From a Kansas newsroom to a soccer pitch, why the right hates America and democracy

The increasingly dire, near-death experience of American democracy has felt like the proverbial frog in boiling water, as the heat of a shockingly popular U.S. brand of authoritarianism gets turned up one degree at a time. But in 2023 the far right’s embrace of autocracy has finally reached full boil. And the splatters of this dangerous caldron are burning our fundamental moral values in unexpected ways and the most unlikely places.

Like Marion County, Kansas.

Marion County — population 11,823 — is a rural, 75% Republican crossroads for the Chisolm cattle trail and the Santa Fe Railroad, and now the Keystone Pipeline sitting on the edge of the Great Plains. Since 1869, a pillar of the community has been the weekly Marion County Record, which in between the lines of the obituaries and the chain restaurant openings has a cherished history of holding its public officials to account. It was this most important function for American democracy by the small-town newspaper that boiled over the top this weekend, amid a murky backstory: a tip about a politically connected restaurateur, amid rumors the new police chief was under investigation for sexual misconduct.

On Friday, the five members of the Marion Police Department executed a shocking raid on the newspaper’s office — seizing its computers, cell phones, notebooks and other reporting materials. The raiding officers even fanned out to the home of the Meyer family, which has owned the Record for decades. Co-owner Joan Meyer — age 98, mother to current publisher, Eric Meyer — was stunned and in tears as the cops seized her computer and the router for her Alexa device, a lifeline, while sifting through her son’s banking records and leaving a jumble of yanked electric cords behind.

These are Hitler tactics and something has to be done,” Joan Meyer, who had worked in journalism since 1953 — those heady democracy days after World War II — told a reporter. She was too upset by the raid — which seemed a violation of existing law, not to mention First Amendment principles — to sleep or even eat. On Saturday afternoon, the nonagenarian Meyer — who’d been in good health — abruptly died, the latest casualty in a cold Civil War already ripping America apart.

In a few short generations, the U.S. relationship with authoritarianism has devolved from It Can’t Happen Here to “It could happen here” to today’s mantra: Turn on the news, it just happened again. “Hitler tactics” are busting out all over, and the gasping frog of American democracy is beginning to already taste like burnt chicken.

Deep into the 21st century, America is more racially, ethnically and religiously diverse than any moment in its 247-year history. The rising cohort of younger millennials and Gen Z — the nation’s best-educated generations ever, which seems to coincide with their embrace of diversity, tolerance and progressive ideas — is showing up at the voting booth. Sorry Sarah Palin, but this is “the real America” now, and the millions clinging to the older hierarchies around race, gender and Christian hegemony are not handling it well. If democracy means this true majority winning elections, then they hate democracy. If the real America is this young and diverse, then they hate America.

The rising “Hitler tactics” means finding any means necessary to undo free and fair elections where they didn’t like the outcome, or else changing the rules in the middle of the game, or else trying to prevent elections altogether.

That’s why Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis — increasingly the avatar of this new authoritarianism — just called on dubious powers to simply deny the will of voters in the predominantly Democratic Orlando area by removing the elected state’s attorney, the progressive-minded Monique Worrell. He justified this not because of any wrongdoing but because he disagrees with her policies. This is the second elected prosecutor that DeSantis has dictatorially removed.

That’s why Republicans in Ohio — whose patriarchal power play in the state’s current, disputed “heartbeat” abortion law that would ban women’s reproductive rights in most cases faces a likely defeat in a November referendum — tried unsuccessfully in a dead-of-August-vacation special election to change the rules midstream and raise the requirement to a 60% threshold. That’s why the increasingly popular GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy is rising in the polls with a plan to raise the voting age to 25 unless young people pass a citizenship test.

That’s why Republicans in Alabama — confronted with a surprise order from the U.S. Supreme Court to redraw the state’s congressional map under the 1965 Voting Rights Act to add a second, Black-majority district — decided they would just ignore the ruling, with a new map that doesn’t comply. I guess that’s to be expected from a state where one small town simply decided to padlock its City Hall after a Black man was elected mayor in 2020.

» READ MORE: Political refugees: Why a family fleeing Ron DeSantis’ Florida chose Swarthmore

This autocratic contempt for the basic rule of law and the tenets of democracy is justified, in their minds, by falsely claiming the will of the people as instead some kind of “fascist left” that uses cultural power to impose its will on the folks they see as the true Americans. The result is a growing tolerance among young and increasingly online conservative activists to openly embrace the language of racism and sexism — even the nomenclature of the fascism they pretend to oppose.

“Hatred, combined with masculine insecurity and cowardice, is herding young right-wing men into outright bigotry and prejudice,” the “never-Trump” conservative David French wrote in a Sunday New York Times op-ed. French was trying to explain the recent firing of DeSantis political adviser Nate Hochman — considered a young “thought leader” in GOP circles — for creating a pro-DeSantis video with a Nazi-flavored meme, as well as the popularity of pundits like Richard Hanania, who has been published in “respectable” publications despite a history of racism.

The language and memes that would not have seemed out of place in 1930s Europe come as the paranoid style on the right increasingly sees every institution that embraces American modernity as part of a totalitarian leftist conspiracy: not just academia and the media, the old standbys, but now the public-health bureaucracy, big corporations like Disney or Delta, or the FBI and “the woke military.” The latest coconspirator is … Jesus Christ?

Russell Moore, the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, told NPR last week that preachers whose sermons include the basics of the New Testament such as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in which Christ is quoted as urging his followers to “turn the other cheek” when struck, now generates a confused and sometimes angry response from today’s evangelicals. Moore said the minister is invariably asked: “Where did you get those liberal talking points?”

Moore’s comments are only shocking if you haven’t been paying attention. A 2022 poll found that more than 60% of Republicans would support declaring America as “a Christian nation,” even though a majority also recognized this is unconstitutional. They just don’t care anymore. Jesus, and his gospel of the poor, is weak. The thrice-married Donald Trump who talks of smiting their enemies is strong, the authority figure they truly want to worship from the pews.

How did we even get here? A clarifying moment came at an odd time — about 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning — from halfway around the world in Melbourne, Australia. It was there that the U.S. women’s national soccer team —two-time defending champion, but clearly in flux like the nation they represent — crashed out of the World Cup, losing a penalty-kick shootout to Sweden on a goal that crossed the line by barely a fraction of an inch.

In the years leading up to this defeat, the American women had become the winning icon of what our country has become, and what it hopes to be. Once more successful and arguably as popular as their male counterparts yet paid considerably less, they fought for parity and mostly won. Once mostly white and feeling pressure to downplay any LGBTQ presence, the modern iteration celebrates its diversity, from the biracial rising star Sophia Smith to openly gay and blue-haired leader Megan Rapinoe, who has fought for social justice and thus become a magnet for naysayers.

In this summer’s World Cup held Down Under, U.S. conservatives looked for any excuse, no matter how contrived, to root against their own country. And when the Swedish women celebrated their upset victory on the pitch, the leaders of the American right were jumping up and down with them. “I used to pull for our women’s soccer team, but recently they have shown disrespect for the US & have used their platform to promote the LGBTQ agenda,” posted evangelical leader Franklin Graham. “When they lost, I wasn’t sad.” Donald Trump was unshockingly less subtle, posting: “WOKE EQUALS FAILURE. Nice shot Megan, the USA is going to Hell!!!”

It’s all out in the open now, isn’t it? The U.S. women’s soccer team — young, diverse, not afraid to speak up for equality — are the new, albeit fragile, majority. They are America right now, and the right hates them — because they hate America. And this hatred makes it easier to destroy what America stands for. Even if that requires violence.

“Mr. President, I cannot stand these people that are destroying our country,” Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz told a boisterous crowd at the Iowa State Fair on Saturday, as he introduced Trump amid the usual litany of complaints about the border and the multiple probes into Trump’s corruption. “But we know that only through force do we make any change in a corrupt town like Washington, D.C.”

When all else fails — the canceling of elections, the voter suppression, the rule changing, the growing assault on the free press that makes a shocking raid like Marion County possible — force is their last resort. It was their last resort on Jan. 6, 2021, and they’re telling us now in the bright, deep-fried daylight of an Iowa fairgrounds that they’ll do it again.

Once upon a time, “Bleeding Kansas” was a warning to America — harbinger of a civil war to come. It doesn’t have to be that way this time around. But we won’t succeed until we’re clear-eyed that nearly half of Americans hate who we’ve become, hate democracy when they no longer can win, and will embrace violence to get the results they can’t get at the ballot box.

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