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We’re reaching fascism’s ‘inflection point’ — again

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
A newly installed perimeter fence around the U.S. Capitol is seen, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington, ahead of President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

As President Biden’s State of the Union address just showed, the old battlegrounds are back. With the national debt rising, are Social Security and Medicare unaffordable giveaways? Is political violence OK, to the point of bludgeoning your adversary’s spouse with a hammer? Is it fair to make school teachers and firefighters pay a higher tax rate than billionaires

Today we are at an “inflection point,” Biden said — a choice of “light over darkness, hope over fear, unity over division, stability over chaos.”  

Let’s not imagine that these are unprecedented debates. President Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of Social Security was blasted by Republicans as socialism — even though these are earned benefits that people pay for with every paycheck.  

Today’s uber-wealthy complain about a top marginal tax rate of 37 percent when it used to be 91 percent to fund the New Deal, or 70 percent to fund the Great Society.  

Most astonishing is the normalization of political hostility and violence, and the assaults on cherished American democratic institutions. 

For anyone who thought that the failure of the Jan. 6 insurrection would extinguish the fire of Trump-inspired fascism, think again. Its sparks continue to spread, stoked by MAGA extremists’ relentless conspiracy provocations and the lack of accountability for the insurrection’s leaders.  

Look at the brutal assault on former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) husband by a rabid election denier. Look at the copycat violent uprising in Brazil to overturn their election and reinstall an authoritarian dictator. Look at the Republican legislative candidate in New Mexico — a self-described “MAGA king” who participated in a pro-Trump rally in Washington the morning of the Jan. 6 insurrection and claimed without evidence that his election loss was “rigged” — being arrested for allegedly hiring hitmen to shoot up the homes of four democratic officials whom he blamed.  

A student of history, Biden noted on Jan. 6, that precisely 80 years before the Capitol insurrection, another president confronted a similar crisis internationally, and presented his vision for America’s unique leadership role in defending democracy.   

The date was Jan. 6., 1941. With much of Europe and Asia under assault by fascist, authoritarian invaders, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his remarkable State of the Union address known today as the “Four Freedoms” speech, where he proposed the fundamental freedoms that the world should be built upon — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.  

The speech laid the foundation for the democratic principles that FDR and Winston Churchill enunciated in the Atlantic Charter a few months later. It presaged America joining the global war against fascism after Pearl Harbor. It formed the basis for FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights in 1944, the United Nations Charter in 1945, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.  

It is difficult to conceive a State of the Union address more consequentially enunciating the principles of democracy. Yet precisely 80 years later, America’s own democracy almost crumbled under a violent onslaught found to be incited by its own impeached, defeated and disgraced president.  

In exactly eight decades — the blink of an eye in the sweep of history — our democracy tumbled from the heights to a precipice. Today our freedoms are at mortal risk. FDR would blanch at the irony. 

Our republic can work only if Americans trust our system of democratic checks and balances. When people struggle with insecurity and feel ignored by their governing institutions, that trust can dissolve as millions are seduced by the empty promises of authoritarian “populists.” 

FDR was right to worry about how, in the 1920s, Benito Mussolini and his Blackshirts had threatened insurrection and civil war, convincing Italy’s king to dissolve the government and let Mussolini seize absolute power. Hitler toppled Germany’s democratic Weimar government and became dictator by blaming the country’s ills on all kinds of “liberal” elements, including democracy, socialists, centrists, gays, and, of course, Jews. 

Let’s not kid ourselves. The fascist fire still burns hot. And make no mistake, the short-term chaos is actually just part of a dangerous long game. 

Democracy’s enemies are now playing the long game in the United States. Among the thousands of election officials, legislators, courts, governors and other state and federal officials who run our elections, we now have hundreds of election deniers. With some high-visibility exceptions, most Republican candidates who questioned the validity of the 2020 presidential election won in 2022. This year, local and state elections across the country will decide how future elections are run. The winners will decide who gets to vote, how votes are counted and who does the counting. Hundreds of committed election deniers will once again be on the ballot. That should scare anyone who loves freedom and democracy.  

Biden’s speech this Jan. 6 praised FDR’s notion of our “individual stake in the preservation of democratic life in America,” passed down to us through historic struggles that have “toughened the fiber of our people, renewed their faith, and strengthened their devotion to the institutions we make ready to protect.” 

Biden’s State of the Union address reminded us that democracy is “the most fundamental thing of all.” With it, “everything is possible. Without it, nothing is.” 

The MAGA conspiracists who embrace Trump’s culture of grievance, hatred and cruelty are emboldened by the inexplicable lack of accountability for any of their movement’s leaders. The flames of violence continue to spread. Our institutions of democracy remain at risk. The only counterbalance is ordinary Americans demanding better — truth over lies, “light over darkness, stability over chaos.” 

James Roosevelt, Jr., grandson of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, is an attorney and serves as co-chair of the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee. 

Henry Scott Wallace, grandson of Henry A. Wallace, FDR’s vice president and secretary of Agriculture and Commerce, is an attorney and co-chair of the Wallace Global Fund. 

Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall is the grandson of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Labor secretary, and founder of the Frances Perkins Center. 

June Hopkins, granddaughter of FDR advisor and secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins, is professor of History Emerita, at Georgia Southern University, Armstrong Campus.  

Harold Ickes, the son of Harold L. Ickes, FDR’s secretary of the Interior, was White House deputy chief of staff for political affairs and policy and assistant to President Bill Clinton.

Editor’s Note: This piece was updated on Feb. 9 at 9:27 a.m. to clarify the timing of an event.

Tags Benito Mussolini Biden Donald Trump Fascism in the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt Franklin Roosevelt Jan. 6 Capitol attack Joe Biden Medicare Nancy Pelosi Paul Pelosi attack Politics of the United States Social Security State of the Union address

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