Will we permit the loss of hard-fought voting rights?

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

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Heather Cox Richardson

January 16, 2022

Republicans say they oppose the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act because it is an attempt on the part of Democrats to win elections in the future by “nationalizing” them, taking away the right of states to arrange their laws as they wish. Voting rights legislation is a “partisan power grab,” Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) insists.

In fact, there is no constitutional ground for opposing the idea of Congress weighing in on federal elections. The U.S. Constitution establishes that “[t]he Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations.”

There is no historical reason to oppose the idea of voting rights legislation, either. Indeed, Congress weighed in on voting pretty dramatically in 1870, when it amended the Constitution itself for the fifteenth time to guarantee that “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In that same amendment, it provided that “[t]he Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

It did so, in 1965, with “an act to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution,” otherwise known as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law designed to protect the right of every American adult to have a say in their government, that is, to vote. The Supreme Court gutted that law in 2013; the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act is designed to bring it back to life.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a response to conditions in the American South, conditions caused by the region’s descent into a one-party state in which white Democrats acted as the law, regardless of what was written on the statute books.

After World War II, that one-party system looked a great deal like that of the race-based fascist system America had been fighting in Europe, and when Black and Brown veterans, who had just put their lives on the line to fight for democracy, returned to their homes in the South, they called those similarities out.

Democratic president Franklin Delano Roosevelt of New York had been far too progressive on racial issues for most southern Democrats, and when Harry S. Truman took office after FDR’s death, they were thrilled that one of their own was taking over. Truman was a white Democrat from Missouri who had been a thorough racist as a younger man, quite in keeping with his era’s southern Democrats.

But by late 1946, Truman had come to embrace civil rights. In 1952, Truman told an audience in Harlem, New York, what had changed his mind.

“Right after World War II, religious and racial intolerance began to show up just as it did in 1919,” he said. ”There were a good many incidents of violence and friction, but two of them in particular made a very deep impression on me. One was when a Negro veteran, still wearing this country’s uniform, was arrested, and beaten and blinded. Not long after that, two Negro veterans with their wives lost their lives at the hands of a mob.”

Truman was referring to decorated veteran Sergeant Isaac Woodard, who was on a bus on his way home from Georgia in February 1946, when he told a bus driver not to be rude to him because “I’m a man, just like you.” In South Carolina, the driver called the police, who pulled Woodard into an alley, beat him, then arrested him and threw him in jail, where that night the police chief plunged a nightstick into Woodard’s eyes, permanently blinding him. The next day, a local judge found Woodard guilty of disorderly conduct and fined him $50. The state declined to prosecute the police chief, and when the federal government did—it had jurisdiction because Woodard was in uniform—the people in the courtroom applauded when the jury acquitted him, even though he had admitted he had blinded the sergeant.

Two months after the attack on Woodard, the Supreme Court decided that all-white primaries were unconstitutional, and Black people prepared to vote in Georgia’s July primaries. Days before the election, a mob of 15 to 20 white men killed two young Black couples: George and Mae Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcom. Malcom had been charged with stabbing a white man and was bailed out of jail by Loy Harrison, his white employer, who had with him in his car both Malcom’s wife, who was seven months pregnant, and the Dorseys, who also sharecropped on his property.

On the way home, Harrison took a back road. A waiting mob stopped the car, took the men and then their wives out of it, tied them to a tree, and shot them. The murders have never been solved, in large part because no one—white or Black—was willing to talk to the FBI inspectors Truman dispatched to the region. FBI inspectors said the whites were “extremely clannish, not well educated and highly sensitive to ‘outside’ criticism,” while the Blacks were terrified that if they talked, they, too, would be lynched.

The FBI did uncover enough to make the officers think that one of the virulently racist candidates running in the July primary had riled up the assassins in the hopes of winning the election. With all the usual racial slurs, he accused one of his opponents of being soft on racial issues and assured the white men in the district that if they took action against one of the Black men, who had been accused of stabbing a white man, he would make sure they were pardoned. He did win the primary, and the murders took place eight days later.

Songwriters, radio announcers, and news media covered the cases, showing Americans what it meant to live in states in which law enforcement and lawmakers could do as they pleased. When an old friend wrote to Truman to beg him to stop pushing a federal law to protect Black rights, Truman responded: “I know you haven’t thought this thing through and that you do not know the facts. I am happy, however, that you wrote me because it gives me a chance to tell you what the facts are.”

“When the mob gangs can take four people out and shoot them in the back, and everybody in the country is acquainted with who did the shooting and nothing is done about it, that country is in pretty bad fix from a law enforcement standpoint.”

“When a Mayor and City Marshal can take a…Sergeant off a bus in South Carolina, beat him up and put out…his eyes, and nothing is done about it by the State authorities, something is radically wrong with the system.”

In his speech in Harlem, Truman explained that “[i]t is the duty of the State and local government to prevent such tragedies.” But, as he said in 1947, the federal government must “show the way.” We need not only “protection of the people against the Government, but protection of the people by the Government.”

Truman’s conversion came in the very early years of the Civil Rights Movement, which would soon become an intellectual, social, economic, and political movement conceived of and carried on by Black and Brown people and their allies in ways he could not have imagined in the 1940s.

But Truman laid a foundation for what came later. He recognized that a one-party state is not a democracy, that it enables the worst of us to torture and kill while the rest live in fear, and that “[t]he Constitutional guarantees of individual liberties and of equal protection under the laws clearly place on the Federal Government the duty to act when state or local authorities abridge or fail to protect these Constitutional rights.”

That was true in 1946, and it is just as true today.

Lawyer says Trump is immune from any legal consequences. Judge may disagree

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

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Heather Cox Richardson

January 10, 2022

Today, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta held a hearing in Washington, D.C., to determine whether three lawsuits against former president Trump and a number of his loyalists should be permitted to go forward.

The lawsuits have been filed by Democratic members of the House and Capitol Police officers injured on January 6 against Trump, lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump Jr., Representative Mo Brooks (R-AL), and others. The plaintiffs are trying to hold Trump and his team liable in a civil suit for inciting the January 6 insurrection.

But the questions in these three cases mirror those being discussed by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, and touch on whether the former president committed a crime by inciting insurrection or by standing back while the rioters stopped the official proceedings of Congress (which itself is a crime).

Most significantly, Judge Mehta grappled with the meaning of Trump’s refusal to call off the rioters for 187 crucial minutes during the insurrection as they stormed the Capitol. This is a key factor on which the January 6th committee is focused, and Mehta dug into it.

While Trump’s lawyer tried to argue that the president could not be in trouble for failing to do something—that is, for failing to call off the rioters—the judge wondered if Trump’s long silence indicated that he agreed with the insurrectionists inside the Capitol. “If my words had been misconstrued…and they led to violence, wouldn’t somebody, the reasonable person, just come out and say, wait a second, stop?” he asked.

The judge also tried to get at the answer to whether the actions of Trump and his loyalists at the rally were protected as official speech, or were part of campaign activities, which are not protected. Brooks told the judge that everything he did—including wearing body armor to tell the crowd to fight—was part of his official duties. The Department of Justice said this summer that it considered the rally a campaign event and would not defend Brooks for his part in it.

Trump’s lawyer, Jesse Binnall, argued that Trump is absolutely immune from any legal consequences for anything he said while president. “So the president, in your view, is both immune to inciting the riot and failing to stop it?” Mehta asked.

When Binnall suggested the judge was holding Trump to a different standard than he would hold a Democrat, Mehta called the charge “simply inappropriate.”

For all their bluster before the media, key figures in the events of January 6 appear to be increasingly uncomfortable. Last night, Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) joined other Trump administration figures when he announced that he would not appear before the January 6th committee. It has asked him to testify voluntarily, since he has acknowledged that he spoke to Trump on January 6, and since the committee has at least one text from him appearing to embrace the theory that the election results could be overturned.

Jordan claimed that the committee has no legitimate legislative purpose, although a judge has said otherwise.

Observers today noted that Jordan is denying that he recognizes the authority of Congress, and pointed out that in 2015, then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did, in fact, recognize that authority when she testified for 11 hours before a Republican-led House Select Committee on Benghazi.

Today, establishment Republicans showed some resistance to Trump’s attempt to remake the Republican Party as his own when they made a desperate push to stop litigating the 2020 election and instead to move forward. Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) appeared Sunday on ABC News, where he said the 2020 election was “fair” and that Trump lost. “We simply did not win the election, as Republicans, for the presidency,” he said. The former president then issued a rambling statement asking: “Is he crazy or just stupid?”

Rounds retorted that the party must focus on “what lies ahead, not what’s in the past.” Senator MItt Romney (R-UT) jumped aboard, tweeting that Rounds “speaks truth knowing that our Republic depends upon it.” Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski actually made fun of Trump on Friday with a local political news outlet, mocking his endorsement of the Alaska governor’s reelection only if the governor did not endorse Murkowski.

In North Carolina today, eleven voters filed a challenge with the State Board of Elections to Madison Cawthorn as a candidate for reelection on the grounds that he is disqualified by the third section of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits from holding office anyone “who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any state legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any state, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”

North Carolina law says “[t]he burden of proof shall be upon the candidate, who must show by a preponderance of the evidence of the record as a whole that he or she is qualified to be a candidate for the office.”

In late December 2021, Cawthorn told supporters to “call your congressman and feel free—you can lightly threaten them…. Say: ‘If you don’t support election integrity, I’m coming after you. Madison Cawthorn’s coming after you. Everybody’s coming after you.’” Cawthorn spoke at the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally before the crowd broke into the Capitol, suggesting he supported the attack, then voted against accepting the certified ballots from certain states. Cawthorn continues to question the legitimacy of Biden’s election and, last summer, warned there could be “bloodshed” over future elections.

The group filing the challenge promised it would be the first of many.

Trump, Navarro and Bannon had a “peaceful” plan to overturn the election. It failed … thus far

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

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Heather Cox Richardson

December 29, 2021

Yesterday, Josh Kovensky at Talking Points Memo reported that the Trump allies who organized the rally at the Ellipse at 9:00 a.m. on January 6 also planned a second rally that day on the steps of the Supreme Court. To get from one to the other, rally-goers would have to walk past the Capitol building down Constitution Avenue, although neither had a permit for a march.

The rally at the Supreme Court fell apart as rally-goers stormed the Capitol.

Trump’s team appeared to be trying to keep pressure on Congress during the counting of the certified electoral votes from the states, perhaps with the intent of slowing down the count enough to throw it into the House of Representatives or to the Supreme Court. In either of those cases, Trump expected to win because in a presidential election that takes place in the House, each state gets one vote, and there were more Republican-dominated states than Democratic-dominated states. Thanks to then–Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) removal of the filibuster for Supreme Court appointments, Trump had been able to put three justices on the Supreme Court, and he had said publicly that he expected they would rule in his favor if the election went in front of the court.

This story is an important backdrop of another story that is getting oxygen: Trump trade advisor Peter Navarro’s claim that he, Trump, and Trump loyalist Steve Bannon had a peaceful plan to overturn the election and that the three of them were “the last three people on God’s good Earth who wanted to see violence erupt on Capitol Hill.”

According to these stories, their plan—which Navarro dubs the Green Bay Sweep—was to get more than 100 senators and representatives to object to the counting of the certified ballots. They hoped this would pressure Vice President Mike Pence to send certified votes back to the six contested states, where Republicans in the state legislatures could send in new counts for Trump. There was, he insists, no plan for violence; indeed, the riot interrupted the plan by making congress members determined to certify the ballots.

Their plan, he writes, was to force journalists to cover the Trump team’s insistence that the election had been characterized by fraud, accusations that had been repeatedly debunked by state election officials and courts of law. The plan “was designed to get us 24 hours of televised hearings…. But we thought we could bypass the corporate media by getting this stuff televised.” Televised hearings in which Trump Republicans lied about election fraud would cement that idea in the public mind.

Maybe. It is notable that the only evidence for this entire story so far is Navarro’s own book, and there’s an awful lot about this that doesn’t add up (not least that if Trump deplored the violence, why did it take him more than three hours to tell his supporters to go home?). What does add up, though, in this version of events is that there is a long-standing feud between Bannon and Trump advisor Roger Stone, who recently blamed Bannon for the violence at the Capitol. This story exonerates Trump and Bannon and throws responsibility for the violence to others, notably Stone.

Although Navarro’s story is iffy, it does identify an important pattern. Since the 1990s, Republicans have used violence and the news coverage it gets to gain through pressure what they could not gain through votes.

Stone engineered a crucial moment for that dynamic when he helped to drive the so-called Brooks Brothers Riot that shut down the recounting of ballots in Miami-Dade County, Florida, during the 2000 election. That recount would decide whether Florida’s electoral votes would go to Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W. Bush. As the recount showed the count swinging to Gore, Republican operatives stormed the station where the recount was taking place, insisting that the Democrats were trying to steal the election.

“The idea we were putting out there was that this was a left-wing power grab by Gore, the same way Fidel Castro did it in Cuba,” Stone later told legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. “We were very explicitly drawing that analogy.” “It had to be a three-legged stool. We had to fight in the courts, in the recount centers and in the streets—in public opinion,” Bush campaign operative Brad Blakeman said.

As the media covered the riot, the canvassing board voted to shut down the recount because of the public perception that the recount was not transparent, and because the interference meant the recount could not be completed before the deadline the court had established. “We scared the crap out of them when we descended on them,” Blakeman later told Michael E. Miller of the Washington Post. The chair of the county’s Democratic Party noted, “Violence, fear and physical intimidation affected the outcome of a lawful elections process.” Blakeman’s response? “We got some blowback afterwards, but so what? We won.”

That Stone and other Republican operatives would have fallen back on a violent mob to slow down an election proceeding twenty years after it had worked so well is not a stretch.

Still, Navarro seems eager to distance himself, Trump, and Bannon from any such plan. That eagerness might reflect a hope of shielding themselves from the idea they were part of a conspiracy to interfere with an official government proceeding. Such interference is a federal offense, thanks to a law passed initially during Reconstruction after the Civil War, when members of the Ku Klux Klan were preventing Black legislators and their white Republican allies from holding office or discharging their official duties once elected.

Prosecutors have charged a number of January 6 defendants with committing such interference, and judges—including judges appointed by Trump—have rejected defendants’ arguments that they were simply exercising their right to free speech when they attacked the Capitol. Investigators are exploring the connections among the rioters before January 6 and on that day itself, establishing that the attack was not a group of individual protesters who randomly attacked at the same time, but rather was coordinated.

The vice-chair of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, Liz Cheney (R-WY), has said that the committee is looking to see if Trump was part of that coordination and seeking to determine: “Did Donald Trump, through action or inaction, corruptly seek to obstruct or impede Congress’s official proceedings to count electoral votes?”

Meanwhile, the former president continues to try to hamper that investigation. Today, Trump’s lawyers added a supplemental brief to his executive privilege case before the Supreme Court. The brief claims that since the committee is looking at making criminal referrals to the Department of Justice, it is not engaged in the process of writing new legislation, and thus it is exceeding its powers and has no legitimate reason to see the documents Trump is trying to shield.

But also today, a group of former Department of Justice and executive branch lawyers, including ones who worked for presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, filed a brief with the Supreme Court urging it to deny Trump’s request that the court block the committee’s subpoena for Trump’s records from the National Archives and Records Administration. The brief’s authors established that administrations have often allowed Congress to see executive branch documents during investigations and that there is clearly a need for legislation to make sure another attack on our democratic process never happens again.

The committee must see the materials, they wrote, because “[i]t is difficult to imagine a more compelling interest than the House’s interest in determining what legislation might be necessary to respond to the most significant attack on the Capitol in 200 years and the effort to undermine our basic form of government that that attack represented.”

Even Mitch McConnell now wants to reveal all of the “participants” that were involved in the Insurrection

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

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Heather Cox Richardson

December 14, 2021

The big story today continues to be the insurrection and the many people now seemingly swept up in the investigation of it. 
The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol took to the House Rules Committee its resolution to hold Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows in contempt of Congress. This afternoon, the House Rules Committee voted along party lines by a vote of 8 to 4 to advance the contempt resolution to the House itself.


In the full House, where Republican leadership urged members to vote against the contempt charge, debate continued into the night. Shortly after 11:00, the House voted to refer Meadows to the Department of Justice for criminal contempt of Congress. The vote was 222 to 208, with only two Republicans—Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois—voting with the Democrats. Both Cheney and Kinzinger sit on the January 6 committee.

In the course of the debate, to make their case that Meadows’s ttimony is vital to understand what happened on January 6, members of the committee continued to reveal pieces of the material they received from Meadows before he decided to stop cooperating. 


One text in particular jumped out. A Republican member of the House texted Meadows on November 4, the day after the election, saying: “HERE’S an AGRESSIVE [sic] STRATEGY: Why can t [sic] the states of GA NC PENN and other R controlled state houses declare this is BS (where conflicts and election not called that night) and just send their own electors to vote and have it go to the SCOTUS[?]”
That is, a Republican member of Congress wanted Republican-dominated state legislatures not even to wait to see who had won the election—none of those states had been called by November 4—but simply to ignore the will of the voters, choose their own electors, and hope that the Supreme Court would hand the election to Trump as he had been saying for weeks it would.

 
Since the election, with the help and urging of some of Trump’s former lawyers, 19 of those Republican-dominated legislatures have passed laws making it harder for Democrats to vote and, in some cases, gotten rid of the nonpartisan election mechanisms to count votes and replaced them with partisan operatives. They have put in place a system that looks much like what this text called for. 


In Georgia, for example, Republicans in the legislature changed the law to enable them to purge Black voters from county election boards, arguing that such reforms are necessary to restore faith in the system after the 2020 election. And today, a handful of lawmakers from Georgia’s legislature launched the Georgia Freedom Caucus with the goal of moving Georgia’s Republican Party further to the right.
Our democracy is at stake. In the Declaration of Independence, this nation’s Founders declared it “self-evident” that governments are legitimate only if those they govern consent to them. If lawmakers take it upon themselves to ignore the will of the voters and themselves decide who will hold power, we will have lost the ability to consent to our government. And that government will be far more extremist than polls suggest the vast majority of us want.


A number of voting rights bills have passed the House and are waiting for Senate action. But Republicans there do not want to pass them, and Democrats cannot do it with their razor-thin majority because the Senate filibuster means that Republicans can demand 60 votes even to take up a bill. 
So right now, Democrats like Georgia’s Senator Raphael Warnock are pressing the Senate to reform the filibuster in order to pass voting rights protections with a simple majority. Democrats like Warnock are determined to pass voting rights legislation not least because they know that before the 1965 Voting Rights Act there were majority-Black counties in the South in which not a single Black person voted. In 1946, for example, 14,394 white people and 38,970 Black people lived in Leflore County, Mississippi. Of those folks, 4,345 white people were registered to vote, and they carried elections, since the 26 Black people registered to vote did not risk their safety by casting a ballot. 


It is highly unlikely the Senate will agree to get rid of the filibuster altogether, but the argument for creating a carve-out for voting rights is an easy one to make, especially since the Senate voted today to approve a higher debt ceiling increase to $2.5 trillion on a simple majority vote of 50 to 49. 
The torrent of news from the January 6 committee might give at least a few Republican lawmakers pause about continuing to shore up those who set out to undermine democracy, if not for their own principles, then for the reality that this will not play well during televised hearings next year. “We are all watching what is unfolding on the House side,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said today, “and it will be interesting to reveal all of the participants that were involved.”


Meanwhile, Meadows continues to talk to friendly media while saying he cannot talk to the January 6 committee, and after a day of ignoring the story about their texts altogether, tonight the Fox News Channel personalities identified yesterday in texts defended those texts, although they sounded nervous.  


They are apparently not the only ones with reason to be nervous. In a lawsuit parallel to that of Meadows, lawyer John Eastman, author of the Eastman memo outlining a strategy for overturning the election, today sued members of the January 6 committee, the committee itself, and Verizon to try to keep his records secret. 


Also today, a federal judge ruled that the House Ways and Means Committee has a legitimate reason to review Trump’s tax returns and that he must hand them over. Congress has been trying to get them since 2019. Federal law says that when the congressional committees that oversee taxation ask for an individual’s tax return, the Treasury Department and the IRS must turn it over, but Trump has fought the law on the grounds that the committee has no legitimate reason to look at his taxes and is only seeking to embarrass him. The judge gave Trump 14 days to appeal. 


And finally, Karl A. Racine, the attorney general for the District of Columbia, sued the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, as well as many of their leaders, for their roles in the January 6 insurrection. The suit charges that the defendants kept U.S. officials from doing their duties surrounding an election—in violation of a law written to stop the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction—and seeks monetary damages to bankrupt the organizations.

Will we permit the destruction of American democracy on our watch?

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

December 7, 2021

On the sunny Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, Messman Doris Miller had served breakfast aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia, stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and was collecting laundry when the first of nine Japanese torpedoes hit the ship.

In the deadly confusion, Miller reported to an officer, who told him to help move the ship’s mortally wounded captain off the bridge. Unable to move him far, Miller sheltered the captain behind the ship’s conning tower. Then another officer ordered Miller to pass ammunition to him as he started up one of the two abandoned anti-aircraft guns in front of the conning tower. Miller had not been trained to use the guns because, as a Black man in the U.S. Navy, he was assigned to serve the white officers. But while the officer was distracted, Miller began to fire one of the guns. He fired it until he ran out of ammunition. Then he helped to move injured sailors to safety before he and the other survivors abandoned the West Virginia, which sank to the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

That night, America declared war on Japan. Japan declared war on America the next day, and four days later, on December 11, 1941, Italy and Germany both declared war on America. “The powers of the steel pact, Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany, ever closely linked, participate from today on the side of heroic Japan against the United States of America,” Italian leader Benito Mussolini said. “We shall win.” Of course they would. Mussolini and Germany’s leader, Adolf Hitler, believed the mongrel Americans had been corrupted by Jews and “Negroes,” and could never conquer their own organized military machine.

The steel pact, as Mussolini called it, was the vanguard of his new political ideology. That ideology was called fascism, and he and Hitler thought it would destroy democracy once and for all.

Mussolini had been a socialist as a young man and had grown terribly frustrated at how hard it was to organize people. No matter how hard socialists tried, they seemed unable to convince ordinary people that they must rise up and take over the country’s means of production.

The efficiency of World War I inspired Mussolini. He gave up on socialism and developed a new political theory that rejected the equality that defined democracy. He came to believe that a few leaders must take a nation toward progress by directing the actions of the rest. These men must organize the people as they had been organized during wartime, ruthlessly suppressing all opposition and directing the economy so that businessmen and politicians worked together. And, logically, that select group of leaders would elevate a single man, who would become an all-powerful dictator. To weld their followers into an efficient machine, they demonized opponents into an “other” that their followers could hate.

Italy adopted fascism, and Mussolini inspired others, notably Germany’s Hitler. Those leaders came to believe that their system was the ideology of the future, and they set out to destroy the messy, inefficient democracy that stood in their way.

America fought World War II to defend democracy from fascism. And while fascism preserved hierarchies in society, democracy called on all men as equals. Of the more than 16 million Americans who served in the war, more than 1.2 million were African American men and women, 500,000 were Latinos, and more than 550,000 Jews were part of the military. Among the many ethnic groups who fought, Native Americans served at a higher percentage than any other ethnic group—more than a third of able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 50 joined the service—and among those 25,000 soldiers were the men who developed the famous “Code Talk,” based in tribal languages, that codebreakers never cracked.

The American president at the time, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hammered home that the war was about the survival of democracy. Fascists insisted that they were moving their country forward fast and efficiently—claiming the trains ran on time, for example, although in reality they didn’t— but FDR constantly noted that the people in Italy and Germany were begging for food and shelter from the soldiers of democratic countries.

Ultimately, the struggle between fascism and democracy was the question of equality. Were all men really created equal as the Declaration of Independence said, or were some born to lead the rest, whom they held subservient to their will?

Democracy, FDR reminded Americans again and again, was the best possible government. Thanks to armies made up of men and women from all races and ethnicities—a mongrel population—the Allies won the war against fascism, and it seemed that democracy would dominate the world forever.

But as the impulse of WWII pushed Americans toward a more just and inclusive society after it, those determined not to share power warned their supporters that including people of color and women as equals in society would threaten their own liberty. Those reactionary leaders rode that fear into control of our government, and gradually they chipped away the laws that protected equality. Now, once again, democracy is under attack by those who believe some people are better than others.

The once-grand Republican Party has been captured by the right wing. It has lined up behind former president Donald Trump and his cronies, its true believers refusing to accept that a majority of Americans turned Trump out of office in 2020 and replaced him with a Democrat, President Joe Biden. They insist that it is not possible for a Democrat to have been legitimately elected and blame “voter fraud” for the result, although repeated recounts and inspections have proved the vote counts were accurate.

Some Republican lawmakers evidently believe the Big Lie that Trump won in 2020; others are going along with it out of opportunism or fear, but they are not speaking out to counter the lies poisoning our democracy. Even after January 6, when insurgents stormed the U.S. Capitol and threatened the lives of our top lawmakers, 147 Republicans voted to challenge the election results. Now, 68% of Republicans think that Democrats “stole” the 2020 election.

Now, Republican lawmakers are silent as Republican-dominated legislatures in 19 states have passed 33 laws to make it harder for Black and Brown Americans, as well as others expected to back Democrats, to vote. Some of those states have taken the power to certify official votes away from nonpartisan officials and given it to Republicans. Had these laws been in place in 2020, Trump would almost certainly still be in office.

As we learn more about the events of January 6, it is clear that the former president and his inner circle corrupted the Department of Justice and possibly other parts of the government, launching a coup that came perilously close to success. And, as Barton Gellman details this week in The Atlantic, they are arranging the mechanics of our democracy to make sure that next time, they won’t fail. They will put in place an autocracy in which a powerful leader and his chosen loyalists make the rules under which the rest of us must live.

Will we permit the destruction of American democracy on our watch?

When America came under attack before, people like Doris Miller refused to let that happen. For all that American democracy still discriminated against him, it gave him room to stand up for the concept of human equality—and he laid down his life for it. Promoted to cook after the Navy sent him on a publicity tour, Miller was assigned to a new ship, the U.S.S. Liscome Bay, which was struck by a Japanese torpedo on November 24, 1943. It sank within minutes, taking two thirds of the crew, including Miller, with it.

I hear a lot these days about how American democracy is doomed and the reactionaries will win. Maybe. But the beauty of our system is that it gives us people like Doris Miller.

Even better, it makes us people like Doris Miller.