Michael Brenner’s: “How Autocracy Will Come To America”

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, December 25, 2016.)

Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.
~ James Baldwin

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.

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