Our Democracy Is Hanging by a Thread

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

August 21 , 2017

(This is a talk given to the Vernon County Democrats on August 20, 2017, at the Servais organic dairy farm.)

I’d like to thank all of you for inviting me today, and I’d like to thank the Servais family for your hospitality.

It was a beautiful drive over from Madison, especially the last leg from Richland Center to here, through the rolling hills and with the Amish horse and buggies on the road there with me.

I wish I could dwell on the beauty of the landscape and speak about upbeat topics like that, or about birds, since I’m a birdwatcher, but this is not the moment for that.

No, this is a profoundly serious moment in the very life of our democracy.

Today, eight days after Charlottesville, our democracy is hanging by a thread.


And it’s hanging by a thread because we have – and I’m sorry, I’ve got to be blunt here – we have a racist, a crypto-fascist, and a clinical narcissist sitting in the Oval Office who has no respect for our democratic system of government.

That he’s a clinical narcissist there can be no denying. Just ask your friends who are doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, or nurses. In the next edition of the DSM, the diagnostic manual for psychiatric disorders, Trump’s face is going to be right next to the definition of “narcissistic personality disorder” because he fits every single criteria. He’s got an ego that’s bigger than Lambeau Field, and he’s a bully, and he’s got no empathy whatsoever.

And I said he was racist, and I don’t throw the “R” word around loosely, but here’s why it fits in Trump’s case.

After the events of the past week, with his defense of those “fine people” at the White Supremacist rallies, where the most vile expressions of racism and anti-Semitism surfaced, and with his defense of Confederate statutes, there can be no doubt.

And over the years, he’s left a lot of clues.

In the 1970s, he wouldn’t sell apartments to black people.

In the 1ate 80s and 90s, he called for the execution of the Central Park Five, and even when they were exonerated a few years ago, he insisted that they were guilty.

In the Obama years, he spearheaded the “birther” movement.

And his presidential campaign was based on racist appeals—against Mexicans, and against Muslims.

I also don’t throw the “F” word around loosely, and I spent the better part of the past three decades explaining to my progressive friends who insisted that America was already a fascist country that this was not only an exaggeration but also an insult to the people who suffered and died under actual fascism in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany.

But I do think it’s appropriate to label Trump a crypto-fascist, or Trumpolini, as I like to call him.

On the campaign trail, he used the slogan “America First,” which was the slogan of the Nazi sympathizers in the fascist movement in America in the late 30s and early 40s. And even after the Anti-Defamation League urged him to stop using that slogan, he kept on doing it. And he even repeated it in his Inaugural Address.

Plus, he calls himself a “total nationalist,” and his constant hawking of his slogan, “Make America Great Again” (other than suggesting that the black guy in the White House really messed stuff up), plays on a sense of aggrieved national pride, and that was a crucial ingredient in Hitler’s and Mussolini’s rise.

This is how fascism is created. Racism and nationalism are the egg and sperm of fascism, which is nourished in the toxic womb of capitalism.

And that’s where we are today. Capitalism can no longer deliver the goods. People’s wages haven’t gone up in decades, and their jobs are constantly at risk due to automation, and this breeds resentment that makes many people – especially some white males – susceptible to a fascist appeal.

And that’s why what Trump did after Charlottesville was so dangerous. He is giving the green light to the racists and the anti-Semites and the neo-Nazis and those who are drawn to them.

He’s playing with fire here. And he seems to be enjoying the blaze.

Donald Trump is not Adolph Hitler. He hasn’t written Mein Kampf. In fact, he hasn’t written anything in his life except a bunch of bad checks.

But he knows how to incite his far right base. And so long as Trump gets to be at the center of attention, no matter whether that attention is positive or negative, it feeds his narcissism, and so long as he can go to rallies of his faithful supporters and bathe in their adulation, like he’s going to do again on Tuesday in Arizona, which could be a Nuremburg-style rally, he’s a happy man.

That’s why it’s so important for every person in a position of power to denounce Trump, unequivocally, and by name.

And that’s why there’s a special place in hell for Paul Ryan.

And there’s a special place in hell for Scott Walker.

Paul Ryan denounces bigotry but refuses to utter Trump’s name. Walker said just a few days ago that he might not agree with everything Trump says, but he likes his policies.

That just doesn’t cut it.

One of the reasons that Mussolini and Hitler were able to consolidate power is that the leaders of the mainstream parties went along with them.

This is a time of testing, and Paul Ryan and Scott Walker are failing that test.


It’s not only that Trump is making rhetorical appeals to his fascist base. In his actions as President, he is also demonstrating his disdain for basic democratic principles.

We saw this with his Muslim ban.

And a few days before that, he issued a separate executive order on immigration. In that executive order, which didn’t get enough attention, Trump said that the immigration service can not only deport people who’ve been convicted of any crime, but also those who are just charged with a crime and even those who are “chargeable” with a crime!

What ever happened to innocent until proven guilty, as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment?

What ever happened to the 14th Amendment guarantee to “all persons” of equal justice and due process?

What kind of a new legal status is “chargeable”? I’m hoping our friends at the ACLU will get that thrown out.

We the People

Trump’s attack on other pillars of democracy should also ring alarm bells.

He’s gone after the judiciary, the third branch of government, in a vicious way, demeaning judges as “so-called judges” and railing against the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and pledging to break it up.

He’s railed against the media, with his constant name-calling about “fake news” and saying the media is “the enemy of the people,” which is straight of the dictator’s playbook.

This may not end well.

Democracies are fragile. Chile had a democracy for 100 years and it died in a night.

We’ve been told since we were in seventh grade civics class or in high school social studies class that here in the United States, we’ve got this phenomenal system of checks and balances that prevents abuses of power.

But where’s the check on Donald Trump today?

Where, for instance, is the check on his ability to wage nuclear war?

The Constitution, under Article I, Section 8, says that only Congress has the authority to declare war. But Congress hasn’t declared a war since World War II. And during the Cold War, it was assumed that the President would have sole authority to wage nuclear war since the Russians could launch their nukes at us and the President would have only 15 minutes to decide what to do, and that’s not enough time to get Congress in on the decision, so Congress basically abdicated.

But when Trump is considering a “preventive nuclear war,” there’s plenty of time to get Congress’s approval for this. And remember, preventive war is illegal under international law. It’s a war of aggression. And at the Nuremburg Trials, waging a war of aggression was considered the biggest war crime of all. Why should Congress let Trump wage a preventive nuclear war all by himself after he’s had a bad night’s sleep or a bad night’s Tweet?

But who is going to stop him?

And what happens if there’s another terrorist attack here at home? It doesn’t need to be anywhere near the scale of 9/11. It could be something like what happened in Barcelona last week. Trump could seize on that and declare martial law. After all, after 9/11, General Tommy Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq, said that if we’re attacked again by terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, we’ll have to declare martial law. And Condoleezza Rice’s deputy at the National Security Council, General Wayne Downing, said the same thing. So when the generals are talking out loud about martial law, you can bet that their subordinates are drawing up the plans. That’s what the military does. So they’ll be right there on the shelf for Donald Trump to pull down.

And here’s a scary fact: a recent Washington Post poll showed that 50 percent of Republicans are OK with postponing the 2020 elections!

Maybe he’ll get away with it.

The only way to rein him in is if enough people stand up to him.

Yes, it was good to see Mitt Romney step up and denounce Trump.

And yes, it was good to see Sen. Lindsey Graham, and John McCain, and Bob Corker do so, as well.

And yes, it was good to see one of Rupert Murdoch’s sons stand up to him.

And yes, it was good to see the CEOs abandon his panels.

But I’d like to see some of Trump’s donors stand up to him, too.

Are they happy with the President they helped put in office? Maybe if they’d speak up, they’d have some leverage.

Here in Wisconsin, I’d like to hear from Diane Hendricks of ABC Supply. She gave Trump a ton of money.

And I’d like to hear from the owners of Kwik Trip, Don and LaVonne Zietlow, of Onalaska, who held a fundraiser for Trump. Are they really comfortable standing behind this man still?

And here’s a thought: Maybe if enough people stand up and condemn Trump in no uncertain terms he’ll resign.

It’s possible. I can envision Ivanka saying, “Pops, you’ve declared bankruptcy a couple of times. And that was embarrassing, but then you moved on. This will be embarrassing, too, in the short run, but you’ll quickly get your life back and you can go have fun again.”

It’s a hope.


Now let me turn to Wisconsin, where democracy’s not doing so hot, either.

We’ve been under a counterrevolution here in Wisconsin over the last six years, and it’s horrifying to see how quickly and how far we’ve fallen down the hill.

Scott Walker, Scott Fitzgerald, and Robin Voss have been destroying our democracy in Wisconsin.

They redrew the political maps in 2011 in one of the most brazen acts of gerrymandering this country has seen in the past 50 years.

They made it harder for people to cast a ballot with the Voter ID bill, and they were “giddy” that they were disenfranchising black people and young people.

They dismantled the Government Accountability Board.

They passed a law that said that only one group of people in Wisconsin was beyond the reach of a John Doe prosecutor, and that’s elected officials themselves.

They rewrote the campaign finance law in a disastrous way so that the super wealthy can give twice as much to their favorite candidate as they did before. For example, the max that rich folks can give to someone running for governor is now $20,000. Who can afford to do that?

And they allowed corporations, for the first time in more than 100 years, to give directly to political parties.

Wisconsin’s motto, under Walker, is ostensibly: “Wisconsin Open for Business.”

But in actuality, it’s become: “Wisconsin Open for Bribery.”


But I haven’t lost hope. So let me tell you why I’m not drawing a bath and getting out a razor blade right.

I’m hopeful because I’ve studied fascism, and the scholars tell me that fascists can’t succeed, even if they’re already in power,without the acquiescence of civil society.

And so far, civil society has not acquiesced. Far from it!

I’m hopeful because of the great women’s marches that happened the day after Inauguration Day. The one in Washington, which my wife went to, was amazing. And I went to the one in Madison, and we had 75,000 people on State Street marching to the Capitol. It reminded me of the exhilarating marches in 2011 for labor rights. I loved the costumes, and the home-made signs, and the fun chants, like: “I don’t want your tiny hands anywhere near my underpants.”

And I’m hopeful because of the spontaneous rallies that sprang up at the airports after Trump announced his Muslim ban. My daughter, who lives in New York City, went to JFK to be at that one, and she said it was inspiring.


And I’m hopeful because of the immigrant rights rallies all across the country.

And I’m hopeful because of the Marches for Science.

And I’m hopeful because of the rallies in support of the victims in Charlottesville.

And I’m hopeful because those CEOs jumped off of Trump’s boards.

And I’m hopeful because judges are standing their ground.

And I’m hopeful because members of the mainstream press have called out Trump out on his blatant lies and on his fomenting of racism.

And I’m hopeful because some Republican officials have called out Trump.

And I’m hopeful because I see more young people getting involved than I’ve seen in a long time, in new groups like Indivisible.

And I’m hopeful, right here in Wisconsin, because in the progressive nonprofit sector, we’re more united than ever before. We’ve torn down our silos and shelved our egos and we’re working in unison as never before. Every other Friday morning, we meet on a conference call, and by we, I mean the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Citizens Action, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the League of Conservation Voters, 9to5, and others to organize and strategize together.

And I’m hopeful, right here in Wisconsin, when I see 112 communities across the state sign on to the idea that we must amend the U.S. Constitution to proclaim, once and for all, that corporations aren’t persons and money isn’t speech. We need good people in Vernon County to take up this issue in your villages and towns. The person to contact is George Penn; he’s with Wisconsin United to Amend, and he’ll help you get going. He told me I could give you his number. Here it is: (608) 244-6436.

And I’m hopeful, right here in Wisconsin, because 23 county boards have come out for nonpartisan redistricting, including 16 counties just this year, with Kenosha and La Crosse counties just in the last week!

These are all promising developments.


My friends, no one stays in power forever. Not Donald Trump. And not Scott Walker.

But I’m an impatient man, which raising three children never cured me of. Just ask them!

And I’m also a cancer survivor.

And I want to be a Trump survivor.

I want to be a Walker survivor.

And I want you to be a Trump survivor.

And I want you to be a Walker survivor.

I know some people try to comfort me by saying the pendulum always swings back.

Well, I might not have time to wait, and we don’t have time to wait, for the pendulum to swing back.

Instead, I want us all to give that pendulum a big Badger push in the progressive, pro-democracy direction and to keep on pushing that pendulum until we can say, once more, that we’re proud to be from Wisconsin, and until we can tell our children, in good faith, that our democracy is in safer hands.