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Members of the Proud Boys militia, a sometimes violent group that support President Donald Trump, rally in Portland, Oregon on September 26, 2020. (Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Members of the Proud Boys, a gang that supports President Trump, hold a rally on September 26, 2020 in Delta Park on the edge of Portland, Oregon. (Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Warning of 'Dark Days Ahead,' Historians of Fascism Stress 'It Is Not Too Late' to Avoid Descent Into Authoritarianism

"We believe that unless we take immediate action, democracy as we know it will continue in its frightening regression, irrespective of who wins the American presidency," the scholars warned. 

Brett Wilkins, staff writer

Over 80 historians of fascism and authoritarianism from around the world signed an open letter Sunday warning that American democracy is in existential peril and urging people to take action now before it's too late to save it.

"Regardless of the outcome of the United States' election, democracy as we know it is already imperiled," the letter opens.

"Whether Donald J. Trump is a fascist, a post-fascist populist, an autocrat, or just a bumbling opportunist, the danger to democracy did not arrive with his presidency and goes well beyond November 3rd, 2020," it continues.

"We must be prepared to defend pluralism and democracy against the growing dangers of communal violence and authoritarianism at the ballot box but, if necessary, also through non-violent protest in the streets."
—Open letter from scholars of authoritarianism 

The letter notes that "while democracy appeared to be flourishing everywhere in the years following the end of the Cold War, today it seems to be withering or in full-scale collapse globally."

"As scholars of twentieth century authoritarian populism, fascism, and political extremism, we believe that unless we take immediate action, democracy as we know it will continue in its frightening regression, irrespective of who wins the American presidency in early November," the authors write.

"The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed profound inequalities of class and race across the globe," the letter states. "As the last four years have demonstrated, the temptation to take refuge in a figure of arrogant strength is now greater than ever."

"However," argue the authors, "it is not too late to turn the tide." 

The scholars offer guidance on how this can be achieved, including: 

  • By boldly and unapologetically safeguarding critical thinking based on evidence, including by supporting investigative journalism, science and the humanities, and freedom of the press.
  • Securing commitments from corporate media organizations and governments to tackle the dangers of misinformation and media concentration.
  • Building coalitions organized across differences of race, class, gender, religion, and caste, and respecting the perspectives and experiences of others.
  • Revealing and denouncing any and all connections between those in power and those vigilante and militia forces using political violence to destabilize our democracies.
  • Being prepared to defend pluralism and democracy against the growing dangers of communal violence and authoritarianism at the ballot box but, if necessary, also through non-violent protest in the streets.
  • Defending the integrity of the electoral process and ensure the widest possible voter turnouts, not just in this election but in every election large and small in all of our hometowns.
  • Re-committing to a global conversation on support for democratic institutions, laws, and practices both within and between our respective countries.

"We need to turn away from the rule by entrenched elites and return to the rule of law," the letter concludes. "We must replace the politics of 'internal enemies' with a politics of adversaries in a healthy, democratic marketplace of ideas. And above else, we need to work together to find ways to keep the light of democracy shining in our countries and all over the world. Because if we don't, we will indeed face dark days ahead."

Once dismissed as fringe rantings, discussion of creeping authoritarianism—or at least the breakdown of American democracy as we know it—has been increasing in academic and other serious circles during the tenure of President Donald Trump.

Such talk has only increased in the wake of statements and actions from the president meant to cast aspersions upon the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, including attempts to discredit mail-in voting as fraudulent and refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses. 

Aggressive and violent behavior by Trump supporters—including voter intimidation sometimes perpetrated by armed backers including white supremacists the president commanded to "stand by"—has also alarmed many observers. 

Responding to a Friday incident now under FBI investigation in which armed Trump supporters in Texas surrounded and harassed a tour bus transporting campaign staffers for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Eric Cervini, a historian of LGBTQ+ politics and culture, told The Guardian that "as an historian who studied the rise of the Third Reich, I can tell you: This is how a democracy dies." 

"I've been an election observer in broken authoritarian countries, and let me tell you: Trump's behavior would be swiftly and unequivocally condemned by all international election monitors if it was happening elsewhere," Brian Klaas, a political scientist at the University College London, tweeted last month. "He is behaving like the despots past presidents condemned."

Anne Berg, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose grandparents were Nazis in Germany, warned earlier this month that the U.S. is in "a rapid descent toward fascism."

"People need to be aware of the risks we are facing right now," Berg told the Philadelphia Inquirer

According to the Protect Democracy Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization "dedicated to fighting attacks, from at home and abroad, on our right to free, fair, and fully informed self-government," the U.S. scores 56 out of 100 on its Democracy Threats Index, released on October 25, indicating a "substantial erosion" of democracy and signifying "high potential for breakdown in the future." 

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