The United States of America will not become fascist at noon on Jan. 20, 2017. That’s not a cause for much relief, however, because whereas Donald Trump’s taking the oath of office will not make us fascist, it will be a continuation, and perhaps acceleration of a steady move toward autocracy and totalitarianism underway since longer than most of us have been alive.
Even if it were to be Hillary Clinton on the Capitol steps with her hand on the bible, the scene still would be of a new leader of a continuing system which because of specific actions taken, largely functions through conspiracy, not the consent of the governed; and a capitalism where obtaining and protecting great wealth more often has been based on anti-competitive cartels – hatched at the corporate heights and accommodated to at the small business level – than anything approaching free markets. Democratic presidents of the last 25 years have pushed this trend along about as vigorously as have Republicans.
This must not, however, be taken as a cynical excuse to drop out on the grounds that all systems are destined to be corrupt, so carve out the best deal you can for yourself. Not at all!
The American system has been used by the people to create the Civil Rights movement, the polio vaccine, anti-lynching laws, great music and theater, rural cooperatives, feminism, multi-racial labor movements and same-sex marriage equality.
“The premise of America,” as one friend of mine recently put it, is what is good and worth supporting.
Sabotage by secretive plutocrats has regularly stymied the many leaps forward in struggles to make free speech, the right to peaceably assemble and the equal protection of the law real, and for people, not just to protect assets.
My wish is that the timeline below might serve as something of a strategy in reverse. It’s not meant to be a gloomy litany that explains how we got to our current danger, but a list of reversible mistakes. I believe correcting them ought to be done to get us back on course toward fulfilling that premise.
There were many thefts of our rights before 1947, including the Palmer raids, the massacre of the Bonus Marchers, the post-Haymarket Bombing crackdown and several U.S. Supreme Court decisions giving corporations — once regarded as licensed to operate in the public interest — 14th Amendment rights, in the wake of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision’s denying black Americans that amendment’s equal protection of the law.
More to the present time, I see the following 70-year trail which has steadily eroded pluralism to protect corporate assets, confused licensed privilege for absolute entitlement, replaced the educible exchanges of honest discourse with the circular logic and ad hominem attacks of ideological tribalism, and turned media from scrutinizers to stenographers. All this eventually enabled a cagey celebrity of mediocre business ability to unleash groundless xenophobia and claim the presidency:
1947 — Taft-Hartley Act passes over President Harry Truman’s veto. Along with curbing many labor union practices allowed under the Wagner Act passed a decade earlier, Taft-Hartley gives the federal government the power to order all unions to refuse membership to anyone with communist affiliations. Instead of prosecuting people for specific acts of sedition, this preemptively bans political activity based on certain ideologies, and due only to their agendas threatening corporate profits.
1947 – Screen Guide for Americans, an 11-page document, is published by Ayn Rand, an anti-egalitarian with close ties to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Though the guide stressed it was for voluntary consideration, Rand also reported a long list of filmmakers to the FBI over themes and specifics in their movies (she told the bureau Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life contained communist propaganda, and she once condemned The Best Years of Our Lives for a negative portrayal of business and even for suggesting that veterans should receive collateral-free loans).
Rand’s Screen Guide went way beyond cautioning Hollywood against producing outright radical messages. Warning of “snide little touches which communists sneak into scripts,” the guide attempted to micromanage the industry to “present the political ideas of Americanism strongly and honestly,” which Rand said required movie plots to favor business and profit.
1948 – General Motors and other companies are let off with virtually no punishment after a federal court found they had illegally destroyed the nation’s urban passenger rail system, forcing car dependency nationwide. This dependency is represented as “The American Love Affair with the Car” by media who ignore GM’s giant illegal trust and the courtroom travesty that re-shaped the American city and set the stage for wars over oil. Beginning on their own in 1926, then through forming a dummy corporation called National City Lines 10 years later, GM bought rail lines in order to shut them down to vastly increase sales of its buses and cars. By 1946, National City Lines controlled public-transit systems in more than 80 cities, from Los Angeles to Baltimore. Standard Oil of California, Mack Truck, Phillips Petroleum and Firestone Tire would join GM in backing this sham operation.
“These companies, that had probably eliminated systems that in order to reconstitute today would require maybe $300 billion… were individually fined $5,000,” the documentary film Taken for a Ride said. The film said GM and its co-conspirators kept cutting back rail service deliberately to make riding less attractive. Former L.A. railway worker Jim Holzer said: “…the less attractive, the fewer riders. And then they say, `Well see, we can’t make any money.’ So they abandon it.”
1949, 1950 – Creation of NATO with permanent stationing of a peacetime U.S. military in many European nations, ending the Constitutionally-compelled practice of de-mobilizing the army after a war. This is followed by the U.S. entering the Korean War without the declaration of war required by Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. President Eisenhower in his farewell address a dozen years later acknowledges a huge permanent army combined with a vast arms industry is “new in the national experience” and is the harbinger of a Military-Industrial Complex through which the “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Military spending is greatly increased in three of the next five presidencies, with no changes made to address Eisenhower’s warning.
1950 – McCarran Act, passed by overriding a sternly worded veto by President Truman, gives the government power to order any group which is communist — or even which favors any position in common with communists — to turn over all its internal documents, in blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment’s right of the people to be secure in their houses, persons, papers and effects from unreasonable search and seizure. As with Taft-Hartley but far more broadly, political beliefs — rather than actual seditious acts — are criminalized. Senators Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson and Representative John F. Kennedy vote for the McCarran Act and vote to override.
President Truman, writing in his veto message that adequate government powers already existed to prevent seditious activity, said, “In a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have,” and he called the McCarran Act “a long step toward totalitarianism.”
1953 – U.S. and Britain overthrow Iran’s democratically elected government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh and install the Shah’s dictatorship, keeping secret their role in this coup until 1975. The U.S. under Truman and Eisenhower had expressed concern about Mossadegh’s ability to withstand a hypothetical coup by an Iranian pro-Soviet faction called the Tudeh Party. However, the U.S. National Security Archive acknowledged, “The joint U.S.-British operation ended Iran’s drive to assert sovereign control over its own resources and helped put an end to a vibrant chapter in the history of the country’s nationalist and democratic movements. These consequences resonated with dramatic effect in later years. When the Shah finally fell in 1979, memories of the U.S. intervention in 1953, which made possible the monarch’s subsequent, and increasingly unpopular 25-year reign intensified the anti-American character of the revolution in the minds of many Iranians.”
1953 – Secretary of State John Foster Dulles begins corralling church leaders and pastors to tell them to equate U.S. foreign policy with Christian values.
1954 – Eisenhower signs a law adding “under god” to the secular Pledge of Allegiance, over the objections of the daughter of the Pledge’s author, Christian minister and socialist Francis Bellamy (1855-1931), and in violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition of state establishment of religion.
Eisenhower explained in a Flag Day speech the next year that he re-wrote the Pledge of Allegiance as part of a drive to “strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.” Though History.com said he valued religion, the site said Eisenhower had left his family’s faith as a young adult, then become baptized a Presbyterian only after becoming president in 1953.
1954 – Eisenhower approves plan refused by Truman for the CIA to overthrow Guatemalan democracy ostensibly to stymie communism, but actually to benefit the finances of United Fruit Company, the board of which includes two high CIA officials. Democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman had begun land reforms to reverse confiscation of small farms by the wealthy landowners and United Fruit. The New York Times censors its own correspondent in Guatemala to make its story on the coup match more closely the State Department lie that Arbenz was overthrown in a popular uprising. As a result of the coup, the worst human rights abusing dictatorship in the Americas is brought to power. Various rulers for the next 40 years commit genocide, torture and rape against Guatemalans, with several officers trained at the U.S. Government’s School of the Americas. In the 2000s, the U.S. admits it taught torture techniques at the SOA to Latin American and Caribbean military members.
1954 – Louisville civil rights activist Carl Braden convicted of “criminal syndicalism” in local criminal court over a bomb which exploded in a home recently bought by the family of Charlotte and Andrew Wade, who were black, in the previously all-white Louisville suburb of Shively. Wife and husband Anne and Carl Braden had helped the couple obtain the home and leftists which guarded it were then accused of having planted the bomb to foment a communist-sought race war. Selective evidence distorts the Bradens’ political leanings to persuade the jury. Federal court soon rules states can’t charge someone with sedition, freeing Carl Braden from prison, but the case is used to red bait Civil Rights to hamper its ties to the left.
1956 – Eisenhower further breaches the First Amendment by signing a bill making “In God We Trust,” the motto of the U.S. and requiring it to be printed on dollar bills.
1961 – Presidents Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy authorize attempts to assassinate Congo’s prime minister Patrice Lumumba and Cuban president Fidel Castro. Lumumba is known as pro-labor union and Castro has nationalized corporate wealth. Attorney General Robert Kennedy is aware that in its attempts on Castro, the CIA is working with criminal mobsters he seeks to prosecute.
Speaking on Nov. 16, 1961 at the University of Washington, JFK falsely assures the world that the U.S. will not use assassination, or other tactics of totalitarian powers, such as releasing false information and assembling counterfeit mobs, both of which Eisenhower did to overthrow Arbenz in Guatemala.
1964 – The facts surrounding the aerial attack by North Vietnam on a U.S. ship in Gulf of Tonkin are incorrectly presented to Congress, mostly through honest error, by the Lyndon Johnson administration. Johnson never clarifies or corrects what was later found to be a much smaller attack on the ship, which actually appeared to be poised for an attack on North Vietnam. Indications of oil under the South China Sea motivate LBJ to send more than 600,000 U.S. troops into South Vietnam. His refusal to raise taxes to pay for the sudden full blown war prompts monetary and fiscal moves that send inflation surging, reversing Johnson’s progress reducing poverty. Increased welfare use soon results.
1967 – U.S. Senator Birch Bayh’s proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate the Electoral College and rely on direct popular election of the President fails for the first of six times over the next 10 years. Segregationist Strom Thurmond of South Carolina blocked the amendment in committee in 1969 to enable George Wallace’s second try to win enough electoral votes to throw a presidential election into the House in a plan to bargain to rescind Civil Rights laws. A conservative filibuster ended Bayh’s final try to pass the amendment in 1977. In 2006, the Indiana liberal and others launch an effort to effectively end the Electoral College by a voluntary compact, described by Bayh on C-Span, but it has made scant progress.
1969 — President Richard Nixon declares a war on illegal drugs. By the early 1980s, the U.S. has the largest percentage of people incarcerated of any democracy, and more than half are nonviolent offenders, the Prison Fellowship said in 1984, refuting the unsubstantiated popular media image of a “soft on crime” judicial system. In 2013, the NAACP said that about 14 million whites and 2.6 million African-Americans have reported using an illicit drug, yet African-Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites.
The NAACP said African-Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).
1976 – Money as Speech legal doctrine began to take shape as Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo strikes down limits on personal spending for a political campaign, in a case brought by Senator James Buckley, of New York’s Conservative Party and Independent presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, a longtime Minnesota Democrat. The court said spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected free speech. Future rulings culminating in 2010’s Citizens United establish abjectly unequal corporate money as the principle power in U.S. elections, as Political Action Committees and soft money TV ads target state legislators around the nation, letting corporate money leverage control of many statehouses.
1977 – U.S. Supreme Court, in a suit brought by Arizona lawyers, declares state Bar Association bans on lawyers’ TV and radio advertising infringe on their free speech rights, in one of the key cases involving the concept of “commercial free speech” and the doctrine of “free speech absolutism.” Free speech absolutism, which had been devised by liberal justices, is used by the highest court in striking down campaign finance reforms, while the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause is not invoked.
1981 – Ronald Reagan administration breaks air traffic controllers union, inspiring similar moves in private sector. The Reagan administration refrains from using constitutional and legal powers allowing the federal government to challenge corporate mergers, which are sparked with his tax cuts.
After 35 years of merger mania, 10 corporations make virtually every food product familiar to U.S. grocery shoppers, the anti-poverty group OxFam America said.
1983 – New York Times magazine story by Floyd Abrams headlined “The New Effort to Control Information” details how the Reagan administration is making the shaping of perception paramount. That fall, American reporters are told a “shoot to kill” policy will enforce a rule that they not cross into the combat zone of the brief U.S. landing onto Grenada. Both political parties begin using consultants to shape their policy statements in more favorable, simpler terms. The next year, both parties’ presidential candidates skip live, unrehearsed interviews traditionally done on Meet the Press and similar shows.
1984 – Federal Communications Commission, after heavy lobbying by the broadcast industry, allows more TV and radio stations to be owned by a single entity, then shortly allows TV networks to cross-own cable channels. Today, six giant corporations own almost all the nation’s popular media. This same FCC de-regulation order ended the 38-year-old requirement that commercial TV stations include community service programming. In 1946, the FCC required local air time be given for community civic and religious issues and local talent; in 1960, the requirement was generalized to “community needs and interests” based on FCC guidelines. The 1984 de-regulation order said that because competition had increased, “commercial necessity dictates that broadcasters must remain aware of the issues of the community.” Yet under such marketplace forces, public affairs programming and minority oriented shows largely vanish from local TV, and nightly news reporting becomes more shallow and entertaining.
1987 – Declaring: “The perception of broadcasters as community trustees should be replaced by a view of broadcasters as marketplace participants,” FCC chairman Mark S. Fowler persuades the body to end the Fairness Doctrine, which had required owners of broadcast licenses to present both sides of controversial issues considered to affect the public interest.
A Democratic congress votes to reinstate it, but can’t override President Reagan’s veto. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, a bill to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine can’t get out of committee, and candidate Barack Obama in 2008 announces he will not seek the doctrine’s return, saying he would instead push for more diverse ownership of broadcasting and for independent low-power radio. Broadcast Journalist Nancy Graham Holm, writing in 2014 in the Huffington Post, recalls that the Fairness Doctrine’s demise lessened the depth of TV news and frequency of public affairs programs in the Oakland-San Francisco market where she worked in the ‘80s, and caused the number of one-sided right wing radio talk shows nationwide to skyrocket.
1990 – U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, mails 125,000 misleading letters to homes in black voting precincts informing residents of jail time for vote fraud in an unapologetic attempt to reduce black turnout in a toss-up race against former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, who is black. Helms’ campaign soon settles a Justice Department complaint over the race-specific nature of the mailings, but at least one other Republican candidate, in Indiana’s 8th District, copies Helms’ tactic during a tossup race. Republican controlled state legislatures soon begin devising needless voter ID requirements to depress turnout of minorities, students and women.
1995 – President Clinton signs an Anti-Terrorism bill in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing which includes a provision placed by Republican senators greatly reducing the chance for a convicted state prisoner to appeal sentences to the federal judiciary through a longtime process called writ of habeas corpus. The bill said no Federal court may grant habeas corpus to a state prisoner if state courts had decided his or her claim on the merits — unless the state decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of” federal constitutional law.
Backers of the diminished writ wanted to make carrying out the death penalty easier – to curb crime, they asserted. Yet, one month after Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh is executed in federal prison in August of 2001, Al Quaida kills seven times as many people in the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon.
1996 – President Clinton gets applause during State of the Union address when he announces “one strike and you’re out” policy of eviction from public housing for any criminal activity. What he does not add is that the “one strike” rule also calls for eviction if a “tenant, any member of the household, a guest, or another person under the tenant’s control,” commits serious crimes, including possession of illegal drugs. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology reports the policy put law abiding residents into the streets. By the late 1990s, the One Strike policy and some Welfare Reform provisions are seen causing a jump in homelessness, under the radar of most media who focus on excellent all-around economic numbers.
1996 – Helms-Burton Law, following on the Toracelli Law of four years earlier, attempts to stop investment in Cuba even by other nations, through elaborate bureaucratic interference in private business outside U.S. jurisdiction. Despite expressing initial interest in opening trade with Cuba, presidents George Bush, then Bill Clinton support Toracelli and Helms-Burton, motivated by their respective re-election concerns. This represents a new ability of PAC money to fragment foreign policy, also long apparent in power of lobbies for Israel, China trade and Saudi Arabian interests.
1996 — Clinton signs the Telecommunications Act into law after massive lobbying by corporations moves it through Congress with “no” votes from only five senators and 16 House members. Despite glowing predictions of more competition from the act, cable TV and telephone rates have risen, and today, more than 90 percent of media is owned by six corporations: Viacom, News Corporation, Comcast, CBS, Time Warner and Disney. In 1983, 50 corporations owned 90 percent. “Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few,” said Latin American journalist Eduardo Galeano about the Telecommunications Act, before which corporations were limited to owning 40 radio stations. Today, Clear Channel owns 1,240.
“Before the ink was even dry on the 1996 Act,” wrote S. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press, in a 2009 report, “the powerful media and telecommunications giants and their army of overpaid lobbyists went straight to work obstructing and undermining the competition the new law was intended to create.”
2001 – After the 9/11 bombings kill 2,800 people, the Patriot Act is hastily enacted, giving greater government powers to enter and search homes without informing the occupants, unless they are charged. A reauthorization in 2004 creates a Total Information Awareness central computer, overseen by Iran-Contra one-time felon John Poindexter, with the clearance to record every U.S. resident’s credit card purchases, magazine subscriptions, medical prescriptions, web site visits, e-mails sent or received, academic grades earned, bank deposits made, trips booked and other personal activities.
2010 – President Barack Obama establishes tribunals, rather than jury trials, for suspected national security violators. In coming years, the president aggressively cracks down on government and contractor employees who leak classified information. The Justice Department acknowledges it secretly seized AP reporters’ phone records while investigating a potential CIA leak, and targeted a Fox News reporter as part of a criminal leak case. No journalist was charged with a crime. After an outcry, the Justice Department issued new guidelines limiting when journalists’ records can be sought.
2012 — Obama signs National Defense Authorization Act, of which Sections 1021 and 1022 give the federal government broader powers to arrest anyone, including U.S. citizens in or outside the country, on suspicion of terrorism-related crimes, and to imprison them indefinitely without trial.
A judge’s voiding of these powers as unconstitutional was reversed by an appeals court and the House has twice voted down efforts to rescind them. President Obama said upon signing the NDAA he would strictly avoid using it to infringe on rights, but in 2012 the Huffington Post farsightedly asked whether successor presidents would feel the same way. Dan Johnson, founder of People Against the NDAA (PANDA) told Huff Post:
“The 2012 NDAA’s detention provisions apply to anyone, anywhere. But who is most likely to have the NDAA used against them? It depends on how you define the word terrorist. The Department of Homeland Security said that individuals or organizations ‘reverent of individual liberty’ and ‘suspicious of centralized federal authority’ pose a threat. The state of Georgia calls publishing ‘public records’ terrorism. The FBI added the director of an anti-fracking film to the terror watch list…. The government won’t define ‘terrorist,’ in order to keep their options flexible.… Under Section 1021, anyone who has committed a belligerent act, which even the government could not define when questioned in court, can be detained indefinitely, without charges or trial, as a ‘suspected terrorist.’ ”
2012 – Report in Southern California Law Review says the concept of, “Quality of Life policing” had run amok, with officers in many cities telling young black men socializing on sidewalks, “move along,” then arresting them for loitering or trespassing if they don’t move, even though the men’s congregating is perfectly legal. Exorbitant bail and squalid jail cell conditions often lead to guilty pleas when no crime has been committed and no reasonable suspicion existed. QOL policing was started in New York City during mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s term ostensibly as a way to stop small offenses from mushrooming into major crime. In New York, offenses such as graffiti, public urination, panhandling, littering, and unlicensed street vending were targeted, but so was legal congregating.
“A misdemeanor conviction can deprive a person of a driver’s license, public housing, student loans, or legal immigration status. Even an arrest record can interfere with job prospects, and most employers say they check criminal records before hiring,” said report author Alexandra Natapoff. Noting later that one of the worst abusers of the practice was Ferguson, Mo., where riots broke out over a fatal shooting by police, Natapoff said: “Such wrongful convictions represent the convergence of two of our criminal system’s worst flaws: its racial skew and its rush to convict.”
2012 — Facebook manipulates selected users by changing the number of posts considered “positive” or “negative” to see if the users’ comments showed that their moods were affected. Washington Post digital reporter Caitlin Dewey wrote in 2014 that this experimentation, while “creepy,” was allowed in the fine print of Facebook users’ Terms of Service. A 2014 article in the New Republic, noting the heavy, even exclusive reliance by many politically minded people on Facebook for news, theorized that the social media site could swing entire national elections through users’ newsfeeds, if it wanted to.
2016 – U.S. presidential election characterized by false news, absence of substantive discussion of issues, and complete disappearance of due process, particularly via the theft of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. Immediately after Donald Trump wins presidency, Russian oligarchs’ interference in election to help him is revealed, and evidence grows indicating involvement by Vladimir Putin. President Obama reportedly knew about the Russian interference during the race, but balked at ordering an investigation after being intimidated by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who threatened to accuse the White House of partisanship if they probed the interference.
Brian Arbenz is a writer, researcher and resister of whatever oppression comes. He lives in Louisville, Ky.