A note of appreciation to Heather Cox Richardson

My Facebook friends who pay any attention at all will to my posts know that I repost every single instalment of Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American. I believe that if the United States survives its current crisis as a functioning democracy, her letters will be anthologized and read and re-read for as many generations as the nation survives; and if it does not, they will be read and re-read elsewhere as a chronicle of the last days of our demise. Her essays are calm, undramatic, unexaggerated, and always in the end deliberately encouraging rather than despairing or even merely alarming.

Her post for Sunday, September 6, is especially striking. (Click the link to read it in a new browser tab.)

The accumulated and still growing evidence of Donald Trump’s fascist will-to-power, and of the blindness of between 30 and 40 percent of our fellow Americans to the realities, is daunting. In today’s column HCR gives a clear and concise summing up of recent developments in the Trumpist war on democracy. She also cites hopefully (though very briefly) the signs that the citizenry may reject him in November. Still, I find her conclusion today to be the most ominous and sobering to date. It does feel like we may be on the brink of a second civil war, and it is impossible to imagine how it would play out.

I left a comment on the Facebook version of her post. What follows is a copy of that comment, lightly edited, with some links added. It is in the form of an open letter to Heather Cox Richardson (“you”).

Here, then is my comment to HCR on her post:

I have been reading and reposting your newsletter every day for months, and this one feels like a turning point to me. In your usual utterly calm way, free of exaggeration and animus, you list and briefly (with virtuosic brevity and clarity) describe the way in which Donald Trump is behaving like a fascist dictator, and the Republican Party like the enablers of a fascist dictator. You sum up by saying that we have good reason to be worried but must not despair. You say we have been here before; and anyone who has read How the South Won the Civil War knows what you mean. Both before and since the run-up to the Civil War, that book points out, this nation has seen leaders and would-be leaders who have exemplified fascist traits, who have lied and deceived many in their determination to make the whole country subservient to the quest of an unscrupulous oligarchy to preserve or obtain wealth and power.

Last night, when you wrote that we have been here before, you wanted to give one example. Your language implies that you could have chosen another example, but the example you chose was the situation of the USA in 1858, when South was in the grips of an oligarchy of slave owners and Abraham Lincoln held a series of debates with Stephen Douglas. I believe that your quotation of Lincoln is from his speech in October 1854 on the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, not from 1858. Be that as it may, the striking thing is that in this quotation Lincoln refers to the taking up of improvised weapons—scythe, pitchfork, chopping axe, butcher’s cleaver—against the repeal of that compromise. This mention of weapons is I believe metaphorical in its original setting but also prophetic: in a few years, actual weapons of war would be in play. I do not hear you, Heather, advocating that opponents of Trumpism take up literal weapons. You want us to vote. For you as for Lincoln this mention of improvised weapons is metaphorical.

For me, though, the parallels between Lincoln’s situation and ours are ominous. When Lincoln made his speech in 1854, Jefferson Davis was secretary of war to President Franklin Pierce. Sydney Blumenthal has said that Davis came to function as de facto president because of Pierce’s gross incompetence. In our situation, we could see Trump as a mash-up of Pierce and Davis—grossly incompetent and opposed to core democratic values, but nevertheless holding the office and wielding the powers of the president. In other words, today, as during the Pierce administration, the forces of fascism are not merely waiting in the wings but are already installed in the White House, and what we are waiting to see is whether, as the fascist removes his mask, the American electorate will in the November elections remove him or has, to the contrary, been sufficiently corrupted by his lies that we will fail to remove him. And what then?

You do not want us to jump to this “what then?”. You (referring to one of Timothy Snyder’s principles from On Tyranny) do not want us to start thinking as though the struggle is lost when it is not yet lost. And you are right. Nevertheless, I cannot help seeing your citation of Lincoln’s scythes-and-cleavers remark as acknowledgment that our situation is dire, and that if it gets worse rather than better we—members of the resistance to Trump’s creeping fascism, which threatens to become open and fully empowered—may have some hard choices to make. This is a dark foreboding, barely beneath the surface in your characteristically undramatic and nondespairing essay.

Finally, I commend to all not only HCR’s Letters from an American newsletter/blog but also her book How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. For me, it was one of the most enlightening things I have read since starting in 2017 to read everything I could find to help me understand the Trump phenomenon.

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