Defending the Election and Our Democracy

Voters waiting to vote in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020. (Morry Gash, AP photo)
Voters waiting to vote in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020. (Morry Gash, AP photo)

Remarks delivered by Joseph Gerson at the “Defending the Election and Our Democracy” webinar, October 6, 2020.   Watch the video.

Several months ago, before the Trumpian assault on our electoral process became as blatant as it is now, but as it became clear that Trump and his minions were moving to impose what Europeans call an illiberal democracy or worse,  with Mass. Peace Action, we created an authoritarian working group.

Drawing from recent articles by Van Gosse and Max Elbaum, Walden Bello’s chapters on the rise of Italian fascism and counter-resolution in the Global North, and Fritzche’s book on Hitler’s rise, we sought to more deeply understand what history could tell us about the potential dangers of this moment and the forces at work in our society. We also held two webinars, and as I begin, I want to stress some of the major points made in the webinar sessions.

Noam Chomsky stressed that we face a unique confluence of crises: the pandemic, being closer to nuclear annihilation than ever before, and the climate crisis that could end life as we know it in this century. There are also the continuing terror of white supremacist racism and the assault on the democratic foundations of the government. To this, I would add that we now have an egomaniac, whose mind seems to be still more addled by steroids, driving us toward possible catastrophe.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, formerly Secretary of defense Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, who participated in the recent elite “table top” election game designed to illuminate these dangers and how best to respond. He warned that “The incumbent owns all of the instruments of power” and has sycophants in charge of most of those instruments with the possible exception of the military. The strategic deployments of federal law enforcement, and likely Homeland Security contractors to Democratic stronghold cities, he said, reflects a strategic testing.

The historian Van Gosse reminded us that the US has never lived up to its declared visions, but that with democratic – small d – advances since the 1960s, we have something to protect. He then chillingly ran through what we would face with a creeping Trumpian coup aimed at imposing an illiberal democracy. The façade of democracy would be maintained, as it is in Russia, Hungary, and Poland. There would be purges of governmental institutions, some of which are already underway, with inspector generals ousted, intelligence and other agencies no longer accountable to Congress. A second Trump Administration, based on appeals to racism, xenophobia and ethno-nationalism would pulverize the government, creating a lawless regime with loyalists in all government positions, green lights for police and militia violence, and all of this tolerated by the packed right-wing courts.

As Mic Crenshaw from Portland and Ty dePasse in South Carolina reminded us, police violence and the exploitation and discarding of Black and other People of Color workers are extensions of the 400-year-old integration of racism and capitalism and an extension of the plantation system. Mic noted that Portland and Minneapolis are overwhelmingly white cities – two of the whitest cities in the country. Thus, we need to understand that the brutality of police repression in those cities has been directed against largely white protesters to scare whites away from solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other oppressed people.

Speaking personally, let me say that as I’ve engaged with people who endured personality cults in Germany, the Soviet Union and China, and as I read Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here,  I couldn’t precisely envision how a personality cult would play out here. Now we know.

The central question in November’s election is the choice between preserving a semblance of constitutional democracy or the imposition of minority, repressive, white supremacist authoritarianism.

Trump has called for his often-armed true believers to “watch” the polls, his dog whistle call to intimidate voters. His enablers have urged violence and a declaration of martial law if he loses the election. And Trump vowed to quickly repress post-election protests, In the face of these fascist threats, I’ve taken strength from the courageous history of African-American resistance, nonviolent resisters to Nazi occupations, Japanese militarism, and Marcos’ dictatorship who I’ve been privileged to know and work with.  We also have the hundreds of thousands people who have taken to the streets over the past month in Belarus. They insist that the results of their landslide election victory over Alexander Lukashenko, described as the last European dictator, be respected.

Friends, Donald Trump aspires to be a tyrant, an absolute ruler unrestrained by law or constitution. His former fixer Michael Cohen wrote that Trump aspires to reproduce Vladimir Putin’s transformation of Russia into his personal fiefdom. He also wrote that Trump fears the possibility of having to do serious jail time if he loses the election. This must contribute to his apparent desperation.

Trump’s case is ruling in the same way that he lied, cheated, destroyed, and enriched himself with the Trump Organization. His wealth and power were accumulated by bullying, cheating, and crushing contractors, business partners and banks. He even cheats at golf. Now he lies, appoints sycophants to run government institutions, threatens, assaults science, and refuses to accept any personal responsibility.  More than 205,000 have been lost to Covid-19. Our economy is devastated. The climate crisis accelerates. Immigrants remain confined to cages. And the campaign to reverse the Civil Rights movement’s achievements is well under way.  And from Mar -a Logo to the billeting the military and the Secret Service on his golf courses, Trump is increasing his wealth at taxpayers’ expense.

Trump and his enablers are doing their best to transform the country into a Banana Republic – witness his escape from Walter Reed Hospital. He’s appealed to Russian and Chinese leaders to intervene in November’s election and launched an unprecedented voter suppression campaign – including his attack on the Post Office.

His efforts to delegitimize the election are designed to pave the way for a post-election coup d’état. And, to give his new fixer – Attorney General Barr –the political landscape he needs, Trump and McConnell not only packed the courts with right-wing judges, but they are hypocritically working to ram through Amy Barrett’s Supreme Court appointment. Trump, you’ll remember, said that he wants Barrett on the court in time to rule on ballots – i.e. to provide her critical vote to overturn the election results.

If we are to turn this country around, we need to acknowledge that Trump is as much a symptom as a cause of the crises we face.  He is the product of forces accumulated over the generations. One way to mark the beginning is with the publication of The Lost Cause in 1866, followed by Jim Crowe apartheid, and the Nixon-Reagan “Southern Strategy”.  The latter has parallels to the rise of 20th century European fascism when plutocratic wealth reinforced its power by allying with violent and racist forces, only to be consumed by them. Here we’ve had the creation of right-wing think tanks, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, creation of Goebbels-like propaganda agencies including Fox TV and Breitbart, and now the U.S. version of Mussolini’s and Hitler’s brown shirts.

We also need to acknowledge that the Democratic Party did its part. The Great Recession resulted from the Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton abandoning the party’s traditional working-class base to embrace the “management class”. Repeal of the Glass-Stegall Act opened the way for banks to gamble with casino capitalism. The resulting bubble burst with 10 million Americans losing their homes and countless other depravations. Obama saved the neoliberal economy but failed to reverse growing insecurity fueled by economic globalization and technological transformations. These in turn created fertile ground for the rise of a faux right-wing populism.

Dangerous times are not new in U.S. history.  I remember my parents telling me about their fears of Father Coughlin’s broadcasts and rise of racist and anti-Semitic fascists here in the U.S. in the 1930s. With courageous actions, large and small, those times were overcome. Jim Crow was buried by voter registration drives in the face of KKK violence, by nonviolent marches in the face of Bull Connor’s dogs and clubs, by challenges in the courts, and ultimately by Congress. Women won the right to vote. Burning draft cards and mass demonstrations contributed to ending the Indochina War, and with the Freeze movement we helped to make the Cold War history.

True, Biden is a flawed candidate. But a Biden victory will buy us time to organize for real security – political, health, economic, racial, social, climate and peace – that we desperately need.

Friends, if we are to preserve something akin to democracy, and press for our and future generations’ rights, we must end Trump’s tyranny. A Biden landslide would seriously undermine Trump’s ability to pull off a coup. And, winning a democratic majority in the Senate, needed to pass essential legislation, is within sight. I look forward to the talks of this evening’s other panelists, as they outline how elections can be won and how to protect their results.

— Joseph Gerson is a member of MAPA’s board and co-convener of its authoritarianism study/action group.