In June of 1954, Robert Oppenheimer lost his security clearance because his ex-wife had been a member of the Communist Party and he had described himself as a “New Deal Democrat,” which, to his inquisitors, meant “communist.”
The Soviet Union had brought down the iron curtain on their people, after all, and millions of Russians lived behind it. The USSR also had the world’s second-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, and Americans lived in fear of nuclear war: I still remember the “duck and cover” drills from elementary school in the 1950s.
Now the GOP is reprising their infamous McCarthyite “Red Scare” tactics, with more on the horizon. They’re doing it to distract us from the actual Republican agenda, which bears a much closer resemblance to fascist states like Russia and Hungary than communism in Cuba.
For example, a few weeks ago, Trump — while campaigning in Iowa — said that if he becomes president again, he’s going to put an ideological test on all would-be immigrants and tourists.
“We’re going to deny entry to all communists and Marxists,” he said, mangling the word “Marxist” into “markers.” He then added, “Now, the real problem is what do we do about all the ones we already have that happen to be politicians? Nancy Pelosi! Schumer! Shifty Schiff!”
Trump’s garbled rhetoric aside, America is not suffering from a communism problem. We haven’t had a nationally elected communist politician in my lifetime, to the best of my recollection. But don’t try to tell that to Republicans.
Ted Cruz told Fox News viewers:
“Joe Biden has handed the agenda over to the socialists — and not just the socialists: This is now the Marxists. This is now the Communists. Today’s Democratic Party believes in violence. They believe in mob rule. They believe in intimidation — just like Marxists and Communists, they’re willing to burn our institutions to the ground to get what they want.”
Ron DeSantis is convinced our campuses are hotbeds of communism, which is why he says he had to take over the small liberal arts New College in Sarasota and stock its leadership and faculty with rightwingers:
“You can see at a college campus students flying the hammer and sickle from the old Soviet Union flag,” he told a group of cheering Republicans.
Marjorie Taylor Greene wants America to know that we have sleeper communists among the top echelons of the Democratic Party:
“They have been running this plan for decades now because the same people running this country—Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi—oh, let’s not forget Hillary and Bill Clinton, because they’re not out of the picture. Barack Obama. All of these people swore themselves to the communist agenda back when they were in college.”
Republicans love to rant about communism, but they almost never mention the far more imminent threat of fascism — because that’s become their main policy agenda over the past few decades. Most of this fundamentally dishonest Republican anti-communist rhetoric began in the 1950s.
Four years after the Supreme Court ruled against racially segregated schools in their 1954 Brown v Board decision the John Birch Society was formed and, with big bucks from Fred Koch, funded a nationwide movement against the “communist agenda” of racial integration and “government schools” (as his son, David, called them when running for Vice President in 1980), including highway billboards demanding America “Impeach [Chief Justice] Earl Warren.”
In addition to not wanting White children to have to attend school with Black children, Koch and his wealthy oil baron buddies didn’t want to pay taxes to support a national social safety net. Particularly one that might help out Black people.
By this time Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was solidly in place, and America had largely made the transition into a modern form of what Europeans call “democratic socialism” or “social democracy,” with government administering the commons, and private, for-profit industry running most everything else.
We have Social Security, the minimum wage, legalized unions, Medicare, Medicaid, laws against child labor, food stamps and housing support for poor people, free public schools, government-run water, septic, and electric utilities, free public roads and highways, and a whole host of other “democratic socialist” programs. None existed before FDR.
None are communist, and none are fascist. All could be described as aspects of democratic socialism: federal, state, and local governments administer the commons and its associated social safety net (socialism) and do so with the approval of the majority of the people (democratic).
For communism to take over here would require a complete government capture, the end of all private property, and the suppression of dissent. This will not happen here in the U.S. because the American people would not tolerate it. In large part that is because everybody knows that the countries that have gone communist have turned into repressive basket cases.
But wealthy interests who don’t want to pay taxes to support a strong social safety net are eager to claim that Democrats who support these all-American programs are, in fact, communists. A claim supported by their stooges like Cruz, DeSantis, and Greene.
This movement by the morbidly rich, which has fully captured the Republican Party, is led by fossil fuel and big business oligarchs who are using the social, religious, and political values of the old Confederacy to build a modern nationwide movement. They’ve built their political house on the foundation of bigotry, misogyny, and hate.
That movement, at its core, is fascist. And just like fascists of Europe in the 1930s who claimed that their main enemies were communists, these fascists label all who oppose them as commies.
They do not actually believe that Democrats are communists, of course; they are not that stupid. It is just a convenient term of demonization. Fascists have always known that to enrage people to the point of violence it’s necessary to first turn their opponents into “the other,” and “communist” is a convenient all-purpose term to do that.
When Louise and I (and our kids) lived in Germany in the 1980s, we spent a lot of time living right on the East German border (the exploding land mines would wake us up when the ground around the wall thawed in the Spring).
We visited East Berlin when it was run by the Soviets (as well as visiting Belarus and Russia) and I can tell you from personal experience that communism sucked. And that it is nothing like the social welfare state that FDR and LBJ brought to America and is widely practiced across Europe, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and Costa Rica.
But in their desire to lock down America, suppress dissent, and consolidate all the country’s wealth in the hands of a select (and White) few, today’s Republicans use lies to legitimize their fascist policies.
- The lie of “voter fraud,” for example, has led to hundreds of laws across Red States to suppress the Democratic vote, particularly in the Blue cities within those states.
- The lie that there’s no such thing as climate change has captured the GOP and paralyzed much-needed action to move America off its addiction to fossil fuels.
- The lie that Democrats drink children’s blood has convinced more than an estimated 30 million Americans that the Republican Party is the center of morality in a nation gone insane.
Historically, fascists have used “traditional values” of hierarchy and patriarchy to disempower and demonize women, queer people, minority ethnic or religious groups including Gypsies, Jews and Muslims, and those who advocate for the interests of working-class people and the poor.
They demonize these people to the point that violence against them — including state-sanctioned violence through criminalization — seems justified.
We see this rhetoric at work today in efforts to characterize gay and trans people as “groomers,” to rewrite history taught in schools to reduce empathy for Black people, and in rants on hate talk radio and Fox “News” about “BLM rioters and looters.”
Most of this is done to acquire political power, to gain the support of enough people to win elections and rule a nation. By 1937, for example, Adolf Hitler, using the same strategy, was one of the most popular politicians in the world: he was on the cover of TIME magazine that year.
Although he’d been running concentration camps for several years at that time, most of the people imprisoned in them were people who publicly protested his rule, including gays, communists, and socialists; it was not until the November 1938 pogrom that he began putting large numbers of Jews into the camps.
As Helmut Walser Smith notes in an op-ed for The Washington Post:
“In the first two months of National Socialist rule, the Nazis arrested and put into ‘protective custody’ close to 50,000 people, most of them left-wing opponents. By the spring of 1934, close to 100,000 opponents of the regime had already experienced Hitler’s prisons and camps.”
Fascists, to take over a country, must present an aura of moderation, a pretense of adherence to the rule of law (while being fundamentally lawless), and weaken the impact of their own crimes by blaming their opponents of the same thing they are doing or intend to do.
Thus, as Donald Trump used the FBI and IRS against his political enemies (and promises to do so again if re-elected), the GOP is running a House committee dedicated to proving that Democrats have “weaponized” our federal government.
Trump falsely claims that Biden himself is supervising his prosecution, because that’s exactly what he will do if back in power and he wants Americans to become inured to the concept.
“They all do it,” is what Republicans want their followers to believe about American politicians of both parties, so the absolute outrageousness of their own actions is made tolerable or even welcomed.
It is called projection and it is a powerful political strategy that’s been used by fascists from the Nazis of old to today’s Russia and Hungary.
Once the “other” is well established in the minds of the fascist party’s followers, the next step is to criminalize protest by using the “threat” of Black or leftist “rebellion” against dissenters.
We saw this with Trump’s reaction to the protests of George Floyd’s murder and the way he tried to create a crisis by sending armed federal agents without identification insignia into Portland and Seattle to kidnap and beat up protestors, provoking a violent backlash.
That backlash — which here in Portland was pretty much limited to a few square blocks — then ran on a loop for months on Fox “News” and is still referred to by rightwing commentators as if it were a nationwide event.
Soon, those who use violence and murder against protestors — like Kyle Rittenhouse — become the heroes of the fascist movement, encouraging further suppression of dissent and the promotion of stochastic terrorism across the nation.
At that point, fascists change the laws to support their vigilantes and further suppress their opponents. A large percentage of the people Hitler arrested during the first three years of his regime, for example, were imprisoned for protesting in the streets.
According to the International Center for Not-for-profit Law, 269 bills have been introduced in 45 states criminalizing dissent against Republican policies. Forty-two have been enacted, with 15 more pending as of this writing. The ones passed into law include:
- Huge fees for permits to protest anywhere in Alabama, and jail for those who protest Republican policies without permits.
- A year in jail in Arkansas for making a sidewalk “impassable” during a protest, and a felony terrorism charge against people who cause “damage” to a “public monument.”
- Up to six years in an Arkansas prison for trespassing in the vicinity of oil or gas pipelines.
- Conspiracy charges including up to a year in an Arkansas prison for planning any protest where people — even if they are not associated with the protest or its planners — cause property damage.
- Florida criminalizing and associating huge fines with “unpermitted temporary activity or an event organized or promoted via a social media platform.”
- Redefining “riot” in Florida as “endangering the safe movement of a vehicle” (blocking traffic) and attaching a 15 year prison sentence to it. The law also allows a person (much like Kyle Rittenhouse) who kills a “rioter” to get off scott-free if the murder victim was “acting in furtherance of a riot.”
- Thirty months in an Indiana prison for trespassing on “critical infrastructure” owned by an oil or gas company, including their pipelines.
- Five years in an Iowa prison for blocking a sidewalk “during an unlawful assembly.”
- Up to four years in a Kansas prison for trespassing on pipeline facilities.
- Up to five years in a Kentucky prison for “inhibiting operations” of oil or gas companies.
- Draconian permit requirements for protesting at or near any Mississippi government buildings.
- Criminalizing “all strikes or picketing of any kind” by any government employee in Missouri.
- Two years in prison for “riot” in North Carolina. A “riot” is defined as 3 or more people and does not require property damage or injury to persons for prosecution and imprisonment.
- Ten years in prison for any similarly-defined “riot” in North Dakota.
- Immunity from prosecution for drivers who hit and kill protestors in Oklahoma.
- Felony RICO prosecution for any “three or more people” who plan an “unlawful assembly” in Oklahoma.
- Up to five years in prison for “instigating, inciting, or directing” a “riot” (which includes peaceful protest) in South Dakota. Protestors can also be individually sued into poverty by the state.
- Prison time and fines for “encouraging” rioters (also defined as peaceful protestors) in South Dakota. Don’t you dare shout from the sidelines!
- Up to 6 years in a Tennessee prison for participating in a “riot” even if there’s no physical injury or property damage.
- Felony prosecution in Texas for blocking traffic during any sort of protest.
- Up to a year in an Utah jail for protests, including silent protests, at legislative meetings.
- Eliminating criminal or civil liability for police officers who kill protestors at “unlawful assemblies,” including peaceful protests, in West Virginia. And that is just a partial list.
The key to a fascist rise to power is to create an internal enemy, a “dangerous other,” and then use that to gain political power. In the case of today’s GOP, that’s Critical Race Theory, Drag Queen Story Hour, and trans athletes (among others).
As Education Week magazine noted:
“Since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an Education Week analysis. Eighteen states have imposed these bans and restrictions either through legislation or other avenues.”
Most of these laws have provisions that allow imprisonment of teachers or educators who violate them. The goal of today’s MAGA GOP is no less than to roll back the entire New Deal and Great Society and replace them with an authoritarian government that locks down women, suppresses the economic and political power of non-White minorities, and keeps young people in impotent poverty through debt and an obscene minimum wage.
They know that if they laid it out that way few would vote for it, so they’re following the well-trod path of 20th century European fascists and today’s Russia and Hungary (among others) by creating “internal enemies” they can demonize and use to justify laws making it harder to protest or vote.
And they have the brute force of great wealth on their side. After all, since five Republicans on the Supreme Court fully legalized political bribery with Citizens United, almost a hundred rightwing billionaires have begun throwing literally billions of dollars into swinging elections and buying politicians. Others are using their media and social media properties to spread the rightwing word.
Will they succeed? Hungary, in particular, is a cautionary tale; Orbán and his morbidly rich oligarch buddies took over the country in less than a decade, mostly using fear of brown-skinned Syrian refugees as his weapon.
His main campaign slogan in 2010 was “Build a wall.” And he did: barbed wire now stretches across Hungary’s southern border. Greg Abbott, among others, seems to have learned from that lesson.
Orbán also loves to call his opponents communists. Like the GOP, it is a convenient distraction from his fascist agenda and makes it easy to demonize his political opponents.
On the other hand, there is considerable hope and a few good signs that these fascists won’t succeed here. Americans are waking up in record numbers, particularly Zoomers. Five million mature into voting age every year, even as around 2 million Boomers die out in the same time period.
I am optimistic, but not overconfident. We still have a lot of work to do to reclaim our politics and economy from the morbidly rich rightwingers who have spent the past 42 years seizing control, politician by politician, state by state, media outlet by media outlet.
When it comes to the future of democracy in the United States, the upcoming election may well be the most decisive since 1860. Double-check your voter registration, particularly if you live in a Blue city in a Red state, and help wake up friends, family, and neighbors.
America still has a chance to fulfill our founding dream of becoming an egalitarian democracy. But it is going to take all of us.
Intertourist and Photobrutto (via Shutterstock)
© Thom Hartmann, used with permission. Originally published on The Hartmann Report as Why American Fascists Label All Who Oppose Them as Communists
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