The Threat to Freedom and Safety

In my first post after the Trump election, I discussed the possible dangers of a Trump presidency, both to our freedoms and personal safety. With his pronouncements of “I alone can fix it” and “a total and complete shutdown…” it’s hardly a big jump to suppose that many of his supporters feel he’s a refuge to our fears, a strongman who will protect and watch over us and our country.

My problem is that I have been and continue to be afraid of the Trump crowd with their support of violence against dissenters or those they identify as outsiders. Leading up to and just after the election, hate crimes, including murder, spiked.

The environment looked and sounded eerily similar to 1930s Germany, but relying on that overused comparison risks intellectual laziness, sounding a popular false alarm. Except more recent examples, such as Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s, suggest a sudden surge of xenophobia moving into genocide might not be a one-off but more a tendency for distressed nations to fall into.

Where many voters showed signs of being willing to sign off from checks on executive power, surrendering their freedoms in exchange for safety, as the habitual con-man conspired to give us neither, I had to decide whether it would be safe and wise for my family and me to stay in this country. I remember the morning of 11/9/2016, after being awake most of the night, going for my run at dawn, before getting ready for work, thinking about what we should do.

And I remembered all the stories of all the Jewish families and dissenters who insisted on staying in Germany. You can find articles from the New York Times dismissing any kind of reason to fear Hitler as many inside Germany also dismissed concerns about Hitler. Of course, there are limits to comparisons — Trump isn’t Hitler and the U.S. isn’t 1930s Germany. But how closely future events may, or may not, resemble past ones is not always obvious, just as the 2016 election itself surprised most of the country. While it’s reckless and panicky thinking to assume mass genocide and/or civil war is coming to the United States tomorrow, it’s important to look at the situation carefully and exclude the kind of thinking that dismisses certain possible outcomes simply because they’re too horrible to imagine. That could be what happened to many people in Germany in the 1930s and it could be one of the reasons a lot of election watchers dismissed any possibility of a Trump victory. Outcomes follow a logic of their own, that have nothing to do with what is deemed as being too horrible.

If we did leave, I wasn’t sure if we’d be leaving people behind nor was I sure I could obtain work and residency abroad.  We didn’t yet see pogroms in the streets. Many cities, including New York, under Mayor Bill DeBlasio, affirmed their commitments to diversity and tolerance. I decided to carefully watch the situation and stay for now. I still felt a strong sense of betrayal toward all those who put my family, our country and the whole world in danger by giving power to an intellectually lazy, narcissistic, impulsive, demagogue, megalomaniac and serial con-artist.

Indeed, the so called “fake news” has been revealing and confirming more and more Russian connections with the Trump campaign, which right-wing media outlets would, perhaps correctly, call treason if the other side had done the same.

While we still don’t have the spectacle of public executions in stadiums that the Pinochet regime, after its 9-11-1973 coup, employed to consolidate its power and instill fear, we have the specter of toxic exposure, especially for our children, with their smaller bodies, hampering their development and leading to fatal illnesses, through the poisoning of water systems, just one item on the list of unraveling of environmental protections. And we have the never-ending attempts to cut health insurance to millions of Americans, many of them in states that voted for Trump. We may still have to wait for horrific violence and endure slow death instead, but we should prepare ourselves for self-fulfilling prophecies of crisis and the possibility of massive social shock, just as the shock of 9-11 paved the way for the completely unnecessary Iraq War, a war that has created more wars and more threats to our national security.

I can’t predict with any certainty that such events will happen, but I’m insisting that we inoculate ourselves against a Reichstag moment, where the executive branch uses a horrible event, that it may or may not have played a role in, to seize and consolidate power, ensuring an endless cycle of horror that it claims to be protecting us from. And if it seems I’m overreacting, remember that Trump praises strongmen, like the dictator of the Philippines, Dtuerte, who sends assassins out to murder suspected drug dealers and users on the street, in front of the public view and President Erdogan of Turkey, who has seized total power of the Turkish government and has been jailing dissenters.

To me, a strong element of fascism is gladly giving up your own rights and protections within the law in an attempt to hurt another group’s rights and legal protections more.* We already see that in the demagoguery that threatens people’s right to due process, that most of us value for ourselves, in a rush to paint whole groups as criminals.

We see this from the results of years of demagoguery in some of the “news” media, journalistic practices that cross every line of journalistic ethics, such as using ethnicity as supporting evidence of guilt and calling people who refuse to indict everyone in the out group(s) as weak on protecting our society from the threat from outsiders. It’s the president and his supporters’ thing to focus on crimes that immigrants or the undocumented commit — their spotlight is creating a distorted picture and fueling a lynch mob, a strategy that the Nazis successfully employed against Jews.

crimes

Obtained from The Washington Post — originally: A 1935 article from the Nazi periodical Neues Volk entitled, “The Criminal Jew.” This article shows photos of Jews alongside their alleged crimes. (Image courtesy of Richard Weikart)

No one is clamoring to kick out the people who were born in the U.S., but it’s this group, not immigrants, who are committing more crimes. And I’m not arguing for kicking out all the white people, for example, even though it’s fair to suggest that may be more of a problem. I am arguing for prosecuting only the people who commit crimes, but with a process that’s fair, and that ethnicity or immigration status should have nothing to do with determination of guilt or innocence, and instead of taking efforts not to ruin their lives, if they’re rich and white. I can’t side with the efforts to demonize certain ethnic groups and create distortions that they’re somehow predisposed to commit violent crimes, especially rape, against the in group. That’s simply the sort of talk designed to make people angry enough to kill.

Another place where the out groups may lose rights is with voting. Trump’s “voter fraud” panel is doing more than trying to flatter the president’s ego. Their “investigation” is set to create false positives to purge eligible voters, more often in minority groups. And if you’re not worried, because that won’t affect you, that will still affect election outcomes. Furthermore, if the federal government can take voting rights away from some people, how long before it can take voting rights away from you?

White Panic

If I try to understand the Trump voter mind, one thing I understand is that increased diversity is creating an identity crisis. What is America? Are the fears that we’re being overrun justified? Have we lost a way of life?

The U.S. has had immigration waves in the past that have redefined what being an American means and survived. Still demagogues find another group to identify as invaders. We have seen over and over that the first generation of immigrants are often less educated and they take low-paying jobs. They look rougher to the people who have been living here. But they come here with goals and wishes — they change America, but they make us richer in language and ideas and wealth, for example, that child of Syrian immigrants, Steve Jobs, who started Apple Computer.

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The Lower East Side of New York in the 1900s

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Hell’s Kitchen New York, ca 1900, a neighborhood of Irish immigrants

And despite the sordid history of Jews, Irish, Italians, etc., now the good immigrants, after subsequent generations, areas that receive more immigrants experience a drop in crime, even if they are here illegally. They also create more jobs and higher wages.

It’s also important to keep pointing out that in the past few years, we’ve been experiencing a net loss of Mexican immigrants, despite the constant barrage in right-wing news media to the contrary.

The places that have the most problems with immigrants have the fewest immigrants. And one study confirms what we might suspect, as we see again and again that people close enough to be aware of immigrants, but far enough not to mingle have the most problems, and perhaps are most susceptible to the propaganda about a threat to our way of life.

Whenever people try to refer to a golden era when everything was good, I think of a scene in I, Claudius where an aspiring Roman actor talks to a Greek slave actor who has just performed for Caesar Augustus and his family. The Roman complains to the Greek that the theater isn’t what it used to be. The Greek replies, “the theater never was what it used to be.

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Norman Rockwell’s America

But let’s look at this golden age that we supposedly lost. Maybe we’re thinking of 1950s America. College was suddenly affordable for more people than ever with its relative low cost or free, with the GI Bill or many free schools. Wages were higher than they had been — the New Deal had guaranteed a minimum wage and unions were strong, further guaranteeing higher wages for everyone. All of the above is everything the Trump administration has been fighting.

I understand that globalization has forced U.S. workers and companies to compete with low-wage workers across borders, but some have been able to adjust better than others. Government can play a role in helping people adjust, by providing job training and giving incentives  to companies to hire and train workers.

By the way, the 1950s wasn’t great for everyone. If you were black, you were still living under Jim Crow in the South and discriminatory laws nationwide, including where you could buy a house. And if you were gay, you were seen as subversive and you could go to prison if you were caught in a consensual act.

As history shows, over and over, if we try to resist progress and change, we go into decline and the promise of America has always been its ability to self-correct, to better live up to its ideals. The U.S. had a significant slave population when it first raised the freedom battle cry.

Problem

The other side of Norman Rockwell — the America we get if we don’t move forward

‘Freedom isn’t free.’

So what do we do? And who are the freedom fighters? Perhaps it’s more than soldiers who defend fsamreedom. Maybe it’s activists and journalists and some entertainers, but also the rest of us with the courage to put ourselves at risk to speak out and hold people in positions accountable, before we all lose that power.

If America is more than white-Christian nationalism (more than a Christian, mirror image of revolutionary Iran), but an idea of human rights, dignity and opportunities for all, in a society that is constantly self-correcting, working to obtain its highest ideals, then all of us need to fight for that America.

Sign up for Daily Action, so you can get text alerts and call representatives and leaders every day.

Try to get your news from multiple sources, that are unafraid to broadcast stories and editorial content that look at potential flaws in political leaders and interests on all sides. Try to read overseas publications to get outsider perspectives, but from countries where journalists aren’t imprisoned or killed for printing unflattering stories.

Participate in at least one protest every six months.

Be aware of what the other side is saying. Understand their arguments and also their emotional appeal and how their talking points undermine higher reasoning. But try to avoid contributing financially to “news” media that engage in demagoguery.

Contribute financially to at least one organization that’s working to protect all of us, such as the ACLU (the American Civil Liberties Union), the SPLC (the Southen Poverty Law center), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Sierra Club, GreenpeaceMoms Demand Action (to keep our society safe with sensible firearms safety) the Human Rights Campaign (to protect gay and transgender rights and safety), and Black Lives Matter — remember that even if you’re not black, when police can kill unarmed black people, you could be next, as we see from the recent, not surprising, shooting in Minnesota.  Stand up for others, not just yourself or your group, through any of the above listed organizations.

Get involved through the groups and strategies listed and laid out in the Indivisible Guide.

Defend more than just your own group’s rights. You’re less likely to lose your rights if other people’s rights are also protected. If the country is divided into small groups willing to take other group’s rights away, it will be easier for your group to lose its rights, even if that doesn’t happen right away. This is an old strategy, divide and conquer or Divide and Rule, from the Ancient Romans to the Conquistadors to the Nazis to Putin’s regime.

Use your pocketbook to strike back, avoiding Trump family owned or supporting businesses and companies or entities that support hate or advertise on white supremacist publications such as Breitbart.

Remember to vote, including during midterm elections. Don’t try to be cool by being above it all. You’re never going to get a perfect candidate. The point is to support the best available candidate and to continue your involvement with elected officials, so that they hear from you and not just lobbyists after elections. Keep working for progress with them — remember that Lincoln didn’t start out as an abolitionist when he ran for president.

Finally, be careful with social media, as they are terrific platforms for spreading disinformation and manipulating people through big data companies.

 

* Is fascism too strong of word? Maybe what we’re experiencing in the U.S. isn’t yet fascism, and maybe it demands a new word, maybe Trumpism? I can still write this blog without going to prison and people and representatives are still resisting in our cities and in our Congress.

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