Saving Democracy from Demagogues

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Original Air Date: 
August 13, 2022

Around the world, authoritarian leaders are on the rise – from Russia and Hungary to the U.S. They're working from a common playbook: They use violent rhetoric. They attack the media. They see their political rivals as existential enemies to the nation. We examine the return of the Strongman — and how to save democracy.

The conversation with Daniel Ziblatt in this episode was recorded at the La Follette Forum on American Power, Prosperity and Democracy, held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

Adolph Hitler

If hate moved next door, would you recognize it? Edgar Feuchtwanger was a young Jewish boy living in Munich when Adolf Hitler moved into the building across the street. Edgar recalls the horror of watching Hitler's rise to power.

Benito Mussolini, during the march on Rome,

In 2017, a new museum of fascism was proposed in Predappio, Italy—the birthplace of Benito Mussolini. Historically, the town was already a pilgrimage site for neo-Fascist groups. Journalist Ilaria Maria Sala explains the town’s history with fascism and how they’re trying to reckon with it today.

An abstract image of a man at a desk

Daniel Ziblatt has watched authoritarian leaders elected in country after country – Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Bolsinaro in Brazil. He says there’s a playbook for how demagogues destroy their countries' democracies.

Pardeep Singh Kaleka and Arno Michaelis

Pardeep Singh Kaleka's father was murdered when a white supremacist attacked the Sikh temple that his father led. Remarkably, he and a former white supremacist met just two months after the massacre. Now, they work together.

Show Details 📻
August 13, 2022
Edgar Feuchtwanger
Writer and Historian
Ilaria Maria Sala
Arno Michaelis
Speaker and Writer
Author and Co-Founder of Serve 2 Unite
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To The Best of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. If hate moved in next door, would you know it? Would you recognize it?

Edgar Feuchtwanger (00:09):

My name is Edgar Feuchtwanger. I am 93, so I wasn't born yesterday. I think he moved in 1929. I was four or five. I was always taken for a walk by my nanny. She was called Rosie. And just as we passed his front door, he came out. He wore a [inaudible 00:00:52] hat, as people wore in those days. He looked at me quite benevolently, looked at his hat a little bit, and got into his car. People saw him and they shouted Heil Hitler. I knew it was some important chap who wasn't very good for us. Let's put it that way.

Edgar Feuchtwanger (01:22):

Through the lattice fence you could see Hitler lying in a deck chair in the next garden. And the maid didn't like it that [inaudible 00:01:33] brown sun based with nothing much on on the roof of her house. It all sounds so cozy, doesn't it? Cars came and went. People said, "This is Gurin, this is Chamberlain, Mussolini," et cetera. One could no longer walk past his front door. One had to stay on the opposite side of the road. We had no idea that Hitler was a man who killed people by the millions and turned the whole world upside down. That one couldn't imagine, at that point. Yes, we were Jewish. We were there living just under his nose.

Edgar Feuchtwanger (02:30):

At school, I had a teacher. She was called Fraulein Weickel. She was straight away an enthusiastic Nazi. She immediately dictated to us all the Nazi stuff, but through Germany awakes and the sun rising with a swastika on it and all this other thing. It's an exercise book, which I still have. We were told, "She's your teacher. Do what your teacher tells you," and so I did it.

Edgar Feuchtwanger (03:07):

My father was a publisher. He was driven out of that and became a full-time Jewish person. He somehow thought this was a state of affairs that could continue. It was a little bit like going back to the ghetto, but of course, he couldn't imagine the brutality and the lengths to which the whole thing would go. My parents knew something nasty was going to happen. Sure enough, the very next morning, they came and took my father away to the concentration camp, Dachau. They came with great packing cases to take his library away and they called this process making secure [inaudible 00:04:12], which was simply another word for stealing it.

Edgar Feuchtwanger (04:16):

I've forgotten now exactly how it was when he came back. He was in very bad shape. You had to stand up all the time in the freezing cold. If you fell over, they just finished you off. He was not in particularly good health, but he just about managed to get through it. That was remarkable, I think.

Edgar Feuchtwanger (04:53):

Arrangements were made that I would go to a family in England. I was taken by my father near the Dutch border. And just before the train crossed the border, SS guards came through the train and they asked my father why didn't he emigrate, as well. He said he was preparing to emigrate, but he then had to go back to Munich. And I crossed the border into Holland. When I had reached the sea, I couldn't see the sea. It was already dark, but I smelt it. And I felt I was leaving an evil empire.

Anne Strainchamps (05:54):

Edgar Feuchtwanger made it to England in 1939. His mother and father got there a few months later. Edgar, you had a career as a historian and you had this remarkable personal window on world history, but you didn't write about it until you were in your late 80s. How come?

Edgar Feuchtwanger (06:13):

I was in a completely different world and I didn't really want to write about something like that, which was so distasteful to me. Of course, now, everybody is interested in it. Now, everybody wants me to recall it in every conceivable detail.

Anne Strainchamps (06:34):

And what do you want people to take away from your story? What do you want them to think about?

Edgar Feuchtwanger (06:40):

They've got to care for what they vote for. What are they buying when they vote? It can be something rather nasty.

Anne Strainchamps (06:50):

Yeah. Edgar Feuchtwanger's memoir is called Hitler, My Neighbor. His story is worth thinking about today because, for the first time since the Second World War, far right neo-fascist groups are gaining ground and winning votes all over Europe. Through this hour, we're talking about what it's like to discover and face up to hatred in your own backyard.

Ilaria Maria Sala (07:20):

Predappio is a city that few people have heard of because it's a rather small town. It's only 6,400 inhabitants, but its greatest claim to fame is that it's where Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, was born and where he's also buried.

Anne Strainchamps (07:39):

This Ilaria Maria Sala. She's an Italian journalist. And Predappio has been in the news lately because there are plans to build Italy's first Museum of Fascism there, but the town is already a pilgrimage place for neo-fascist groups and there are even local shops that cater to them.

Ilaria Maria Sala (07:59):

I was shocked. I was completely speechless. Even the window display is brutal. Every imaginable object has been decorated, if I can use this word, with fascist symbols, fascist slogans, Mussolini's face, baby rompers with sentences from Mussolini, objects like this type of stick that was used by fascist gangs to beat up opponents, apologist films, books.

Anne Strainchamps (08:31):

Are these tourist items? Are they just meant to be jokes or are they things people buy because they really admire Mussolini?

Ilaria Maria Sala (08:41):

I don't think you could take it as a joke because, in 1952, Italy passed a local, the Scelba Law, that makes apology of fascism illegal. I went in and I asked one of the shop assistant why he was selling these things, who was buying them. And of course, he could see from my expression that I was not a supporter. And he said, "These are things that are bought by people who have no prejudices." And I was like, "Well, I don't think that's a prejudice. Isn't this in breach of the law?" And he said, "I don't think I'm doing anything against the law. I pay taxes," blah, blah, blah. Now, those who go to these shops are not local people. They get pretty full on the birthday, the day of his death, the day of the march on Rome.

Anne Strainchamps (09:32):

What happens then?

Ilaria Maria Sala (09:33):

On those days, you have neo-fascist groups. It used to be just a few tens of people going and, now, there is many hundreds, sometimes a few thousand. They wear black shirts, they sing fascist songs, they parade with slogans against immigrants. It's an incitement to violence from beginning to end. And most of the time, the marches end in a crypt, which is where Mussolini is buried.

Anne Strainchamps (10:02):

So the mayor of Predappio is very concerned about this. He doesn't want increasingly large crowds of neo-fascists showing up in marching through his city's streets, but his response seems kind of odd. He wants to start a Museum of Fascism. That just seems like throwing raw meat to the crowd.

Ilaria Maria Sala (10:24):

Absolutely. Giorgio Frassineti, the Mayor of Predappio, comes from the main center, left party in Italy, the Democratic Party. When I spoke with him, I felt that he was a bit at a loss and a bit confused. And that's because Italy has created this kind of legend about how much we fought fascism, how much we opposed it, which is not actually true. One thing that is, for example, to me, absolutely astounding is how few Italians are aware of the fact that, under fascism, Italy colonized Ethiopia, Eritrea. It's like we didn't study this at school. So there is this kind of collective amnesia or voluntary amnesia of what really happened. And the idea of Frassineti to create this museum, to some extent, reflects this.

Anne Strainchamps (11:18):

So what would go in this museum? And it sounds like it's intended to be more about the damage that fascism did rather than a museum celebrating fascism.

Ilaria Maria Sala (11:31):

That's the idea. However, no matter what you do, you're going to end up ... And that's one thing that Frassineti kept telling me. Of course, there's going to be portraits. There's going to be a section about propaganda, which means that he's going to display the propaganda object. And so it is going to look like some kind of shrine.

Anne Strainchamps (11:53):

I have to say, it's so interesting to hear you talk about this because, in the US, we're going through a period where Confederate and slavery markers are being removed, landmarks are being renamed. Is anything comparable happening in Italy? The country is full of buildings and monuments that were built by Mussolini and his fellow fascists.

Ilaria Maria Sala (12:14):

That's right. And if you talk to any architect, they are actually considered to be extremely important, extremely interesting. They are historical monuments, but they're very flawed historical monuments because of the ideology that brought them to be. And for this, there seems to be hardly any willingness to say, "Okay, this stuff is toxic. Let's destroy it." And the tendency seems to be today to say, "Yeah, the Colosseum also was done by killing slaves. So why should we worry about fascist monuments that were done in the same way?" It's like 2,000 years have passed for nothing. We are still doing the same thing and thinking that it's okay in order to somehow venerate beauty.

Anne Strainchamps (13:03):

It's so interesting, the way you're thinking about what it means to face hatred. On the one hand, you're saying that the resurgence in fascism or neo-fascism has everything to do with not facing up to the hatred of the past, not looking at it. And at the same time, you're talking about wanting not to face signs and symbols of hatred, wanting to erase some of those. It's such an interesting dilemma.

Ilaria Maria Sala (13:35):

Absolutely. And it's even more troubling today because this kind of irresponsible way of looking at it has really allowed a resurgence of hatred today in Italy, as we are witnessing these days, attacks against immigrants, very weak response from the authorities and from political parties. Now, the police is allowing neo-fascist groups to have demonstrations in Italian squares and Italian main roads, which used not to be allowed. And when antifascist groups require the same permit, the explanation that they are given is that, no, they can't march against neo-fascist groups because this would be a provocation and the best thing is just to let them die in darkness and it will all go away.

Ilaria Maria Sala (14:27):

The thing is, it hasn't gone away. It's not going away. It's actually become stronger in darkness. It's very scary and it does give you a sense of despair because, if anyone should know what fascism was about, that has to be Italy. We've lived it in first person. And letting shrines like Predappio become this new focus of pilgrimages is ... it's good to be worried. It's the only thing that one can be. We have to be worried and we have to talk about it.

Anne Strainchamps (15:14):

Ilaria Maria Sala is an Italian journalist currently based in Hong Kong. Fascist governments were defeated decades ago, but in every region of the world today, authoritarianism is on the rise again. So how safe is democracy around the world and here at home?

Daniel Ziblatt (15:52):

Rich, old democracies don't die.

Speaker 6 (15:55):

So let us all now join together in affirming that common commitment and in helping our new president succeed for the benefit of all Americans.

Daniel Ziblatt (16:08):

The United States is a rich, pretty old democracy. And so the result of that is that the US shouldn't break down.

Speaker 7 (16:14):

Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.

Daniel Ziblatt (16:30):

On the other hand, we have to keep in mind these other scenes that should haunt all of us from January 6th, 2021, where we saw an assault on Congress, assault on the rule of law.

Speaker 8 (16:39):

We need some reinforcements up here now. They're starting to pull the gates down.

Daniel Ziblatt (16:43):

Both of these things are true. And so the question is, how do we resolve this threat to democracy?

Anne Strainchamps (16:50):

Coming up, how to preserve democracy. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Daniel Ziblatt is worried about the future of democracy around the world and increasingly here in the US. He's a professor of government at Harvard, co-author of the book, How Democracies Die, and he sees a lot of warning signs. Authoritarian leaders like Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil, these are no longer outliers. They have consolidated power and shared goals. And Ziblatt says there's a playbook for how demagogues destroy their country's democracies. Steve Paulson wanted to know what it means for the US.

Steve Paulson (17:40):

Do you think American democracy is in danger now?

Daniel Ziblatt (17:44):

Certainly, it is. There are a lot of threats. Currently, I would say the greatest vulnerability of American democracy, if I had to put my finger on one factor, I would say the radicalization of the Republican Party. It's sometimes a hard point to begin with because one sounds like a partisan, but I come to this as a student of conservatism. I've written a book on the history of conservative parties in Western Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. And so think actually that a robust constitutional center right party is critical for democracy, but I think, increasingly, we have large segments of the Republican Party that are not behaving as democratic political party. And so when you have only one political party fully committed to democratic rules and norms, this poses a great threat.

Steve Paulson (18:27):

When you say that the current Republican Party, at least the faction that's in power right now, the Trump faction, doesn't accept democracy, break that down a little bit for me.

Daniel Ziblatt (18:36):

Yeah. So again, I understand the weight of that charge and it'll sound to some of your listeners like a partisan kind of statement. So it's really important to be clear about this. Scholars of democracy have made very clear that the three basic benchmarks to assess whether a political party or politicians are democratic. Number one, they have to accept election results. Democracies can't survive if parties and politicians do not accept defeat. Number two, political parties and politicians need to eschew violence, not participate in violent acts to try to gain power or to hold onto power. This is a clear lesson from the 1920s and 1930s when you had communists and fascists in the street who were willing to use violence to gain power.

Steve Paulson (19:19):

And so you're saying, for instance, the January 6th insurrection=

Daniel Ziblatt (19:22):

That's right.

Steve Paulson (19:22):

... would be the obvious example of-

Daniel Ziblatt (19:24):

Would be an obvious example, of course. And this points then to the third key factor, which is a bit more subtle. To be a democratic political party, not only can you not participate in violence and do you have to accept election results, you have to distance yourself from political actors, groups, parties, activists who participate in those first two behaviors. You have to join forces with maybe your ideological opponents, but who are also similarly committed to democracy. Really, on that third dimension, I think that in many ways, we see some dangers within the Republican Party. What we see looking at history, again, 1920s, 1930s Europe, it's often the mainstream parties who turned a blind eye or talked out of both sides of their mouth when seeing their ideological allies participating in violence that got democracy into trouble.

Steve Paulson (20:06):

So I want to put this discussion in a larger historical context, really, what can happen for a country to lose its democracy, because I think the first thing we think about is, oh, an elected leader is deposed in a coup, Salvador Allende in Chile. The military comes in and they assassinate him, but there are plenty of other examples where a demagogue is elected through reasonably fair elections. Most notorious case would probably be Hitler in 1933. How did that happen?

Daniel Ziblatt (20:37):

The story of how Hitler came to power is, in many ways, paradigmatic and also, in many ways, unique. The broader lessons that one can draw from this are the potential recklessness of mainstream parties when they make short-term calculations and align themselves with political leaders who are a genuine threat to democracy and mainstream politicians overlook those threats.

Daniel Ziblatt (20:57):

So in the late 1920s, you had a very strong social democratic political party in Germany on the one hand, you had a highly fragmented political landscape in the middle, you had a conservative party that was falling apart at the right end of this spectrum, and then Hitler emerged out of the blue, having been an obscure figure through most of the 1920s after an attempted coup in the early twenties. By the late 1920s, he appeared on the scene in this conservative party that was falling apart and they saw Hitler and realized, "We can join forces with Hitler. We can hold joint election rallies with Hitler, push common legislation, and we will use the energy that seems to be in the streets for Hitler to shore up our political party. We're an elitist party. We don't have a mass base. We can align with this figure and we can use him."

Steve Paulson (21:39):

And they thought they could control him.

Daniel Ziblatt (21:40):

They thought they could control him. They thought they could ride him to power. Over the course of the next several years, between 1928 and 1933, the tables were very quickly turned and it turned out Hitler was using these establishment forces to gain legitimacy. And so by the early 1930s, without a real conservative party left, President Hindenburg, who named the chancellor, in effect the prime minister, turned to Hitler and appointed him chancellor. And once in power, Hitler, of course, established dictatorial rule.

Steve Paulson (22:11):

So we might assume that these demagogues always come from the right, right wing extremists. That's not the case. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, similarly elected, popular leader at first, and then he also consolidated power. What happened there?

Daniel Ziblatt (22:28):

Yeah. A very similar story, but on the left. You had a mainstream president, Rafael Caldera. He freed Hugo Chavez from jail after Chavez had attempted a coup a few years earlier. Why he did this is a matter of a lot of historical debate, but clearly, one of the reasons was he thought that, by doing this, he could tap into the popularity of Chavez. And this only legitimated Chavez and Chavez was now a political actor on the mainstream stage, ran for president, one, and then once in power, began to attack democratic institutions.

Daniel Ziblatt (22:58):

One of the things I should say is that, when these figures ... they typically are outsiders, these people who go on to often attack democratic rules in this way. They often have not a lot of political experience, but usually, they send out warning signs of they're going to be dangerous. They use violent rhetoric, they attack the media, they cast their political opponents as existential enemies to the nation. And so when you see politicians behaving this way, speaking this way, sometimes we think that politicians don't follow through on their promises. Unfortunately, they often do. And these figures often are as authoritarian as advertised.

Steve Paulson (23:32):

To take Hugo Chavez as an example, what were the steps for him to consolidate power? I assume that first thing is he marginalizes his political opponents. He tries to get rid of the opposition media, I mean, the media that would call into account and, at a certain point, rewrites the laws, rewrites the constitution.

Daniel Ziblatt (23:51):

In my book, How Democracies Die with Steve Levitsky, we use the analogy of a soccer game to try to help understand this process by which elected leaders attack democratic institutions because there is a playbook, there's a set of strategies that reinforce each other. The first thing that these kinds of figures, including Chavez and others, Viktor Orban, Erdogan in Turkey, pursued is they try to capture the referees. This is like a soccer game. They try to capture the referees. Those are the impartial umpires of the political game, so whether courts, judges, investigative bodies, prosecutors, those actors who are supposed to be impartial to enforce the rule of law. For authoritarian demagogues, these figures are both an opportunity and a challenge.

Steve Paulson (24:32):

When you say they capture, they get rid of the neutral referees and put in their own ... their people?

Daniel Ziblatt (24:37):

Well, yeah, they do this through a couple of ways. Number one, they often will force out people who won't play ball with them. So what Viktor Orban did, just to use that example, is he imposed a retirement age on all the judges and changed the rules about how to select judges and, essentially, set up his party leaders in a position where they could now select all these new judges as the old judges were being forced out. But one can also intimidate them, bribe them, coerce them, blackmail them. And so that's the first thing.

Daniel Ziblatt (25:04):

The second thing that these leaders do, as in a soccer game, you want to go after the opposition players. And so one thing that often happens with these regimes, they go after the private sector, whether this is big business, sometimes labor unions, sometimes cultural figures, sports stars, musicians, popular musicians to get these guys on their side or to silence them. And then the final step is to lock in the advantages. And the way that these figures lock in the advantages is by tilting the playing field, is the analogy that we use. And so what this means is changing the rules of the game, usually election rules, to make it so that it's harder and harder to vote out the incumbent.

Steve Paulson (25:41):

Give me an example of that. How do the election rules actually get changed?

Daniel Ziblatt (25:44):

Yeah. So one thing would be to redraw ... a form of gerrymandering. You redraw the election districts in a way to make sure that your party is at an advantage so that the opposition party has to win more votes in order to win the same number of seats. And what all of this means is that the opposition can still win, but it becomes harder and harder. The opposition has to get bigger and bigger in order to even reach a 50% threshold.

Steve Paulson (26:06):

So in all of these cases, Viktor Orban, Hitler, Chavez, they were all very charismatic leaders, populous, I guess we would call, and their rallying cry was, ,"We represent the people. We're going to get rid of that power elite that has ruled this country." Is that a foundational principle in all these cases?

Daniel Ziblatt (26:27):

Yes, this is. And I think the key feature of their charisma, if we want to call it that, is that they're outsiders. They were not part of the political establishment. And so the way they get into power is railing against the establishment and the pointing out the flaws that genuinely are there. These figures can come along and say, "Hand power to me and I can get stuff done." Now, that said, sometimes outsiders are a good thing for a democracy. I think outsiders can bring a breath of fresh air, but it's a double edged sword, in a certain way, because it does open the door for these kinds of leaders who ultimately go on, who are frustrated with democratic politics, go on to attack it.

Steve Paulson (27:03):

So let's get to a more complicated case, Donald Trump, who certainly shares some of these qualities that you've been talking about; refuses to acknowledge the election results, charismatic leader to his followers. How much does he fit this playbook?

Daniel Ziblatt (27:21):

He fits it pretty well. So as a candidate, does one threaten violence, does one go after the media, does one challenge the legitimacy of one's rivals to run for office? And suddenly, 2015, 2016, we saw a politician in American politics, who had a viable chance of winning the presidency, who fit that test to a T.

Steve Paulson (27:39):

So you're saying there were all these warning signs when Trump was running for president, became president, and certainly rocked the boat, pushed against every institutional safeguards, but the system held.

Daniel Ziblatt (27:54):

Yes, it held, I would say just barely, in some respects. I think the work of the January 6th committee has increasingly shown that there was a plan at the highest levels, if not to overthrow the government through violent seizure of power and murder, but there was an attempt at least to block the counting of ballots in a way that would've handed the presidency to Joe Biden.

Daniel Ziblatt (28:16):

Now, I think we overcame this. There was a transition of power. And so in this sense, our checks and balances did work, but one of the important things that determines the long run viability of a democracy is how is the history written about those events. We're in the midst of this right now and making sure that we have a real fact-based account of this, this is why the work of the January 6th committee is so important. If we have a false narrative of what happened or a contested narrative of what happened, this weakens, I would say, the immune system of our democracy for future events like this.

Steve Paulson (28:44):

So I want to come back to this idea of the importance of distancing an extreme candidate, basically, to say, "That guy is beyond the pale." And you're saying that should've happened with Donald Trump. A Republican should have said, "He is beyond the pale." I'm just wondering how that might happen. I guess, in the old days, it was, what, the party bosses would go in the back room and say, "Sorry, this guy, he's unacceptable?" Which seems very anti-democratic, frankly.

Daniel Ziblatt (29:11):

Yeah. I want to start by saying there's no shortage of demagogues in American history who want to be president, Henry Ford, George Wallace, jumping around the 20th century, Joe McCarthy perhaps, Huey long, democrats and republicans. In every instance before 1972, because political parties selected their candidates not through primaries, primarily, but rather getting together of political leaders in smoke-filled back rooms at conventions and sitting in hotels outside of convention halls and reviewing who the potential contenders are, striking deals, knowing which of these guys were demagogues, they would get together and keep some of these kinds of figures out.

Daniel Ziblatt (29:46):

So one of my favorite stories in this regard is the wonderful novel, Plot Against America by Philip Roth, where he imagines this counterfactual history where Charles Lindbergh, the famous pilot, decides he wants to run for president. And he had presidential ambitions. He was one of these figures.

Steve Paulson (30:02):

And was a Nazi sympathizer.

Daniel Ziblatt (30:03):

And was a Nazi sympathizer. And the Republican Party decides they're going to select him as their nominee. He comes to the convention hall wearing his flight goggles, having flown in and landed his own plane at the convention, totally plausible sounding scenario, comes in, gets selected as the nominee and runs against Roosevelt, wins, and the United States forms alliances with Adolf Hitler's Germany.

Daniel Ziblatt (30:23):

So this is a terrible counterfactual history. The thing about it, though, is that it was totally implausible. It's a great novel. Everybody should read it, but it's totally implausible in the pre-1972 world, where party candidates were selected by party leaders. Lindbergh would've never made it through the smoke-filled rooms. After 1972, the world changed because we introduced binding primaries where each state, we all know the very messy process, state by state, parties run primaries, caucuses, and so on where they select their candidates. Some level, it's certainly more democratic. Voters get to have a say, but it's double edged. At the time these reforms were introduced, critics of the reform said, "This is going to open the door to demagogues." The system lasted pretty well and survived pretty well until 2016. In 2016, Donald Trump, the kind of Charles Lindbergh, I would say, of our own day, made it through the primary process and became the nominee.

Steve Paulson (31:11):

So why did the system hold in the US when Trump made every effort to overturn the election, and not just overturn the election, but attack all the governmental institutions throughout his presidency? It seems like you could make the argument it was because the bureaucrats, enough of them at least, stood their ground. People in different government agencies, judges, when Trump made a decree, say, "No, that's not constitutional." One after another of these government officials said, "No, you can't do that."

Daniel Ziblatt (31:44):

I think one of the least appreciated strengths and sources of resilience of American democracy are not only government officials, local government officials, who people ... nobody knows their names, but more broadly, professionals, whether lawyers, journalists, military officers, people who abide by a professional ethos, which limits the kinds of things they're willing to do and gives them the courage, in fact, to stand up to bullies. You have a professional ethos, a professional code that you abide by, and that inoculates you, in some ways, from the kind of pressures of authoritarianism. Authoritarians don't like professionals because they're incorruptible.

Steve Paulson (32:20):

So there is one other question that I'd love to explore with you. Maybe democracy is not the best form of government because, certainly, you can see this scenario coming back to our discussion of the demagogue. The demagogue who is fairly elected, very charismatic, comes to power by appealing to a majority of voters, attacking opponents, marginalizing unpopular groups, and can stay in power that way maybe through purely democratic means, without cheating, be in power.

Daniel Ziblatt (32:52):

Yeah. So this is certainly a vulnerability of democracy, but you have to ask what are the alternatives to this? I think there's no question in my mind that democracy is superior to alternative forms of authoritarian governance. And let me just explain why. Number one, we can look at what's happening in Russia today and the invasion of Ukraine. I think, in many ways, what we see is the consequences of arbitrary power. You might say, "Well, that's an unfair comparison. Nobody wants to live, let's say, in an authoritarian regime like Russia," but there are modernizing authoritarian regimes, non-democratic regimes, Singapore, maybe China. These are the real alternative models on offer. And so we have to stop and make an evaluation.

Daniel Ziblatt (33:31):

And the way I think about this is that democracies are highly transparent. When you look at a democracy, it's like looking in your neighbor's windows with the blinds drawn open. You can see everything that's happening. You see all of the family fights, you see all of the disagreements, and it's very easy to misinterpret that as weakness. Authoritarian regimes are not transparent. We don't know what's happening in most authoritarian regimes. All of the fights happen behind closed shades.

Daniel Ziblatt (33:56):

And so I think it's a mistake to interpret the conflict that one sees in democracies as a sign of weakness. In many ways, what we're witnessing and the struggles that we see today in the United States and in Western Europe and the rise of demagogues are efforts at self-correction. And so when you have demagogues come along, this is a sign that we have to reform. We need to adjust and our systems are self-correcting. And so the great virtue, I would say, of democracy is that it provides within it a system of self-correction. Authoritarian systems don't have that. And so that's one of the great underappreciated strengths of democracy.

Anne Strainchamps (34:35):

Daniel Ziblatt is a professor of government at Harvard and the co-author with Steve Levitsky of How Democracies Die. He talked with Steve Paulson. So how about some good news? I could use a little hope right now. Couldn't you? Coming up, a story of personal change.

Arno Michaelis (35:04):

I was working full-time and I figured, if I ate nothing but ramen noodles, I would have more drinking money. The one day I ate something aside from ramen noodles was payday and I would go to McDonald's and I'd get a Big Mac meal. I froze in the doorway. Behind the counter was an elderly black woman working. She had this beaming amazing smile. She's asking me about my day. She's just super nice and pleasant. And it made things really difficult for me, as I'm trying to hate black people.

Arno Michaelis (35:43):

I got this swastika tattooed on my middle finger of my right hand. This was by design so that, when people reflected my hostility, I could show them my middle finger on my right hand before closing it into a fist and hitting them. This gut reaction I had was like, "I don't want her to see this tattoo." And I sat there for a minute thinking, "Does anybody else work here? Where are there other McDonalds?" It was pretty far and it was cold out. So the siren song of the Big Mac ultimately prevailed and I'm thinking, "I'm just going to keep my hand in my pocket. She won't see the swastika," but she saw it as I was getting my money out.

Arno Michaelis (36:26):

"What is that on your finger?" I just looked down at my boots and I was a good foot taller than her at the time, but I felt like six inches high when she asked me that. She waited until I looked up again. And when I did and our eyes met, she said, "That's not who you are. I know you're a better person than that."

Anne Strainchamps (36:47):

Unlearning hatred, wen we come back, I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PXR.

Pardeep Kaleka (37:05):

Woke up that morning. It was a Sunday morning. It was a beautiful Sunday morning in August. I was just getting my kids ready for Sunday School. My wife had gone to work already and we were going to meet up with my wife later.

Anne Strainchamps (37:19):

This is Pardeep Kaleka.

Pardeep Kaleka (37:24):

My daughter tends to [inaudible 00:37:26] when she gets ready. So I'm always hurrying her along. We left the house and, about five minutes or 10 minutes later, she tells me that she left her Sunday School notebook at the house. My initial reaction was just to keep going forward and just explain to the teacher that she forgot her notebook, but she was pretty insistent. So we turned back around and, luckily, we did. She went back, she got her notebook, we got back on the freeway and continued on to the [inaudible 00:38:02] Sikh Temple of Wisconsin.

Pardeep Kaleka (38:07):

From our peripheral, saw a bunch of squad cars from different jurisdictions going past us, lights and sirens, high rate of speed. Maybe about a mile or a half mile from the Sikh temple, a police officer barricaded the street. So I pulled over to the side, got out of my car and asked the police officer, "Sir, what's going on?" He looks at me and tells me that there's been a shooting at the temple. I heard what he had to say, but it was just so surreal that I needed him to say it again for me to process it.

Speaker 13 (38:54):

There's been a shooting at the temple.

Pardeep Kaleka (38:58):

I try to convince him to allow me to get through it, tell him my mom and dad are both inside that temple. He's not having any of it. I asked him, I said, "When did the shooting happen?" 10 minutes ago.

Speaker 13 (39:14):

There's been a shooting at the temple.

Pardeep Kaleka (39:18):

In that moment, I just remember this extreme sense of relief for myself and my kids that my daughter forgot that notebook at the house.

Speaker 13 (39:31):

10 minutes ago.

Pardeep Kaleka (39:33):

But I also had this extreme sense of guilt, this rollercoaster ride of emotions. Who was safe, who was not?

Speaker 13 (39:44):

10 minutes ago.

Pardeep Kaleka (39:47):

Eventually, by the end of the day, we would find out that Dad was one of the six victims and that he wouldn't make it.

Anne Strainchamps (39:59):

Pardeep Kaleka's father was shot on August 5th, 2012. That was the day a 40-year-old white man, Wade Michael Page, attacked the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. He killed six people, including Pardeep's father. Now, in the aftermath, Pardeep tried to process what had happened. And as it happens, he's actually a trauma therapist, himself, so he knows something about facing pain. And he wound up reaching out in this extraordinary way to a former white supremacist, a guy named Arno Michaelis, who was one of the original founders of the hate group that the temple shooter belonged to. Arno ad left that world. By this time, he was spending a lot of time as an anti-Nazi, trying to deprogram young skinheads. And so two months after the massacre, these two men met at a local Thai restaurant and they talked for hours. Charles Monroe came, asked them to tell their story.

Charles Monroe-Kane (40:59):

Pardeep, you reached out to Arno only a few months after the massacre. Why?

Pardeep Kaleka (41:08):

One-word answer is understanding. I think, a lot of times, we do things and we think that we understand and we take stuff as gospel, as far as somebody telling us something, and we echo chamber ourselves. We build silos from these echo chambers and we do this subconsciously, that it was very important for me to reach out to somebody who can give me the authenticity that this tragedy deserved. I wanted to reach out to understand. And I also had a feeling that Arno had the same feelings that I did. And so I believed in that spirit and I reached out to Arno and I met at the restaurant and I definitely got a better understanding of why the shooter did what he did. But more importantly than that, I gained a friend that would be an ally going forward for our community.

Charles Monroe-Kane (42:07):

Arno, I got to interrupt and ask a question to you, if you can answer it honestly for me. What were you before you changed?

Arno Michaelis (42:15):

I actually made Wade Page look pretty tame. I started a white power skinhead gang in Milwaukee with some friends of mine. That gang linked up with other white power skinhead gangs around the country. And today, that skinhead gang is the largest organized white power skinhead group on earth. For seven years, I lived that life and I recruited people. I specifically looked for wounded white kids, kids who had been through some trauma. They were the ones who were most ripe for our message. I recruited vehemently, all the time. And if you didn't get recruited by me, I was just as happy to break your face for you.

Arno Michaelis (42:57):

And I got in street fights constantly. I would attack pretty much anybody arbitrarily at any given time, just for the thrill of violence. And I was a lead vocal for a very popular white power band. In many ways, I was exactly who Wade Page used to be. He was part of the same gang I had helped to start. He was also in white power bands. I would be stunned if he had never heard of my band and I would not be surprised if he was a fan of the music that I made, screaming at people to go and murder each other because of the color of their skin.

Charles Monroe-Kane (43:34):

I can't imagine. You're a former white supremacist. What was it like to get an email from Pardeep? And that must have been incredible. What was that like?

Arno Michaelis (43:46):

I was actually super excited. I was really honored. In the week following August 5th, I did a ton of media. I was doing media eight to 10 hours a day from all over the world because I had been doing peace education work as a former white supremacist for a couple years already at that point and I already had a pretty high profile. And I had real mixed feelings about all the media I was doing because I was in this transition point where I was going from being an IT consultant to being a professional speaker, author. And honestly, nothing better could have happened to my prospective career than the Sikh Temple shooting.

Charles Monroe-Kane (44:26):


Arno Michaelis (44:27):

The entire time I'm doing all these interviews, I just wanted to go back to rebooting servers if it could have brought these six people back, but at the same time, there's always a part of me internally that wants to beat myself up for who I was and what I've done. And that part of me was very much at the forefront saying, "Oh, good job, Arno. Why don't you go get some speaking gigs and sell some books because six people are dead?:

Charles Monroe-Kane (44:51):

Pardeep, I wonder, at this point when you guys are having dinner together, were you aware of how far behind Arno had put his past and was that part of the reason you wanted to talk to him?

Pardeep Kaleka (45:02):

No. At this point, I really wasn't aware how far his history was or if you put it in the past, even.

Charles Monroe-Kane (45:11):

So you didn't know that he had really changed.

Pardeep Kaleka (45:14):


Charles Monroe-Kane (45:14):


Pardeep Kaleka (45:14):

I had a hunch that he changed, but as the dinner date was getting closer, and closer, and closer, and as I shared with family and friends what I was about to do and who I was about to talk to-

Charles Monroe-Kane (45:28):

I would assume your mom did not like that at all.

Pardeep Kaleka (45:31):

No, Mom didn't like that. My wife didn't like that. There's people who were in the Sikh community who had just gone through this.

Charles Monroe-Kane (45:36):

Pardeep, what did you get out of meeting with Arno? It seems like he was a racist, violent man, the opposite of who you were. It seems like you have a lot to offer him, but what does he got for you?

Pardeep Kaleka (45:53):

Just come back to understanding. If you don't understand why somebody would be able to do something like this and have answers, I don't think that you can genuinely process and heal. You can fake it. I was definitely faking it after August 5th because I knew we had to put on a brave face for the world. For me, Arno has been my greatest therapist. And I am a therapist. So I could say he's been my brother, my confidant. We've had a lot of battles together and these battles are political, these battles are personal. But as far as why we found ourselves together, I believe in the divine spirit and I believe, somehow, some way, the divine spirit brought us together.

Charles Monroe-Kane (46:40):

Arno, when you're having dinner with him and then you become friends, work together, how do you not just feel guilty all the time for your past? I'm just curious how you aren't just overcome by guilt every time you see him.

Arno Michaelis (46:55):

I want to make a positive impact in the world. I understand that, if I'm beating myself up and if I'm drowning in guilt for what I've done, that it diminishes my capacity to have a positive impact in the world. And not that I don't deserve to beat myself up and I've spent a very long time doing that.

Charles Monroe-Kane (47:15):

I bet.

Arno Michaelis (47:16):

And I felt that I deserve nothing but suffering, I did not deserve love, I did not deserve happiness because of what I had done and because of who I was. And Pardeep has taught me that that doesn't help anybody. That doesn't honor his father. It doesn't honor the other five lives left on August 5th. It doesn't honor anybody who's suffering if I'm tormenting myself like this. What does honor them is when I am out cultivating compassion and kindness and forgiveness in society because those qualities are what makes our society one that's less conducive to the kind of violence that happen on August 5th.

Charles Monroe-Kane (48:00):

Pardeep, your philosophy and what you and Arno work on, it seems that it's about compassion and forgiveness, but it seems to put a lot of pressure on the victim, which would be you in this instance, to be a part of the solution. Is that always the best way to do this?

Pardeep Kaleka (48:16):

I'll speak for myself on this. I wanted that pressure. When we give pressure to somebody, we also give power. And that's what we're talking about. We're talking about reclaiming a sense of power and we want to make it that forgiveness is not really about forgetting and that forgiveness is a survivor's vengeance against what happened to them and their ability to come back from that. And even the first time, and I know that Arno talked a lot about who he used to be and all the bad things that he used to be, but the first time that I saw Arno, I didn't see all that. I saw a person that was still suffering and still in pain. And when we can see that, we can see the humanity within each other.

Pardeep Kaleka (48:58):

And first and foremost Sikhism teaches is to see that God-like spirit within the next person, that the spirit is alive in every person. And if I'm really going to be a Sikh, I have to see that same spirit in the shooter, Wade Michael Page. I have to see that this person was actually a person and not a monster. And I have to understand that it's different, that we're fighting against racism or racists because a racist is a people. And when we personalize it to say, "You know what? It's that person," and we don't understand the suffering and the pain that has caused that, then we're just washing our hands of being the solution or ever solving anything like that.

Charles Monroe-Kane (49:40):

That's the most beautiful thing I've heard in a really long time. Thank you both very much.

Pardeep Kaleka (49:45):

Thank you so much, [inaudible 00:49:45].

Arno Michaelis (49:45):

Thank you, John.

Anne Strainchamps (49:45):

That was Charles Monroe-Kane talking with Pardeep Kaleka and Arno Michaelis. You can read more about them in the book they co-authored called The Gift of Our Wounds: A Sikh and a Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness. They also co-founded the group, Served to Unite, which promotes compassion and nonviolence. And that's it for this hour. I hope you find hope and beauty in your life, even when the world seems dark. To The Best Of Our Knowledge is produced by Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, Angelo Bautista, Mark Rickers, Joe Harkey, Sarah Hopefall, Steve Paulson and me, Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening and be well.

Speaker 19 (50:43):


Last modified: 
August 17, 2022