One of the defining characteristics of fascism is the elevation of loyalty to things and symbols over people and democratic ideals. There is no such thing as compulsory patriotism in a democracy. We are very much seeing a test of that principle right now, in Portland and states across the country.
A nation that began as a rowdy protest against authority is seeing a white supremacist President and his equally authoritarian party declare that things and symbols are more important than the injustice and human suffering that led to the uprising in the first place. They rail against graffiti and broken windows as the death toll from an out of control pandemic approaches 150,000, millions remain unemployed, and parents are rightly terrified of sending their children back to school.
As Colorado State Senate President Leroy Garcia gracefully noted when his truck was vandalized after a protest at the Capitol, “As the only member of color on leadership in the General Assembly, I understand and empathize with the pain and horror so many are feeling. I stand with those peacefully protesting for change. The system is still broken, but I believe that we can fight back through protests as well as through policy.”
He’s right. And more people should listen.
What Trump and the Republican Party are doing isn’t new: It’s rebranded fascism straight out of the authoritarian playbook. But it is a malignancy that grows more threatening by the day as Trump’s failures magnify and he falls further and further behind Democratic rival Joe Biden. He is openly declaring his intent to attack America’s cities and Democratic mayors under the ominous and fooling-no-one Nixonian hyperbole of “law and order.”
It’s worth noting that the chief instigator of Trump’s thuggery, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, has no experience in the military or law enforcement and currently occupies his job illegally. As noted in the Washington Post, “the Federal Vacancies Reform Act only allows acting officials to serve for 210 days after a vacancy is declared or a new permanent head is nominated and rejected. Wolf has served 251 days.”
In other words, Wolf’s “acting” tenure expired in June, but he keeps showing up and giving orders while collecting a salary on the taxpayer dime. That’s the reason I call him Fascist Milton, after the red stapler guy in the movie “Office Space.”
Once we get past the quaint notion that illegal government officials shouldn’t be there in the first place, we also get to the constitutional principle that the First Amendment protects our right to protest, including not saluting the flag (hello, Colin Kaepernick), pledging allegiance or coercing patriotism.
This constitutional principle of dates back 75 years to the height of World War II. In 1943, a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses school children sued a West Virginia school district and said its requirement that they salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance violated their religious beliefs against “idolatry.” In one of the most eloquent and beautifully American decisions ever issued, Justice Robert Jackson wrote, in siding with the children in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, “The case is made difficult not because the principles of its decision are obscure, but because the flag involved is our own. Nevertheless, we apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse or even contrary will disintegrate the social organization. …
“(F)reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.
“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
America itself is an idea, not a thing or a building or a statue or a petty official. The very founding of our nation, stained as it was by slavery, grew out of the notion that somehow differences could be overcome through a sense of common purpose, a document laying out those ideals, and rebellion against a distant king. We have been for more than 200 years a test of whether a nation of nations could conquer the ancient human instinct towards tribalism. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. Maybe.
Our nation’s ideals, and its people, are more important than things, despite the current bout of fascism from an incompetent and frightened despot.