America Is Trending Toward Totalitarianism

Photo of Hannah Arendt in 1975

(Given recent news in the USA I thought it valuable to reprint this post from 4 years ago.)

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 … “

~ 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 increasingly authoritarian, totalitarian, and fascist trends 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 persons arguing that we have nothing to worry about. I know there are such people, but if so they must be a tiny minority.

Now I did 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 then take 2 steps forward, etc. Such 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 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 seem irrelevant. Yes, it may be true that life is getting better in many ways, as Steven Pinker recently noted. But such thoughts provide little consolation for the millions who suffer in the interim. When people lack health care and educational opportunities; when they are deported, tortured, falsely imprisoned, or killed in wars; when they live in abject poverty surrounded by gun violence and suffer in a myriad of other ways, none of this is ameliorated by appeals to a faraway future. Even if the world is better in a thousand years, that provides small consolation now.

What is almost self-evident is that America is now becoming more corrupt, and at a dangerously accelerating rate. In response, we must resist becoming like 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. The very survival of the republic is now in doubt.

Of course, I could be mistaken—it’s hard to predict the future. Moreover, I am not a scholar of Italian history, totalitarianism, or mob psychology that enables fascist movements. But I do know that all of us share a human genome; we are more alike than different. Humans are capable of racism, sexism, xenophobia, cruelty, violence, religious fanaticism, and more. We are modified monkeys —in many ways a nasty species. 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 America. It can happen here, and the signs point in an ominous direction. Furthermore, the United States was never a model of liberty or justice. The country was (in large part) built on slave labor as well as 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 childcare; it has outrageous levels of income inequality and little opportunity for social mobility; it ranks near the bottom of lists of social justice; it is one of the few countries in the world to condemn Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and it is consistently ranked as the greatest threat to world peace and one of 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.

But this assumes we live in a democracy. And a compliant and misinformed public can’t think, act or vote intelligently. If you control your citizens with sophisticated propaganda, mindless entertainment, and a shallow consumer culture, 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 … 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 growing 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 grew, forcing me to study poker if I didn’t want to lose money. My studies paid off, and I began to win consistently. I even lived in Las Vegas for about 2 years playing poker professionally.

Then I start playing with strangers, assuming my superior poker skills would prevail. But soon I started losing; finding out later that I was cheated. (I was being cold decked.) It turned out that my opponents played by a different rule—their rule was that I wasn’t leaving the game with any money. Then I discovered that some people will go further, robbing you at gunpoint of the money you had won. (This actually happened to me once.) 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, or ignore obstruction of justice in order to get your way. This signals our entry into the world of mobsters and rogue nations, an immoral world. 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, and with Republican control of the House of Representatives, the situation dramatically deteriorated. (Newt Gingrich is more responsible for this than anyone; he is one of this century’s worst Americans.) One side was determined to get their way and wouldn’t compromise. It was now no holds barred.

In other words, American politics has entered a situation that game-theorists call a 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 their share of taxes, but it is best for any individual, say, Donald Trump, not to pay taxes if they can get away with it. Put differently, you do best when you cheat at poker and don’t get caught, or control the situation if you do get caught. In politics this means you try to hide your crimes, but vilify the press or whistleblowers if you are exposed.

If successful in usurping power, you win in what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes called the state of nature. Hobbes said that in such a state the only values are force and fraud— you win if you dominate, enslave, incarcerate, or eviscerate your opponents. But the problem with this straightforward egoism, Hobbes thought, was that people were “relative power equals.” That is, people can form alliances to fight their oppressors.

So while what Hobbes’ called the right of nature tells you to use whatever means possible to achieve power over others, the law of nature paradoxically reveals that this will lead to continual warfare. The realization of this paradox should lead people to give up their quest for total domination and, thus, cooperate. They do so by signing a social contract in which they agree to and abide by, social and political 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 better people with better ideas, and when they are drunk with their power, you can bet that the rest of us will suffer.

In short, 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 they promote racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. In the end, a few seek wealth and power for themselves, others want a decent life for everyone. Right now the few are winning.


This post originally appeared on this blog on December 29, 2016.

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14 thoughts on “America Is Trending Toward Totalitarianism

  1. As always, I agree entirely with your pessimistic assessment of the state of the country. And your suggestion that Mr. Trump will start down the path to fascism by pursuing revenge against those who cross him is right on the mark; I came to the same conclusion a few days ago.

    I can contribute two ideas to the discussion, the first heartening and the second disheartening.
    On the sunny side, we have a strong likelihood that the Republican Congress will impeach and convict Mr. Trump. I realize that this sounds absurd, but here is my reasoning:
    1. The Republican Party was dead-set against Mr. Trump throughout the primaries, because they recognized just how destructive he could be. Now they all claim to support him, but how sincere do you think that those proclamations are? My guess is that the average Republican is willing to give Mr. Trump the opportunity to demonstrate some statesmanship, but expects Mr. Trump to fail horribly — at which point the Republicans will impeach him. I suspect that many Republican Congresscritters have already discussed this possibility among themselves.

    2. The Republicans need to protect their brand. If Mr. Trump triggers a sequence of scandals — say, grabbing Ms. Merkel by the pussy — the Republican brand will be so discredited that it will lose elections for a generation. In the Republican view, Mr. Trump will surely be gone in four years, and they’ll need to be able to continue to function as a party. They may well conclude that dumping Mr. Trump is the only way.

    3. There is also the very real possibility that Mr. Trump intends to replace the Republican Party with The Gold-Coated Donald J. Trump Party. Why else would he be conducting a victory tour of the country, going to his most enthusiastic supporters? He already won the election! What’s the point of further campaigning? And note that he continues to spew Tweets to his followers. Is this merely a continuation of an old habit or does he intend to develop this new channel so that he can bypass the Republican Party in four years? Indeed, during the primaries he threatened to run as an independent if he lost the primaries. When the Republicans realize that Mr. Trump is a direct threat to their existence, they’ll surely dump him.

    4. Here’s my weakest argument: the Republicans decide that Mr. Trump is harming the country as a whole and conclude that, for the good of the Republic, they must impeach Mr. Trump. Yeah, I know, it sounds absurd, doesn’t it?

    Moreover, from the Republican point of view, impeaching and convicting Mr. Trump will put Mr. Pence into the Oval Office, and while they may find him too far to the right, he’s still a regular Republican politician and won’t go around grabbing women by the pussy.

    I’ve got to run right now, but when I get back, I’ll post the depressing observation. Until then, keep your chin up!

  2. So here’s my bad news:
    The species Homo Sapiens was shaped as a hunter-gatherer creature in the savannah and mixed forest of Eastern Africa. We are optimized to perform well in such circumstances. We have not an iota of civilization in our genes; that’s a cultural overlay.

    One of the important factors in the establishment of human dominance over other creatures is its cultural plasticity. Culture can be adapted to the specific needs of a particular environment, permitting humans to live in places radically different from the grasslands and open forests of Eastern Africa. Too cold? No problem — let’s wrap ourselves in furs!

    Now, genes are capable of adapting to new environments, but generally they take about 10,000 generations to pull off a significant change. That would be about a quarter of a million years for Homo Sapiens. Our reliance on culture permitted much faster adaptation, but even culture can’t turn on a dime. It typically takes a few generations before a culture can adapt to new circumstances. Any serious environmental change that takes place in less that 50 years is probably too fast for human culture to handle.

    Now let’s throw in the idea of progress. We didn’t even notice that civilization was progressing until a few centuries ago, and by the 19th century progress was all the rage, an infatuation that only grew in strength with time.

    Progress changes our environment. If our environment changes, our culture needs to change to adapt to the new circumstances. But culture can’t turn on a dime; it takes a few generations to work out an appropriate change.

    Our base of scientific knowledge is growing faster every year. The technology that this scientific knowledge inspires is also progressing faster every year. And that means that we change our environment faster every year.

    Unless we stop this process, we will inevitably reach a point at which the environment is changing faster than we can adapt to it. At that point, we will no longer be adequately adapted to our environment. And Darwin is unforgiving: any species that cannot adapt to its environment always goes extinct.

    Here’s a small bright note: I don’t think that we’ll actually go extinct. I think that we’ll only destroy our civilization and then regress to our hunter-gatherer roots. But we’ll never be able to repeat the success of current civilization, because it has already consumed all the easily reached resources such as fossil fuels.

    Getting back to Gloom and Doom, I think it safe to say that civilization must needs collapse. Indeed, there’s a solid argument that we are already seeing the first seeds of an inability to adapt in the matter of anthropogenic climate change. Here’s a very real threat to our civilization, and we’ve got a president-elect who denies the very existence of the threat. The March to Doom may well have already begun.

    And have a NICE day! ?

  3. To perhaps inject a foolish note of hopefulness into what I fear is an accurate take on the possible future of pluralistic, relatively democratic America (say, over the next 40 years or so), I suggest anticipating the inevitable Corporate/GOP/Theocratic overreach via hubris and ignorance (willful and otherwise. It’s happened before (even quite recently) and it will very likely happen again. Its what greedy, reactionary, faith-based thinkers do. Hopefully, the rest of us will be able to mitigate the damage somewhat, at least so they don’t end up killing us all. I, for one, will fight them any and every way I can. I know there are plenty of others who will, too. In fact, during the last election, there were some 3 million more.

  4. Thanks for the perceptive comments as always Jim. You are correct that hubris undermines so many monarchs, czars, emperors, kings, queens, etc. And in addition to arrogance, most of them are narcissistic and psychologically unstable just like King Trump. Hopefully this is just a bump on the road and we’ll survive. Too bad so many will suffer in the interim.

  5. I suppose impeachment is a possibility. Obviously he should be impeached the day he takes office for violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause but that doesn’t mean they’ll do it. They’ll only do it if its political advantageous.

  6. Well I’m in agreement here. Cultural evolution is our only hope but even it may be too slow to protect us from nuclear weapons, climate change, asteroids, etc. That’s why I advocate moral and intellectual enhancement.

  7. I just wanted to say thanks for this amazing post which I found thought provoking, insightful, entertaining and terrifying. I’m laughing and crying all at the same time.

    It’s great to see content that address larger patterns instead of focusing simply on narrow sound bytes. Yes, details are important – but without the bigger picture(s) that hold the details and reveal how the details interact, we often fail to see how the details are repeated over and over across the board in different issues. Seeing these larger patterns of human behavior and consequence are the most helpful in making positive change with limited harm. The harmful behavior is sometimes the result of the organic collision of ideas with human behavior. It’s not necessarily intentional, premeditated, or a conspiracy. And at other times… well…

    Now we just have to get the rest of America (and the world) to read stuff like this (and actually wake up). Thanks!

  8. Here’s a little more on the short term vs. long term / Trump / politicians / corporations / greed / success / making America great again thing…

    Our Government should do no harm. If an action could create some ‘great results’ but may also cause harm to health, liberty and/or the pursuit of happiness, then that action should not be taken (or at least it should be reconfigured to eliminate the harm component). Too often those ‘great results’ are driven by goals of making more money, gaining more power, and ‘protecting us’ by eliminating what some people view as threats (both human and biological). To be fair, often those ‘great results’ are pursued with good intentions – however, with limited vision. In my experience so far, these conquests usually focus on the short term benefits without regard to the long term bigger picture effects and how their collision with other ideas, policies and actions will combine – and how they will affect us (and others) down the road.

    Big patterns I see over and over today and though out history are…
    me me me,
    live for today without regard to it’s effect on the future,
    and blind faith in our ability to interfere with nature (let’s face it – science is great but it is humans that devise the experiments, interpret the data and often spin it for their own agenda). We may have the best of intentions but too often we have a serious lack of review before forging ahead blindly. Just because we ‘can’ do something, doesn’t always mean we ‘should’ do it. See the precautionary principle.

    Ultimately, everything comes down to money (which of course equals power).

    We should be working together to make things better. We should be less concerned about getting the maximum we can get and more concerned with helping everything around us (the people and the environment in which we live) because we’re all living in the soup together (whether we like it or not). The more we take care of the soup, the better off we will be. We need to worry less that it’s not fair that ‘I’m paying for someone else’ (maybe it’s welfare, maybe it’s school taxes and I don’t have kids, etc.) and realize that when we support the soup (our environment*) we not only make it better for others – we make it better for ourselves. *The ‘environment’ as not just the trees and air and water. The environment as neighborhoods, cities, countries, nature, animals, organisms and individual people – the whole soup. When you don’t tend the soup – you end up with rotten soup.

    Human corruption is the variable that has messed things up time and time again since the beginning of recorded history (and most likely before that). The trick is to not let humans twist and exploit the system (capitalism, communism, socialism etc. ) which makes it all go bad. We’ve got to find good people. Easier said than done. But that’s the bottom line.

    Too many people (about half the country) see the small picture of people ‘taking advantage of the system’ and they don’t want to ‘give anything else away’ to illegal immigrants (as one example). They want to get rid of ‘illegal immigrants’ because the illegal immigrants are ‘taking away jobs’. People don’t understand all the income that immigrants pour back into the economy. They don’t see there are much bigger fish to fry.

    And when they do see the bigger fish and reject politicians – who do they choose to be in charge? A big business, businessman because he’s not ‘a politician’. Whoa. Is it not obvious that (many) politicians and (many) giant corporation executives are the most dangerous ‘groups’ that currently do the most damage to the world and to people out of pure greed? This election demonstrated that obviously, it is not obvious to everyone. How can we make it obvious to everyone? Trump’s idea of making America great again is short term money success at the expense of long term sustainability and all the problems caused by the short term success as we deregulate, give big business free rein to exploit natural resources, pollute our soup, create unstable financial systems for short term gains and on and on. Have we not learned from so many recent deregulation disasters from oil to finance over the last 50 years? Who loses? We lose. Who wins? Executives and big business (that are still standing after the disaster) and the politicians that supported them (with much smaller gains). Success is not just money. Greed is not success. Success is long term vision – taking care of the soup.

  9. Todd – Thanks so much for your comments. When you toil away—unpaid I might add—in the hope of making the world just a tiny bit better, it is so heartening to receive you comments. And I agree wholeheartedly that we have to try to put things in a larger context to really understand them. Hopefully all of reality is moving in a progressive direction. Thanks again.

  10. As always I so appreciate your thoughtful comments and agree with most of them. Shakespeare said the problem isn’t in the stars but in ourselves and Plato knew the only way to have good government would be to have the most morally and intellectually virtuous united with political power. And of course I’m a transhumanist who believes we must use technology to enhance people.

  11. You raise some great points Sir. I agree we are heading next to the Police state. I do have to object to some points because history matters and we hope some of our better angels prevail so to speak. On your point the USA was built on slave labor. Wow this seems to be accepted now. In the ancient past when I went to school I learned Slavery existed in the Southern states. The North did not have it. There was the civil war. The North also was the economic engine of the USA well into the start of the 20th century. Now there are other areas but this was well after slavery was over in this country. That is the other great point slavery still exists in this world. Oh and it was around in Africa before the Europeans arrived there

  12. Wow! a liberal site then? Uh, Trump has been impeached now it’s 2019 soon 2020.
    Why do people on sites like this willingly or unwittingly fail to say the obvious?
    You have already been voting in your own demise since long before Trump.
    Willson, FDR, etc and all the crap that you’ve brought with it.
    People will say “You can’t have tyranny here because we’re a democracy” Lo freaking l.
    LAW is our tyranny now but because it’s hidden in LAW you won’t or don’t recognize it both sides.
    We already are a fascist and communist state police state and all. its been here now for over a hundred years and will be for a while longer yet. Here’s to hoping Jesus christ comes back as promised and straitens out all this mess!

  13. Trump is planning to create a new political party, which is why he is rather systematically discrediting the GOP.

    Trump has scores of millions of poorly educated followers who would build a third party.

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