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Anniversary of FDR’s Death: “The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself”

It is nearly impossible to speak truth to power when the present occupant of the White House (and his predecessors going back at least through Reagan) is already obsessed with expanding power and wouldn’t know truth if it hit him between the eyes. Truth is falsified at its inception when power takes on absolutist proportions and pursued in its own right. Cynicism, hegemony, mere acquisition, are notable examples defining a unified core of meaning and understanding, not just characterizing Trump, along with a fascination with domination and cruelty, but also his supporters and, if we were being frank, the majority of Americans, Democrats included.

In an unrelieved political-ideological landscape of haute-capitalist authority and values, the New Deal stands out in American history as the exceptional fragment of a contrived, artificial Exceptionalism (the national mythology) penetrating the epistemological foundations of the society. That bad? Worse still: a quasi-fascist State, in which FDR and the New Deal become a democratic moment of struggle against the forces of wealth, status, vast resources of capitalist accumulation, in Webster’s, control, authority, and influence over others. Interpenetration, the mutuality of interest between business and government, capitalism and the State, defines the course—lines of development—of present, and no doubt future, American nation-building. The contrast with the New Deal could not be more striking, even though the earlier political-social formation was not socialist, and signified the potential malleability of capitalism itself (capable of being altered or shaped by outside forces or influences, in this case, government, adapted to democratic ends).

April 12th, FDR’s martyrdom is far more consequential and inspiring than that of JFK, if one has in mind, in foreign policy, rallying the people to antifascism rather than counterrevolution, and, domestically, building the political economy around the elevation of the poor and unemployed, rather than a corporatist structure of wealth concentration (as occurred from Kennedy onward through Trump), fragmentation of workers’ identity and organization, and now, a direct assault on the concept of welfare and the social safety net. Trump, again, his government, the people who support him, America increasingly in general, avowedly seek the destruction of a people-centered present and future in favor of a highly-structured class system of privilege, elitism, and—perhaps one of the greatest differences with the New Deal—a permeating militarism and spirit of global domination. Can one nation, in the breadth of one lifetime, mark such a gross turnaround in purpose and execution?

Let’s turn to FDR’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933, passionate, memorable, colorful, yet also sharply denotative in thought and language, above all, confident, the start of a great romance between the president and the American people—the opening:

I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. [Compare this with Trump’s government by Twitter and tweet.] This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. [It is useful to recall just how severe and desperate were conditions at the time, FDR not sweeping under the rug the extent of unemployment and depression, nor creating diversions in foreign-policy adventurism to draw attention away from ineffectual government policies at home.] So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

[This is the start of the First Hundred Days, a time for rebuilding and extending the power and influence of government to meet the challenges of the future, as contrasted with Trump, at eighty-nine days, as I write, focused on the emasculation and destruction of government—in large part a test of their respective views on the intelligence and perspective of the people. FDR continues]: “In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am confident that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

There are many more noteworthy passages from his speeches, writings, press conferences, etc., worth remarking, from “one-third of a Nation….” to “horse-and-buggy days,” to a restatement of the Four Freedoms, on and on into the night, but surely my point is grasped, an effort, in a time of crisis, for the political leadership to address the pain for the individual from the cancer itself, in my case, to a full-court press on achieving societal reconstruction so that through a better health-care system, wellness in all its manifestations will spread its blessings, translated into quality and longevity of life, throughout the social order. That order, be it noted, is an integrated political matrix covering all bases pertinent to and contributing to life as responsive to human needs.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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