On July 4, 2026, America is scheduled to mark its Semiquincentennial—250 years since John Hancock and 55 other representatives from the 13 colonies put their signatures to the Declaration of Independence.
But if we’re talking American democracy, perhaps Halloween—with its ghosts and ghouls and goblins and gore—is a better place to start. Travel back some 86 years, to Eighth Avenue and 49th Street, home of the third incarnation of Madison Square Garden and a time, like today, when democracy was under attack around the world. It’s October 31, 1936, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is campaigning for re-election to the presidency. Early in his speech, the Democrat calls out his Republican predecessors, whose policies encouraging reckless financial speculation had collapsed into the Great Depression:
Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! And my friends, powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent to mankind.
Next, FDR zeros in on those political scofflaws who plague us to this day.
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. And we know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Three years later, in February 1939, an organized mob ascended the podium at the Garden. “If George Washington were alive today, he would be friends with Adolf Hitler,” proclaimed Fritz Kuhn, Bundersfuhrer of the German American Bund, the pro-Nazi group that had attracted some 22,000 fascist sympathizers to this “Pro-American Rally.” One speaker attacked Roosevelt’s New Deal (of which Social Security was, and remains, a cornerstone) as the “Jew Deal.” In his keynote address, Kuhn demanded that “… our government be returned to the American People who founded it” (although he himself had been born in Munich), referred to FDR as “Rosenfield,” called New York’s mayor “the Jew Lumpen LaGuardia,” and concluded by welcoming like-minded citizens to the fascist fold: “The Bund is open to you, provided you are sincere, of good character, of white gentile stock, and an American citizen imbued with patriotic zeal.”
Kuhn’s own personal zeal landed him in Sing Sing several months later, when he was convicted of embezzling more than $14,000 (well north of a quarter-million today) from the Bund’s funds, some of which he had showered on a mistress. So much for sincerity and good character.
“They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. And we know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.”
That same year, Hitler invaded Poland—claiming that Germans on Polish soil were being mistreated—and Roosevelt, aware that Americans were not politically prepared to send combat troops to fight against a despot who had launched unprovoked war in Europe, put together a “cash-and-carry” program that allowed democracies such as France and Britain to buy military supplies from the U.S. Perceiving the existential threat Nazism presented to democracy everywhere—France would soon fall to the German blitzkrieg—Roosevelt next pushed through his Lend/Lease program, which helped Britain continue the battle until the Soviet Union, and then, America—after Germany’s ally Japan attacked Pearl Harbor—entered the war against Germany.
And now, in 2022, Hitler’s attack on Poland and Fritz Kuhn’s racist rants are being reflected back at us through the baleful mirrors of history’s funhouse: A tyrant has launched an aggressive war on a European neighbor—only this time, it’s Vladimir Putin’s Russia invading Ukraine. The president of the United States is sending military and humanitarian aid and rallying allies to defend a European democracy. Meanwhile, America’s always pulsing strain of white supremacism is once again on the side of barbaric aggression, exposed this past February 25 during the America First Political Action Conference, in Florida, where organizer Nicholas Fuentes praised many in the audience as “our secret sauce here—it’s these young white men.” He followed up by asking, “Can we get a round of applause for Russia?,” which had attacked Ukraine the day before, leading the saucy boys in the audience to chant, “Putin!” “Putin!” “Putin!”
It is no longer possible to write off such views as the ravings of fringe haters, since two U.S. representatives—Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia, and Paul Gosar, of Arizona—spoke to the group: Greene from the podium, Gosar in a taped message. Along with their frank racism, the pair, like the vast majority of the GOP, support—either through silence or active legislation—former president Donald Trump’s pernicious lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
That Big Lie is why American democracy is facing its greatest danger since the Civil War—our most virulent enemies are once again internal.
By contrast, during World War II, our industrial might and military strength kept our foes on the far sides of the oceans. Decades later, in 2001, the 9/11 attacks brought war to our soil, and while some xenophobes attacked Muslim citizens—vengeful prejudice foreshadowed by the misguided policies that interned some 120,000 Japanese Americans in “relocation camps” during World War II—the nation rallied to take the war to the Taliban in Afghanistan. But in 2003, President George W. Bush led America into a disastrous attack on Iraq, a dubious crusade that reminded many voters that Bush had actually lost the popular vote to Al Gore, in 2000, by more than half a million ballots. The results in the pivotal state of Florida that year had been too close to call, which brought about the so-called “Brooks Brothers” riot, in which Republican operatives led a raucous, hallway- and office-jamming crowd of mostly white men in casual business attire to pound on windows and doors and physically intimidate Miami election officials, who, citing the violence, soon stopped the recount in a county where voters leaned toward the Democratic party. Florida’s electoral votes eventually put Bush over the top; today, scenes from the Miami melee resemble a Mini-Me practice run of the much more violent tactics deployed during the attack on the capitol on January 6, 2021.
But the costly quagmire the Iraq war would become was not fully apparent in 2004, and Bush won both the electoral and popular vote, the only Republican to do so since 1988. Still, the Iraq boondoggle mostly benefited America’s arms manufacturers, oil companies, and defense contractors—a powerful confluence of moneyed interests FDR would’ve recognized in a heartbeat. In a sterling example of the strange bedfellows that politics can engender, the daughter of a chief architect of that misguided war on Iraq is one of the very few Republicans currently standing up to Trump’s stranglehold on her party. Liz Cheney, daughter of W’s vice president, Dick Cheney, is one of only two Republicans on the House committee presenting evidence that Donald Trump encouraged, through words and deeds, the January 6, 2021, attack on the certification of electoral votes that would declare Joe Biden the rightful winner of the election. The bullying of underlings to do his illegal bidding—such as badgering Mike Pence not to certify Biden’s win—vibes with Trump’s open admiration of such current autocratic strongmen as Viktor Orbán, in Hungary (whose government the European Union’s legislature voted overwhelmingly to label a “systemic threat to the rule of law,”), Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, of Saudi Arabia (notorious for ordering the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as a smorgasbord of other human rights violations), and Putin, who Trump praised warmly throughout his own presidency and again shortly after the invasion of Ukraine: “I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, This is genius. Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine—of Ukraine—Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful.” Tyrants are birds of a feather, and Trump has long seemed congenitally aligned with the bully’s mantra that might makes right.
No wonder then, that two weeks after the attempted overthrow of the election, Trump refused to take part in his successor’s inauguration, a petulant gesture dovetailing with his ongoing scheme to discredit the Biden presidency. Despite the fact that election overseers at all levels of government, as well as courts across the land, have confirmed Biden’s win, the Grand Old Party remains in Trump’s thrall, abetting his attempts to turn it into the Grand Theft Party. Where are the Republican poohbahs to speak the truth about Trump the way Barry Goldwater did about Richard Nixon during Watergate, in 1974: “There are only so many lies you can take, and now there has been one too many. Nixon should get his ass out of the White House—today!” Soon after, the senator from Arizona informed Nixon that he would not survive an impeachment vote, and Tricky Dick shortly became the only U.S. president to resign the office.
But few in today’s Grand Theft Party have the guts to consistently call out Trump’s election lies. That’s been left mostly to the likes of former California governor Arnold Schwartzenegger, who brandished his Conan sword in a January 10, 2021, video address, in which he compared the 1/6 insurrection to Kristallnacht: “A night of rampage against the Jews carried out in 1938 by the Nazi equivalent of the Proud Boys”—those homegrown white supremacists who Trump told to “stand back and stand by” during his first debate with Biden, in 2020.
If voting is the bedrock of democracy, you wouldn’t know it from Republican leaders, the majority of whom are either silent about or actively encouraging Republican state legislators around the country who are attempting to pass onerous voting legislation aimed at reducing turnout in predominantly Democratic areas. According to a recent report from the States United Democracy Center (an organization made up of former elected officials and policymakers from both parties), “Election Deniers,” defined as “candidates who deny the results of the 2020 election,” are running rampant:
“At least 51 Election Deniers are running for Governor in 24 states.
At least 11 Election Deniers are running for Attorney General in 10 states.
At least 21 Election Deniers are running for Secretary of State in 18 states.”
So far, according to a Washington Post tally, over 100 election deniers have won Republican primaries this year, including eight candidates for the U.S. Senate, 86 for the house, and five governor hopefuls.
In the litigation arena, another pro-democracy group, Law Forward, gets more granular, reporting on “229 bills in 33 states that would change state and local election systems in ways that could undermine the voters’ choices in future elections. Thirty-six of these election subversion bills were introduced in Wisconsin, the most of any state. Of the 36 Wisconsin bills included in the report, six of them successfully passed through both houses of the legislature, only to be vetoed by Governor Tony Evers.” It goes without saying that Evers is a Democrat.
Arnold Schwartzenegger brandished his Conan sword in a January 10, 2021, video address, in which he compared the 1/6 insurrection to Kristallnacht: “A night of rampage against the Jews carried out in 1938 by the Nazi equivalent of the Proud Boys.”
So, with almost 250 years of democracy at stake, what can you, an ordinary citizen, do? First, find out who in your local races, at minimum, respects your vote by advocating ways to make voting easier, and then vote for them. And the nation’s midterm elections have never been more important. You can donate your time and/or money to campaigns that support the broadest base for democracy: One person, one vote. Pennsylvania is a good place to start, since that state’s races for governor and U.S. senator pit election deniers on the Republican side against, for governor, Josh Shapiro—the state’s attorney general, who has been battling election fraudsters since November of 2020—and John Fetterman, who … well, just put it this way: His opponent for the U.S. Senate is medical huckster Dr. Mehmet Oz.
Do your research (which can actually become addictive) on polls around the country. For instance, it might make you feel good to add to the millions of dollars already sent to Army vet Marcus Flowers in support of his bid to unseat Marjorie Taylor Greene this November. But that district is drawn to make the seat safe for even the most looney-tunes GTP candidate, so your dollars, like the $88 million raised by former fighter pilot Amy McGrath in her campaign against Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell, in 2020, are almost certainly wasted. McGrath lost by 20 points, which should have surprised no one, as even early polls showed the race to be nigh-hopeless—so those tens of millions of dollars might just as well have been sent to the Republican National Committee, since they were then unavailable for close races where they could have made a difference.
This year’s Georgia Senate race, however, is shaping up to be an example of money and civic time well spent. The incumbent, Reverend Raphael Warnock, is in a tight race with Trump’s preferred candidate, the former Heisman Trophy–winning University of Georgia running back Herschel Walker, who, when asked about Trump’s claims of a stolen election, said, “No, no, no, no. He has never—I’ve never heard President Trump ever say that.”
The Internet has made smart, targeted contributions easier than ever. At the risk of turning into a politics junkie, you can go to sites such as 538 or the Cook Political Report to check out which House and Senate races are truly contested, therefore achieving more bang for your buck in the … let’s see … say, the NV-01 district, which includes part of Las Vegas, where incumbent democrat Dina Titus is in a tight race in what Cook rates as “a Democratic Toss Up” district. Targeting donations of your money or your time to help the party that still believes in democracy defeat a gang in thrall to a sorehead serial bankrupt will be worth it in the long run. The Democratic party is far from faultless (shout-out to Joe Manchin’s fossil-fuel fortune), but at this point, the founder of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, might well call today’s Dems “the last best hope of earth,” words he used to describe the American experiment in a December 1862 address to Congress, a bare month before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. And for those who say of the racists, both in office and on the streets, something to the effect of “This isn’t who America really is,” well, actually, it is in fact who many of us are and have always been. Else why would we have needed a bloody civil war to finally abolish slavery?
Of course, like the threats to democracy now, the Civil War could be seen coming well before the first shot was fired. We began our historical survey of democracy with Halloween and FDR, so let’s now transport to July 5, 1852, when the escaped slave turned towering orator and essayist Frederick Douglass delivered a barn-burning speech that asked, “What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?” The language is beautiful, the subject ugly. Perhaps one excerpt will suffice to, in a minuscule way, reveal how concisely Douglass exposed the hypocrisy of America’s founding:
You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.
Indeed, in 1776 the colonists began the bloody process of casting off the shackles of British rule, but they perpetuated a brutal slave system that, over more than three centuries, built up untold wealth for white American slaveholders. Our better angels and a savage war finally ended slavery, but the decades of Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement that followed reveal that Gosar and Greene, who represent more than 1.5 million citizens between their two districts, are not, and have never been, aberrations.
Finally, indulge us on one more trip down memory lane. You’ll recall that Trump did not attend Biden’s inaugural, a mix of sore loser pique and his need to trumpet the myth of a stolen election. How that moment contrasts with another Inauguration Day on our rocky road to 250: January 20, 1961, when John F. Kennedy spoke the iconic lines: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask, what you can do for your country.” The moment that confirms the promise of American democracy comes most starkly at the end, as the crowd cheers and dignitaries behind the podium congratulate the new president. Outgoing vice president Richard Nixon, who had lost a close election (which he initially claimed had been “stolen,” though recounts actually improved Kennedy’s razor-slim lead), reaches out to touch Kennedy’s arm. The incoming president turns around and the torch of democracy is passed as the two men smile and shake hands.
Despite all we know now, not least that Kennedy would meet an all-too-typical American fate—death by gunfire—and that Nixon, true to his paranoid, demagogic roots, would go down in disgrace, that moment on the podium is a reminder that, as the saying goes, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Bitter rivals act like grown-ups—and let the will of the people stand. ❖
Watch this space over the next four years for more essays, as we count down to America’s Semiquincentennial. What kind of celebration it will be is up to us.