Charlottesville began a wave of violent populism that mutated into authoritarianism

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

August 11, 2021

Four years ago today, racists, antisemites, white nationalists, Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis, and other alt-right groups met in Charlottesville, Virginia, to “Unite the Right.” The man who organized the rally, Jason Kessler, claimed he wanted to bring people together to protest the removal of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a local park. But the rioters turned immediately to chants that had been used by the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s: “you will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us,” and “blood and soil.” They gave Nazi salutes and carried Nazi insignia, and many brought battle gear and went looking for fights. By the end of August 12, they had killed counterprotester Heather Heyer and had injured 19 others. After the governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency, the rioters went home. 

The Unite the Right rally drew a clear political line in America. Then-president Donald Trump refused to condemn the rioters, telling a reporter that there were “very fine people, on both sides.” 

In contrast, former vice president Joe Biden watched the events at Charlottesville and concluded that the soul of the nation was at stake. He decided to run for president and to defeat the man he believed threatened our democracy. Biden was especially concerned with Trump’s praise for the “very fine people” aligned with the rioters. “With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it,” Biden said, “and in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”  

Four years later, it is much easier to see the larger context of the Charlottesville riot. The political threat of those gangs who tried to unite in Charlottesville in 2017 recalls how fascism came to America in the 1930s: not as an elite ideology, but as a unification of street brawlers to undermine the nation’s democratic government. 

In 2018, historian Joseph Fronczak explored the arrival of fascism in the U.S. In an article in the leading journal of the historical profession, the Journal of American History, Fronczak explained how men interested in overturning Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency in 1934 admired and then imitated the violent right-wing gangs that helped overturn European governments and install right-wing dictators. 

The United States had always had radical street mobs, from anti-Catholic gangs in the 1830s to Ku Klux Klan chapters in the 1860s to anti-union thugs in the 1880s. In the 1930s, though, those eager to get rid of FDR brought those street fighters together as a political force to overthrow the federal government. 

While they failed to do so in an attempted 1934 coup, Fronczak explains, street fighters learned about the contours of fascism once their power as a violent street force was established. He argues that in the U.S., fascism grew out of political violence, not the other way around. Mobs whose members dressed in similar shirts, waved similar flags, and made similar salutes pieced together racist, antisemitic, and nationalistic ideas and became the popular arm of right-wing leaders. In America, the hallmark of budding fascism was populist street violence, rather than an elite philosophy of government.

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville had the hallmarks of such a populist movement. Leaders brought together different gangs, dressed similarly and carrying the emblem of tiki torches, to organize and attack the government. Rather than rejecting the rioters, then-President Trump encouraged them. 

From that point on, Trump seemed eager to ride a wave of violent populism into authoritarianism. He stoked populist anger over state shutdowns during coronavirus, telling supporters to “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” His encouragement fed the attacks on the Michigan state house in 2020.  And then, after he repeatedly told his supporters the 2020 presidential election had been stolen, violent gangs attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, in an attempt to overturn the government and install him as president for another term.

While that attempted coup was unsuccessful, the empowerment of violent gangs as central political actors is stronger than ever. Since January 6, angry mobs have driven election officials out of office in fear for their safety. In increasingly angry protests, they have threatened school board members over transgender rights and over teaching Critical Race Theory, a legal theory from the 1970s that is not, in fact, in the general K–12 curriculum. 

Now, as the coronavirus rages again, they are showing exactly how this process works as they threaten local officials who are following the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to require masks. Although a Morning Consult poll shows that 69% of Americans want a return to mask mandates, vocal mobs who oppose masking are dominating public spaces and forcing officials to give in to their demands. 

In Franklin, Tennessee, yesterday, antimask mobs threatened doctors and nurses asking the local school board to reinstate a mask mandate in the schools. “We will find you,” they shouted at a man leaving the meeting. “We know who you are.”

Rosen provides the hard evidence that attempted to overturn the election

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

August 7, 2021

[…] today’s testimony by Jeffrey A. Rosen, acting attorney general during the Trump administration, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, strikes me as being a game-changer. 

New York Times reporter Katie Benner broke the news way back in January that a relatively unknown lawyer in the Justice Department, Jeffrey Clark, worked secretly with then-president Donald Trump to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Clark was a political appointee in the Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice until he was moved in September 2020 to the civil division. 

Rosen replaced Attorney General William Barr when Barr resigned on December 23, 2020. But immediately, when Rosen refused to entertain the idea of overturning the election, Trump considered firing Rosen and replacing him with Clark. Rosen and his acting deputy attorney general, Richard P. Donoghue, along with top leaders in the Department of Justice all threatened to resign if Trump made the change, and the then-president backed down.

The news that Clark and Trump were working together to overturn the election sparked congressional investigations in the House Oversight and Reform Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. On Wednesday July 28, from the House committee, we learned that Trump had pressured Rosen daily to help him overturn the election. And we learned that Donoghue had taken notes of the calls.

On Friday, July 31, the House Oversight and Reform Committee released some of those notes. They were explosive. On December 27, Rosen said that the Department of Justice had concluded the election was legitimate and that it “can’t + won’t snap its fingers + change the outcome of the election.” Trump replied that he just wanted the department to “say the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R[epublican] Congressmen.”

The next day, Clark tried to get Rosen and Donoghue to sign off on a letter claiming that the election had been fraudulent and saying that the Georgia legislature should appoint a different set of presidential electors on the grounds that the election there was full of irregularities. 

The Justice Department had already determined that the election was, in fact, legitimate, and not marred by fraud. Donoghue responded to Clark that “there is no chance that I would sign this letter or anything remotely like this…. [T]his is not even within the realm of possibility.” Rosen wrote: “I confirmed again today that I am not prepared to sign such a letter.”

According to an article in the New York Times by Katie Benner today, Rosen has been in talks with the Department of Justice for months to determine what information he could offer without disclosing information covered by executive privilege. On July 27, the Department of Justice said it would not restrict the testimony of former officials to the House Oversight and Reform Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, and shortly after, former president Donald Trump said he would not sue to stop them from testifying. 

Clark did not comment, but in January he said that while he had “a candid discussion of options and pros and cons with the president,” all of his official communications with Trump “were consistent with law.”

According to Benner, as soon as he got the all-clear, Rosen scheduled interviews with the congressional committees and with the inspector general of the Department of Justice to tell as much as he could of what he had seen before anyone tried to stop him. He met with the inspector general yesterday, and today he talked to the Senate Judiciary Committee for more than six hours. 

Richard P. Donoghue has also agreed to testify, as have other Department of Justice officials.

What this means is that congressional investigating committees now have witnesses to Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. 

With that in mind, it’s worth noting that tonight the Senate voted 67-27 to move the bipartisan infrastructure bill forward, just hours after Trump called it a “disgrace” and warned, “It will be very hard for me to endorse anyone foolish enough to vote in favor of this deal.” And yet, 18 Republicans joined the Democrats, reflecting the reality that 72% percent of Americans support the measure and going on the record against it, as Republicans did in March with the popular American Rescue Plan, is even less attractive now than it was then.

Tonight’s vote suggests that Republicans are not all going to continue to move in lockstep with the former president. Those cracks could well widen as more and more information about his administration comes out. 

Classic Trump scheme failed. What about next time?

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

August 3, 2021

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: former president Trump has raised $102 million since he left office, but aside from a recent donation of $100,000 to his chosen candidate in a Texas race which is not yet in the public disclosures (she lost), has spent none of it on anything or anyone but himself. Since January, he has convinced donors to fund his challenge to Biden’s election and to fund Trump-like candidates in the midterm elections. But election filings and a release of donors to the Arizona “audit” show he has not put any money toward either. So far, about $8 million has gone to the former president’s legal fees, while funds have also gone to aides.

The second piece of news that is surprising and yet not surprising is an ABC story revealing that on December 28, 2020, the then-acting pro-Trump head of the civil division of the Department of Justice, Jeffrey Clark, tried to get then–acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen and acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue to sign a letter saying: “The Department of Justice is investigating various irregularities in the 2020 election for President of the United States. The Department will update you as we are able on investigatory progress, but at this time we have identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple States, including the State of Georgia.”

It went on to say, “While the Department of Justice believe[s] the Governor of Georgia should immediately call a special session to consider this important and urgent matter, if he declines to do so, we share with you our view that the Georgia General Assembly has implied authority under the Constitution of the United States to call itself into special session for [t]he limited purpose of considering issues pertaining to the appointment of Presidential Electors.”

The letter then made the point clearer, saying the Georgia legislature could ignore the popular vote and appoint its own presidential electors.

This is classic Trump: try to salt the media with the idea of an “investigation,” and then wait for the following frenzy to convince voters that the election was fraudulent. Such a scheme was at the heart of Trump’s demand that Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky announce an investigation into Hunter Biden, and the discrediting of 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton over an investigation into her use of a private email server.

In this case, Donoghue and Rosen wanted no part of this antidemocratic scheme. Donoghue told Clark that there was no evidence of fraud that would have changed the outcome of the election and wrote: “There is no chance that I would sign this letter or anything remotely like this.” Rosen agreed, saying “I am not prepared to sign such a letter.”

The less obvious story today is the more interesting one.

Trump and his loyalists feed off Americans who have been dispossessed economically since the Reagan revolution that began in 1981 started the massive redistribution of wealth upward. Those disaffected people, slipping away from the secure middle-class life their parents lived, are the natural supporters of authoritarians who assure them their problems come not from the systems leaders have put in place, but rather from Black people, people of color, and feminist women.

President Joe Biden appears to be trying to combat this dangerous dynamic not by trying to peel disaffected Americans away from Trump and his party by arguing against the former president, but by reducing the pressure on those who support him.

A study from the Niskanen Center think tank shows that the expanded Child Tax Credit, which last month began to put up to $300 per child per month into the bank accounts of most U.S. households with children, will primarily benefit rural Americans and will give a disproportionately large relative boost to their local economies. According to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, “the…nine states that will gain the most per capita from the expanded child allowance are all red states.”

The White House noted today that the bipartisan infrastructure deal it has pushed so hard not only will bring high-speed internet to every household in the U.S., but also has within it $3.5 billion to reduce energy costs for more than 700,000 low-income households.

Also today, after pressure from progressive Democrats, especially Representative Cori Bush (D-MO), who led a sit-in at the Capitol to call for eviction relief, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that in counties experiencing high levels of community transmission of Covid-19, it is extending until October 3 the federal moratorium on evictions that ended this weekend. It is doing so as a public health measure, but it is also an economic one. It should help about 90% of renters—11 million adults—until the government helps to clear the backlog of payments missed during the pandemic by disbursing more of the $46 billion Congress allocated for that purpose.

Today, the president called out Republican governors who have taken a stand against mask wearing and vaccine mandates even as Covid-19 is burning across the country again. Currently, Florida and Texas account for one third of all new Covid cases in the entire country, and yet their Republican governors, Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, are signing legislation to keep Floridians and Texans unmasked and to prevent vaccine mandates. Biden said that he asks “these governors, ‘Please, help.’ But if you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way of the people who are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.”

At a Democratic National Committee fundraiser last night, Biden told attendees that Democrats “have to keep making our case,” while Republicans offer “nothing but fear, lies, and broken promises.” “We have to keep cutting through the Republican fog,” he said, “that the government isn’t the problem and show that we the people are always the solution.” He continued, “We’ve got to demonstrate that democracies can work and protect.”

GasLit Nation: If You Listen to Fools, The Mob Rules!

May 25, 2021

GASLIT NATION WITH ANDREA CHALUPA AND SARAH KENDZIOR

It’s a fiery week at Gaslit Nation as we have had it with the excuses, lies, and cowardice that is preventing our country from receiving the justice and protection it deserves. We discuss the utter failure of the Democrats, the FBI, and others to investigate the attempted coup – over four months after the Capitol attack! – or to hold seditious Republicans accountable. Remember: if you listen to fools, the mob rules!

GasLit Nation: Where Do We Go From Here? The Isikoff and Klaidman Interview

May 14, 2021

GASLIT NATION WITH ANDREA CHALUPA AND SARAH KENDZIOR

Journalists Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman, co-hosts of the podcast Skullduggery on Yahoo News, join Gaslit Nation to discuss the institutional decline that gave us Trump and where we go from here. 

Isikoff is chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News, where he is also editor at large for reporting and investigations. He has written several best-sellers, including Uncovering Clinton and (with David Corn) Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War and Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, which features the story of Andrea’s sister Alexandra Chalupa, the DNC consultant who tried to warn both Democrats and Republicans about Paul Manafort, then chairman of the Trump campaign, and his long history working for Kremlin interests.

Klaidman is editor-in-chief for Yahoo News. Previously he was the managing editor for Newsweek, the magazine’s Washington bureau chief, the Middle East correspondent, and worked as an investigative reporter. He is the author of Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency. In 2013 Klaidman profiled the enigmatic Avril Haines, currently the head of the intelligence community under Biden. He shares insights on Biden’s foreign policy and the ways it differs so far from Obama’s. 

In our bonus episode we answer questions submitted by listeners who support the show at the Democracy Defender level and higher. To submit a question, subscribe at that tier. In this week’s Q&A, available to supporters at the Truth-teller level and higher on Patreon, we discuss the federal investigations into notorious Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky (to learn more check out the article in the shownotes submitted by a listener), whether a committee should replace the president to help protect us from aspiring autocrats, how we keep going despite all the challenges and setbacks, and our thoughts on bicycles and the sexiness of bike helmets! (Seriously, wear a helmet!)