Students protest at the Tennessee Capitol
Students protest at the Tennessee Capitol for stricter gun laws in Nashville, Tennessee, on April 3, 2023.
(Photo: John Amis/AFP via Getty Images)

Tennessee Exposes Swift-Moving Fascism Within the GOP

In the minds of Republicans in Congress, and especially in state capitals, there's an unequivocal message—just go for it. You can trample on democracy with few meaningful consequences.

The expulsion of two Black state legislators for peaceful protest in Tennessee April 6 has long roots in political repression and the legacy of racism in the U.S. But it also is a signpost of the chilling escalation of autocratic assaults on democracy that have mushroomed since the ascent of Donald Trump.

Of all of Trump’s lengthy catalog of abuses and misdeeds, the most dangerous remains his open embrace of authoritarian behavior, and not very subtle encouragement of dictatorial rule, which has encouraged others in his realm to follow.

Despite Trump’s New York indictment and arrest, there is an ominous message that Trump’s behavior has sent to his legion of followers, from the armed militias to Republicans in Congress and state capitals, especially if Trump never ends up on trial for orchestrating the violent insurrection of January 6 and the attempt to steal the 2020 election in Georgia.

Of all of Trump’s lengthy catalog of abuses and misdeeds, the most dangerous remains his open embrace of authoritarian behavior, and not very subtle encouragement of dictatorial rule, which has encouraged others in his realm to follow.

Trump’s willful violation of law and democratic norms, even an attempted coup, has not, to date, led to meaningful accountability, such as jail time, or a conviction in his second impeachment trial that would have barred him from running for office again. And he remains the leading candidate to be the GOP nominee in 2024.

In the minds of Republicans in Congress, and especially in state capitals, there’s an unequivocal message—just go for it. You can trample on democracy with few meaningful consequences.

Pass whatever sweeping laws you want, no matter how unpopular, to please your most rabid base. Enact the most blatant limits on the ability to vote and gerrymandered districts. Adopt rule changes to hamstring or even eliminate your legislative opposition.

All with the goal of building a permanent stranglehold on power. As Nancy MacLean described it, writing about Pinochet’s post-coup Chile dictatorship assisted by U.S. far-right libertarians, “Democracy in Chains.”

Emboldened laws to censor education, including restricting the teaching of the real history of slavery and racism in the U.S., banning books, barring teaching about LBGTQ lives, voter suppression, and expanding gun rights, have exploded in Republican-dominated states from Florida to Montana.

Tennessee has been at the front of the line.

Exploiting the rush sweeping other red states to censor education and ban books, Tennessee last year passed a law that requires teachers to catalog the title and author of every book in their classroom library for higher-up review, which must meet an approved list which then must be posted online for parental review. One high school educator was fired after teaching students in a rural, nearly all-white school that white privilege is "a fact."

Books that have been challenged or removed from Tennessee school libraries after passage of the law include children’s books on Dr. Martin Luther King’s led 1963 march on Washington for jobs and freedom, the famous story of Ruby Bridges integrating a Jim Crow New Orleans school in 1960, the story of a Latino family’s fight to desegregate an Orange County, CA school in 1947, and the “Maus” graphic novel series on the Nazi Holocaust.

Tennessee, according to the Center for Public Integrity, has “one of the most draconian” voter suppression laws in the U.S. barring voting rights for formerly incarcerated people, and other barriers that have deprived one in five Black state residents from voting.

Tennessee legislators have also followed other states in extreme partisan gerrymandering that has sliced up Democratic-leaning cities, and as the New York Timesput it, “all but guaranteed that the majority of political representation is determined in Republican primaries instead of in general elections, leaving lawmakers more responsive to a far-right base.”

In March, Tennessee joined the fanatical right-wing assault on trans rights, passing its own ban on gender-affirming care for youth, and another law that restricts “adult cabaret” drag shows.

Then, perhaps in a preview of this week’s purge of the legislators from its two most populous, and most Democratic cities, Nashville and Memphis, Gov. Bill Lee in early March also signed a law to cut in half the Metro Nashville Council.

“This will give the supermajority the opportunity to gain and control in districts they normally didn’t have control in,” said Clifton Harris, CEO and President of Urban League of Middle Tennessee. “It’s going to impact the Black and Brown community here in Nashville-Davidson County significantly.”

Similar anti-democratic moves to seize and replace local control in predominantly Black and other communities of color have been carried out or are underway by white, far-right governors and legislators in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas.

In late March, an armed assailant massacred six people, three of them children, at the private Christian Covenant School in Nashville. In a nation long plagued by mass school shootings, it was the deadliest school shooting since the slaughter last May of 21 people, including 19 children, at a school in Uvalde, Texas.

Fed up with the refusal of mostly Republican legislators nationally as well as in Tennessee to stop the tsunami of gun violence, thousands of students, their teachers, families, and other supporters marched on the state Capitol in Nashville on March 30 demanding “What do we want? Gun control. When do we want it? Now!” On the night of the expulsions, many were heard chanting “You ban books, you ban drag — kids are still in body bags.”

Three state Reps. Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson, and Justin Pearson stood with the protesters, calling for stricter gun safety laws, then brought their message to the front of the legislative chamber. Jones, held a sign that read “Protect kids, not guns.” Pearson spoke through a megaphone about gun violence saying, “Enough is enough.”

This was the pretext for the gerrymandered super majority to cram through votes to expel Jones, who is biracial Black and Filipino, and Pearson, who is Black, but not Johnson who is white. Asked why she was spared, Johnson noted, “It might have to do with the color of our skin.”

Racism, of course, converges with much of the anti-democratic legislation pushed nationally, especially in the attacks on education, bills introduced or steps taken in 44 states to restrict teaching critical race theory, explaining how structural racism is embedded in the criminal legal system and other institutions, or limit how teachers can discuss racism.

Tennessee has its own long history of racism. During the Reconstruction era, it was the first state to experience a virulent 1866 anti-Black riot against Black Civil War veterans and other Black residents and was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan and its first Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest.

During the Civil Rights/Freedom Movement era, Tennessee was home to student desegregation protests in Nashville, with the prominent role of Civil Rights legends Diane Nash, John Lewis, and James Lawson. And, of course, the famous 1968 Memphis strike by low-paid Black sanitation workers, and ultimately the assassination of Dr. King in Memphis.

In comments challenging their expulsion, Jones and Pearson paid homage to that history and doubled down on their commitment to continue the fight for social justice, democracy, and gun safety.

Speaking to demonstrators after the vote, Pearson cited the control of the gun lobbyists and their influence over legislation, adding, “What’s going through my mind right now is we need to fight for democracy in the state of Tennessee. We need for people not just to vote, but to show up and speak out so we can end the gun violence in our state. This is wrong, this is unjust. You’ve got to use your voice, you’ve got to use your power, and yes, sometimes you have to get expelled.”

In an interview on NBC national news, Jones emphasized that "this is how extreme anti-democracy forces have become, particularly here in a state like Tennessee, where they feel because of gerrymandered maps and voter suppression they are in power. But they don’t represent the majority of Tennesseans. So what do they do? They try and limit discussion, they try to limit what we can advocate for because they are afraid it will hold up a mirror to their false power.”

In words that resonate far beyond Tennessee, Jones, a lifelong activist from his youth days in Oakland, said of the autocrats who expelled him, “The body is afraid of voices of dissent. They’re afraid of voices of opposition. We are the check on power. We are the voice of moral dissent.”

Interviewed on MSNBC after the vote, Rep. Maxwell Frost, the youngest member of Congress who became active in the March for Our Lives movement after a mass school shooting in Parkland, Fl. noted, “They can expel these members, but they cannot expel this movement from this country. That’s why the right wing, not just in Tennessee, but across the country is starting to move into this fascist ideology, removing people from office, passing laws to change education, because they know that time is not on their side.” He emphasized the emergence of a new generation of activists who represent a growing voice for change.

The fight for democracy rests with that hope, with organizations like nationally, the National Nurses United’s Nurses for Democracy, student-led March for Our Lives, Movement for Black Lives, and Working Families Party, Tennessee organizations, Memphis For All, Shelby County Voter Alliance, and Up the Vote, and similar activist organizations across the country. No less than our future is at stake.

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