It Happened Before and it Can Happen Again

I recently read several books on American history that have a message for what is happening in our country today.

Today we face threats to democracy and to a just, civil society. We are seeing a rise of authoritarianism, resurgence of hate, racism, toxic religiosity, and the breakdown of civility in public life. There are threats of violence from far-right domestic terrorists. It has all happened before and can happen again.

Rachel Maddow is a television commentator and author. Her latest book is “Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism.” The book tells the history of the right-wing efforts in the 1930s to undermine democracy and establish a fascist dictatorship. It details how Nazis sympathizers, white supremacists, anti-Semites and anti-communists created a clandestine disinformation campaign to persuade Americans to support Nazi Germany rather than Britain. It was a sophisticated effort funded by Germany and wealthy American fascist supporters. The plot included stealing military weapons (with collusion from military personnel), making and stockpiling bombs and training armed volunteer militias.

This effort found common cause with the America First movement which advocated keeping the U.S. out of a war in Europe. The pro-Nazi plot also had support from conservative religious, anti-Semitic and racist groups. It had the support of a number of conservative business leaders, Congressman and Senators opposed to President Roosevelt and the New Deal (which was “socialism”). These individuals used their political influence to prevent law enforcement from prosecuting the plotters.

The parallels with today’s right-wing extremists (minus the foreign support and funding) are obvious. Maddow does not make this point explicitly. She lets the historical story speak for itself. But clearly today’s right wing hate groups, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, gun rights nuts, Christian Nationalists and many of Trump supporters have similar anti-government beliefs and are vehemently opposed to liberals and progressive policies. They consider Biden’s policies to be “socialism” and a danger to America. Today there are many supportive Republican politicians and libertarian business leaders with similar views. Clearly Trump is a demagogue with no regard for democratic norms and is in many ways similar to demagogues like Huey Long or Father Charles Coughlin from the 1930s.

Another disturbing parallel is the response from government, law enforcement and the courts in the 1930s. The growing danger of fascism was largely ignored. The Roosevelt administration was too busy with the depression (and dependent on racist Southern Democrats). The Justice Department was too pusillanimous to take action. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was only concerned with communists. Local police were often sympathetic or part of the fascist movement.

When the major plotters were finally indicted and put on trial, the court proceedings became a chaotic media circus. Lawyers for the defendants used courtroom theatrics, objections, endless motions and borderline contempt of court to drag the trial out for years. Eventually the case became moot (because Germany lost the war) and the government gave up. All the perps walked.

Sound familiar? This looks a lot like the Trump trials happening today. Maddow doesn’t say so, but it is pretty clear the Trump lawyers are using every delaying tactic, aided by politically cowed judges, and may eventually beat the charges. It is likely Trump will never suffer the consequences for his criminal actions.

It has happened before, and it can happen again.

The other book is a historical novel about the 1930s. “The Four Winds” by Kristin Hannah is about the suffering of a west Texas farm family during the depression and the Dust Bowl. The heroine eventually flees to California with her two children seeking work, only to encounter hatred, prejudice and mistreatment from Californians. It portrays the exploitation of desperate migrants by the wealthy, big farm owners with the collusion of state government and the local police.

The novel is also a grim story or how even white, Christian, hardworking people can suffer from injustice in an economic system dominated by the wealthy elite. The heroine finds work in the fields. But the pay can’t cover the rent and feed her children. The farm owner pays in credit only redeemable at the company store. It is an illegal and unjust system of debt peonage. The heroine is shot and killed supporting a strike for better wages. But the law is on the side of the farm owners.

All through our history there has been a struggle between the working class and the owners and employers. The ruling elites – the economic 1%, the politicians, judges, religious hierarchy, owners and bosses – have always suppressed the rights of the workers to profit from their labor. Whenever people stood up for themselves, they were labeled communists and fired, beaten, jailed and sometimes killed.

Another lesson for today is the novel’s graphic description of the environmental destruction from the drought and dust storms. The drought destroyed crops and dried up wells, starving people and animals. The dust infiltrating everywhere, clogged nasal passages suffocating animals and causing dust pneumonia in people. The drought was an environmental disaster caused by natural climate fluctuations. But the Dust Bowl and unprecedented dust storms were largely caused by human farming practices. Plowing up the grassland prairies, leaving exposed fallow fields, over grazing and other poor farming practices contributed to the disaster.

Improved farming practices, promoted and paid for by the federal government, eventually restored much of the land. But some people don’t learn from past mistakes. Today you can still see bad faring practices being used. Unprotected, plowed fields are waiting for drought and winds to strip the topsoil. Many of the windbreaks planted in the 1940s have been bulldozed to get a few more rows of crop production. Extensive use of irrigation is depleting water sources to raise water intensive crops on dry soils.

One wonders how long before ignoring climate change and trying to squeeze every possible dollar of production out of the land will result in another Dust Bowl. It has happened before, and it can happen again.

History provides many stories that every citizen should know. These include the many failures to live up to our ideals of freedom, equality, opportunity and justice for all. This is why Republicans don’t want the full story of our history taught in schools. They don’t want a truly educated citizenry thinking critically or questioning of the status quo.