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American fascism? Yes, it can happen here

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Mort Report

American fascism? Yes, it can happen here

  • Trump at the 2020 'State of the Union' speech in the House of Representatives.
    White HouseTrump at the 2020 'State of the Union' speech in the House of Representatives.

SAN FRANCISCO — Michael Getler, perhaps the wisest editor I've ever known, once warned me, "You can go awfully wrong betting against the American people." That rumbling in the background is not the Big One. It's Mike backflipping in his grave.

Even Joseph Stalin feigned more legitimacy than the U.S. Senate's contemptible show trial. The predetermined verdict, with neither witnesses nor documents, gave a mercurial, power-obsessed president free rein to ignore the Constitution.

Donald Trump held up vital aid to an ally at war, seeking dirt on Joe Biden, and then blocked a congressional inquiry. The defense rested on his last call to Kiev: "no quid pro quo." That was after a courageous insider made his extortion public.

John Bolton's leaked manuscript nailed down any niggling doubts. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee called Trump's actions "inappropriate" but not impeachable. Inappropriate is farting in a buffet line. This is more.

Yet much of America shrugged it off, failing to see the incalculable damage done not only to basic values at home but also to a world facing despotic manipulation of "truth," widening conflict and climate chaos that threatens unimaginable consequences.

The Superbowl was great, but we are in trouble when a football game with no real lasting impact draws 10 times more television viewers than a sham impeachment.

At the vote to acquit, after Mitch McConnell excoriated Democrats for a baseless partisan pursuit, Mitt Romney alone broke Republican ranks. He said his faith in God would not let him condone "an appalling abuse of public trust."

Getler edited the International Herald Tribune long after I left it and then returned to the Washington Post as ombudsman. He moved to NPR in the same role, a wise rabbi-ethicist who understood the fundamental need for a respected, impartial press.

We discussed the draft of my book, "Escaping Plato's Cave." With his cautions in mind, I worried the subtitle might be alarmist: "How America's Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival." Today, that's an understatement.

Another Trump term would concentrate dictatorial powers in the White House, buttressed by a packed Supreme Court and rubber-stamp legislators. This evokes troubling echoes from the past.

Hitler took power with a hardcore 40 percent minority because the opposition was split. Sinclair Lewis published "It Can't Happen Here" in 1935, and a new edition appeared just this week. An Amazon blurb sums it up neatly:

"A cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy, it is an alarming, eerily timeless look at how fascism could take hold in America. Written during the Great Depression, when the country was largely oblivious to Hitler's aggression, it juxtaposes sharp political satire with the chillingly realistic rise of a president who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, sex, crime, and a liberal press."

If God alone were going to save America, McConnell would have burst into flame when he swore on a Bible to be impartial. Evolution suggests that senators won't grow spines overnight. America's fate hangs on elections in November.

I'm betting with Getler on the American people. But the odds are terrifying. Too many voters rely on emotional impulse, fixating on narrow issues without considering the big picture. Democrats continue to snipe at one another, fortifying Trump's chances.

Beyond reuniting a divided nation, the next president has to convince allies and foes in a world on the boil that America is sane again. This demands skilled labor, with no time to learn on the job.

Borders today are largely only lines on a map. A virus gone wild in an open-air Chinese market creates global alarm within days. Walls don't stop migrants, refugees and terrorists. The world's macroeconomy, like its ecology, transcends all frontiers.

Early in Trump's tenure I argued that impeachment would produce testimony and documents to shed light on his self-serving depredations. I never imagined that craven senators could get away with stonewalling the people they are sworn to serve.

America First is now closer to America Only, no longer able to lead by example. China ethnically cleanses millions and scorns reporting of that as "fake news." Russia subverts democracies at a quickening pace, sneering at objections from Washington.

In Europe, the United States is more than a laughingstock. Leaders watch in disbelief tinged with contempt as a nation they admired abandons its defense of human rights and freedoms. Elsewhere, Trump's me-first bullying and toadying sparks brush fires apt to flame out of control.

For me, the obvious choice is Joe Biden, a respected known quantity across the world. Of course, he is flawed. But he is the anti-Trump: decent, honest and empathetic. And he is most likely to win over wavering Republicans in the crucial swing states.

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar are already well-placed in the Senate, where such domestic policies as health care, taxation and gender issues take shape. Others in the race, younger, offer solid promise for the future.

But that's me. There is also that young Iowan who told a reporter: "Biden? Never in a million years." He is 77, and a New York Times editorial backing Klobuchar and Warren argued that he was ready for slippers and the back porch.

I just read Marcus Tullius Cicero's essay on whether old men should serve in public office, written 2,100 years ago in Rome. Summed up, its conclusion was: Duh. Why should hard-earned experience and nurtured relationships be needlessly wasted?

At this stage, no one knows what to expect in November. Generalities make for easy but skewed analysis. There is a myriad of Americas, and many of them are isolated in bubble wrap with specific priorities. In most, "foreign policy" ranks low on the list.

One key element of "It Can't Happen Here" was how so few Americans at the time paid attention to the outside world. Today, despite instant access to reliable information from so many sources, that is still true.

Another is that fearful, gullible people are easily swayed by a demagogue's simplistic bombast. Big lies, however transparent, become accepted truth if repeated often — and loudly — enough.

Despite impeachment, Gallup says Trump's approval rating has risen to 49 percent. His State of the Union — jingoistic and aimed squarely as his base — drew chants of "four more years." At the outset, he refused to shake Nancy Pelosi's hand. At the end, she tore up her copy of a speech she called "a manifesto of mistruths."

Trump vowed to protect pre-existing conditions in health care; Republicans are in court to do the opposite. He wildly exaggerated progress on the Wall and crime among illegal immigrants. Barack Obama made America the world's leading oil and gas producer. The Washington Post counted 31 falsehoods, including the signature claim Trump has repeated 260 times: the economy is the best it has ever been. And so on.

After acquittal the next day, Trump's response was a tweeted meme that suggested he planned to be president forever. Then, mob-style, Don Jr. fingered Romney as a traitor who should be punished.

Iowa gave a foretaste of the obstacles in an election process that borders on lunacy. Five of the Democratic candidates together spent $55 million on advertising and 400 days to secure only six electoral votes of the 270 needed to win the presidency.

On caucus day, people lined up behind the flashiest speaker, sometimes on a last-minute whim. Pete Buttigieg scored twice as high as Biden, and Amy Klobuchar trailed further behind.

News organizations fielded huge teams, squandering budgets that could send correspondents to cover vital world news. An untested mobile app delayed the results. Shit happens. That was enough for Trump to crow about his inept opposition.

We all know the problems. Elections are about money, with an advantage to Republicans who are better at online targeting and working the algorithms. Voter suppression, gerrymandering and the rest play a part.

The only answer is an overwhelming turnout. Opting out with so much at stake amounts to desertion. The key question is who can beat Trump. But another question is no less important: Who can confront global crises most Americans ignore.

It is hard for voters to keep track of all the conflict and calamity that threaten America abroad. But they don't have to. All they need do is put aside narrow interests and rally behind a seasoned candidate who does.

This column was first published by the Mort Report.

Mort Rosenblum is founding editor of the quarterly, Dispatches. From 1967 to 2004, Rosenblum was Associated Press bureau chief and special correspondent in Africa, Southeast Asia, Argentina and France, reporting from 200 countries. From 1979-1981, he was editor of the International Herald Tribune. Based in Paris and Provence, he returns each winter to the University of Arizona to teach global reporting. Among his 12 books are “Escaping Plato’s Cave: How America’s Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival,” “Who Stole the News?,” “Coups and Earthquakes,” “Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light” and the best-selling “Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit.” He can be reached through

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