“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie …
The totalitarian … leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that … one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism. Instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.” ~ Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
For weeks now, I have been reading and blogging about dozens of articles from respected intellectuals from both the right and left who worry about the increasing authoritarian, totalitarian, and fascist trends growing in America. Interestingly, when I tried to escape my scholarly bubble by looking for voices arguing that we are NOT heading in this direction, I came up empty. I found partisans or apparatchiks who maintain that all is good, but I couldn’t find hardly any well-informed people arguing that we have nothing to worry about. I know there must be such people, but if there are they must be a tiny minority.
Now I dtd find informed voices saying that, in the long run, things will be fine. That the arc of justice moves slowly forward, that we take 1 step back but will then take 2 steps forward. Now thinking about things from a larger perspective resonates with me. I write about big history and believe there may be directionality to cosmic evolution. I’ve even argued that the universe is becoming self-conscious through the emergence of conscious beings, and I’ve even hypothesized that humans may become post-humans by utilizing future technologies! So I can’t be accused of ignoring the big picture.
However, at the moment, such concerns feel obtuse and esoteric. Yes it may be true that life is slowly getting better, and it may also be that consciousness and the cosmos evolve in a progressive direction. But such thoughts provide little consolation for the millions who suffer in the interim. When people lack health care; when they are deported, tortured, falsely imprisoned, or killed in wars; when they live in abject poverty surrounded by gun violence; when they lack educational opportunities and suffer in a myriad of other ways because of corrupt government; none of this is ameliorated by appeals to a far away future. Even if the world is a better place in a thousand years, that’s not much comfort now.
What is almost self-evident now is that our government is becoming more corrupt now, and at a dangerously accelerating rate. (Although in many other ways life is getting better, as Steven Pinker recently noted.) In response we must resist becoming like the those of whom Yeats said: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” So I state unequivocally that I agree with the vast majority of scholars and thinkers—recent trends reveal that the USA is becoming more authoritarian, totalitarian, and fascist.
Of course I could be mistaken. I am not a scholar of Italian history, totalitarianism, or the mob psychology that enables fascist movements. But I do know that all human beings have a human genome, making them much more alike than different. Humans are capable of racism, sexism, xenophobia, cruelty, violence, religious fanaticism and more. We are a nasty species; we are modified monkeys. As Mark Twain said: “Such is the human race … Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.”
Thus I resist the idea that fascism can happen in Germany, Italy or Russia, but not in the United States. It can happen here, and all signs point in an ominous direction. Moreover, the United States was never a model of liberty or justice. The country was built on slave labor and genocide at home and violent imperialism abroad. It is a first world outlier in terms of incarceration rates and gun violence; it is the only developed country in the world without national health and child care; it has outrageous levels of income inequality with few opportunities for individuals to climb the socio-economic ladder; and it is consistently ranked by people around the world as the greatest threat to world peace and the world’s most hated country.
Furthermore, signs of its dysfunction continue to grow. If authoritarian political forces don’t get their way, they shut down the government, threaten to default on the nation’s debt, fail to fill judicial vacancies, deny people health-care and family planning options, conduct congressional show trials, suppress voting, gerrymander congressional districts, support racism, xenophobia and sexism, and spread lies and propaganda. These aren’t signs of a stable society. As the late Princeton political theorist Sheldon Wolin put it:
The elements are in place [for a quasi-fascist takeover]: a weak legislative body, a legal system that is both compliant and repressive, a party system in which one party, whether in opposition or in the majority, is bent upon reconstituting the existing system so as to permanently favor a ruling class of the wealthy, the well-connected and the corporate, while leaving the poorer citizens with a sense of helplessness and political despair, and, at the same time, keeping the middle classes dangling between fear of unemployment and expectations of fantastic rewards once the new economy recovers. That scheme is abetted by a sycophantic and increasingly concentrated media; by the integration of universities with their corporate benefactors; by a propaganda machine institutionalized in well-funded think tanks and conservative foundations; by the increasingly closer cooperation between local police and national law enforcement agencies aimed at identifying terrorists, suspicious aliens and domestic dissidents.
Now with power in the hands of an odd mix of plutocrats, corporatists, theocrats, racists, sexists, egoists, psychopaths, sycophants, anti-modernists, and the scientifically illiterate, there is no reason to think that they will surrender their power without a fight. You might think that if income inequality grows, individual liberties are further constricted, or millions of people are killed at home or abroad, that people will reject those in power when conditions worsened. But this assumes we are a democracy. A compliant and misinformed public can’t think, act or vote intelligently. If you control your citizens with sophisticated propaganda and mindless entertainment, you can persuade them to support anything. With better methods of controlling and distorting information will come more control over the population and, as long the powerful believe they benefit from an increasingly totalitarian state, they will try to maintain it. Most people like to control others; they like to win.
An outline of how we might quickly descend into madness was highlighted by David Frum, the conservative and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Frum envisions the following scenario which is, I believe, as prescient as it is chilling:
1) … I don’t imagine that Donald Trump will immediately set out to build an authoritarian state; 2) … his first priority will be to use the presidency to massively enrich himself; 3) That program of massive self-enrichment … will trigger media investigations and criticism by congressional Democrats; 4) ….Trump cannot tolerate criticism. He … always retaliating against perceived enemies, by means fair or foul; 5) … Trump’s advisers and aides share this belief [they] … live by gangster morality; 6) So the abuses will start as payback. With a compliant GOP majority in Congress, Trump admin can rewrite laws to enable payback; 7) The courts may be an obstacle. But w/ a compliant Senate, a president can change the courts … 8) … few [IRS] commissioners serve the full 5 years; 9) The FBI seems … pre-politicized in Trump’s favor … 10) Construction of the apparatus of revenge and repression will begin opportunistically & haphazardly. It will accelerate methodically …
Let me tell a personal story to help explain the cutthroat, no holds bar political world that is rapidly evolving in America today. Years ago I played high-stakes poker. It started out innocently, a few friends having a good time playing for pocket change. Slowly the stakes became bigger, forcing me to study poker if I didn’t want to lose money. My studies paid off, and I began to win consistently. Great.
Then I start playing with people I didn’t know, assuming my superior poker skills would prevail. But soon I started losing; finding out later that I was being cheated! (I was being cold decked.) I found out that my opponents played by a different rule—I was not leaving the game with money! Then I found out that some people will rob you at gunpoint of the money you had won. (This actually happened to me.) So once the gentleman’s rules of poker no longer applied, nothing was off-limits. Similarly, once the agreement to play by democratic rules is violated, all bets are off. For example, you begin to ignore the other parties Supreme Court nominees, or threaten to default on the nation’s debts in order to get your way. This is a sign that we have entered an amoral world. It is the world of mobsters and rogue nation states. And the logical end of this state of affairs is violence.
This describes the current political situation. The US Congress was once characterized by comity, but is so no longer. From the period after World War II to about 1980, the political parties in the USA generally compromised for the good of the nation. The radicalization of the Republican party began in the 1980s and by the mid 1990s, with Republican control of the House of Representatives, the situation deteriorated into a no holds bar world. One side was determined to get their way and wouldn’t compromise.
Thus American politics has entered a situation that game-theorists call the prisoner’s dilemma. A prisoner’s dilemma is an interactive situation in which it is better for all to cooperate rather than for no one to do so, yet it is best for each not to cooperate, regardless of what the others do. For example, we would have a better country if everyone paid taxes, but it is best for any individual (say Donald Trump) not to pay taxes if they can get away with it. In other words, you do best when you cheat at poker and don’t get caught or control the situation if you do. In politics this means you either hide your crimes or vilify the press or whistleblowers or whoever exposes you.
If successful you are winning in what the great philosopher Thomas Hobbes called, a state of nature. Hobbes said in such a state the only values are force and fraud. If you dominate, enslave, incarcerate, or eviscerate your opponents, then you win. The problem, Hobbes thought, was that people are “relative power equals.” That is, people can form alliances to take back the power that their oppressors had usurped. Thus people would be forced to sign a social contract in which they agree to and abided by social rules.
But if we live in a country where people are radically unequal in their power—Democrats vs. Republicans; unions vs. corporations; secularists vs theocrats; African-Americans vs. white nationalists—then those in power won’t compromise with the less powerful. When the powerful few are imbued with the idea that they are superiors human beings, you can bet that the rest of us will suffer.
It is a centuries old story. People want power. They will do almost anything to attain it. When they have it they will try to keep it. And they will try to divide those who should join together to fight them, hence their emphasis on racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. In the end, some seek wealth and power for a few, others want a decent life for everyone. Right now the few are winning.