When fascism reared its ugly head in Europe and Japan in the 1920s, it signaled a coming war. As a newer and slicker form of that despotism rises here in America, it may well bring the same type of crisis.
We stand on the threshold of momentous change in this nation. While it's rarely discussed in this frame, the next two elections will almost certainly determine what form of government we'll have for at least a generation.
Will America become more free and democratic or will we devolve into a 21st century form of Trumpy fascism?
The Democratic Party is institutionally committed to America finally realizing a republican form of democracy, rejecting gerrymanders and voter suppression while embracing the kind of "maximum participation" ease of voting seen in every other advanced democracy in the world.
Three significant pieces of legislation to reverse the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act and protect the integrity of the vote have passed the House and if Democratic Leadership (looking at you, Biden and Schumer) can get them through the Senate there is a vastly improved chance for the survival of our form of government.
Additionally, most federally elected Democrats support strengthening our democracy by ending the filibuster in the Senate and adding at least Washington, DC as a new state (with high support for Puerto Rico as well).
But do Democrats have the will and power to fight a battle against financially well-armed rightwing billionaires and their predatory and polluting industries?
Not to mention taking on today's GOP version of Mussolini's Blackshirts, the volunteer civilian "tough guy" militias that initially roamed around Italy beating up Jews and lefties?
The Republican Party, having openly given up on democracy, is trying through gerrymandering, voter suppression and election rigging to seize and hold control of our nation againstthe will of the majority of America's voters.
Calling it a "slow motion insurrection," the Associated Press reports how the GOP is taking over election systems across America with the explicit goal of refusing to certify elections that they lose in 2022 and 2024.
"Never in the country's modern history," the AP notes, "has a a major party sought to turn the administration of elections into an explicitly partisan act."
In the process, the Republican Party has put fascism on the ballot in 2022 and 2024.
Benito Mussolini pioneered this system back in the 1920s, synthesizing it out of the most corrupt eras of the declining Roman Empire, and named it after thefasces, the ancient symbol of that empire.
A single thin stick is easily broken. But when you bundle a dozen or more of them together and wrap them with a leather strap, they are collectively unbreakable without enormous effort.
When Mussolini put forward the fasces as the symbol for his new Italian movement, however, the bundle of sticks he had in mind weren't the people: they were Italian corporations and the wealthy elite who owned and ran them.
As the dictionary notes, the system of government Mussolini reinvented was called fascism and prescribed merging the interests of giant corporations and their leaders with the power of the state. It is, literally, "the merging of state and business leadership""
Such a merger was explicitly rejected by the Founders of this nation and the Framers of the Constitution, who had just fought a war against Britain and its largest and most profitable corporation, the East India Company.
Thomas Paine said it best: we created government to serve We, The People first and foremost.
"Individuals themselves," he wrote in The Rights of Man in 1791, "entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist." [italics added]
As the Declaration of Independence says: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed". But even in the early years of our republic those who'd accumulated great wealth tried to step in to take it over to promote their own interests.
Then-retired President Jefferson laid out in an 1816 letter to Samuel Kerchival what today would be considered a blistering attack on corporate power: "Those seeking profits," he wrote, "were they given total freedom, would not be the ones to trust to keep government pure and our rights secure. Indeed, it has always been those seeking wealth who were the source of corruption in government. " I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom."
Corporate power has always been influential in America but five "conservatives" on the Supreme Court elevated it to a near-Mussolini level in their Citizens United decision opening the door for the GOP to embrace an Americanized version of Mussolini's idea:
The "conservatives" on the Court first ruled that billionaires buying politicians was "free speech" instead of "bribery" (Buckley 1976 and Citizens United 2010). They then unleashed corporate power, ruling that corporations are "persons" with "rights" under the Bill of Rights, including the "free speech" and "assembly" rights to "petition the government" and financially support politicians (Bellotti 1978 and Citizens United 2010).
Yes, as Mitt Romney famously said, "Corporations are people, my friend." All because a handful of lifetime-appointed right-wingers on the Supreme Court decided it would help their wealthy patrons.
In Justice John Paul Stevens' dissent inCitizens United, he pointed out how absurd this reasoning was: corporations in their modern form didn't even exist when the Constitution was written in 1787.
"All general business corporation statutes appear to date from well after 1800," Stevens pointed out to his conservative colleagues on the Court. "The Framers thus took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare." They are not themselves members of 'We the People' by whom and for whom our Constitution was established." As if he were looking at today's corporations that daily tell Congress what to pass and what to block, Stevens added:
"Politicians who fear that a certain corporation can make or break their reelection chances may be cowed into silence about that corporation."
When Ronald Reagan came into office and began America's turn toward neoliberal oligarchy there wasn't a single billionaire in America because, in part, the top 74% income tax rate prevented that kind of wealth accumulation.
Regardless of inflation since then, in 1980 nobody controlled a fortune on the order of American oligarchs like Bezos or Musk do today.
Instead, wealth flowed to working people producing in the 1940-1980 era the richest and broadest middle class in world history.
Similarly, as Lee Drutman documents for The Atlantic, before the Supreme Court got into the act corporations generally avoided participating in politics beyond routine PR.
"Very few companies had their own Washington lobbyists prior to the 1970s," he writes. "To the extent that businesses did lobby in the 1950s and 1960s (typically through associations), they were clumsy and ineffective."
Today lobbyists spend over $3 billion a year buying and selling votes and legislation which has destroyed Americans' faith in government and brought us to this crisis.
Thanks to five "conservatives" on the Supreme Court, we are now well down the road to a final "merging of state and business leadership."
At the same time, as Chauncey DeVega brilliantly notes at Salon:
Domestic terrorism experts have also warned that right-wing extremists and paramilitary groups are organizing on the local and state level to intimidate, harass, and target "liberals," Black and brown people, Muslims, Jews, immigrant communities, and others deemed to be their enemies.
This is part of a nationwide campaign by Republican fascists, and the larger white right, to attack American democracy on the local and state level in order to facilitate Trump's return to power or the "election" of his designated successor.
When the ever-cautious National Public Radio runs a headline that says: "Retired general warns the U.S. military could lead a coup after the 2024 election" you know we're in deep trouble.
The biggest battle for the survival of American democracy is before us now.
Authoritarian forces have seized control of the GOP and are committed to ending democracy in this country, replacing it with an Orba'n-like Hungary-style merger of corporate and state leadership.
January 6th is now openly viewed by Trump's followers as a rehearsal for 2024 as they fine-tune vote-counting systems and elect toadies who will bend to their will and change election outcomes the next time voters reject them.
John Hennen, professor emeritus of history at Kentucky's Morehead State University, nailed it when he said, "We must build a democratic resistance that amounts to a counter-fascist coup".
"Every American who cares about freedom, self-governance, and the ideal of democracy must now rise to the occasion. The upcoming elections will be political wars with stakes unlike those seen by any living citizens.
The good news is that, increasingly, both our media and elected Democrats and former Republicans are calling this out for what it is, a naked assault on our system of government itself.
But will it be enough?
That will depend on Democratic turnout.
Professor Hennen's colleague, Brian Clardy, a Murray State University history professor emeritus tells us straight up:
"The Democrats have to remind people that next year and in 2024, democracy itself will be on trial."
And 21st century fascism will be there right beside it under the "R" column on the ballot.