Phil Gulley: Watch Your Step

As Election Day approaches, it’s worth considering where the frightening path we’re on leads.
I was born in 1961, on the eve of a tumultuous decade—war, assassinations, the struggle for civil rights, the election of Richard Nixon. I was too young to do anything about any of it, except to watch it unfold on TV. Later, when reflecting on those years, I imagined that if I had been older I would have resisted some of those developments, but it turns out I am more noble in my imagination than I am in reality. Now that cruelty and injustice are once again casting shadows upon our nation, I am not doing what I have done a thousand times in my dreams—march, run for political office, register new voters, and hurry to the side of the beaten-down and betrayed. I suspect most of us are more principled in our minds than we are in daily practice.

Not long ago, I had the mother of all headaches. For the first few days, I thought nothing of it, but by the third day, I had convinced myself an inoperable tumor was lodged deep inside my brain and I would be dead within the month. I enjoy nothing more than telling others about my afflictions, so I mentioned it to my wife, who urged me to go to the doctor. I told her it made no sense to spend money on a doctor to heal what I was sure was an incurable sickness, but my wife persisted, and after five days, I buckled and went to see a physician. He informed me that I had a sinus infection and he prescribed an antibiotic. By the next day, I was significantly better.

I’m excusing my moral lethargy by telling myself that the malady that currently afflicts our country is not a fatal tumor lodged deep in the soul of our nation, but merely an infection that can be healed with an election. I try to convince myself that we will awaken on November 7 to discover the Democrats have secured the House and perhaps even the Senate, and the executive branch has been effectively restrained by the checks and balances our founders conceived. The pendulum will swing to the center, the rumors of democracy’s death will have been exaggerated, and we can return to obsessing about the Kardashians. This is my dream. Nay, my prayer.

If this doesn’t happen, if the House and Senate continue to neglect their constitutional duty to serve as a corrective, then we’re royally screwed, since our current executive shows little regard for the niceties of representative democracy. It will then be up to you and me to do what our leaders and political parties have failed to do, and that is to commit ourselves anew to the democratic principles we claim to cherish.

Being born when I was, closer to World War II than we are today to 9/11, I was fortunate to learn these principles from Mr. Ellis, a veteran of that war who lived in our town, just down the street from our family. After saving the world from fascism on the battlefields of Europe, he attended college and returned home. Then, because fighting Nazis apparently wasn’t difficult enough, he became a junior-high history teacher. I was fortunate to fall under his sway a few years before he retired.

Mr. Ellis is dead now, thank God, because I wouldn’t have wanted him to witness an American president say of neo-Nazis and those who resisted them in Charlottesville that there were “fine people on both sides.” Mr. Ellis had many words for fascists, but “fine” wasn’t one of them. On the other hand, if Mr. Ellis were alive, he would be sounding the alarm we so desperately need to hear. Lest you think I’m overstating our present danger, look up the word “fascism” in the dictionary and see the striking number of parallels with the regime of Donald Trump. Then do yourself, and our nation, a favor and read The Anatomy of Fascism by the Columbia University historian Robert O. Paxton, who observed fascism’s determination to “expand the powers of the executive—party and state—in a bid for total control.” Consider our president’s swooning veneration of dictators Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, and Kim Jong Un, and his promise of national rebirth—Make America Great Again—that only he can fulfill, the pledge of fascists everywhere.

Mr. Ellis would have had Trump’s number from the get-go, would have seen right through the rhetoric, the tyranny draped in patriotism. He would have recognized in modern America the sepia shades of 1930s Germany and Italy, would have seen, as only a student of history can, Trump’s troubling appetite for unrestricted power. And he would have spoken. You better believe he would have spoken. One doesn’t charge the shores of Normandy, stepping over the bodies of pulverized friends, then fall silent when an American president treats our allies with contempt and calls the press “the enemy of the American people.” The question isn’t whether Mr. Ellis would have spoken. The question is why so many Americans still cheer Trump on, still demand we give him a chance, still won’t speak against him no matter how cruelly low he slithers.

Lest you think I’m an unhinged liberal, I should point out that in 1976, I went door to door in Danville passing out brochures for Richard Lugar. I wasn’t old enough to vote for him then, but I was when he ran for Senate again in 1982, so I voted for him that year and every election thereafter. Voted for Ronald Reagan, too, as well as George H.W. Bush. I didn’t see eye to eye with them on all matters, but I never doubted their commitment to American democracy, a devotion glaringly absent in Trump.

For reasons I have never understood, I have been given an audience larger than many. I say this not to boast, but more to marvel that someone like me, with such a questionable character and feeble work ethic, could have gained even a single listener. I have that imaginary listener in mind whenever I write, hoping he or she won’t finally pitch the book, close the magazine, click off the essay in disgust and be done with me, thereby jeopardizing my plans to retire loaded to the south of France. So I am always hesitant to mount this pulpit and raise my voice in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump, handing him both the presidency and a partner in Mike Pence. But I am more frightened at telling my grandchildren this Hoosier did nothing, said nothing, when they ask me, years from now, “Papa, what did you do when they separated babies from their parents?”

And they will ask, that I know. The folks who study such things tell us the average child asks almost 300 questions a day. You can be sure my grandchildren will ask. As will yours. You might want to start practicing your answer now.