The US Army's World War II warning comes back to haunt us

Veterans Day Win McNamee/Getty Images
Veterans Day Win McNamee/Getty Images
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The fascist tide is rising in America and around the world. Many Americans are drowning in it.

Donald Trump leads President Biden in the early 2024 polls. The Republican fascists are poised to impeach Biden for non-existent “high crimes” as a way of distracting the American people and delegitimating any future attempts to hold a president accountable for their real crimes against democracy and the rule of law. As shown by public opinion polls and other measures, there is a growing sense and almost palpable feeling of dread and despair, that something is fundamentally broken in American society and culture. Moreover, the country is on the precipice of a repeat of 2016 when the professional smart people and pundits in the news media and political class said it would be impossible for Trump to become president because of “the character” of the American people and “the institutions” and “the system” – and then it happened, and these same people were on the TV news that night, slack-jawed and shocked at how very wrong there were.

Unfortunately, the news media and other elites did not learn from their many mistakes in 2016, which they continued throughout Trump’s presidency. Except now, matters are even more dire and serious as Trump has announced his plans to be a dictator and that he has been chosen by “god” and “Jesus” to be the next “president.”  

For those of us who have been sounding the alarm throughout the Trumpocene about the rising fascist tide and national emergency, this is all very exhausting. We have not been listened to. We have encountered great resistance from those whom we have been trying to help, yet we persist. In so many ways it feels like we the alarm-sounders and other pro-democracy voices are lifeguards who are trying to save a drowning person. Such moments are very dangerous for the lifeguard because the drowning person, irrational and possessed by panic, may doom them both.

There is less than one year left to stop the Trumpists and other neofascists and that may be enough time – but only if we use that time now and smartly to organize and counterattack with a clear strategy for victory in the long term. Pro-democracy Americans must also refuse the temptation, born out of desperation for some type of win in these dark times, to confuse limited tactical victories on the state and local level with strategic victories on the national level (defeating Trump and then rolling back the Republican Party and “conservative” movement and the related institutions and donors that have been working for decades to end multiracial pluralistic democracy). Both types of victories will be necessary, but we cannot confuse the two with being the same or somehow equivalent.

In addition, one of the most important lessons to internalize in this time of democracy crisis is that the myth of American exceptionalism will not save us. Instead, pro-democracy Americans must learn from other countries, places, peoples, and times about how to resist and defeat fascism and authoritarianism and similar political formations.

As I try to do that hard work of making sense of the Trumpocene and how best to escape it, I have been rereading Sinclair Lewis’s classic book “It Can’t Happen Here” about an America taken over by fascism-fake populism in the 1930s. I underlined the following passages decades ago, when the Age of Trump would have been viewed by many as some type of bad speculative fiction instead of a reasonable prediction about the future:

“Under a tyranny, most friends are a liability. One quarter of them turn “reasonable” and become your enemies, one quarter are afraid to stop and speak, and one quarter are killed and you die with them. But the blessed final quarter keep you alive.”

“Why are you so afraid of the word ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word—just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours—not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini—like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days—and have ‘em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again. ‘Nother words, have a doctor who won’t take any back-chat, but really boss the patient and make him get well whether he likes it or not!”

“Why, America’s the only free nation on earth. Besides! Country’s too big for a revolution. No, no! Couldn’t happen here!”

“A country that tolerates evil means- evil manners, standards of ethics-for a generation, will be so poisoned that it never will have any good end.”

I have also begun reading Paul Lynch’s 2023 Booker Prize-winning novel “Prophet Song," which is a mediation on life in a dystopian near future society, “The Republic of Ireland”, that has been taken over by totalitarianism.

The Guardian profiled Lynch here:

Lynch has called the novel an “experiment in radical empathy” – and it is impossible to read the scenes of a city under siege, shelling and walls plastered with photographs of missing loved ones, without thinking of the conflict zones in the world right now. Not to mention the refugee crisis and the rise of the far right. Just last week, Dublin was shocked by anti-immigration riots. “To see this now is a wake-up call,” says Lynch. “The far right is here. It’s small, but it’s here.”

Back in 2018, though, the situation in Syria was very much on Lynch’s mind – in particular the tragedy of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler found washed up on a Turkish beach. “The question I asked myself was, ‘Why don’t I feel this more than I should?’ I started to think about how I’m desensitised by the news. Even now, watching TV, we’re starting to switch off from the Middle East in the same way we switched off from Ukraine. It’s inevitable. If we were to truly take on the enormity of the world and its horrors, we would not be able to get out of bed in the morning.”…

He also wanted to show that the idea of the end of world reoccurs throughout history. “This idea of the armageddon is actually a fantasy; the idea that the world is going to end in some sudden event in your lifetime. But the world is always ending over and over again. It comes to your town, and it knocks on your door.”

I have also been watching movies and films to help myself make sense of the growing dread and despair in the collective mood.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary The Act of Killing about the death squads in Indonesia during the 1960s is a chilling depiction of casual violence and human loss – and grief and trauma. Given Donald Trump and the American neofascists’ Hitlerian rhetoric and embrace of eliminationist and other mass violence, The Act of Killing seems less foreign every time I watch it.

In these challenging times, it is also important to reaffirm our life energy.

Hayao Miyazaki’s new film The Boy and the Heron has been a source of such positive energy for me, and I am sure many others. The Boy and the Heron is one of the best films in recent memory and an almost transcendent spiritual experience for those who allow themselves to fully surrender to it, undistracted, viewing deeply and not superficially. That skill and practice is increasingly lost in an age of empty “content” and utterly disposable (and ephemeral, quite literally) digital mass culture. In many ways, the same bad habits and broken thinking that interfere with a person's ability to properly appreciate a great film or other art have also enabled the rise of fascism, authoritarianism, and illiberalism more broadly. (Re)watching They Live, Robocop, Rollerball, Peckinpah's The Killer Elite, Michael Mann's film Thief, Blue Collar, Unforgiven, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Living, Ikiru, The Apostle, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation, Babylon 5, Sanford and Son, and rereading Brian K. Vaughan's "Saga" and Joe Lansdale's Hap and Leonard novels have also been helping to fuel my hope tank.

We can get fuel from many sources. What ultimately matters is that you and we are recharged for the long struggle ahead.

As I continue to search for guideposts to escape the Trumpocene, and to learn deeper lessons about this crisis and what to do about it, I'm reminded of how during the Second World War the United States government actively took on the responsibility of educating military personnel (and the general public) about the dangers of fascism and other forms of authoritarianism. My adopted uncle, who, like my father, was a World War II combat veteran, would tell me about such flyers, handouts, movies, and meetings. My uncle (who was a captain) also had stories about how there were a few men under his command who were “dumb” and “gullible” and that he believed could be “duped” by Hitlerism or “Stalin and the Reds.”

One such attempt to educate military servicepeople about the perils of fascism was “Fact Sheet #64: Fascism!”, which was published in March of 1945. In an essay at History News Network, historian Alan Singer provides these details:

Discussion leaders were alerted “Fascism is not the easiest thing to identify and analyze; nor, once in power, is it easy to destroy. It is important for our future and that of the world that as many of us as possible understand the causes and practices of fascism, in order to combat it.”…

Four key points were addressed in the Army fact sheet to be included in discussions.

(1) Fascism is more apt to come to power at a time of economic crisis;

(2) Fascism inevitably leads to war;

(3) It can come to any country;

(4) We can best combat it by making our democracy work.

The fact sheet described findings by war correspondent Cecil Brown who toured the United States after leaving Europe. Brown discovered that most Americans he talked with were “vague about just what fascism really means. He found few Americans who were confident they would recognize a fascist if they saw one.” The War Department was concerned that ignorance about fascism could make it possible for it to emerge in the United States and issued recommendations for how to prevent it.

Singer continues:

The War Department acknowledged that the United States had:

native fascists who say that they are ‘100 percent American’ . . . [A]t various times and places in our history, we have had sorry instances of mob sadism, lynchings, vigilantism, terror, and suppression of civil liberties. We have had our hooded gangs, Black Legions, Silver Shirts, and racial and religious bigots. All of them, in the name of Americanism, have used undemocratic methods and doctrines which experience has shown can be properly identified as ‘fascist’….

An American fascist seeking power would not proclaim that he is a fascist. Fascism always camouflages its plans and purposes . . . Any fascist attempt to gain power in America would not use the exact Hitler pattern. It would work under the guise of ‘super-patriotism’ and ‘super-American- ism’….

[I]t is vitally important to learn to spot them [the fascists], even though they adopt names and slogans with popular appeal, drape themselves with the American flag, and attempt to carry out their program in the name of the democracy they are trying to destroy . . . In its bid for power, it is ready to drive wedges that will disunite the people and weaken the nation. It supplies the scapegoat — Catholics, Jews, Negroes, labor unions, big business — any group upon which the insecure and unemployed are willing to blame.

They become frightened, angry, desperate, confused. Many, in their misery, seek to find somebody to blame . . . The resentment may be directed against minorities — especially if undemocratic organizations with power and money can direct our emotions and thinking along these lines.

This warning from almost eight decades ago is an eerily accurate description of Trump's  MAGA movement. The answers and what to do about the American and global democracy crisis are readily available and apparent.

I am far from certain that the American people will make the correct choice by reelecting President Biden and thus securing more time to rehabilitate and save their democracy. In fact, I am increasingly sure there are enough Americans, the people my uncle warned me about those years ago, who will not. But premature surrender is not an option. We, the pro-democracy Americans and other people of conscience, must do the hard work necessary in the time remaining to prevent such an outcome — even if those we are trying to help and save may end up drowning us along with them.