Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.
By Ruth Ben-Ghiat
A great multi-front war is being waged against the American people. We face a legal and legislative war that aims to take away our democratic rights and intellectual freedoms and turn the bedrocks of civil society, like schools and places of worship, into targets of terror. We face a psychological war that seeks to convince Americans that Democrats pose an existential threat to them and promotes violence as a legitimate response to that situation.
And we face a political war about the meaning and value of freedom in America. The Republican-Fox-Christian nationalist rewriting of the Jan. 6 coup attempt as a patriotic act against Democratic tyranny (a narrative recently enshrined at former president Donald Trump's Waco, TX rally) is a case in point.
As with past assaults on liberty around the globe, this one is meeting with resistance. After the 2017 Womens' March and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, each of which were the largest protest in American history at that time, a new wave of anti-authoritarian action is gaining momentum on the streets and in courts and statehouses around the country. It will not be stopped.
"We've got to prove that democracy works," President Joe Biden declared in his first press conference in March 2021. The US right and its global allies are marshaling enormous resources to make Biden's project a failure. Creating an atmosphere of crisis and everyday violence in America is part of a massive effort to persuade millions that authoritarian methods and strongman leadership are the only paths to safety and survival for Americans today. The GOP’s refusal to entertain gun reform factors in here.
Right now, the energy for the final push to wreck democracy collects around Trump, a twice-impeached, now-indicted individual who is the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination. He is far too efficient a vehicle of grassroots radicalization to be cast aside. From his adulation of foreign autocrats to his incitement of a violent coup attempt on Jan. 6, his credentials as a political extremist and embodiment of authoritarian lawlessness remain unsurpassed.
Meanwhile, mini-Trumps in statehouses around the country compete to be recognized as extremists in their rhetoric, methods, and policies. That includes Republican lawmakers seeing their Democratic peers as political enemies to be locked up, expelled, silenced, and/or threatened.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issues fever-pitch calls for "total war" on Democrats, approves permit-less concealed carry of weapons, and arrests peaceful protesters calling out his draconian restrictions on abortion rights. Last week, those arrested included state Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book and Florida Democratic chair Nikki Fried.
In Tennessee, Republican legislators expelled Black Democrat Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones after they joined protests in favor of gun safety legislation in the wake of a devastating mass shooting that included three children among the victims (Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is White, staved off expulsion by one vote). Justifying the expulsion, Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican, called his colleagues' protests an "insurrection" comparable to the Jan.6 assault on the Capitol.
Democratic Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson after being expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives, Nashville, April 6, 2023. Kevin Wurm/Reuters
Jones, who was reappointed to the state legislature on Monday after a vote of the Nashville Council, had a message for his Democratic colleagues around the country. The expulsions "signal to the nation that if it can happen here in Tennessee, it's coming to your state next." And Pearson, who was reappointed yesterday, reminded his peers before he was forced out of the chamber that America was built on a protest and he would not be bowed: "I come from a long line of people who have resisted."
It was notable, if not unexpected, that so many Republican state lawmakers appeared to avert their eyes or ignore Jones as he re-entered the chamber, escorted by Rep. Johnson. He may be back, but they will refuse to "see" him as a Black Democratic lawmaker and they will refuse to recognize the democratic demands he and his peers in statehouses around the country advance to increasing popular acclaim.
Such arrogance and underestimation of the fierce will to retain rights and freedoms has always been an authoritarian weakness. In a different context, we can think of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s imperious assumption that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would flee the country after Russia invaded Ukraine, leaving Ukrainians to submit to Russian aggression. How did that work out?
In their mania to control bodies, votes, and minds, lawmakers of an autocratic party now devoted to conspiracy theories and violence do not see that they are sparking a vast rejection of their inhumanity that will only grow in the next few years —or perhaps they think that criminalizing protest and arming more vigilantes will take care of the problem.
Instead, their actions are sparking a turn to activism, including among lawmakers, and new alliances are being formed. "You are seeing the nation just sort of burst at its seams with political tension," said Fried, capturing the mood.
From "laboratories of autocracy," to use David Pepper's term for the role many U.S. statehouses have played in this country, we shall see legislatures, in alliance with grassroots and civil society organizations, act as sites of anti-authoritarian action. Each episode of resistance will inspire other Americans to mobilize locally and nationally on behalf of democratic rights.
What Rep. Jones stated upon his reappointment is being echoed throughout the nation: "[W]e will not yield to authoritarian attacks on our democracy. Our fight is not over."