American Authoritarianism, Coming 2017

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, and in The Connectivist, Jan. 5, 2017.)

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. Power is not a means; it is an end … The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power”~ George Orwell

I’d like to provide a summary of the main ideas from the many articles I’ve reviewed over the last few weeks about the growing American authoritarianism. And in my next post I will, finally, reflect on what I’ve learned. First, we might recall our definition:

In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people. Authoritarian leaders often exercise power arbitrarily and without regard to existing bodies of law …  Authoritarianism thus stands in fundamental contrast to democracy … ~ Encyclopedia Britannica

In short, authoritarianism describes a government with a large amount of control over the population, using coercive threats, suppression of a free press, as well as propaganda and disinformation to manage the people it rule. Totalitarianism is an extreme version of authoritarianism, and is usually associated with a charismatic leader, while fascism brings ultra-nationalism, corporatism, and racism into the mix. I will let the experts decide which definition best fits Trump and his associates, although all of them fit pretty well.

We began our discussion with the insights of the artificial intelligence and decision theory expert Eliezer Yudkowsky who described “how there’s a level of politics that’s theater and a level of politics that’s deadly serious.” This was meant as a warning for those willing to gamble on choosing unstable, unqualified leaders with authoritarian tendencies. We must remember that bad things can happen in the USA and there are no “nebulous forces” that will come to our rescue.

In “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” Amanda Taub reports on the political science research which converges on the idea that support for Donald Trump correlates almost perfectly with having an authoritarian personality. Support for authoritarian rule derives from the desire of people to be protected from dangers real or imagined.

In “America, The Disgraced Super-power: The America we have known and imagined is ended. It never will return,”  Michael Brenner argues that the USA has taken a cataclysmic turn, and it is slowly becoming a failed state.

… the America we have known and imagined is ended. It never will return …. the choice of Trump reveals most Americans as immature and prone to juvenile behavior.

And he expands his analysis in “How Autocracy Will Come To America,”

The unpalatable truth is that authoritarian movements and ideology with fascist overtones are back … Against this historical backdrop … we … see … the attitudes, the rhetoric and the inspirations that marked Fascism’s rise 80 or 90 years ago … 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 …

Brenner connects his insights with those of Umberto Eco (1932 – 2016), the Italian novelist, literary critic, philosopher, semiotician, and university professor. In 1995, Eco penned an essay in the New York Review of Books entitled “Ur Fascism.” (Eternal fascism) Each of the 14 features of fascism that Eco described parallels the words and actions of Trump.

All this got me to thinking that we shouldn’t be surprised that forces within the USA continue to undermine democracy. After all, it is no secret that the USA has attempted to suppress democracy many times around the world. So if the military and covert forces of the USA willingly overthrow (especially) democratic/populist governments around the world, why wouldn’t they participate in undermining democracy at home? Voter suppression, gerrymandering, propaganda, and all the rest may just be the beginning. From there it is but a short step to using anything, including violence, to get your way.

Such thoughts led me to Henry Giroux’s, “Orwell, Huxley and America’s Plunge into Authoritarianism.” Giroux outlines how technology aids authoritarian regimes in tracking and distracting their citizens into accepting a totalitarian state:

The authoritarian nature of the corporate-state surveillance apparatus and security system … can only be fully understood when its ubiquitous tentacles are connected to … security-patrolled corridors of public schools, the rise in super-max prisons, the hyper-militarization of local police forces, the justification of secret prisons and state-sanctioned torture abroad, and the increasing labeling of dissent as an act of terrorism in the United States. [29] … Alongside efforts to defund public and higher education and to attack the welfare state, a wide-ranging assault is being waged across the culture on all spheres that encourage the public to hold power accountable …

To add to these concerns, Jason Stanley’s “Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality,” offers perceptive commentary on our current, frightening political situation. His key idea is that authoritarian propaganda creates a false reality in order to gain power.

… Trump is trying to convey is that there is wild disorder, because of American citizens of African-American descent, and immigrants … The chief authoritarian values are law and order. In Trump’s value system, nonwhites and non-Christians are the chief threats to law and order. Trump knows that reality does not call for a value-system like his; violent crime is at almost historic lows in the United States. Trump is thundering about a crime wave of historic proportions, because he is an authoritarian using his speech to define a simple reality that legitimates his value system, leading voters to adopt it …

In “An American Authoritarian: The Republican presidential candidate is not a Fascist, but his campaign bears notable similarities to the reign of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.” the historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat points out the similarities between Trump and Mussolini. It is a terrifying read:

Trump … has created a one-man-led political movement that does not map onto traditional U.S. party structures or behave in traditional ways. This is how Fascism began as well … The authoritarian playbook is defined by the particular relationship such individuals have with their followers. It’s an attachment based on submission to the authority of one individual who stands above the party, even in a regime.

In his 2008 book, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianismthe late Princeton University political theorist Sheldon Wolin explained how the United States would fully devolve into authoritarianism. His vision of the future was clearly bleak.

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.

Similar themes are highlighted in Bob Cesca’s, “Autocratic for the people: As Donald Trump’s populist wave recedes, an authoritarian regime in the making is revealed.

… your fears about an autocratic strongman Trump presidency are entirely reasonable … we can expect Trump supporters to vigorously defend him every step of the way, no matter how far he goes … we should look for attacks on religious minorities and immigrants; scapegoating the media; attacks against “un-American” behavior; use of the words “traitor” and “cancer” to characterize dissenters; and then large-scale rallies by Trump loyalists, followed by populist “referendums” to circumvent Congress … Whatever you might be thinking … it can absolutely happen here …

Simon Maloy’s, “The slow-motion decline: Resisting the gradual erosion of democratic institutions under President Trump,” agrees that our current situation is precarious:

It’s bracing to read political scientists and people familiar with autocratic rule write about the parallels they see between the America that elected Donald Trump and the undemocratic regimes they study. Scholars and academics have been writing about this degradation of norms ever since it became clear that Trump was emerging as a potent political force.

Andrew O’Hehir also agrees with the above in, “It can happen here: But has it? The 1933 scenario is no longer hypothetical.”

… We don’t know whether the Trump election marks a fatal tipping point for the American experiment in popular self-government … But history demands that we take that possibility seriously … I think we have to behave … as if our democracy has been irreparably damaged … We don’t know whether the election of Trump is an American echo of the winter of 1932-33 in Germany, when a fragile democracy collapsed into tyranny and an infamous demagogue rose to power on a promise of economic renewal and restored national pride, with an unmistakable racial subtext …

The mathematician and blogger Doug Muder tells us what to look for in, “The Trump Administration: What I’m watching for.” Specifically, Trump and his administration: 1) Taking credit for Obama’s accomplishments; 2) Taking credit for averting dangers that never existed; 3) Profiteering; 4) Changing the electorate; 5) Winking at right-wing paramilitary groups; 6)Subverting government agencies for political advantage; and 7) Paying Putin back.

An author who predicts that most of what Muder worries about might happen is David Frum, the conservative and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, in “David Frum Predicts the Dark Course of Trump’s Impending Authoritarianism.” 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 massively to 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—as happened in Poland & Hungary; 8) … few [IRS] commissioners serve the full 5 years; 9) The FBI seems already to have been pre-politicized in Trump’s favor … 10) Construction of the apparatus of revenge and repression will begin opportunistically & haphazardly. It will accelerate methodically …

Finally, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard University, offer a most sober analysis of our situation in,  Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?”

Donald J. Trump’s election has raised a question that few Americans ever imagined asking: Is our democracy in danger? With the possible exception of the Civil War, American democracy has never collapsed … Yet past stability is no guarantee of democracy’s future survival …

The clearest warning sign is the ascent of anti-democratic politicians into mainstream politics … indicators include a failure to reject violence unambiguously, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of elected governments.

Mr. Trump tests positive … The risk we face, then, is not merely a president with illiberal proclivities — it is the election of such a president when the guardrails protecting American democracy are no longer as secure … We must be vigilant. The warning signs are real.

Finally I reiterate my debt to all the other aforementioned authors for their perceptive insights. Unlike many of fellow citizens, I’m impressed when people actually know something, and I’m happy to benefit from their expertise. If that makes them elite, then so be it. “Intellectually elite” shouldn’t be a pejorative term.

In my next post, I will reflect on what I’ve learned about our current crisis.

3 thoughts on “American Authoritarianism, Coming 2017

  1. I don’t know yet if our democracy is in danger , but I do believe we are eroding the democratic norms that have defined “America”. If we are not carefully diligent with the truth we will be forced to live in an authoritarian state for a very long time with authoritarian leaders that are constitutionally elected. The acceptable culture of the nation has shifted towards fear. Fear is the greatest motivator towards conservativism.

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