The Shield is Franklin Project’s guidebook in the fight against authoritarian forces. Weekly, we’ll give you the knowledge, tools, and talking points to get you engaged.
It’s Time to Act
If we’re not careful, and if we don’t wake up and do something, America is on a path that has us looking more like China, Cuba, and El Salvador. This fate goes by different names: radical extremism; totalitarianism, and, most accurately; authoritarianism. Authoritarianism loosely defined is:
“A form of government characterized by the rejection of political plurality, the use of a strong central power to preserve the political status quo, and reductions in the rule of law, separation of powers, and democratic voting.”
Sound familiar? It should.
Over the past few years, many tens of thousands of our fellow citizens have unwittingly (let’s go ahead and give some of them the benefit of the doubt) embraced that definition of authoritarianism. Does what’s going on in this country meet the standards of authoritarianism? Let’s pick it apart:
1. “The rejection of political plurality.” The year-long denial of the presidential election outcome and spurring on his followers to do the same, ignoring the fact that every court has thrown out their baseless claims, is precisely that rejection. The more this kind of thinking takes hold, the more they undercut our need to believe in the outcomes of free and fair elections. Our entire democracy depends on this belief. If that’s gone, we are lost.
2. “The use of a strong central power to preserve the political status quo.” While in office, President Trump was perfectly happy to use any lever at his disposal to scoop up more power and to quiet his political adversaries. His unrelenting pressure on the Department of Justice to go after his enemies tops the list of his many power grabs. And let’s not forget the power of the bully pulpit when Trump told his supporters to head to the Capitol on January 6th. Why? To “preserve the political status quo”: to keep him in office.
3. “Reductions in the rule of law, separation of powers, and democratic voting.” You don’t have to think very hard to remember Trump doing all of these things. Let’s not forget he was impeached twice for high crimes. If he could have governed without the Legislative or Judicial Branches slowing him down, don’t you think that’s exactly what he would have done? And as for undermining democratic voting, remember who it was that wanted people to believe that voting by mail was, by definition, corrupt?
Trumpism IS authoritarianism and authoritarianism IS Trumpism. At the national level, it’s easy enough to see. The REAL problem, however, is that Trumpism has rapidly embedded itself at every level of American society. All the way through governors and state legislatures to local school boards and city councils. While it’s easy to focus on the strongman at the top of the domestic authoritarian movement — Donald Trump — look closer.
The journey from “undermining democratic voting” at the national level to the local level is a short one. At the national/Trump level, it’s trying to make people believe the lie that he won last year when the facts and the courts say otherwise. Thousands of his followers believe this ridiculous lie and THAT corrodes our collective faith in election outcomes. So where’s the link between that and the local level? When states like Georgia and Texas fall in line, lock-step with Trumpism to pass laws making it harder for people who are unlikely to vote for Trump or his anointed minions, that is authoritarianism at the local level. When states make voting by mail illegal, that is authoritarianism at the local level. When states remove ballot drop-off boxes in precincts that are unlikely to vote their way, that is authoritarianism at the local level.
But it’s not just about voting.
When formerly rational people feel empowered to become violent at school board meetings because they disagree with mask mandates or what’s being taught, where do you think that comes from? It comes from Trumpism stoking the embers of anger and egging people on to throw punches. That too is authoritarianism at the local level.
The point is that Trumpism is happening everywhere, all around us, every day. Trumpism is organized. Trumpism is well-funded. And Trumpism is really the only team on the field at the moment. Who’s going to stop it? You are. And if you don’t, nobody will.
So what can you do? No, that’s the wrong question. The right question is: “What MUST you do?”
1. The very first step is to see Trumpism for what it is and where it is. Make the link between the extremism, divisiveness, and meanness going on in your community with the national wave of authoritarianism. They are the same thing.
2. Decide that you are either going to do what you can to stop it, or you’ll do nothing at all and let it take over.
3. Great, now that you’ve decided to stand up and say “nope, that’s far enough,” then it’s time to get down to work
4. Take some easy first steps. Go online and find out when your city council, county council, school board or other governing bodies are meeting. These are public and you have a right to attend them, either virtually or in person. Go. Listen to what’s being discussed. Hear who in your community supports or opposes issues you care about. Talk with citizen groups that you agree with and join them. Start speaking up and telling your leaders what YOU want and what you DON’T want. What you don’t want is anything that smacks of authoritarianism. Say so. Loud and clear.
5. Now, take it to the next level. Go here, type in your zip code to see who your state and national elected leaders are. From there you can see what legislation they have introduced and what their voting record is. You can then email or call their offices and let them know what you think. Remember, they report to you, not the other way around. Make your voice heard. Find out when your elected representatives are having in-person meetings in your area, and then go to one.
If you value democracy, if you love your freedoms and liberties, then it’s up to you to stand up to creeping authoritarianism. Tell anybody running for office that unless they support democracy and reject authoritarianism, then you will reject them at the voting booth. And then tell them that there are millions of people who feel the exact same way you do and that there are more of us than there are of them.
It’s time to unite for the fight. Are you with us?
In the next edition of The Shield, we’ll demonstrate just how scary American politics could look if we don’t turn out and use the 2022 midterms as an opportunity to reject authoritarianism at the polls.
Greg Jenkins, Franklin Project Co-Executive Director
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