Hearings on the legislation reveal that America’s fascist fever has yet to break.
Illustration: Several No. 2 pencils are arranged into five rows, some of the pencils whole and some of them snapped into pieces. Illustration by Rachal Duggan.
Historian Crane Brinton likened the stages of a revolution to an infection: incubation, mild symptoms, crisis, and convalescence. If we were to map the rise and fall of the Trump presidency along a very simplistic version of Brinton’s anatomy of uprisings, it would initially seem that we are now in the convalescence, or recovery stage. The “radical” leader has been deposed, a moderate has now taken power and begun to restore a revised version of the previous order, and life has more or less begun to return to normal.
But how normal is this post-Trump status quo?
Sitting in the Wisconsin Capitol last week in my capacity as Rep. Francesca Hong’s chief of staff and watching the Assembly and Senate Joint Committee on Education deliberate bills that would ban the instruction of Critical Race Theory in the classroom, I couldn’t help but think that America had yet to shed the overt fascism of the last four years. In fact, we are miles away from true recovery. Trump’s fascist virus is alive and well in many parts of the country.
It hit me, as I was watching Republicans struggle to explain legislation that GOP think tanks ready-made for them, that Wisconsin is the petri dish and the attack on critical race theory is the latest concoction aimed at spreading the Trump virus.
Assembly and Senate Bills 411, debated for six hours in the legislature on Wednesday, seek to ban “race or sex stereotyping” from being taught in Wisconsin public schools. The legislation, also accompanied by bills that prohibit universities and state agencies from requiring employees to attend anti-sexism and anti-racism training, mirrors a deliberate attempt across the US by conservatives to halt the instruction of anything that questions white supremacy.
Although the words Critical Race Theory or CRT are not mentioned in any bill language, GOP messaging around the legislation has played on the panic around this concept. And it is a concept the majority of Americans, especially the drafters of the bills themselves, do not understand.
Critical race theory is a graduate-level legal framework that seeks to explore and articulate how the legacy of slavery and racism interact with American society. It is a theoretical academic exploration that is, without a doubt, not being taught in Wisconsin public schools.
So when a parent from Mequon testified in favor of the bills that “CRT has infiltrated curriculums throughout the state and the country through reading lists, through reading materials, through programs,” I couldn’t help the shock that I felt. It was a blatant lie. And sure enough, when Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) asked the bills’ authors to produce a list of schools that were teaching CRT, they could not give a direct answer.
So why are Republicans making such a big deal of an issue that does not exist?
CRT is the latest bogeyman for those working to spread Trump’s fascist virus. Like much of today’s conservative propaganda, the war on CRT was sparked by a right-wing activist who published an opinion piece in the New York Post riddled with falsehoods and inaccuracies about what he perceived as government indoctrination. Not only did his op-ed mischaracterize a federal diversity training, calling one mandatory when it wasn’t, he also claimed that the Treasury Department was explicitly telling its employees that “all white people are racist,” which it also wasn’t. This fear-mongering, based entirely on cherry-picked, out-of-context snippets of an optional webinar on race, has now fueled a conspiracy theory of which Critical Race Theory is the collateral.
Fox News, ever the fact-checking news source, then picked up the conspiracy, delivered it to Trump through the airwaves, and now here we are, in a nationwide rejection of diversity, equity, and the truth of our past.
What the parent from Mequon and Republicans in Wisconsin and across this country are actually trying to block from the classroom is the teaching of real American history—the history that does not paint the slave as happy and employed, the history that tells the truth of the first Thanksgiving, the history that does not hide the crimes perpetrated by white people onto people of color.
It is truth and it is equity that they are truly afraid of, and they’ve weaponized CRT in order to reinforce their white-washed view of the world.
This past year has confronted our entire nation with existential crises of race and racism, oppression and privilege, fascism and democracy. These reckonings, as America tries to move on from Trump’s presidency, challenge the authority of those whose power stems from stepping on others. Anti-CRT bills, anti-Trans bills, voter suppression bills, and other regressive right-wing legislation are all a visceral response of a system that refuses to change, that refuses to shed its oppression because it inherently benefits from it.
What we saw Wednesday was therefore nothing new—the maintenance of white supremacy just has new packaging.
And this is a lesson we must all heed. Just because Trump has been voted out of office, our country has not recovered—in fact, far from it. There is so much more that must be done to erase fascism from the very fabric of our supposed democracy.
Here in Wisconsin, we must start by making sure that when sitting US Senators like Wisconsin’s very own Ron Johnson say things like “I do not believe America is a systemically racist nation,” they never hold public office again. What’s more, our lawmakers must hold themselves to a standard of legislating on issues they actually know something about.