Bill Moyers (As Always) Has the Last & Final Word of Truth

We Hold This Truth to Be Self-Evident: It’s Happening Before Our Very Eyes


At 98, historian Bernard Weisberger has seen it all. Born in 1922, he grew up watching newsreels of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler as they rose to power in Europe. He vividly remembers Mussolini posturing to crowds from his balcony in Rome, chin outthrust, right arm extended. Nor has he forgotten Der Fuehrer’s raspy voice on radio, interrupted by cheers of “Heil Hitler,” full of menace even without pictures.

Fascist bullies and threats anger Bernie, and when America went to war to confront them, he interrupted his study of history to help make history by joining the army. He yearned to be an aviator but his eyesight was too poor. So he took a special course in Japanese at Columbia University and was sent as a translator to the China-Burma-India theater where Japanese warlords were out to conquer Asia. Bernie remembers them, too.

In time, we became colleagues on a series of broadcasts about the 20th century. As we compared the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler in an episode titled The President and the Dictator, Bernie kept reminding the team that the most cunning demagogues “are never more than a few steps from becoming dictators.” Not surprisingly, the subject came up again when Trump was elected. No, we didn’t think he was Hitler, or the Republicans Nazis, but both of us acknowledged a deep unease over the vulnerabilities of democracy, which had led to Trump’s election in the first place. Inspired by Bernie and unnerved by Trump, I decided to take a deeper look at democracy under stress and began reading what is now more than a dozen books on Europe in the 1930s. The most recent is a compelling and chilling account of Hitler’s First Hundred Days, by the historian Peter Fritzsche – a familiar story revisited by the author with fresh verve and insight.

Hitler was a master of manipulation, using propaganda, violence, intimidation, showmanship, and spectacle — and above all, fear. By demonizing “the other” – Jews, social democrats and communists – Hitler won the hearts and minds of the masses, consolidating his power, and turning Germany into a one-party Nazi state.

I had just finished the book when I received a short email from Bernie, who had been watching on television the events following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. He wrote, “All this open talk by Trump of dominance is pretty undisguised fascism. He’s inciting chaos to set the stage for the strong man to ‘rescue’ the nation.”

There was no doubt who would be Superman riding to America’s rescue. When Trump promised to end what he called “American carnage” – a crisis of “poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, crime and gangs and drugs” — he did not ask for our help. He did not ask that we put our faith in each other or in our democratic values or even in God. Donald J. Trump would be our savior, the new Messiah — because “I alone can fix it.”

Bernie’s note triggered a recollection, sending me across the room to retrieve from a file drawer an essay written two years ago in The New York Review of Books by the American legal scholar Cass Sunstein. Reviewing three new books about ordinary Germans and the Nazi regime, he concluded: “With our system of checks and balances, full-blown authoritarianism is unlikely to happen here.”

I had admired Sunstein’s work for years and found reassuring his judgment that the rule of law would check a would-be tyrant. But many found that assurance disquieting. One dissenter was Norman Ravitch, emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Riverside. Responding to Sunstein, he wrote: “The normal concern of people of all sorts with their daily lives, family, work, leisure, and so on indicates that only those in certain areas of work and life could possibly notice the slow but relentless advance of authoritarian and totalitarian policies by the government. The Nazis knew how to appeal to people who did not have the ideological concerns but only normal human concerns. They knew how to conceal their real goals and how to make passive individuals active supporters.”

So does Trump. He understands that most Americans are concerned with little more than the economy, health care and jobs. They respond positively to politicians who promise action on these priorities, whether or not they know if those promises will ever be fulfilled. Ravitch pointed out that like Hitler and like Mussolini, Trump knows how to appeal to a variety of concerns with promises that can be both attractive and contradictory. Because no population is educated enough, sensitive enough, or ethical enough to see through the deception, “the danger is very great indeed. It may in fact be one of the chief weaknesses of democracy that democracy can lead to tyranny just as well or perhaps even more than other political systems.”

Two years have passed since that exchange between scholars, and in those two years Trump has doubled down. This president is no friend of democracy.

He has declared himself above the law, preached insurrection by encouraging armed supporters to “liberate” states from the governance of duly elected officials, told police not to be “too nice” while doing their job, and gloated over the ability of the Secret Service to turn “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” loose on demonstrators — to “come down on them hard” if they get too “frisky.

He has politicized the Department of Justice while remaking the judiciary in his image.

He has stifled investigations into his administration’s corruption, fired officials charged with holding federal agencies accountable to the public, and rewarded his donors and cronies with government contracts, subsidies, deregulations, and tax breaks.

He has maligned and mocked the disadvantaged, the disabled, and people of color.

He has sought to politicize the military, including in his entourage the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs (dressed in combat fatigues), as his orderlies unleashed chemical fumes on peaceful protesters – all so that the president could use them as stage props in a photo op, holding up a Bible in front of a historic church, just to make a dandy ad for his re-election campaign.

He has purged his own party of independent thinkers and turned it into a spineless, mindless cult while demonizing the opposition.

He has purloined religion for state and political ends.

He has desecrated the most revered symbols of Christian faith by converting them to partisan brands.

He has recruited religious zealots for jobs in his administration, rewarding with government favors the electoral loyalty of their followers.

He has relentlessly attacked mainstream media as purveyors of “fake news” and “enemies of the people” while collaborating with a sycophantic right- wing media – including the Murdoch family’s Fox News — to flood the country with lies and propaganda.

He has maneuvered the morally hollow founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, into compromising the integrity of the most powerful media giant in the country by infusing it with partisan bias.

And because truth is the foe he most fears, he has banned it from his administration and his lips.

Yes, Bernie, you are right: the man in the White House has taken all the necessary steps toward achieving the despot’s dream of dominance.

Can it happen here?

It is happening here.

Democracy in America has been a series of narrow escapes. We may be running out of luck, and no one is coming to save us. For that, we have only ourselves.

Bill Moyers’s first ‘official job’ at the Peace Corps was as Associate Director for Public Affairs. This office directed the Peace Corps’ recruiting activities and coordinated the agency’s relations with members of Congress. Moyers was also the secretary to the National Advisory Council when the Peace Corps had such an organization. He then was briefly the deputy director of the Peace Corps. Moyers was at the agency from 1961-63.



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  • The problem is not only with the Autocrat Trump, but the many Republican senators and congressmen who have drunk the Kool-Aid. They have been unwilling to respect any of the constitutional norms created by the Founding Fathers in ensuring that a system of checks and balances impedes a dictator. The acquiescence of the military to the bully-in-chief’s whims is the most salient concern. The way things are heading, Trump will declare that the November election cannot be held either because of the imposition of martial law or because of the mounting deaths from the coronavirus. At this point, there are no leaders who would stand up and stop Trump from declaring himself President for life with Ivanka to succeed him.

  • Bill Moyer always has the last word because he is so smart and wise.
    We are still rolling the boulder up the hill but now
    I hear the voices of our youth caring and seeing it all clearly. Carry on our sweet survivors…carry on…
    Patti and John Garamendi

  • OMG I’m sending this to everyone I know. Bill Moyers has recognized and listed every fascist move this terrifying president has made. And raised our consciousness about the “clear and present danger.”

    Thank you, John, for publishing this.

    Leita Kaldi Davis
    (Senegal 1993-96)

    P.S. Rick Steves is on PBS in my area this evening presenting “The Rise and Fall of Fascism.” He’s not only a travel guide but a very political person. e.g, his essay “Travel is a political act.”

  • John, thank you for the quick and prominent attention you’ve given to Bill Moyers’ essay; it’s a service to us all. As intelligent and articulate as his words are (what else have we come to expect over the decades from this public servant and conscience of our nation?), they’re also chilling. They call forth thoughts and feelings–fear chief among them, then joined by despair–that’ve been with me since the beginning of 2016 and earlier, fear and despair over the rise of fascism on these shores.

    As I read the essay and encountered the twelve “He has”es that are only some of the acts of the current president who is “no friend of democracy” (and certainly not of the Peace Corps and its ideals), I heard echoes (as I suspect you and many others have) of an early document in our country’s history, the one that includes the 27 grievances against the reigning monarch of England at the time, George III.

    What is that document, the one that captures both the complaints and the hopes of our country’s forefathers in words that are etched in our minds at an early age, the one that now lives under glass in the National Archives but more importantly is among the core of beliefs and aspirations not only of those who can trace their being Americans back to the Mayflower but also those who live among us as the descendants of people from Africa who were brought here against their wills in the holds of slave ships, who came in steerage from countless ports bearing the hungry and hopeful of all points of the compass in Europe, who were dragooned from China to build our railroads, from southeast Asia by boat and then by plane to escape the devastation during and after the Vietnam war, as well as those who trace their American heritage back to the the Bering land bridge in the Pleistocene era?

    Of course! It’s the one that Moyers had in mind when he chose the words that begin his essay: “We hold this truth [or the plural thereof] to be self-evident.” As stirring as his essay is, though, it’s not a plan of action. What Do We Do Now about our grievances and fears? What do we do about this president?

  • Bill Moyers has been a democrat political hack since the days of Lyndon Johnson. His nefarious ways started in the 1960s. He has an excellent way with words that resonate with the uninformed. His point of view is always extreme left. “NOT MY CUP OF TEA”.

    Dirty tricks and civil rights violations
    Two weeks before the 1964 presidential election Johnson instructed Bill Moyers to transmit an order to the FBI to run checks on numerous members of Goldwater’s campaign and Senate staffs in an effort to obtain derogatory information about their possible sexual aberrations. What Johnson was looking for, Moyers told the FBI, was information about “fags” on Goldwater’s staff.[2]

    Moyer’s blind sycophantic loyalty and willingness to engage in illegal activity and dirty tricks for President Johnson earned him the reputation among White House peers as the president’s “hit man”, an “@$&-kisser”, and the nickname “Elmer Gantry.” Moyer’s hyperbolic and demagogic style is remembered in the Daisy girl ad which he takes credit for. A lttle girl is incinerated by a hydrogen bomb. The commercials were reviewed and approved by Abe Fortas and Clark Clifford on behalf of the President. Even Johnson supporters were revolted when they were broadcast. As a result of various protests the Democrats stopped showing the commercials.

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