In light of what Georgia's legislature and Governor Brian Kemp just did to crush democracy in that state, you will want to read what a brilliant reporter wrote in the 1950s about how the Nazis took over Germany. It illustrates what the GOP is doing with vivid detail.
The Nazis corrupted the political system and took it over, bit by bit, gradually drawing the people along with them, and packing the courts with partisans in a way that was shockingly banal and totally resonant with today.
And then, in a relative instant, they changed the laws so it was all irreversible.
You can draw a straight line from Reagan through Bush to Trump, and then to Georgia and Iowa outlawing democracy in their states this past week. We're watching democracy ripped right out from under us.
This was Chicago reporter Milton Mayer's great fear and great fascination, after he got to know real Germans who'd lived through the years of the Nazis.
An American Jew of German ancestry, and a brilliant writer, Mayer went to Germany 7 years after Hitler's fall and befriended 10 "average Germans," asking each how the Nazis rose to power in an otherwise civilized nation.
His book, They Thought They Were Free, is his story of that experience. Intertwined through it — first published in 1955 — are repeated overt and subtle warnings to future generations of Americans: to us, today.
In Georgia yesterday a voter suppression bill was passed that functionally hands to the Georgia legislature the power to decide who won elections in that state, regardless of how the vote turned out.
It was introduced into the House, passed the House; introduced into the Senate, passed the Senate; sent to the Governor and signed by Governor Brian Kemp…all in less than one day.
Mayer quotes one of his German friends as describing a similar process:
What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security....
Consider how Brian Kemp became governor.
As Secretary of State in 2018, he did what Jeb Bush ordered SoS Kathrine Harris to do in Florida in 2000, purging hundreds of thousands of Georgia voters from the voting rolls, including massive numbers of African Americans (as documented in granular detail in my book The Hidden History of the War On Voting).
When Stacy Abrams ran against him for Governor in the election of 2018, the group she ran registered over 53,000 Black people to vote.
Then-Secretary of State Kemp refused to process those registrations before the day of his own race for governor when he ran against Abrams. He "won" the Governor's seat by just over fifty thousand votes.
Democracy in Georgia was crippled by Kemp's actions, even before he yesterday outlawed Democrats running their own precincts to keep voting lines short, and criminalized giving water to 90-year-olds standing in lines Republicans configure to last for 8 or more hours.
The German survivor continues, as if he'd been living in Georgia or Iowa or Wisconsin for the past decade:
This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter. ...
To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it - please try to believe me - unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop.
Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, "regretted," that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these "little measures" that no "patriotic German" could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing.
One day it is over his head.
A week ago, we all thought we had a fine constitutional republic that had just been battered a little bit by a crazy billionaire con man.
Today, we're discovering that throughout the past five years — and really since 2001 with Bush's PATRIOT Act/torture/war/wiretap response to 9/11 — we've been incrementally changing our country with every Republican administration, particularly at the state level, and most Americans didn't even realize it.
And then, Brian Kemp signs a one-day-to-pass piece of legislation that guts democracy in Georgia and the GOP announces they're going to push other states to do the same, and we suddenly realize that while everything still looks the same, in reality everything has truly and deeply changed.
We are farther along in the process than most Americans understand. America has now sunk so low in the rankings of democratic nations because of the way Republicans have rigged state governments and use the filibuster in the US Senate that we are as dysfunctional as Argentina or Hungary.
This, Mayer's German informant suggests, is how fascism will always take over a nation.
You see, one doesn't see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don't want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don't want to 'go out of your way to make trouble.' Why not? - Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.
During this time of genuine crisis, the worst pandemic in a century made worse (perhaps intentionally) by Trump's response to it, Americans are paying far more attention to keeping their jobs and avoiding illness than what's going on in state capitols where they don't even know the names of their own state representatives and senators.
Thus came the final opportunity for genuine fascists like Kemp to move and move quickly.
Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, everyone is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You know, in France or Italy there will be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this. In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, 'It's not so bad' or 'You're seeing things' or 'You're an alarmist.'
Yesterday Georgia State Representative Park Cannon, a Black woman and elected legislator, was arrested for knocking on Governor Kemp's door while he was signing the "Gutting Democracy" bill in a televised but closed-door event. She was the only person in the State of Georgia who took such an action.
Meanwhile, Florida is trying to pass SB90, which would require everybody in the state to re-register to vote for every election.
But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That's the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and the smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked - if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in '43 had come immediately after the 'German Firm' stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in '33.
We can't say we weren't warned.
In a speech that was hysterically criticized by Republicans, President Obama in December of 2017 came right out and said it: "You have to tend to this garden of democracy, otherwise things can fall apart fairly quickly. And we've seen societies where that happens."
Yes, the former President of the United States was invoked Nazi Germany three years ago while Donald Trump was President, adding:
"Now, presumably, there was a ballroom in Vienna in the late 1920s or '30s that looked and seemed as if it ― filled with the music and art and literature and the science that was emerging ― would continue into perpetuity.
"And then," President Obama said, "60 million people died. And the entire world was plunged into chaos."
The warnings have been there all along. I wrote of this in 2005, quoting Mayer and going off on Bush and the PATRIOT Act as the prequel to fascism.
But of course this isn't the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.
And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying 'Jew swine,' collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.
People in Georgia are waking up today to a different state.
They will no longer be able to know their voices and attempts to vote will actually decide who is their governor, their attorney general, their secretary of state.
They can be purged from the voting rolls on a whim, Republicans can take over their precincts and run them under whatever rules they want, and when the GOP inflicts 10-hour lines to vote on them, you now go to jail if you bring them water.
They'll no longer know their vote for president will count; whenever the vote is close or there's a controversy, those decisions will be made by Republicans in the Georgia legislature and groups appointed by them.
The world you live in - your nation, your people - is not the world you were in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays.
But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed.
Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God.
"How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men?" Mayer's friend asked rhetorically.
And, without the benefit of a previous and recent and well-remembered fascistic regime to refer to, Mayer had to candidly answer: "Frankly, I do not know."
This was the great problem that Mayer's Germans and so many in their day faced.
And now here we are, but this time we have the benefit of having seen this already play out in other nations, something the Germans of the 1930s lacked.
So how to counter it?
As Mayer so movingly narrates, the experience of 20th century Europe demonstrates that those abusing power must be confronted with equally vigorous power.
In the 1930s, Germans who believed in republican democracy were overwhelmed before they realized how completely their civil liberties and national institutions had been seized. Once the laws across the country were changed, it was too late to turn back.
We must not allow it to continue to happen in our nation. We must fight back against this naked assault on American democracy.
That starts by overruling at the federal level, with HR1 (the For The People Act), egregious laws like the one just passed in Georgia.
It continues by using HR1 to end partisan gerrymandering that causes states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania (among others) to send more Republicans to Congress than Democrats even though the majority the voters in those states actually voted for Democrats.
Both require us to end the anti-democratic filibuster immediately, or at least turn it back into the "Jimmy Stewart Filibuster" of yore so a vote eventually happens.
America is on the brink today, and if we don't strengthen and restore democratic processes to our nation, Trump or someone much like him (Hawley, Cruz, Scott, Cotton) will use these new state-based laws to overrule the will of the voters in 2024 and end our American experiment.