“When fascism comes to America it will be carrying a cross and wrapped in the flag.” — attributed to Sinclair Lewis
Dr. Danny Pruett, my dad, passed away peacefully on January 4, his three grown children by his side. He was 90 and had willed himself back from the brink so many times that we began to think him invincible: heart attacks, bypass surgery, hips replacements, ruptured diverticulum and esophagus, multiple abdominal and back surgeries, atrial fibrillation, and more. He also survived two major car wrecks, neither remotely his fault. At last count, Dad cheated death more than a dozen times in the past 25 years. His grandchildren called him “Booboo,” because he had so many, and his children quipped that he put nine-lived cats to shame.
The first time Dad cheated death was when he served in General Patch’s 7th Army at the end of the Second World War. After landing at Marseilles, France, in December 1944, Dad spent the winter in a foxhole in Alsace. An infantryman and mortar operator, he saw heavy action mopping-up after the Battle of the Bulge. He never talked about it, but a V-mail letter to Mom revealed that the combat turned hand-to-hand at one point. When it was all but over, Dad directed tank traffic at one of Munich’s biggest intersections. On VE Day, he got drunk, the first of only two times in his life he drank to excess. The other time was in 1965, when a botched disk operation left him with a bum leg. He went into surgery a robust man of 42 who loved golf and square dancing and came out wondering if he’d ever walk again. A sympathetic doctor — one of his colleagues — smuggled a fifth into the hospital so that Dad could temporarily drown his sorrows. They hid the liquor in the toilet tank. Dad never fully recovered, but despite chronic pain, sometimes excruciating, he practiced medicine for more than another two decades.
Dad’s infantry division was one of two assigned to liberate Dachau, the Nazi’s notorious “work camp” on the far outskirts of Munich. “Arbeit macht frei” it says innocuously over the portal where 40,000 perished to starvation or the gas chambers. On May 19, 1945, our hometown’s long defunct evening paper, the Sunset News Observer, published his first-hand account of the liberation of Dachau. The letter remains our family’s most treasured heirloom. “Since leaving Nurnberg,” Dad wrote, “I have seen many things that I would like to forget, although I don’t think that I ever will.” The GI’s found more than 50 railroad cars full of emaciated bodies, piled three to four deep, remnant’s of Hitler’s “final solution” that the SS hadn’t had time to hide.
As a graduate student in applied mathematics, I spent the summer of 1984 at the University of Stuttgart. It was my first experience living abroad. I came to love Germany and my German colleagues; one remains like a brother to me to this day. Despite the lightheartedness of my summer in Stuttgart, a question niggled at the back of my mind: What fatal flaw in the German psyche produced Adolph Hitler? The Germans I knew seemed far too fun-loving and kind-hearted to have permitted a Hitler to take root.
My question lingered without resolution. When I visited home at summer’s end en route back to graduate studies in Tucson, I shared my impressions of Germany with Mom and Dad. Later, at the dinner table, I posed the still unanswered question to Dad. His simple answer still haunts me. “Davey, it could happen here.” Dad’s intent was clear, although we never discussed it further. In any society — ours included — there are dark forces, and when events conspire in just the right way, darkness swallows the light.
A country doesn’t need a Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin for dark forces to take control. All it needs is inattention.
What comes next is hard to admit and will be dismissed out of hand by many. Thirty years following my German summer, America, I believe, is poised on the precipice of fascism, having arrived at the brink not so much by malevolence as by economic sleight of hand.
“Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.” — Benito Mussolini
Ask a Tea-Party “patriot” what he or she most fears, and you’ll likely get some vague response about “one-world government.” Ask an Occupier what she or he fears, and similarly you’ll get an earful about the corporatization of America and the world. Truth is, as Mussolini well knew, these are flip sides of the same dark coin. When the oligarchy of the multinationals has taken control, we’ll have one-world government in spades.
For 40 years, our nation has been in a slow slide toward Mussolini’s brand of fascism, so slow that most of us have missed its sweep. Presidents and congressional leaders of both parties have greased the wheels of the juggernaut by deregulation (Reagan), union bashing (Reagan), repeal of financial safeguards in banking such as the Glass-Steagall Act (Clinton), and corporate giveaways disguised as “trade” agreements such NAFTA (Clinton) and the current super-secret Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP, Obama). Multinational corporations now own the mainstream media, and thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling Citizens United, they now buy our elections.
In short, the safeguards installed by the founding fathers have failed, and given a national security apparatus that knows our very thoughts (Bush II and Obama), our nation could turn on a dime into a totalitarian state that would make George Orwell blush.
How did we get to this point? By divide and conquer. By creating the culture wars over hot-button issues — guns, God, gays, and abortion — the powers that be have diverted our attention. While we’ve been fighting amongst ourselves, the corporate foxes have raided the hen houses of democracy.
Not much prevents us from tumbling over the edge. Thanks to the Internet and a few courageous whistleblowers, the public may be starting to wake up. And there remain a few persons of integrity in key places. My heroes are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, Bill Moyers and Amy Goodman in the media, watchdog agencies like Public Citizen, grassroots movements like Occupy, savvy social activists like Naomi Klein, whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, and the women of the Supreme Court.
During Dad’s last days, the family kept a constant presence at his bedside. When off duty, we rummaged through memorabilia. My wife and daughter hit a treasure trove. In it were Dad’s military paraphernalia and the love letters he and Mom exchanged during the war, before they married.
I pocketed Dad’s dog tag and took it to the hospital, where, sedated, he had slept almost constantly. Waking him, I said, “Dad, look what I found.” And then, on a whim, I asked, “Do you remember your serial number?” Barely able to speak he replied with only slight hesitation: “13121085.” These were his last words to me.
Some 16 million American GI’s served in WWII, of which more than 300,000 paid the ultimate price to defeat the scourge of fascism. Many that survived carry wounds both physical and psychic, PTSD unnamed and unappreciated 70 years ago. The survivors, now in their 90’s, are dying at the rate of 550 per day. On Saturday, I lost the Vet dearest to my heart. By our inattention and partisan bickering we are perilously close to rendering their sacrifices in vain.