IEET > Technopolitics > Philosophy > Rights > Political Empowerment & Participation > Affiliate Scholar > John G. Messerly
Michael Brenner’s: “How Autocracy Will Come To America”
John G. Messerly   Dec 25, 2016   Reason and Meaning  

Another great piece about the rise of American authoritarianism that I’ve read recently is “How Autocracy Will Come To America” by Michael J. Brenner. Brenner is a Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations, and Professor of International Affairs at University of Pittsburgh. Brennan argues that anti-democratic sentiments are clearly leading the way toward fascism. He begins like this:

The uniqueness of the 2016 election is the radicalism of the winner—in terms of content, manner, and temperament. There is no precedent among mature democracies for the election as head of government of someone so gross, so ignorant, so bigoted and so inexperienced.

While the obvious response to this situation is to fight or flee, instead Brenner says most people adopt a third option

… to inhale through a scented kerchief until one gets accustomed to the smell and treats it as normal. Most Americans already have chosen that third path … For it is the course of least effort; and we have acquired considerable aptitude at devising methods to spare ourselves harsh realities by making believe that they are something else … the man in the White House is there because of that facility at blurring the line between the virtual and the actual—and to live in a world of self-delusion.

Moreover, all of this newfound radicalism is made to appear inevitable:

Everything must look to be the same so that everything can change.Thereby, the sharp edge is taken off opposition to those drastic changes, opportunities for cooptation expanded, language molded so that the old words and phrases subtly acquire new meanings, so that … a new normal is impressed on minds …

Americans are particularly receptive at seeing this radicalism as the new normal because Americans value practical wisdom and willpower. They tell themselves to pragmatically adapt to the new situation, and to seek out common ground with this new radicalism … After all, there is good in everyone. Liberals especially believe such things, as they tend to be optimistic. The problem is that, “This philosophy guided Obama’s strategy of conciliation mingled with appeasement toward his implacable Republican opposition. The results were nil in terms of policy and disaster politically for the Democrats.” Furthermore, these traits impede efforts to counter the growing menace in our politics:

The unpalatable truth is that authoritarian movements and ideology with fascist overtones are back—in America and in Europe. Not just as a political expletive thrown at opponents, but as a doctrine, as a movement, and—above all—as a set of feelings. Against this historical backdrop, it should not be a complete surprise that due to the troubled state of the West, across Europe and now most pronounced in America, we should see recrudescence of the attitudes, the rhetoric and the inspirations that marked Fascism’s rise 80 or 90 years ago. Some ingredients are recognizable: racist hate; scapegoating of the alien “other;” mounting feelings of insecurity … ; frustrated feelings of lost prowess; the scorning of elected democratic leaders condemned … as “weak” … and overbearing … Its intoxicating effects have given America over to the Tea Party and placed the Orangutan in the White House.

Brenner admits that our situation doesn’t exactly match previous versions of fascism. “Trump is not a mass murderer. He is, though, a mentally unbalanced racist with strong autocratic tendencies.” To better understand the similarities between Trump and previous forms of fascism, Brenner turns to an essay by Umberto Eco which “distilled essence of Fascism.” We will discuss that essay in detail in tomorrow’s post.

John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website:


An excerpt from Steven Pinker:

Several awful things happened in the world’s democracies in 2016, and the election of a mercurial and ignorant president injects a troubling degree of uncertainty into international relations.
But it’s vital to keep cool and identify specific dangers rather than being overcome by a vague apocalyptic gloom… Beware of headlines. And beware of statistics from advocacy organizations whose funding stream depends on stoking fear and outrage — I’ve learned that they can never be taken at face value. There are reasons to doubt that we’re seeing a big post-Trump rise in hate crimes. Rates of hate crime tend to track rates of overall crime, and there was an uptick of both in 2015, before Trumpism. Indeed, Trump capitalized on the crime uptick to sow panic about the state of the nation, and progressives foolishly ceded the issue to him. Moment-by-moment analyses of Google searches by the data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz show that Islamophobia strongly tracks incidents of terrorism with Muslim perpetrators. So hate crimes will probably depend more on overall crime rates and — in the case of Islamophobic hate crimes — on terrorist attacks than on a general atmosphere created by Trump. More generally, the worldwide, decades-long current toward racial tolerance is too strong to be undone by one man. Public opinion polls in almost every country show steady declines in racial and religious prejudice­ — and more importantly for the future, that younger cohorts are less prejudiced than older ones. As my own cohort of baby boomers (who helped elect Trump) dies off and is replaced by millennials (who rejected him in droves), the world will become more tolerant.
It’s not just that people are increasingly disagreeing with intolerant statements when asked by pollsters, which could be driven by a taboo against explicit racism. Stephens-Davidowitz has shown that Google searches for racist jokes and organizations are sensitive indicators of private racism. They have declined steadily over the past dozen years, and they are more popular in older than younger cohorts

Thanks instamatic for the Pinker quote. We certainly should keep cool but also not bury our heads in the sand. Hopefully what’s happening now is a rearguard action, the last stand of a dying breed of racists, homophobes, misogynists, xenophobes, etc.

But again Pinker’s advice reminds us to keep to place the current insanity in a broader perspective. Thanks, JGM

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