“The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by human beings for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison people because they are different from others,” said Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
During his lifetime King worked tirelessly to expand the voting franchise and get people to exercise it. He called voting “the foundation stone of political action.”
But while today people commemorate King’s legacy and remember his contributions to the country, it’s also appropriate to acknowledge the irony of one of the major opponents of voting rights in Southwest Florida—Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.).
Donalds doesn’t even believe that the United States is a democracy. On January 6, the first anniversary of the insurrection at the US Capitol, Donalds tweeted: “We aren’t a Democracy. We are a Constitutional Republic.”
As though to ensure that voting rights don’t expand, during his time in Congress Donalds has consistently voted against measures to protect the franchise and ballot access.
In this Congress, Donalds voted against the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 (House Resolution (HR) 4), and the For the People Act of 2021 (HR 1), both of which are aimed at protecting people’s voting rights (and both of which passed the House).
“Abolishing voter ID laws, ending signature verification, and putting into place taxpayer-funded campaigns is detrimental to every American’s right to a free and fair election and the harmful rhetoric of President Biden cannot evade this fact,” Donalds argued in a statement at the time.
He defended the filibuster in the Senate even though the filibuster is a practice unique to that chamber and has nothing to do with the House of Representatives—and the threat of a filibuster is now being used to stop HR 1 in the Senate.
What is more, his defense of the filibuster came in the context of his defense of Georgia’s voter suppression law. When President Joe Biden denounced that law as “Jim Crow in the 21st Century” and “an atrocity,” Donalds argued that Biden was “irresponsibly injecting race and the travesty of Jim Crow to oppose the filibuster. Time after time, Democrats resort to the race card to shield them from having to answer for their hypocrisy and radical policies.”
He defended the Georgia law even further in a May 22, 2021 interview with The New York Times: “I think Georgia actually has a very good law. And frankly, it’s sad and, in my view, disgusting that the president referred to it as Jim Crow. It cheapens the history in our country with respect to actual Jim Crow, a disgusting relic of our past. And to try to equate that to what Georgia did, to me, is just completely illogical. It reeks of just the nastiest politics that you could ever want to bring up, to try to divide Americans and divide Georgians.”
He was also a vocal defender of Florida’s voter restriction law, arguing that, like Georgia’s law, “What it does is it actually makes our process cleaner” by reducing the number of drop-boxes and “ballot harvesting,” a practice of collecting mail-in ballots on behalf of other people, a practice outlawed in Florida prior to passage of the bill.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022, Donalds tweeted: “Today, we don’t only celebrate the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we honor his life of sacrifice and dedication that led to America becoming a more perfect union. We are the nation we are today because of men like MLK, and we must keep his dream alive.”
Donalds can start honoring that dream by working to protect and expand voting, “the foundation stone of political action” and stop denouncing, suppressing and trying to restrict it.
The date Nov. 9, 1923 doesn’t hold much meaning for most of the world, especially for Americans, but it’s a date that may gain a new infamy.
It was on that date that an attempt to overthrow the government of Germany failed when authorities and police stood up against Nazi radicals marching on Munich’s government building. That attempted coup, or “putsch” in German, was led by a ranting but charismatic former army corporal named Adolf Hitler.
On that November day in Munich, 16 Nazis and four police died when the police opened fire. Hitler and his closest compatriots were arrested. It all seemed like the end of Hitler and the Nazi movement.
But it was not. Instead, Hitler and the Nazis gave up the idea of a sudden, violent takeover and began playing a long game for power through legal means, which they ultimately achieved, with catastrophic results for the world.
This bit of history raises some disturbing questions for the United States today.
What if the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol was the not the end of the Trumpist menace to the United States and democracy but its beginning, as Nov. 9, 1923 was the beginning of the Nazi menace to Germany?
This is what Trump effectively said in his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando on Feb. 28. As he put it in his usual scrambled and disjointed syntax: “Our movement of proud, hardworking, and you know what? This is the hardest working people, hardworking American Patriots, is just getting started. And in the end we will win. We will win.”
What can Americans who believe in democracy, justice, diversity, free thought and constitutional government do to ensure that America in the 21st century doesn’t go the way of Germany in the 20th century?
And to bring it to particulars: what can people who care about this country do about it here in Florida?
Today, there are extremely disturbing parallels between Adolf Hitler after his failed putsch and Donald J. Trump after his failed insurrection.
Some of these are:
Turning to electoral politics
Hitler: After his failed putsch, Hitler gave up sudden, violent revolution for conventional, legal, electoral politics to take power. While not eschewing violence altogether, he and the Nazi Party commenced a long-term, nationwide effort to win elections at all levels and gain a majority in the Reichstag. Their aim was not to continue and maintain democracy once they achieved power but to end it.
Trump: In what may be a more important development than anything Trump said at CPAC, his followers are choosing to pursue elected office at all levels to enact the Trumpist (or as some prefer to call it, Trascist) program.
“The Trumpiest Republicans Are At The State And Local Levels — Not In D.C.,”as Perry Bacon Jr. pointed out in an article on the FiveThirtyEight.com website. Another example is Enrique Tarrio, Proud Boys chairman and FBI informant, who told CNN in a Feb. 25 interview: “I think right now is the time to go ahead and overthrow the government by becoming the new government and running for office.” Michael Flynn, the disgraced former national security advisor pardoned by Trump, told followers and QAnon adherents in a Telegram message on March 10: “As I recently said, we need to get involved in our communities & ensure our system functions the way it is supposed to BECAUSE it broke down. Let’s stop kidding ourselves with shoulda-woulda-coulda-and instead get involved in our communities.”
Equally striking are the already serving officials in Congress and in state and local governments who are attempting to advance Trumpism through voter suppression and election manipulation. (Much more about this later.)
Hitler: When Hitler’s ill-organized, chaotic and violent would-be revolution failed, he was jailed for nine months (out of a five-year sentence). He spent the time with his fellow prisoners writing his manifesto, Mein Kampf, which he would use to spread his message in the years that followed.
Trump: Today, Trump has retreated to the lavish cocoon of Mar-a-Lago—not exactly prison. He emerged at CPAC to announce that he might run for president again in 2024, that he will maintain his grip on the Republican Party and that he will purge, persecute and destroy any dissenters or heretics who doubt his infallibility.
Hitler: After the putsch Hitler was threatened with long imprisonment and, worse, deportation to his native Austria. Full punishment might have ended the Nazi movement right then. Instead, Hitler was given a gentle sentence in a vacation-like setting thanks to the right-wing sympathies of judges and elements of the public. Ultimately, his sentence was commuted to nine months.
Trump: After being impeached for incitement to insurrection, Trump was acquitted by his subservient supporters in the US Senate. He remains free to plot a return to power and find ways to broadcast his message, feeling exonerated and immune from the consequences of his actions.
A foundation of lies
Hitler: Following the putsch, Hitler and the Nazis built a foundation of giant myths and fantastic conspiracy theories: that a Jewish cabal manipulated the world to its advantage and against Germany; that Germany had lost World War I because Jews stabbed it in the back; that Germans needed “lebensraum,” or “living room” they could only get by conquering other nations; and that Germans were a superior race to all others.
Trump: Trump’s big lie ever since the election is that he won by a landslide; that the election was “stolen” from him; and that the presidency of Joe Biden is illegitimate. Even before the election he was lying that the election was “rigged” against him and that mail-in ballots were fraudulent. And the absurd QAnon conspiracy theory spins even more bizarre delusions for those who believe it.
Trump lied about race in his very first speech as candidate when he called Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals” and then became progressively worse as his presidency wore on. Today, as columnist Dana Milbank pointed out in The Washington Post: “Trump’s overt racism turned the GOP into, essentially, a white-nationalist party, in which racial animus is the main motivator of Republican votes.”
Fake news and the “lying press”
Hitler: The Nazis used the term “Lügenpresse”—“lying press” to characterize all the media coverage they disliked and discredit all objective journalism. It actually had its origins during World War I when it was used to characterize foreign propaganda.
After World War I, he wrote, “it had turned into an explosive and stigmatizing propaganda slogan, used to stir hatred against Jews and communists. Critics of Adolf Hitler’s regime were frequently referred to as members of the ‘Lügenpresse apparatus.’”
From the time of the putsch to the time the Nazis joined the government in 1933, the Nazis built their own media ecosystem and started newspapers to propagate their message. They received a huge boost with the spread of the new medium of radio, which allowed Hitler to directly address the public.
Trump: Trump’s antipathy toward a free media is well known. The very first press conference of his presidency tried to promote the clearly absurd fiction that his inauguration crowds were the largest in history despite all evidence. He called journalists “enemies of the people,” tried to discredit independent reporting and promote subservient media outlets that would follow his dictates. Over the four years of his presidency the Trumpist mediasphere expanded considerably on Internet, cable television and social media.
Today, with Trump himself banned from Twitter and the social media outlets he most favored, the future of his media access and that of his followers remains an open question. However, it’s worth remembering that Hitler was banned from public speaking from the time of the putsch until 1927, leading to a decline in the Nazi Party’s fortunes. But that didn’t last.
Hitler: Hitler had no small enemies and he had plenty of words to describe them. The Jews were “a parasite in the body of other nations,” the communists were “the scum of humanity,” non-Nazi Germans were “subhumans.”
Trump: As he put it in his CPAC speech, Trump says he is facing an “onslaught of radicalism, socialism, and indeed it all leads to communism once and for all.” All Democrats are “radical.” Anti-Trump, or even non-Trump Republicans are “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only). His history of personal insults and invective needs no recounting.
After four years of a Trump presidency, it’s easy to draw these parallels. But the beat continues since his attempted insurrection and fall from power.
“With your help, we will take back the House,” Trump vowed at CPAC. “We will win the Senate. And then, a Republican president will make a triumphant return to the White House. And I wonder who that will be? I wonder who that will be? Who, who, who will that be? I wonder.”
It needs to be remembered that this is not politics as usual. It is not competition in a constitutional spirit. Trump and his movement are devoted to imposing a totalitarian, one-man rule that will admit no independent thought, political activity or disagreement. It is not just Trumpism that threatens the future, it is absolutism.
That kind of absolutism was explicitly rejected by the Founders of the United States. When they declared independence and wrote the Constitution, they were not only rebelling against a distant king, they were making a clean break from 250 previous years of religious warfare, massacre and bloodshed. From the time of Martin Luther, Catholic and Protestant monarchs had sought to impose their visions of one true, absolute faith on the populations—and minds—of Europe and Britain.
Americans rejected the kind of absolutism that would not admit or tolerate dissent or free thought or reasoned argument. It’s why the very first clause of the First Amendment prohibits establishment of a national religion and allows free worship—and by extension free thought—for all.
Trumpism is a throwback to dark days of dogma and doctrine. It admits no other way, no loyal opposition and no reasoned discussion. It is absolute in its demand for loyalty and obedience, as evidenced by the censure and condemnation of Republican lawmakers who voiced dissenting opinions and followed their consciences in dealing with Trump. In its fascistic universe, only the gospel of Trump can be admitted and even if Trump himself steps down from leadership or passes from this earth, those who seek to carry forth this creed in his name are promoting a rigid authoritarianism.
In the years to come, as shown, Trumpists will try to carry out this program through the electoral and constitutional system. They will run for office at all levels of government, from dogcatcher to the presidency. They will introduce restrictive and anti-democratic laws and regulations. They will seek to impose their will on everything from school boards to county councils to Congress.
Voter suppression is an integral part of this effort. It is an attempt to end democracy.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, as of late February, Republican lawmakers in 33 states had introduced, filed or carried over more than 165 bills to restrict voting through various devices. This was well over four times the number of such bills last year. These include limiting mail-in voting, imposing stricter identification requirements, slashing voter registration opportunities and more aggressively purging voter rolls.
But it even goes beyond voter suppression. In his article on state and local Trumpism, Bacon points out that Trumpers have more power in state legislatures, face less scrutiny, and are stronger than traditional establishment Republicans based in Washington, DC. They can gerrymander at will, censure or recall heretical officials and crush non-Trumper challengers at the state level.
Anti-Democratic voter suppression efforts are not just aimed at winning the 2022 elections by reducing Democratic or minority turnout. Nor are they just a response to Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was tainted or fraudulent or improper. They are part of a holistic movement aimed at ending democracy and imposing authoritarian autocracy over the United States.
“A Republican Party that seems increasingly unwilling to abide by democratic norms could install officials in key swing states who basically won’t allow a Democrat to win any election. That possibility is real, and would present an incredible threat to American democracy,” wrote Bacon.
When winning just isn’t enough
Florida, by all accounts, had perhaps the smoothest and most trouble-free election of all states in 2020. Mail-in ballots were counted early, in-person voting ran efficiently, and results were reported swiftly and accepted as accurate. There were no reports of voter fraud. It is a point of pride for the governor and the state.
What is more, Republicans swept virtually every office they contested. The entire state government—executive, legislative and judicial—is in Republican hands.
But winning is not enough; Republicans, and especially Trumper Republicans like Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in particular, want to ensure that there is absolutely no chance of losing power in 2022—or ever.
DeSantis, while lauding the state’s successful 2020 election, has called for a variety of measures to restrict voting, like outlawing ballot “harvesting” (collecting numerous mail-in or absentee ballots by an outside party to submit them in one batch) by volunteers (collection by paid professionals is currently illegal), reducing the number of ballot collection boxes, and restricting mail-in ballots only to voters who specifically request them rather than sending them to all voters in a jurisdiction (which does not happen anyway in Florida).
For all this, Florida is not the most voter-suppressive state. According to the Brennan Center, “Arizona leads the nation in proposed voter suppression legislation in 2021, with 19 restrictive bills. Pennsylvania comes in second with 14 restrictive policy proposals, followed by Georgia (11 bills), and New Hampshire (10 bills).”
As if the onslaught on voting in Florida was insufficient, in the US Congress one Florida member, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), who represents the Southwest corner of the state, fought the For the People Act, (House Resolution (HR) 1), which seeks to “expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and implement other anti-corruption measures for the purpose of fortifying our democracy.”
Donalds, whose congressional campaign was heavily funded by right-wing super political action committees like Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity, took to the House floor and in a one-minute speech (with an added 15 seconds because his mask kept slipping off his face), called HR 1, “really just a takeover of elections by Washington, DC.”
While lauding Florida’s voting system as “the very best election laws in these United States,” Donalds concluded: “the people of the State of Florida definitely do not want the things that are in this bill. Our system is the best. Frankly, leave Florida alone.”
Donalds’ speech raises the question: If Florida’s voting system is the best in the country, why are the governor and Republican state legislators trying so hard to change it—and in a restrictive, suppressive manner, no less?
Perhaps the best answer came from Manny Diaz, the chair of the Florida Democratic Party: “This is not an issue of Republicans versus Democrats, but instead an issue of Republicans versus democracy. Florida Republicans keep showing us that when given a choice between defending the rights of voters, or suppressing voter access, disturbingly they will all too gladly suppress, harm and sacrifice our most sacred constitutional right on the altar of preserving power for the sake of power.”
Recognizing the danger
Fortunately, the danger to American democracy is well recognized and countermeasures are starting up.
On Saturday, March 7, President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing the federal government “to promote and defend the right to vote for all Americans who are legally entitled to participate in elections.” The federal government, states the order, will “expand access to, and education about, voter registration and election information, and…combat misinformation, in order to enable all eligible Americans to participate in our democracy.”
The order was issued in light of the likelihood that HR 1 would fail in the Senate without a two-thirds majority to pass.
Elsewhere, lawmakers are introducing voter expansion bills in their state legislatures. But in states like Florida where Trumpers dominate, they are unlikely to succeed.
Nonetheless, those who favor democracy—democrats with a small “d” of whatever political allegiance—can take action. They can:
Fight voter suppression at the state and local levels by lobbying, pressuring their legislators and protesting against any anti-democratic measures;
Immediately challenge such measures in court if they pass in the legislature;
Run for all available elected offices at all levels;
Stay alert to Trumpist efforts to undermine democracy, promote authoritarian conspiracy theories and spread big lies and expose them to the light of day by whatever means available;
Report illegal, seditious or criminal activities to relevant law enforcement agencies;
Volunteer to aid voter registration efforts and serve in local election offices and at polling stations;
Organize to actively assist candidates who support democracy and voting access.
Most of all, people need to be aware that the struggle to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution and democracy is now a long game. It’s been going on since the Constitution was ratified but currently it’s in a new, domestic, post-Trump, post-insurrection phase. It is going to play out over many election cycles and decades.
People should not be lulled into thinking that because Trump and his cultists are in remission at the moment, that they are finished. That’s what Germans thought after the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch. Instead, the Nazi movement entered a new phase of steady effort until it achieved a breakthrough 10 years later (and, by the way, Nazis never actually won over a majority of Germans prior to 1933).
This is not to minimize the major differences between Germany in 1923 and America in 2021. There are also significant differences between Hitler and Trump (not least that Hitler was 34 years old at the time of the putsch with a full career ahead of him and Trump is 74). But still, the similarities are worrisome.
However, being aware of history can give true patriots the tools to determine a better course for the United States.
People are fond of quoting the aphorism, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
The phrase, though, holds within it the solution to the problem it poses—because those who do know history can keep it from happening again.