Dictators In the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

In the 1930s, a conservative social movement took root in Germany urging good citizens to hype their nationalism and reassert ‘pure’ German virtues.  Promoting strict social cohesion, the movement demonized intellectuals as it sought to vanquish racial and sexual diversity in all forms. In 1933, in furtherance of its nationalist agenda, the movement began to ban books scorned as “intellectual,” eventually burning books that supported diversity of thought or culture of any kind.[1] Concomitant with banning books, the state issued edicts controlling the content of the press, dictating the news nationwide.  By the early 1940s, the state first began to encourage- then it required- citizens to spy on and report their neighbors for suspected violations of any edicts.

It is easy for Americans to relegate the horrors of Nazi Germany to the past, and to observe the terror instilled by dictators ‘over there,’ even as the same fascistic trends appear in the US today.  In 2022, several states- none more than Texas- have passed laws reminiscent of Nazi Germany, including laws that ban books and discussions, laws that force media content, laws through which the state controls medical decisions, and, most ominous of all, laws that encourage vigilante citizens to turn on their neighbors for a state reward. 

Proving that authoritarianism is not a foreign relic, America’s own dictators are smiling in the rear-view mirror, and they are closer and more dangerous than they appear.

German Authoritarianism Marches in the US

Inspired by a former US president who lied about the 2020 election results and orchestrated a first-in-US-history coup attempt, authoritarianism is spreading throughout the country like a dangerous disease. Trump’s factually debunked claim that the election was stolen has infiltrated nearly every state in the union, with more than 100 republican primary winners adopting election denial in the first half of 2022 alone.[2] Candidates claiming the election was rigged in 2020, a claim rejected by more than 60 courts, Republican secretaries of state, recounts, and investigations,[3] are winning in 2022.[4]  Once sworn in, they intend to block future elections in the same Trump fashion:  by blocking the certification of election results, changing electors and/or the rules about how their states’ electoral votes are awarded, and through baseless litigation in search of a favorable judge.[5]

No state promoted Trump’s coup attempt more aggressively than Texas.  Soon after Biden’s win, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton led 17 GOP states in filing a lawsuit in the US Supreme Court against Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, battleground states where Trump lost.[6]  The Supreme Court unceremoniously dismissed Paxton’s case, ruling that Texas had no right to dictate state election procedures outside Texas, a basic first semester ‘standing’ concept taught in every first and third rate law school in the country.

Shortly after Paxton’s legally spurious claim, four former State Bar of Texas Presidents urged bar regulators to discipline him[7] for serious ethical misconduct.[8]  As argued by the Lawyers Defending American Democracy, “The injunction Mr. Paxton sought with the Supreme Court would have usurped the presidency for the next four years and cast doubt on whether truly democratic presidential elections would ever have been restored in America.”[9] 

The Paxton-Trump authoritarian plot was supported by Texas Governor Abbott,[10] who is seeking re-election in November.  Going into the 2022 election, Governor Abbott’s latest anti-democratic initiatives should give pause.  His re-election platform proclaims, “What Matters Most” to Texans is “freedom, opportunity, and economic prosperity,”[11] but the question is, ‘freedom for whom?’  All demographics of Texas, even straight white men, should be alarmed as the Texas governor brazenly expands state power in mimicry of the most horrific chapter in human history.

Abbott turns Texans against Texans

In the early 1930s, as Hitler was beginning his political ascent in Germany, one of his first moves was to encourage citizens to relay information about their neighbors, family, and friends to the state.  “Informing,” as Nazi propaganda presented it, rewarded citizens for spying on, then reporting their neighbors to the Gestapo. The Gestapo, which grew into Hitler’s most effective instrument of terror,[12]soon operated with a network of thousands of informants.

Texas has passed replica initiatives to reward members of the general public who turn against their neighbors. Recently, Gov. Abbott called on “licensed professionals” and “members of the general public” to report any parents of transgender minors to state authorities, if these individuals believe the parents are providing their minors with private gender-affirming medical care.  Abbott disseminated[13] a written directive to Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services, to “conduct a prompt and thorough investigation” of any reported instances of minors undergoing “elective procedures for gender transitioning,” and requiring citizens to report parents of transgender minors to state authorities under threat of criminal penalties for failure to report them.[14]  Texas also considered bills to charge doctors and parents with a felony for providing gender transition care to their minor.[15]  Although no known medical or educational authority supports his personal opinion that gender care is ‘child abuse,’ Abbott has directed private citizens to report their suspicions and their neighbors to the state, threatening them with criminal prosecution if they do not.[16]

Siccing vigilante Texans on other Texans isn’t limited to hunting parents of trans youth.  Texas’ anti-abortion law also sets one citizen against another.  Texas’ SB8 authorizes private citizens to enforce the state’s abortion ban by suing abortion providers and anyone else who helps a woman seeking an abortion in any way, including her husband, parents, neighbor, friends, family members, even a taxi or Uber driver.  If the lawsuit shows the state’s ban was violated, the vigilante, under the new law, will collect a bounty of at least $10,000and attorneys’ fees,[17] a feature designed to encourage lawsuits and increase intimidation.  

Abbott’s vigilante law encourages Texans to try to control women’s health in other states as well, and encourages vigilantes to follow Texan women across state lines. As US attorney general Merrick Garland recently observed, This kind of scheme … is one that all Americans – whatever their politics or party – should fear…” (N)o one needs to “think long or hard to realize the damage that would be done to our society if states were allowed to implement laws that empower any private individual to infringe on another’s constitutionally protected rights in this way.”[18]

Abbott targets minorities, indoctrinates youth

In the early 1930s, Nazi Germany began passing decrees designed to marginalize Jewish people, soon expanded to include homosexuals.[19]  Hitler began passing regulations to systematically take away the dignity, rights, and property of targeted minorities, with regional and municipal offices following suit.[20]  As their decrees proliferated, the Nazis orchestrated their campaign of terror through radicalized paramilitary racists similar to today’s Proud Boys.  Young people in Germany who were indoctrinated to proclaim, and spread, the state’s version of history were known as Hitler Youth.

Texas again borrows from Hitler’s playbook as it bans and dictates classroom discussion of history, as well as sexual and racial minorities. Despite the fact that Texas schools have never taught sex education in grades K-3, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick plans to pass a state law modeled on Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law.[21]Florida’s law bars K-3 teachers from discussing sexuality in any manner deemed “not age-appropriate,” an intentionally vague standard designed to increase the terror factor among teachers. Subjectively, any communication that humanizes gays- including meeting with gay parents in the ordinary course of school business, or comforting a crying “different” child who has been bullied- could be construed as an “age-inappropriate” affirmation.  For people who view homosexuals as less than human, as Jews were viewed in Nazi Germany, any comment that fails to demonize them can always be interpreted as ‘age inappropriate.’ Texas’ anticipated Don’t Say Gay law, like its anti-abortion law, also employs vigilantes, encouraging private citizens to spy and report suspected violations with the promise of financial “damages” from the offending school district.

Texas law similarly controls the dialogue in classroom discussions about race.  There is no evidence critical race theory has ever been taught in Texas grade or high schools, but Abbott signed a law to ban it nonetheless.  Abbott’s law tightly controls what a K-12 teacher can say about race and race history, prohibiting any classroom discussion of race or slavery that veers from the state’s scripted content.[22]  According to Dr. Chloe Latham-Sikes, of the Intercultural Development Research Association, the law presents a new “level of surveillance.”[23]  With over 300,000 teachers in the Texas public schools system,[24]  scripting each educator’s speech, dictating what must be said about history, is unprecedented governmental overreach.

Speech isn’t free if the State of Texas can coerce it

In early 1933, Nazis used the radio, press and newsreels to spread fear of a pending “Communist uprising.”  Echoing today’s “socialism” scare perpetuated by the right, “communist” fears in Germany were eventually parlayed into measures to eradicate civil liberties for Jews and other targets.  At the same time, Nazis invaded the offices of political opponents to seize their newspaper equipment and printing presses.[25]  Hitler’s Propaganda Ministry sought to control the content of all news and editorials, and eventually issued guidelines regarding which stories could or could not be reported, and how to report them.

Suppression of political dissent was essential to magnifying Nazi political power, and efforts afoot in Texas are again eerily reminiscent. Texas, along with Florida, has passed a law to bar social media from excluding political speech on their platforms regardless of its content, meaning owners and editors of private media outlets will be forced to display political content they know to be false or harmful.[26]Designed to mediate the decisions of Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Vimeo, and YouTube to ban hate speech and Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, Texas and Florida law would require media hosts to print every political statement regardless of content or truth, whether they agree with it or not. [27]

Allowing the state to override editorial discretion and compel political speech is legally as pernicious as prohibiting political speech; forcing false words into the mouth of media outlets has the same effect.  As such, Florida and Texas are engaged in an unprecedented assault on the editorial discretion of private websites, attempting to impose state regulations on political speech based on content, which has long been held unconstitutional under the First Amendment.[28] 

Texas leads the nation in book bans, German style

In May, 1933, books deemed incompatible with the “German spirit” were targeted for on-campus burning piles which soon expanded to street burnings.  The largest known book burning took place in Berlin, where an estimated 40,000 people gathered to burn books accompanied by a speech by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister.  Similar to today’s right wing vilification of educated intellectuals, Goebbels pronounced “Jewish intellectualism is dead,” and encouraged students to “clean up the debris of the past.”[29]  

Removing books from circulation foreshadowed catastrophic plans for Europe, and it seems America did not learn that lesson.  Led by Texas, school districts in 26 states have recently banned or opened “investigations” into more than 1,100 books, according to a report from PEN America, a free expression advocacy group that compiles data on book bans. Texas leads the country with the most book bans –which PEN America defines as removal or restrictions of a previously accessible book “taken against a book based on its content.”[30] 

Texas, which so far has banned 713 books affecting 16 school districts, has called for criminal charges[31]against any school staff member who provides children with access to young adult novels that Abbott and some conservatives consider “pornography,” which are primarily books that include an LGBTQ character.  Librarians are resisting Abbott’s censorship efforts through the #FReadom campaign.  Retired school librarian Carolyn Foote, of the #FReadom campaign, noted, “There have always been efforts to censor books, but what we’re seeing right now is frankly unprecedented…  A library is (supposed to be) a place of voluntary inquiry.”[32]

Draw your own conclusions

Abbott’s goal of an all-powerful state with unfettered powers to dictate speech, generate hate, and control thought, combined with the Attorney General’s demonstrated willingness to hold power by force, should alarm anyone with a passing knowledge of  authoritarian regimes.  Using the power of the state to turn citizens against each other, encouraging, rewarding, and requiring vigilantism instead of enforcing laws directly, is a sinister abnegation of duty designed to evade judicial review.  Minimally, Abbott’s drastic expansion of state power fails to comport with his platform’s promise of “freedom;” it is also directly reminiscent of one of the most dangerous autocratic regimes known to man.  

Drawing comparisons between Abbott’s Texas and Hitler’s Germany may be inconvenient, but examining antecedent state measures side by side shows that it is not hyperbole. To the extent it is perceived as alarmist, there are likely 10 million people who would have, if they could have, sounded the alarm.

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America still lacks the human rights the rest of the western world have been

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