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Where Did America Go Wrong? Part 4: Learning From History To Defeat MAGA

In the first three parts of this essay, I traced the roots of the MAGA movement as a political development spanning some seventy-five years, roughly one-third of America’s history as an independent nation. We could trace it further back, through its even deeper roots in what is now commonly called “white supremacy,” or broaden our investigation to include cultural factors, such as the increasing vulgarization of American society since at least the 1950s, the intensifying mania over “celebrities” like the dictator during this period, etc. There is an entire book, or rather many volumes, to be written on this subject.

But we are concerned here with how to turn back this menace. The study of history is always worthwhile for its own sake, and on the other hand one must be cautious in applying history’s supposed lessons. For example, as America was becoming embroiled in the Vietnam War, partisans of this cause beat back any note of caution, much less opposition to the war, with the cry of no more Munichs: that is, they argued that Western democracies must not cower in the face of a totalitarian threat, as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had flinched from confronting Hitler at the Munich summit in 1938. This was a good argument in theory, but it failed to consider the multitude of different circumstances between Europe in 1938 and Southeast Asia in 1965, with disastrous consequences.

With due humility, then, here are a few preliminary suggestions based on our brief historical study:

First, MAGA has deep roots in America history, and is not merely the dictator’s invention. This implies that we cannot count on his departure from the scene due to his advanced age and suspected bad health to solve the problem for us. To speak plainly, even if he dies before 2024, we are not out of the woods. The so-called charisma of figures like him is, as Hannah Arendt points out, a social phenomenon, which implies that the mob, with a little expert guidance from Fox News and other propaganda masters, could transfer its affections to someone else, such as Tucker Carlson or Ron DeSantis or Marjorie Taylor Greene. The will to believe is the main thing. For those of us who are immune to the dictator’s appeal, he looks like nothing more than a ranting, incoherent bully, just as we watch historical films of Hitler and see a shrieking lunatic; try as we might, we can detect no trace of his reported preternatural powers to hypnotize the masses. Until the sociopolitical context changes, the dictator’s passing may merely open up opportunities for new, even more dangerous dictator wannabes.

Second, the authoritarian right has been playing a long game, for many decades, at the state and local levels and to influence the federal judiciary. The anti-abortion movement has been especially good at this. We must fight back, though the hour is very late. It’s so late, in fact, that this work can no longer be done without significant personal risk. In a context in which county public health officials are quitting due to MAGA death threats, anyone who enters local politics now, in broad swaths of the country, has to accept a risk of violence against themselves and their families that we used to associate with death squad-infested Central American republics.

Third, we must take our allies where we find them. It’s true that people like Liz Cheney took far too long to understand that the dictator is a mortal threat to this country, and others may come around after unforeseeable future calamities. It’s also true that conservative voices can be some of the strongest against fascism; think of Churchill. This does not mean that we all must, or even can, suddenly forget all our differences. And we may have to hold our noses around some of our allies; as Churchill said, in defending the necessity of Britain’s alliance with the mass murderer Stalin after Hitler turned on the latter and invaded Russia, if Hitler next invaded Hell, Churchill would find a way to say something good about the Devil. The point is, if we do not hang together, as Ben Franklin famously warned about an adversary far less sinister than the dictator, we shall most assuredly all hang separately.

Fourth, we must counter the torrent of MAGA propaganda lies with an insistence on truth, no matter how frustrating this fight may become. Fantastical conspiracy-mongering on the fascist right can’t be fought from left-wing rabbit holes like the endless procession of JFK assassination stories or tales of how the Twin Towers fell because of a “controlled detonation.” If we lose touch with reality ourselves, we will have no ground to stand on. But liars of the dictator’s caliber are always terrified of the truth and will do anything to prevent its spread, for it cuts the ground out from beneath their feet. So speak truth, to yourself, to your friends, to the detached and ignorant, and to those who have surrendered their will, for now, to the dictator’s lies. Their house of hate and falsehood is doomed from the start; our goal is to bring it down before too many more people are harmed.

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