The precipice is long gone. We’re well and truly over the edge.
If that wasn’t clear before this week, it certainly is now.
Here, in a country that is supposed to be a beacon of democracy, we have members of one political party supporting — even lionizing — a murderous dictator who just invaded a province of democratic Ukraine, and who has made it clear he won’t stop there.
Those same people have made white supremacists feel so emboldened that even here, in the bluest part of the country, proud Nazis unfurl their hateful rhetoric and sickening salutes at Brigham and Women’s hospital and at a community bookstore in Providence.
There have been plenty of moments in the last seven years that revealed the vacancy, for some, of our supposedly shared American values. But now, in the midst of a global crisis in Europe and increasingly open hatred at home, we’ve arrived at an especially terrifying point — one that feels all too much like a world we were supposed to have left behind decades ago.
Russia has begun a conflict with the West more direct and destabilizing than anything we’ve seen in recent memory; President Vladimir Putin’s developing invasion of Ukraine has already cost lives, and if America and the democratically elected Ukrainian government’s other allies cannot hold him back, it will likely cost tens of thousands more.
But former president Donald Trump, on whose behalf Russia tried to influence the 2016 election, has nothing but praise for Putin — an autocrat who murders his enemies, steals from his people, and has destabilized democracies. Trump called the invasion “genius” this week, and Putin “very savvy,” adding of the Russian tanks, “We could use that on our southern border.” The usual cultists in Congress and beyond expressed similar admiration. And Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, a Putin fanboy from way back, has been spouting Russian propaganda this week, arguing that it’s the truly American thing to support Putin’s exploits.
Any healthy democracy should debate foreign policy. Reasonable people can disagree about how best to respond to Putin’s aggression. This is not that. This is the standard-bearers of the GOP actually defending, and expressing admiration for, one of the world’s most brutal anti-democratic tyrants.
It’s no accident these rank provocateurs are the same figures who have fanned the flames of white supremacy as well: Trump could never bring himself to condemn the Nazis in Charlottesville, or anywhere; Carlson has given voice to the racist “great replacement” theory. And their fellow travelers are currently pouring their energy into forcing schools to sanitize American history and turn it into a series of lessons on white heroism.
Putin’s Russia — where white, Christian homogeneity is enforced — is a model for these extremists. Klansman David Duke once called Russia the key to white survival. Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer called it “the only white power in the world.”
So of course more Republican voters approve of Putin than of President Biden. And of course we’re seeing Nazis come into the open, even here, organizing in ways we haven’t seen since the late 1930s.
Back then, noted Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, Nazis organized in Copley Square and Hibernian Hall, and were advised by the German consul. The JCRC rose in response to that rising American Nazism.
“So I take it very personally that, 78 years after our founding, we are at the point where we are dealing with attacks on the Jewish community,” he said. Just last week, we learned that a Quincy man suspected of arson attacks on several Jewish institutions around Boston a couple of years ago was antisemitic (he has since died). And we’re seeing a plague of racist and antisemitic graffiti at area schools and colleges.
How did we get here?
“We have a society where many are in despair and want to blame somebody, combined with technology that feeds paranoia and conspiracy theories ... and bad actors in the public space [are] amplifying and feeding all of this for public gain,” Burton said.
It has all landed us in a place we should have left behind forever long ago. Still, Burton says, it’s not quite the same as it was: Now, Jewish communities “have allies and partners” to help.
Will there be enough of us?