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UW-Baraboo speaker: Democracy is ‘hanging by a thread’

December 5, 2018

A speaker invited to Baraboo brought good news for residents who fear an incendiary photo of local students means the worst for the city, but he tempered it with the message that the United States’ democracy is “hanging by a thread” during a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Baraboo Sauk County Monday night.

“That picture could’ve been taken in almost any community in this country,” Matt Rothschild said. “That doesn’t make it any better, but it is to say that Donald Trump has given a permission slip to every single person in the United States who is bigoted and racist to be out in the open with their bigotry and with their racism.”

Organizers, including Susan Holmes of Baraboo, asked Rothschild, executive director of the Madison-based Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, to speak here before the pre-prom photo of Baraboo High School boys went viral on social media in November. She said the distribution of fliers touting white nationalism in Baraboo-area mailboxes in October prompted the invitation.

“We were concerned about the racism that we’re seeing that’s rampant in all of society right now,” Holmes said.

The photo shows some junior boys making what appears to be a Nazi salute. Rothschild said it was “horrifying” to see, though not surprising.

“To see these Baraboo kids giving the ‘heil Hitler’ salute was, to say least, extremely disturbing to me as a Jewish American, as a student of history, as a progressive and activist,” he said, adding that he wants to see the students educated rather than punished.

He attended Baraboo Gathers, an event held at the high school Nov. 19 featuring speakers such as District Administrator Lori Mueller. Overall he liked the event, but when Mueller noted the students are protected by their First Amendment rights, Rothschild thought that sent the wrong message -- though he agreed with it. He said the district needs to address the salute’s meaning and impact and suggested each student should write a paper on Nazis and the Holocaust.

Rothschild said he jumped at the opportunity to speak in Baraboo because he has friends in the city and is “a great admirer of the activism I see here.”

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign advocates for campaign finance reform and the “common good to prevail over narrow interests,” according to its website.

Roughly 80 people attended the talk, “How Democracies Die, and How to Combat Fascism Here at Home,” but Holmes said there likely would have been more had it not been for some who chose to participate in Madison protests that extended into Monday night. Holmes said she and her husband, who have been activists for almost 50 years, organized the event as private citizens.

During his talk, Rothschild referenced the protests and the lame-duck legislative session that prompted them. Wisconsin Republicans planned votes Tuesday on measures to limit the powers of incoming Democrats, including Gov.-elect Tony Evers. Rothschild said that move demonstrates a lack of “restraint in the exercise of power,” which is part of the slow erosion of democracy.

Other examples of its erosion include voter suppression tactics and breaks with political norms, such as Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., obstructing President Barack Obama’s nominee for Supreme Court in 2016.

“Our democracy is hanging by a thread, and that thread might not hold,” Rothschild said.

He said the erosion of democracy started well before Trump became president. A crisis in journalism, an economy that gives power to the wealthy and a culture of institutional racism also contribute to the problem, he said.

But Rothschild often returned to Trump’s impact, noting that he has met the four key indicators of authoritarian behavior laid out in “How Democracies Die,” a book by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. The indicators are tolerating violence, rejecting democratic norms, rejecting the legitimacy of opponents and being willing to curtail opponents’ civil liberties.

Trump’s slogan, “America first,” was used by Americans -- including Nazi sympathizers -- who opposed the U.S. joining World War II. Trump scapegoats Jews, such as billionaire George Soros, and the media and professed himself a nationalist. The combination of racism and ultra-nationalism is “extremely toxic,” Rothschild said.

“I don’t want to exaggerate. America’s not a fascist state right now,” Rothschild said. “But to deny right now that there are clouds of fascism in the sky would be to be an ostrich and hide our head in the sand.”

He offered hope for the audience, saying there are some resisting the fall of democracy, such as protesters, activists and those who turned out to vote in November. Rothschild encouraged grassroots organizing and creative thinking.

Trish Henderson and Judy Brey, both of Reedsburg, are two local activists who attended the talk. Brey helped start the grassroots organization Reedsburg Area Concerned Citizens in 2011, and Henderson maintains its Facebook page. She posted about Rothschild’s talk ahead of the event to encourage attendance.

During a question-and-answer period, Henderson commented about Congress’ complicity in Trump’s actions.

“They are allowing this to happen to our country. They’re not doing anything,” Henderson said. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re totally complicit.”

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