Baraboo and America in the Age of Trump

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

December 14, 2018

(These are some of the remarks Matt Rothschild gave in his talk in Baraboo, Wisconsin, on December 4.)

It’s always nice to be back in Baraboo, and to see so many friends here. I’d like to thank Sue Holmes for organizing the event, and for your amazing activism, Sue. And I’d like to thank UW-Baraboo, as I still call it, for hosting this event.

I’m grateful to those of you who’ve come tonight who are concerned, as I am, about what’s going on in our country right now, and what’s been going on in Baraboo.

I’m not here to single out Baraboo. That picture of the high school students giving the Nazi salute could have been taken almost anywhere in America, I’m afraid.

That doesn’t make it any better. But it is to say that Donald Trump has given a permission slip to anyone and everyone to be out in the open with their most racist, anti-Semitic and bigoted views.

It is horrifying to me that people are giving Nazi salutes and waving Nazi flags in America these days. My father fought in Europe against the Nazis. I imagine that many of your fathers or grandfathers – or the great grandfathers of those high school kids—fought against the Nazis.

You know, it was just 75 years ago that the Nazis were putting Jews like me and my kids into gas chambers and then extracting the gold from our teeth before incinerating us.

It was just 75 years agothat the Nazis were murdering gays and people with disabilities.

It was just 75 years ago that Nazi doctors were doing human experiments on young Jewish twins.

And so, to see these Baraboo kids giving the “Heil Hitler” salute was extremely disturbing, to say the least.

Let me assure you that I’m not interested in seeing the kids punished.

But I am interested in seeing that the kids get an education.

I am interested in seeing that the kids understand what Nazism was all about.

It was about bigotry.

It was about scapegoating.

It was about nationalism.

And it was about genocide.

It’s not adequate to hide behind the First Amendment. It’s not adequate to say that we love all our students, no matter what their views are, as Superintendent Lori Mueller said two weeks ago at the high school. I was there. She also said that the community wants to be left alone to heal. And I certainly can understand that impulse. I’m sure no one wants to see your community defined by this. But I agree with Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, who also spoke that night and who cautioned that it would be a mistake try to put this incident behind you without first coming to grips with the rise of anti-Semitism and the rise of white supremacy that this incident reflects.

And that’s all it does. It doesn’t reflect Baraboo. It reflects America in the Age of Trump.

Trump’s not an out and out fascist, but he’s the closest thing that we’ve ever had to a fascist in the Oval Office. He’s not Adolph Hitler. He hasn’t written an equivalent to Mein Kampf; and his political views, at least until recently, have been all over the map.

But he has many ofthe inclinations of the fascist.

He loves strongmen, and not just Putin but Dutarte and others, including Kim Jong-un and the Saudi royal family. When President Xi of China essentially became president for life, Trump said: “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll want to give that a shot someday.”

Trump is a bully, and fascists revel in bullying, and their supporters admire them for it. Orwell called such admirers “bully worshippers.”

He alsoechoes the language of the fascists.

During the campaign and still afterwards, he’s talked about “America First,” which was the slogan of the Nazi sympathizers here in the US before Pearl Harbor. He can’t plead ignorance about this because the Anti-Defamation League sent him a letter during his presidential campaign and noted the ugly historical echo and urged him to stop using the phrase. But he hasn’t stopped. He put it in his Inaugural Address, and he keeps using it.

His constant use of “fake news” has ugly echoes, too. The Nazis used the term “Lugenpresse,” which means “lying press” in German. In fact, some Trump supporters have picked it up in its original German. And Goebbels used “the enemy of the people” to refer to Jews, so reflect on this for a second: A lot of folks, when they hear “the media,” they think “Jews,” as in: “Jews run the media.” So when Trump says that “the media is the enemy of the people,” some people may draw the link that “Jews are the enemy of the people.” The echo reverberates.

There are a few other crucial trademarks of the fascist that Trump embodies.

1. Incessant Lying

Trump has broken all the records for Presidential lying. He can’t tell the truth even when he says hello and goodbye. As of November 1, he had uttered 6,420 lies or misrepresentations, according to the Washington Post’s tally.

His flagrant lying is a telltale sign. Here is the first sentence from another new and disturbing book called The Death of Truth, by Michiko Kakutani, who was the book editor at the New York Times forever and a day: “Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the twentieth century, and both were predicated upon the violation and despoiling of truth.”

Or take Orwell again: “The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits 'atrocities' but that it attacks the concept of objective truth.”

2. Another trademark isracism or scapegoating.

That Trump is a racist is, at this point, incontrovertible. After all, he wouldn’t rent his apartments to black people. He led the vicious campaign against the Central Park Five and continued to vilify them after they were exonerated. And, of course, he led the Birther Movement against President Obama. And he launched his campaign with racist appeals against Muslims and Mexicans. And finally, after Charlottesville, it became totally undeniable.

3. Then there is ultra-nationalism. Trump makes no bones about being an ultra-nationalist. That’s what “America First” is about. Or look at “Make America Great Again.” At bottom, that’s an appeal to people’s sense of bereaved and betrayed patriotism, and that kind of appeal has been crucial to fascists and authoritarians, like Hitler, Mussolini, Pinochet, and Franco.

4. Finally, fascism is a mass-based movement, and Trump has a mass base.

His popularity can’t seem to drop much below 40 percent ever, no matter what he does. And he has this zealous, over-heated base at his rallies.

America is not a Fascist state yet. If it was, I’d be arrested or beaten up as soon as I walked out the door, and you might be, too. But we could get there, fast. It can happen here!

So why am I not going to drive home to Madison tonight and draw a hot bath and pull out a razor blade? Because I’ve studied fascism. I studied it at college. I studied it at The Progressive. And I studied it again when Trump became the Republican nominee. And what I learned from my studies is that even if the fascist, or the fascist in the making, takes power, a country doesn’t descend into full-blown fascism unless civil society rolls over for it.

And the good news is that civil society is not collapsing. Civil society is standing up!

And it’s been standing up since day one—or at least day two, with the great Women’s March on Washington. My wife was there, and I was at the march in Madison, on library mall and State Street, 75,000 strong. And the costumes, the home-made signs, and the spontaneous chants were exhilarating. I remember some young women chanting: “We don’t want his tiny hands anywhere near our underpants.” It’s that kind of attitude that’s going to get us through.

And then there were the great immigrant rights rallies, first at the airports when Trump announced his Muslim ban. Within minutes, people flocked to O’Hare and flocked to LaGuardia to demonstrate their support for immigrants and asylum seekers. And here in Wisconsin, Voces de la Frontera has put on one amazing rally after another in defense of immigrants.

Then there are the protests in defense of our environment. And the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn much-needed attention to the problem of police violence. And the “Me, Too” movement has done the same for sexual assault.

So the people are standing up. And so are the institutions.

The courts are standing up to Trump. Lower courts, time and time again, have ruled against his immigration policies. And we recently saw Chief Justice Roberts come out and rebuke Trump for saying someone was an “Obama judge.” Roberts issued a statement saying: “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. The independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”

The states are standing up to Trump, with many of them suing him one issue or another.

The media is standing up to him, with the exception of Fox and rightwing talk radio.

The late night TV comics are standing up to him, and their mockery is a balm to our spirits.

Some Republican elected officials, like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, have spoken out against him. And last week, even Linsey Graham stood up to him on Saudi Arabia.

Some Republican intellectuals and pundits are calling out Trump, like George Will, and David Frum, and David Brooks, and Jennifer Rubin, and Steve Schmidt, who ran McCain’s campaign. Even Morning Joe, who is not exactly an intellectual heavyweight, is standing up to Trump.

Andthe voters, by the millions, are standing up!

We saw this on Nov. 6, too, as millions of people voted essentially against Trump and Trumpism in the Blue Wave.

We must continue to do all this to combat fascism here in the United States.

And we must talk respectfully to our neighbors who don’t already agree with us but who are open to dialogue and rational discourse.

We must join organizations—any organization on whatever issue is most important to you.

You can’t do it alone. So do it with a friend. And have fun doing it, or else you’ll give up!

And that’s what the fascists want.

They want us to give up.

They want us to feel scared.

They want us to feel helpless.

And while we may feel scared, and sometimes, frankly, I do feel scared, we’re not helpless.

We can’t give up.

We can’t give in.

We can’t lie down.

We must stand up, together.

And only by standing up, together, only by speaking out, together, can we win.

And I’m hopeful today that we will win. With a little bit of luck, we’ll not only survive the Age of Trump. Together, we’ll preserve and expand our democracy.

Thank you!