Home > Uncategorized > Reckoning with authoritarianism – posted 12/13/2020

Reckoning with authoritarianism – posted 12/13/2020

When the U.S. Supreme Court did not accept the lawsuit filed by the Texas Attorney General and 17 other Republican-led states, I am sure many Democrats and independents felt a sense of relief. The many half-baked Trump-inspired lawsuits meant to overturn the popular will were defeated, often in ignominious fashion.

Still, it is hard not to feel seriously uneasy about where this election has left us as a nation. One party had no problem aggressively opposing the result of a fair election and seeking its reversal. The desire for power trumped any concern for democracy. Trump has been attempting to install himself as a dictator. Hardly any Republicans spoke up in opposition to Trump’s attempted coup.

The Republican Party has transformed from a mainstream conservative political party to an extremist neo-fascist party. The party is contemptuous and dismissive of its political opposition. It has become a haven for white supremacists and fanatic anti-immigrant sentiment. It is largely dismissive of conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science. The party is home for all manner of conspiracy theories.

Insisting this presidential election was stolen by fraud is a widely popular view among Republicans. “Stop the steal” is their chant and is on their signs. Trump claims, without evidence, the 2020 election was “rigged”. Departing into unreality, his supporters say he won “in a landslide”. Trump tweeted that he is the victim of the “greatest Election Fraud in the history of the United States”.

Trump has a long history of casting doubt on elections. He did this in 2016 before he won. He said that election was rigged too. Even after he won, he claimed that he lost the popular vote due to fraud.

I would suggest that this is not the behavior of a normal political party in a democracy that accepts results regardless of whether they win or lose. Trump has never committed to a peaceful transfer of power. The Republicans have departed from a democratic framework and are following an authoritarian playbook to achieve power.

Scholars of fascism, Jason Stanley and Ruth Ben-Ghiat, have outlined strategies in the playbook. These strategies have consistently appeared in countries that have degenerated into authoritarianism. They include: the mythic past, propaganda, suppressing and demonizing media, victimhood and polarization through creation of a demonized out group.

The slogan Make America Great Again encapsulates the story of the mythic past. What period is being harkened back to? A glorious American past requires much erasure of atrocities like genocide against Native Americans and slavery. The idea of Make America Great Again is based on the falsehood that we need to restore what we once were. Like all countries, America has a complicated history, with strengths and weaknesses. We do not need a fake mythic past.

Jason Stanley says that fascist movements have been “draining the swamp” for generations. The propaganda about draining the swamp created a convenient cover for corrupt practices. A major priority for Trump has been using his position to maximize profits for his own businesses. The words “public interest” do not exist for Trump. Invariably, he appointed people opposed to the mission of their respective federal agencies. Scandals became normalized while he said he was draining the swamp.

Trump attacks many journalists, often calling them “enemy of the people”. Last September at a rally in Minnesota he went after MSNBC reporter, Ali Velshi, who was hit in the knee by a rubber bullet while reporting on a Minneapolis protest prompted by the police killing of George Floyd. Trump said, “It was the most beautiful thing. It’s called law and order”.

Velshi responded:

“What law did I break while covering an entirely peaceful (yes, entirely peaceful) march?”

Trump has said, “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news…Just remember: what you are seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening”.

Trump follows the Joseph Goebbels school and his Big Lie theory. Goebbels said, “ If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”. Trump has lived the Goebbels approach and this is true across the board. Whether the subject is climate change or COVID-19, facts that contradict his goals of power and personal profit are denied. No one in American public life has ever had less regard for the truth than Donald Trump.

Somehow even though he is a tycoon living in the lap of luxury with multiple residences he considers himself a victim. In a Georgia rally on December 5 , Trump said, “We’re all victims. Everybody here, all these thousands of people here tonight, they’re all victims, everyone of you”.

Trump continually whines that he, the tycoon, a man of life-long enormous wealth and privilege, is being treated unfairly. That is a strange mantra from the party of personal responsibility.

The sense of aggrieved victimhood is something he sells his followers. They are supposedly the victim of illegal immigrants, advances by women, people of color and LGBTQ communities. Trump has played particularly to the fear immigration will lead to “the browning of America”.

I worry that Americans are not seeing the authoritarian threat posed by this type of politics. Americans historically have a poor track record with early recognition of fascist dangers. In the 1920’s Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist leader, received an amazingly positive reception in the American press. He was seen as charming and masculine, a kind of celebrity.

In the early 1930’s Hitler too had a surprisingly positive American reception. Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and radio priest Charles Coughlin all gave Nazi Germany glowing reviews. It was not until much later that Americans widely recognized the fascist threat.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat has written that the authoritarian playbook has no chapter on failure. Trump still is not accepting his defeat. Avoiding his own criminal prosecution and maintaining his personality cult are strong motives to stay on as president.

The Texas case shows how far Trump and a wide range of Republicans are willing to go. A pro-Trump state did not like voting results in four battleground states that voted for Biden so apparently Biden votes should not count, And that from the party of state’s rights.

If the election had been closer, it is possible Trump’s anti-democratic efforts might have worked.

Anyone who thinks we are out of the woods as far as the advance of authoritarianism in America is not paying close attention. Whether it is Trump again or another smarter fascist wannabe, this brand of politics is likely to be back in 2024. Nobody in the Republican Party is seriously pushing back against it in a public way.

Americans of our generation do not have personal experience with dictatorship. Our democratic guardrails barely held this time. To advance as a multiracial democracy, Americans must call out and stop all authoritarian demagogues. If we do not reckon with authoritarianism, the American democratic experiment could very well end.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Patricia Dawson
    December 14, 2020 at 12:58 am

    I couldn’t agree more. These are scary times.

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