that urgently needed subduing.

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