Atty Gen. Ken Paxton
State Attorney General Ken Paxton waves during the 2018 Texas Republican Convention at the Henry B. González Convention Center. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

On New Year’s Day, the Rose Bowl college football game was played in Arlington, Texas, not in the venerable Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena. The reason: Texas had looser coronavirus rules than California, where not even players’ parents would be allowed in the 92,542-seat stadium.

It was only the second time the game was not played in Pasadena. The first time was on Jan. 1, 1942, just 25 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Federal officials worried that any mass gathering on the West Coast could attract another Japanese attack, either by air or by sabotage instigated by some from the large Japanese American population in California.

A month later Walter Lippman, perhaps the most influential newspaper columnist of his day, had dinner with the attorney general of California and a local district attorney. A few days later Lippman published a column that, according to the DA, parroted almost word-for-word what he was told by the attorney general.

“The Pacific Coast is in imminent danger of a combined attack from within and without. … It is a fact … [that] there has been no important sabotage on the Pacific Coast,” wrote Lippman. “… This is not, as some would like to think, that there is nothing to be feared. It is a sign that the blow is well-organized and that it is held back until it can be struck with maximum effect.”

The fact that there was no evidence of sabotage by Japanese Americans showed how crafty and well-organized they were.

The attorney general whom Lippman was quoting without naming was Earl Warren, who would become the chief justice of what might be the most liberal U.S. Supreme Court in history. He was not alone in being caught up in the mass “hysteria” that swept the nation.

That’s not my term, but that of none other than the FBI director at the time, J. Edgar Hoover. He wrote in a memo to U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle a week before Lippman’s dinner with Warren: “The necessity for mass evacuation [of Japanese Americans] is based primarily upon public and political pressure rather than on factual data. Public hysteria and, in some instances, the press and radio announcers, have resulted in a tremendous amount of pressure being brought on [California Gov. Culbert Olson and Attorney General Warren].”

Biddle agreed and became the highest-level official to oppose what became one of the most shameful government actions in U.S. history.

That “public hysteria” would lead to the internment of 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans during the war. Ethnic Japanese in Hawaii, then a U.S. territory, were not “evacuated” because they made up 40 percent of the island’s population and were necessary for its economy. In addition, they were not subject to the racism prevalent on the mainland. Yet there were no instances of domestic sabotage from their ranks either in Hawaii or on the mainland.

Earl Warren became governor of California partly based on popular approval of his backing of the evacuation of Japanese Americans. Later, in his memoirs, he would issue a one-paragraph apology. When he was asked about the matter during an oral history interview in 1971, “he broke down and burst into tears.” 

These details come from Richard Reeves’ book, Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II. I tell them because of today’s parallels. 

The rage-filled, circus-like storming of the U.S. Capitol by thousands of “patriots” last week was, in the case of many of them, sparked by a sincere belief that they were defending the nation because Democrats had stolen the presidency from Donald Trump. It amounted to mass hysteria on a stunning scale. There is no more factual basis for that notion than there was that Japanese Americans were plotting insurrection. 

Before exploring another parallel, there are two significant differences. The first is that the World War II hysteria was instigated by a very real and frightening event, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The current hysteria is stoked by the president of the United States, who has fashioned out of thin air the notion that Joe Biden’s 7 million popular vote margin and 74-vote Electoral College margin was the result of a massive conspiracy. It is a conspiracy so broad that it involves thousands of local election officials, including Republican governors and secretaries of state and scores of judges, including Trump’s own Supreme Court nominees. Now even his faithful vice president is complicit. Like the Japanese Americans, they have cleverly somehow covered up their tracks.

I’ll discuss below the second way in which the current hysteria diverges from the World War II version. First, a surprising parallel.

Today’s hysteria has another attorney general as a cheerleader. Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, has been fomenting public hysteria with allegations of massive election frauds for years. 

Paxton led a last-ditch attempt to get the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate the presidential election in enough swing states to give the victory to Trump. Seventeen other Republican attorneys general joined him, but the suit was so ludicrous that the court unanimously (including Trump’s three nominees) declined to even consider it.

As was the case 79 years ago, both the head of the FBI, Christopher Wray, and the attorney general, Trump uber-loyalist William Barr, sided with reality. They publicly stated investigations showed no evidence of voter fraud massive enough to swing the election. 

Paxton knows this. According to Hearst newspapers, he doubled his staff and spent almost twice as much money in 2020 chasing voter fraud as in 2018 but found half as many cases. More than 22,000 hours of staff time netted 16 minor infractions, all of them Houston-area voters who listed false addresses on their registration forms. 

Paxton isn’t the only Texas leader stoking the hysteria. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, also a vocal promoter of the mass voter fraud myth, won national attention by offering a million dollars from his campaign account to whistleblowers who could provide evidence leading to convictions for significant voter fraud. As far as we can tell, the only response he has received is from the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, who gleefully cited a man who cast a vote on behalf of his dead mother – for Trump. I guess the failure of a million-dollar reward shows just how disciplined the conspirators are. 

Then there is Texas’ U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who upstaged Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley not only by objecting to the certification of the presidential election by several key states but by calling for a 10-day “emergency audit” of votes in those states.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Cruz cited “unprecedented allegations of voter fraud.” They were unprecedented in the chasm between the scope of the allegations and any evidence accompanying them. Nevertheless, Cruz said, the allegations had “produced a deep, deep distrust of our democratic process across the country” and that “we in Congress have an obligation to do something about that.”

It is, of course, absurd to think that a 10-day congressional “audit,” whatever that is, would reverse the doubts sowed for years among the faithful by Trump, Cruz himself, and other Trump acolytes together with right-wing media. Cruz’s real intention was made clear when, to his embarrassment, citizens on his contact lists received on their phones fundraising appeals bragging about his absurd and futile attempt to keep Congress from certifying Biden’s victory. The texts went out while the Capitol was being overrun.

Here’s the other way in which the World War II analogy breaks down: It is inconceivable that, unlike Earl Warren, Ken Paxton or Dan Patrick or Ted Cruz will ever offer an apology or shed a tear over the damage they have done and the responsibility they share for the election fraud hysteria that led to last Wednesday’s tragic assault on the Capitol.  

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.