An Assault On American Democracy And Our Responsibility To Stop It


As I finished renowned journalist David Newert’s chilling book The Age of Insurrection: The Radical Right’s Assault on American Democracy, Sunday morning headlines were dominated by news out of Jacksonville of the killing of three Black Americans by a racist assassin.

The shooter was armed with an AR-15 and a Glock and had decorated the assault rifle with swastikas. He murdered Black victims near the campus of an historically Black college, in a state where the governor has made a show of banning critical race theory and abolishing women’s studies from public schools and colleges..

Ron DeSantis issued a video from Iowa, where he is campaigning as a culture warrior, decrying the killings as “horrific” and saying the gunman targeted his victims based on their race. “That is totally unacceptable,” DeSantis said.

Really? United States Representative Maxwell Frost, D‑Florida, the first Generation Z member of Congress, had a different take: “The far-right fascist movement, embraced by Governor Ron DeSantis, is murdering people.”

Alluding to mass shootings in Buffalo and El Paso, Frost added: “It’s not just a civil war. It’s a real war on Black and brown lives.”

America has long been afflicted with nativist and fascist movements, going back to the Know Nothings of the nineteenth century. Timothy Egan’s powerful recent book, “A Fever in the Heartland,” details how the Ku Klux Klan took over such states as Indiana and Oregon in the 1920s, and plotted to dominate the country.

What’s different today, writes Neiwert, is the blessing and winking from high places.

Donald Trump has become the first modern president to embrace and spread conspiracy theories as a central component for holding power.

In the 2020 presidential debate with Joe Biden, he told the white supremacists who call themselves the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

The ex-president fueled a falsehood-based insurrection in efforts to stay in power. Fascism, dressed up by such concepts as “replacement theory” – a plot to overwhelm America’s whites with immigrants – has been propagated by the likes of Representatives Marjorie Taylor Green and Paul Gosar, and by such media personalities as former FNC host Tucker Carlson.

In Neiwert’s words: “These figures have transmitted white nationalist and other far-right conspiracy theories into the mainstream of public discourse, ranging from the ‘Great Replacement’ to the contradictory claims that ‘leftists’ and ‘Antifa’ were actually responsible for the January 6th violence.”

The poison has worked its way up and down, from militant extremists who briefly dominated city government in Sequim, Washington, to upper reaches of one of America’s two major political parties.

“As more mainstream Republicans participated in and condoned this campaign of hatred, it became clear that the long-running radicalization of the Republican Party, both at its highest reaches and among the rank-and-file membership, had sharply intensified since the January 6th insurrection.”

The root tactic of fascism has always been its supply of devil figures, the “they” and “them” who hold power, look down on real people, are refer to the heartland as “Flyover America.” As well, the real powerless are singled out for sarcastic hate. Just look at the demonization of transgender teenagers, from Rupert Murdoch’s FNC to the dais at GOP presidential debates.

Suspicion is cast on the LGBTQ community for “grooming” recruits.

Fear, the fear of losing – of being overrun – is central to its appeal.

Neiwert quotes a report last year from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which found: “Each side has radically different visions of America: On the right, a large faction is invested in pushing back against pluralism and equity, while the left largely embraces these values.”

Hence, the concept of a “culture war.” It is ruthlessly exploited by the Murdochs to lure an aging, less educated white audience. They watch a nightly dose of propaganda and strident attacks, endlessly repeated, against designated targets. Fox is a classic example of cynical niche marketing.

A onetime Seattle resident, Christopher Rufo, has now become Governor DeSantis’ house intellectual, newly minted as trustee at a college being purged of its women’s and ethnic studies programs.

As a fellow at the Discovery Institute here, Rufo decried what he called “the politics of ruinous compassion” and the “homeless-industrial complex.” He helped KOMO TV, owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, develop its “Seattle is Dying” themes.

Neiwert quotes Rufo: “We have successfully frozen their brand – ‘critical race theory’ – into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all the various cultural insanities under that broad category.”

Few restraints are put on the incitement of anger.

With Carlson at the forefront, right-wing media have lionized Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager from Illinois who used an AR-15 to shoot and kill two people during a volatile demonstration in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Vigilante acts and militia training are fanned by movement enablers.

Neiwert spends time with the shock troops: Proud Boys threatening a school board in Washougal, Washington, northern Idaho “patriots” caught moving against an LGBTQ event in Couer D’Alene, and the Washington State Three Percenters who protested in Olympia against COVID-19 measures. Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen hoodwinked the crowd into a racist singalong.

The fighters of the Christian nationalist movement are not very smart.

“The Age of Insurrection” is filled with characters who sound like they were sired in the sex scene from the movie “Deliverance.” When fed a steady diet of conspiracies and attacks on anyone who is “different,” however, we’ve seen some people take up arms with terrible consequences.

We saw the murders of elderly worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, and the horrendous slaughter of young patrons of an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Orlando.

A Wichita, Kansas, physician who performed abortions was shot dead in the Lutheran parish where he served as church usher.

Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, spoke in a weekend NPR interview about the surge in anti-Semitic incidents across the country. What was it that the neo-Nazis chanted in Charlottesville? “Jews will not replace us.” Donald Trump delivered a postmortem, singing the praises of “fine people on both sides.”

What’s going on writes Neiwert, who has been a senior writer at Daily Kos, is “an organized onslaught against American democracy and pluralistic self-government itself.” Doubt him? Turn to Twitter and read dispatches from the front by Newt Gingrich, Kari Lake, Senators Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn, and Stephen Miller.

Our democracy has been strong enough to turn back past assaults. President Ulysses Grant crushed the original Ku Klux Klan. Courageous prosecutors and journalists exposed the corrupt 1920s Klan, which popped like a soap bubble. (Notre Dame students bombarded Kluxers marching through South Bend, Indiana, with potatoes.) The Silver Shirt movement blossomed for a time in the Northwest, but FDR made us the Arsenal of Democracy in fighting the Nazis.

Led by Senator Margaret Chase Smith, R‑Maine, and her “declaration of conscience,” a half-dozen Republican senators were out front decrying the red-baiting demagoguery of Senator Joe McCarthy.

Senator John Kennedy mounted a frontal assault on religious bigots who were loudly and quietly saying a Catholic should not be elected president.

It’s different this time. The Republicans have kowtowed to Trump.

Witness the empty suit that is House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

With the Internet and right-wing media, manipulators have powerful weapons of intimidation. It is sport, as seen with the two Atlanta election workers – smeared by Rudy Giuliani — to bring down hate on chosen targets.

Neiwert makes a telling point near book’s end: Resistance must come from the bottom up as well as the top down.

“Once communities can be persuaded out of denial about what they are up against, and what they are dealing with,” he writes, “the only effective answer is to out-organize them, then there is a very good chance of success.”

A lot of politics is, after all, still local.