photo by Noah Berger for AP
There is a perverse tendency in human nature for people who distrust and hate government (many of them self-described “libertarians”) to embrace fascism and other forms off totalitarianism and authoritarianism. First, there is an embrace of misanthropy and a rejection of democracy — as in “(This group of citizens) are too stupid or dangerous to be entitled to vote or otherwise participate in the political process”. “This group of citizens” may be defined by ethnic, racial, cultural, geographic, gender, caste, economic or social distinctions.
So the first sign of fascism is an attempt at selective disenfranchisement. That includes making registering and voting harder for the selected “enemy” group, the use of gerrymandering, transferring major powers and major government services to, and offering major no-bid contracts to, unelected “party faithful” members, and selling off public assets, properties and institutions to private interests known to be friends of the fascists.
Understandably, such attempts are going to be resisted and protested. So the second step in the slide into fascism is the selective suppression of dissent. The idea is to write oppressive laws in a weaselly way that allows enforcement agencies to apply them only against the fascists’ perceived “enemies”, while using code words to make it clear to fellow fascists that these laws, while theoretically non-discriminatory, will in fact only be used against opponents and not friends of the fascist parties. You know: “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to be worried about…”.
The third step, which we have seen in places like Hungary and Poland of late, is the suppression, take-over, or shut-down of mainstream media that are not supportive of the fascists’ actions. It is hard, but not impossible, to get to the point that large swathes of the population are unable to hear in public places any opposition to the fascists’ talking points. Once the media are controlled, the time-worn adage that if you tell people a lie often enough they’ll believe it’s the truth, comes into play.
So the fourth step is to begin using these media as the mouthpieces for a steady barrage of misinformation, disinformation, hate-mongering, and other forms of fascist propaganda. Fear is sown so deeply and broadly this way that even moderates begin to doubt that what they’d always believed is true. Gaslighting is brought into play, both top-down, and, more importantly, at the local level — at the municipal, county and regional government levels that control most law enforcement.
And then the fifth step is to ensure that law enforcement, from local police to the military and the courts, are recruited to the fascist cause. That is often an easy step, since many of those recruited to law enforcement are those who have been traumatized by situations where brutality and atrocity was tolerated and hence are predisposed to favour harsh repression of, and low tolerance for, anyone perceived to be a threat to “personal or public safety”. Fascism, with its simplistic us-vs-them polarizing tactics, is pretty easy to sell to them, in a recipe of which the main ingredient is fear. And stacking the courts isn’t that hard once you’ve disenfranchised the opposition, and in some jurisdictions court appointments are for life.
And the sixth step is to develop, encourage and reward local fascist vigilante groups and “militias” to reinforce the police/military/court actions and “normalize” hate-crimes against the opponents of fascism, make it appear like “the average guy in the street” is on board.
Of course, the fascists will never use the term fascism to describe the nature, goals and effects of these actions. They will use terms like “fighting fraud and criminality”, “cracking down on anarchy”, “making the streets safe again”, returning to an idealized non-existent past, or even draw on old standbys like “eradicating communism” where that plays well.
These six steps pave the way for large-scale arrests, incarceration without charges, and “disappearances” of the identified enemies of the fascist regime, the cancellation of elections, the elimination of “term limits”, and the building of secret prisons, detention centres and “reeducation centres”. And, if that is successful, they may be inclined to invade other countries to eliminate “enemies” there too. Nothing at all new in any of this.
At this point, finally, it starts to twig to right-libertarians who have supported the fascist cause thus far, because they thought it was on the “right side”, that the regime has instituted the antithesis of libertarianism, and what they have helped bring about could easily be used against them. “First they came for…”.
But by this time it is too late. Once an initial easy-target enemy (often either a specific ethnic minority that is already envied for their success, or feared for their “different” behaviours, or just “immigrants” and “illegal aliens” in general) have been eliminated, the same formula can then be applied to other groups, until all opposition has been eliminated.
Germany and Italy in the 1930s (20 million killed), Russia under Stalin (60 million killed), China under Mao (80 million killed), most of the fascist regimes in so-called “third world countries”, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, you can see the same patterns so often before fascist and other totalitarian and authoritarian regimes became established. The pattern continues today, notably in some Latin American and Eastern European countries where democracy has never been more than an untested, theoretical ideal.
The US Republican Party has now fully embraced the principles of fascism and is moving rapidly to institute steps two through five, from the bottom up at least until the midterms. Dozens of draconian voter disenfranchisement and protest suppression initiatives have been passed or introduced in Republican-dominated states. Many of them are quite blatantly racist. You will soon, in some states, be exempt from prosecution if you run down protesters in your vehicle. This is how it starts.
US citizens have already been conditioned to accept gerrymandering and other voter suppression methods as “normal”. Republicans have been transferring government services (including prisons and military programs) to private friends since Reagan. The sell-off of public properties, assets, and institutions has accelerated with each Republican president and congress, in the interest of “balancing the budget”.
Republican conglomerates dominate the mainstream media in almost every area of the country, notably the execrable Faux News propaganda arm of the party. The attack on the few remaining moderate media outlets (“the liberal media”) has been incessant, and there are calls to disenfranchise NPR and PBS. Even the moderate outlets are faithfully repeating the fear-mongering and war-mongering anti-Chinese, anti-Russian, anti-Iranian talking points fed to them by the fascist-controlled American intelligence agencies, supported by the current faux-moderate administration.
The degree to which local police, even in large cities, and the military are breeding grounds for racism, and acts of oppression and even murder, has been brought into stark relief by recent trials. But essentially nothing has been or will be done about it. And the courts at every level have been packed with judges sympathetic to Republican suppression and oppression programs.
While the vigilantes and “militias” are in short-term retreat, that is mainly because they are not yet well-controlled and briefed on how to make their conduct politically and socially palatable. Expect to see them back, more disciplined, and better dressed, soon.
Some of the more severe fascist actions have been well-tested on small scales under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Secret prisons with waterboarding and other tortures were tested in several countries in the Middle East, and Guantanamo goes on and on. Homeland Security, the CIA, NSA and ICE are clearly already out of control of any elected government and are ripe for use by the next fascist regime, as is the Pentagon’s staggering and completely unaccounted-for budget. The FBI are known to use extortion and arbitrary detention on citizens and visitors to advance the US’s “security” authorities’ domestic and international spying and destabilization objectives.
So why? Why is a country that ostensibly stands for freedom slowly sliding into fascism?
My sense is it’s about fear. The evidence is everywhere that collapse is upon us — that the easy affluence (for some castes anyway) of the last 50 years is yielding to an era of scarcity, precarity, cascading crises, and widespread suffering. Denial is increasingly difficult to sustain. We feel it in our bones. The promise of a better future has evaporated, just as it did in many nations just before fascism took hold. Exhaustion and hopelessness are setting in. Someone, some group, must be held responsible, must be blamed. Something, anything, must be done to restore the dream.
There is a visceral buildup and outpouring of anger happening, which is so often a mask for fear. Talk radio, social media, barroom conversations, are rife with it.
I have long hoped that we would approach our fast-evolving multiple planetary emergencies the way we approached the Great Depression — with a renewed sense that we’re all in this together and have to work together to deal with it.
But now I fear we have been too long sold on the promise of endless “progress”, growth and prosperity, and its falsity is proving a bitter pill to swallow. Our capacity to function as communities has been lost, as communities have fragmented into anonymous, isolated “neighbourhoods”, where we don’t know and hence can’t trust our neighbours. And with the globalized economy we have lost the capacities, knowledge and skills needed to function as self-sufficient communities, and become almost infantilized — utterly dependent on huge, powerful, uncaring, profit-obsessed corporate oligarchies and soulless institutions, even for our essential goods and services. No wonder we’re scared!
And as the utter failure of the myth of perpetual growth and progress, and the devastation we have wrought that future generations will inherit, sinks in, the anger is exacerbated by a deep sense of shame, and of course denial. How could we have fucked up the world for our kids so badly? It just can’t be!
The small towns and isolated cities where the Republican fascist agenda is now entrenched, hear no other, more reasoned voices, only the endless drumbeat of Republican fascist propaganda, and the opprobrium and ridicule of faraway elitists calling them “deplorables”.
In the US, as a result, a civil war has begun, starting as a war of words and new, repressive laws. In much of the country, the war for the citizens’ hearts and minds has already been lost to the fascists.
This cannot end well. Instead of dealing with urgent, growing, global economic and ecological emergencies — the first wave of civilizational collapse — in a logical, coordinated, and consensual manner, it increasingly looks as if its next manifestation, at least in the US, will be the escalation of its civil war to physical violence, incarceration, oppression, and isolationism.
The lessons of history suggest that pulling back from the brink of fascism is unlikely — there is no deus ex machina, including Biden’s massive CoVid-19 bailout and infrastructure plans, that will change the situation on the ground for the majority of Americans who are giving up, or have already given up, on a peaceful means of coping with the deepening, intractable and seemingly hopeless situation that is their grim, unending day-to-day existence. It is now likely to be either civil war at home or a distracting and perilous foreign war against one or more of Biden’s (and the security apparatus’) identified overseas whipping boys — China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba etc.
It’s hard to conceive which would be worse. The US might even face both simultaneously, like the Romans. Sadly, collapse is now inevitable in any case, but it would be nice to have the history books show that we at least did our best to address it, and to change course. When you speak with people who have survived a fascist regime, they always say they didn’t expect it to happen there. They always thought reason and good sense would prevail. I’m sure that twenty or thirty years from now they’ll be saying that about the US as well.
But it can’t be helped. Our species has shown neither the propensity nor the skill to learn the lessons of history, and that history is relentlessly violent and disappointing for believers in the myth of progress and human enlightenment.
America, despite its delusions of exceptionalism, has throughout its history often repeated the errors and atrocities of previous empires, and is doing so again now, on an unprecedented scale.
And the situation in many, perhaps most of the nations in the world, doesn’t look all that different, or too far behind America’s slide. The nations that smugly believe “It would never happen here” have likewise not read their history.
Still, we’ve done our best, all of us. It’s a shame that our naïveté, our incapacity to see and face the truth, and our massive collective trauma, have brought us to this ignominious point. We probably thought we’d at least last as long as the dinosaurs. No matter. After us, the dragons.