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Writer and activist Bill Fletcher tells TRNN’s Marc Steiner that citizens should organize and not despair.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Real News. This is Marc Steiner and it’s great to have you with us once again. Now look, we are faced with an increasing dilemma. The narcissist and chief at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue continues to rant during the Covid-19 pandemic. You lashes out at reporters, and the press, not just in his unseemly manner, but one that threatens the freedom of press itself. He not only avoids reality, but creates his own mythological reality.
Recently, he threatened to adjourn both Houses of Congress to get his way on appointments. Hidden behind the manners of a king or his courtiers at the heritage foundation, the federalist society, the Coke brothers, where appointing young people to the federal courts or on the far right, dismantling environmental laws, threatening our right to vote, trying to destroy reproductive rights, and in the midst of Corona, allowing corporations to build their profits on our pains and our fears.
What are we faced with here? What do we do, rather than just give up our hands and say, “Oh no.” Well, my friend and colleague, Bill Fletcher joins us today. He’s been on racial justice, labor and international activist for a long time. Author of numerous books including They’re Bankrupting Us! And 20 Other Myths about Unions and Solidarity Divided, and his mystery novel that I love, The Man Who Fell From the Sky. And welcome, Good to have you with us Bill.

Bill Fletcher: Always good Marc, always good.

Marc Steiner: So start with Trump for a moment here. He’s such, he clearly is just off the rails as a human being, in many ways. So now we have him, here’s a clip from him talking about Congress.

Donal Trump: If the House will not agree to that adjournment I will exercise my constitutional authority to adjourn both Chambers of Congress. The current practice of leaving town while conducting phony pro forma sessions is a dereliction of duty that the American people cannot afford during this crisis. It is a scam what they do. It’s a scam, and everybody knows it.

Marc Steiner: And what he’s doing here obviously is altering article two section three of the constitution that gives the president certain rights that no one has ever bloody invoked. But I would not put it past him to attempt to do it. What does that say to us?

Bill Fletcher: It says what everyone should have known. I did say it. Where is the surprise” It’s, we’re dealing with a bully who will not stop until he is done. And what happens is that, people, his bullying behavior has become, as the word of the day is, normalized. People get used to it. They get used to him pushing the envelope, breaking all the rules, breaking all the protocol, and they feel powerless. And they feel powerless in part because the counter offensive to Trump has been restricted to what’s going to, what’s going to happen in November, when in fact what should’ve been happening the last several years, is disruption.
See, there’s no price that Trump has to pay. There’s little price that the Republicans have to pay. The Republican Party certainly became nervous after 2018, but at the end of the day they don’t think that they’re really going to have a major price to pay. And that’s why the obligation falls on us Marc. We need to be thinking about what are the parameters of the counter offensive. This man … There’s a story, I can’t remember whether you and I discussed this, from Italian history, the beginning of Mussolini’s regime, when there was a socialist minister of the parliament who was an outspoken critic of Mussolini. And one day he ends up dead. His name was Marriott. And one day he ends up dead.
Now there’s a historical controversy as to whether Mussolini ordered and killed or whether it was fascist groups, but it doesn’t really matter, because everyone knew it was the fascists that carried this out. And there was this moment when the parliament could have risen up and ousted Mussolini, but they didn’t. They blinked. And when they blinked they gave him ultimately more authority to move forward and to construct his full fascist state. There had been numerous occasions since 2016 when there have been what I call [inaudible 00:04:48] moments when this maniac could’ve and should’ve been stopped, and people keep blinking.

Marc Steiner: It’s strange you say, this is a slight digression, but you mentioned Mussolini, I’m actually working on a piece now that puts Mussolini and Trump side-by-side. The mannerisms, the things they say. They’re not too far apart. And they-

Bill Fletcher: No.

Marc Steiner: … They really aren’t. And when you look at this, this thing that just really blew my mind the other day was reading this report from the committee to protect journalists, and they created a report called the Trump Administration and the Media, that documents all the stuff he’s done to go after the media, like getting customs and border to protect, to check journalists’ equipment and what they’ve written, going for and calling for boycotts of news organizations, and all the things he’s done, not having press briefings for a year.
And this is the stuff that is of authoritarian dictators, even the, what I mentioned earlier with, was telling Congress that he may try to adjourn them, and what he said about the governors and forced them to do what he wants to do and had to backtrack. So, people look at this, and then they look at Bernie Sanders dropping out, suspending his campaign and saying, “Well I can’t support B-B-Biden and I can’t do this because here’s, because, you know, this Bernie Sanders is, is who I wanted and, and, and, and this is just a neo liberal,” but it’s as if we are in some alternate alternative reality where we’re not seeing what’s in front of us.

Bill Fletcher: Right.

Marc Steiner: So people are just wanting to give up and just say, “I’m not gonna participate” or “I’m gonna run away.” But it’s, how do you begin the conversation and say, “Look, this is what we’re facing and this is what we have to do”?

Bill Fletcher: Well, there’s two points in there, and the first point I want to make may come as a surprise. I think of Trump, even though I agree with you in terms of mannerisms with Mussolini, I think that Trump is very consistent with US history. All you have to do is look at the South and the Southwest during the period of Jim Crow’s segregation, and de facto, Jim Crow’s segregation in the Southwest, and you see very similar behaviors in terms of levels of oppression, impact on the media, what was happening in the state legislatures. So in some ways, apart from Rap Brown it’s as American as cherry pie.
And I think that what happens is that there’s many of us that have looked at history as a linear project where things pretty much improve in a straight line, and we don’t understand that’s not the way history has ever worked. History is all over the place with advances and retreats, regression. And so we’re seeing a guy who is borrowing the playbook of some of the best Southern and Southwestern governors that we’ve had. And by best, I’m putting that in quotes, are the most racist, the most maniacal, most dictatorial.
So that’s point number one, in the sense that it’s not like it only happened in Italy or Germany. Now the second thing, Marc, is really to your point, is that unfortunately there are people that think that there really is a choice in November between I’m staying home or voting. And, there is no choice. I was talking to my wife the other day about 1968, and about how many people of our generation took a pass on the election because we didn’t like Humphrey, Hubert Humphrey, and what a tragic mistake that was when we look at what happened subsequently.
But the thing about our generation was that things, we were on a roll in terms of there were great advances, we had all these victories, and because many of us didn’t appreciate history, we thought it was just going to continue. Today there is nobody that should make that assumption. We have been coming from the defeat after defeat, and we know that things can actually get worse. So the issue, the option is not staying home versus voting. There is no option. You got to vote because of what is at stake.
There are those that I’ve had arguments with, particularly on Facebook, which is why I’m almost on the verge of giving up on Facebook, because I feel like I’ve ended up wasting an immense amount of time in debating with knuckleheads. But they make these arguments that, “Oh, you know, you’re selling out Fletcher and blah blah,” and I have to vote with my conscience. And I’m asking, how was your conscience going to work when you’re in a concentration camp? That’s what I want to know.

Marc Steiner: Exactly right.

Bill Fletcher: Right? How is it going to work when some of our leaders get whacked by death squads? How is your conscience going to work when the postal service is privatized? How’s your conscience going to work when we’re dealing with court judges that are going to be, as you were referencing, holding their position for possibly 40, 50 years. So it’s a luxury for someone to say that. And I don’t think it’s worth debating with them frankly.

Marc Steiner: The thing is that I look at this, and I think about history, and I think about, and I’ve been saying this a lot in my writing and also in my conversations, that we have to look at what’s happening in the 21st century. They look in the 19th century and you think of 1877, you think at the end of reconstruction, the end of the great experiment in American democracy, you see when we started the mass incarceration of native people, trying to destroy unions and workers’ rights as they were just beginning. All that was happening in 1877 when they they seized the government and turned it backwards from the radical Republicans.
Then you think about 1932 Germany. And I think about that because it was a time when the communists and socialists and liberals and social democrats and deep moral thinkers in churches couldn’t get together to oppose the Nazis and their populist agenda and Hitler in power. And in one, you had 90 years of abject terror against black people in America, in the South, and destroying their rights across the country. And we know what happened in Germany.
And I think, I don’t want to make too much of this, but I’m not making too much is what I’m saying, I think we’re on the same abyss at this moment with all we fought for in the last 50 years. So you can either throw up your hands and go, “I quit, I roll over,” as you were saying to me earlier that this is, we can I have an apocalyptic vision and say, “Oh, it’s done”, right?

Bill Fletcher: Right.

Marc Steiner: Or we can figure out what it means to struggle and organize and to fight, and how you do it.

Bill Fletcher: That’s right.

Marc Steiner: Right?

Bill Fletcher: That’s right. Exactly. Which is why, to go back to an early discussion we had, I’m sick and tired of reading apocalyptic things. I don’t mean science fiction, which I, actually am not reading any more apocalyptic science fiction, but reading these tracks about how bad everything is right now, how it’s going to get even worse. And that’s where the story ends. And as I was mentioning, I had an argument with a friend of mine because I said, “I’m not interested in that.” If you think about some of the worst periods in history, so from the United States standpoint, December 19th, when after Pearl Harbor, the US fleet had basically been destroyed. Can you imagine if the joint chiefs of staff had sat in a room in Washington said, “Oh my God, what are we going to do? This is it. It’s all over.” Right?
What would Roosevelt have done? He would have fired them all, right? And the reality is that no, they knew how bad the situation was. So what they went to work on was planning to the counter offensive. And what we, unfortunately many of us really do, many progressives, really do believe a version of, the worst things get the better it will be because the other side will prove how evil they are. And this will lead people to rise up. And this was the mistake that the communist party of Germany made in 1932. And it was a tragic mistake. The Social Democrats made a different mistake, they’ve made a very big mistake. And it was the mistake that many of us made in 1968. I remember Marc, some black revolutionaries telling me they voted in ’68 for George Wallace because they said, “Bring it on.”

Marc Steiner: Right.

Bill Fletcher: Right? And it’s, well wait a minute, do you understand the implications of all this? So there are people that really do believe that … There’s also people unfortunately that believe that there really is no difference between Chuck Schumer and Trump, or Cuomo and Trump. And I think that what we have to understand, to use another historical metaphor, is that this is like Britain in 1940 during the Blitz. The German bombers are flying over blasting the hell out of Britain. So one of the things that means is that we have to organize differently. We can’t organize in the same way.
So with Covid-19 means we chant organize in the same way. But the second thing is it means that, there are some people who not too long ago we might’ve despised, but right now we got to unite with them, because there’s a greater danger with those German bombers flying over, and in our case there’s this greater danger with Trump. Trump and his minions in Congress, they represent a very deep, if not existential danger. And that means that there’s some people that, for now, we will have to come to a agreement with to unite against Trump. And I think that that’s the way people need to look at the November elections with Biden.
No Biden’s not a socialist, not even a progressive. The question is whether he will give progressive folks more space, whether he will beat back these things that are happening, whether we will have better court appointments. I think that that’s the way you look at it.

Marc Steiner: So let’s conclude with this. I was thinking about this with the concept of what you’re saying and I was also visualizing what happened in Michigan the other day when hundreds of cars blocked the roads around the state house because they didn’t want to do what their democratic governor said about staying at home and having the sanctions. They came out with their Confederate flags and they literally surrounded and blocked traffic for miles and miles and miles and miles. This was a right wing racist mob, akin to the mobs that lynched black folks and Mexicans and the people in this country in the history.

Bill Fletcher: In this country.

Marc Steiner: So that’s what we’re facing. And then you have Biden, he could either go over and start appealing to Republicans or he can actually bring the progressives in and say, “Let’s fight this together and build a coalition that beats this and stops this machine.” So, where do you think we have to go strategically? How to be able to start thinking, what has to be done that changes the dynamic that doesn’t allow that mob to rule and take over and take us backwards?

Bill Fletcher: Well, first thing is that the governor of Michigan probably should have taken a different tactical approach, and probably should’ve welcomed all of them and ordered a lot of cake for everybody to come up and get a slice of, and to hug and kiss and express all of their love and affection. And that probably should have been the tactical approach of the government in charge. But she didn’t call me. So, I think that the mistake we can’t make again is sitting back waiting for somebody to ask us to engage in a struggle with them. In this case, we can’t sit back and say, “Well, I’ll vote for Biden if he approaches [inaudible 00:18:33].” No, we should go to Biden, and we should say, as some of these younger folks, younger activists did last week or the week before when they wrote an open letter to Biden, we should say, “We’re here, we’re ready to work, and these are our terms. This is the way it’s going to be Joe.”
And it was the way I felt when Perez became the head of the DNC. Most progressives I knew were saying, “Well, let’s see what he does.” And I said to a number of people, “What do mean let’s see what he does? Why don’t a 100 of us go down to the DNC and demand a meeting. Don’t call in advance. 100 people show up. Tell me what Perez is going to do?” Right? It just changes the dynamic. We no longer sitting back being passive. We become instruments of our own emancipation.

Marc Steiner: I think that what you’re describing is something that deserves a much deeper and longer conversation, a series of conversations about where we go. And as I said for about a year, I was in this email conversation with another activist, Norman Solomon, on this very idea and the role that we as the news and such places can play in creating this conversation that says, “Look, we really have to talk to each other about where we’re going and how are we gonna get there.” And bring the forces that may not agree together-

Bill Fletcher: Sure.

Marc Steiner: … On the progressive side to say we have to talk about this and not just throw up our hands and give up.

Bill Fletcher: That’s right. And now is the time. And since I have a lot of time on my hands right now being home, I’m ready as soon as you are. Let’s rock and roll.

Marc Steiner: Let’s do it. Bill Fletcher, it’s always an inspiration and always great to talk to you. I appreciate your taking the time.

Bill Fletcher: Okay.

Marc Steiner: And enjoy your isolation, but we all stay connected in our isolation.

Bill Fletcher: Absolutely. And as the Klingon Empire says [Foreign Language 00:20:32].

Marc Steiner: Thank you Bill.

Bill Fletcher: Okay. Take care.

Marc Steiner: I want to thank you all for joining us. Please tell us what you think and how we can continue this conversation. I am pleased. Do me a favor, stay isolated, stay healthy, and take care of yourselves. Take care.

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Bill Fletcher Jr. has been an activist since his teen years and previously served as a senior staff person in the national AFL-CIO; he is the former president of TransAfrica Forum, a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, and the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including ‘They’re Bankrupting Us!’ And 20 Other Myths about Unions and The Man Who Fell from the Sky. Fletcher Jr. is also a member of The Real News Network Board of Directors.