6 min read

Is America (Really) Embracing Authoritarianism?

Is America (Really) Embracing Authoritarianism?

Something remarkable—and sinister's—happening in America. America appears to be embracing...dictatorship. Openly. Eagerly. Enthusiastically, even. Not all Americans, of course, insert the caveat of your choice. But enough for something genuinely rare, not to mention singular in America's history, to be now visible before our eyes: a democracy isn't just sleepwalking towards it, but actively, willingly embracing authoritarianism.

Those of us acquainted with history should shudder at this. We're witnessing something special. You don't see democracies cheering on their demise every day, in manias of Thanatos, death drive, unless it's in decades like these—it's profoundly disturbing, and exceedingly rare, even if it's been, as we'll discuss, normalized, to witness all this, and it deserves to be examined carefully.

Trump's now not just open about what he intends to do as President. It's going further, seemingly, by the day. The "open"part consists of a 1000 page plan to basically purge and transform government into a submissive vessel. This last weekend, his rhetoric, and this is according to the White House, "echoed"...the Nazis. Trump spoke of "vermin" who are "poisoning" "our" "blood," which of course carries the lurid taint of classic fascist scapegoating. Meanwhile, though, far from rejecting all this vehemently, which is what would of course happen in a healthy democracy, Trump's...surged ahead. We're witnessing a democracy approving, in the loosest sense, in other words, of authoritarianism.

Is it really that bad? What to make of all this?

Trump's successfully normalized this stratagem by now, through the familiar authoritarian tactic of one-transgression-at-a-time, the creep which numbs a civil society's defense mechanisms, as it wearily gives up on a new outrage every day, and goes numb. And yet it should concern us all, for obvious reasons. We don't see leaders of advanced democracies speak this way, but dictators, tyrants, and autocrats of other kinds—and that's precisely because such language isn't just language at all: it corrodes norms, violates personhood, licenses fanatics, and tends to be precisely the slippery slope that leads into the abyss. As, of course, is being a "dictator," which is now a demagogic punchline, not a siren of alarm.

Trump's fans are of course eating it up. Asked, they'll say (and there are countless interviews about this) that Trump's just "joking" about being a dictator, or "he doesn't really mean it," or "would it be so bad, anyways?" To give you some indication of how bad it really is, a friend of mine, disheartened bitterly with Biden's stance on Gaza, wondered aloud, "Trump wouldn't have done this."

What's happening here? What's really going on? Are we actually watching a democracy, one of the most powerful in history...again, not just sleepwalk into, but eagerly embrace authoritarianism? And if we are, is this shades—perhaps shadows—of the 1930s, all over again?

What's happening here is that Trump's successfully creating a kind of magic spell, only it's, sadly, very real. He's inducing a kind of sadistic mania amongst his faithful, and amongst many more Americans besides, the kinds who might not be die-hard MAGA believers, but are open to....authoritarianism? I put it in question marks to highlight just how remarkable it is to witness all this. And yet that's the power of the spell. The sadistic mania that's being induced here, which appears to be sending people into histrionic glee.

This is a familiar strategy amongst demagogues. First, create a sense of fear, an existential one—they're coming for our wives, kids, land, and so forth. Then, dehumanize them—"they're" not people at all, just "vermin." What we do with vermin? Nobody much has to spell it out, because the implication's clear, especially to the fanatics and extremists, who now think of themselves as carrying a license. Beneath all this is the notion that "blood" is being tainted, and its purity belongs only to the "real' Volk, the masters, the supreme.

Why does that magic spell work? Think of American life. Above all, Americans feel powerless. They're in profound despair, stress, distress. Statistic after statistic proves it—we've discussed them tons, so I won't do so again here, suffice it to say that 70% of Americans or more are distressed about the state of the nation, the future, their own plight. When people are this wounded, it's all the easier to manipulate their emotions. To give them a feeling of power, belonging, meaning, and purpose again—even if it's a malignant one.

The sadistic mania, in other words, is very real. It's about punishment, and at a disproportionate, overkill level—that's the sadism. The plan, and it's a literal plan, isn't just to be President again, it's to purge and transform every last aspect and agency of government—overkill. It's to wreak vengeance on a numinous, as yet undefined set of enemies, from the much-hated journalists, to the opposition, and then expand from there. And of course, the clear implication of all the above is that the object of the mission is to purify the blood of the nation, and thus restore its fortune again, because only the pure are righteous, and deserve moral justice. See the means—overkill—and see the end: not just domination, nor authoritarianism, but something more totalitarianism.

In all totalitarianisms, there's more than a hint of sadism. Sadism is very much part of the project—the psychosocial dimension, if you like. What I mean by that is that sadism gives the project's true believers, and most eager participants, precisely what they'd lacked, yet craved. Power, belonging, meaning, purpose. I have this much power—I can punish you, any way I like. I'm the one who truly belongs, and I prove it by dehumanizing you. My life has meaning again—to hurt you, to take away your your humanity. And finally, infamously, I'm "one" with the fascist mission, which is what "fascii" are, the "bundle of sticks": my purpose is to be the sword of vengeance and the threshing scythe of purification.

So totalitarianism thrives on sadism. Think about so many examples from history, and how terrible they were. Stalin's reign of terror. Countless examples from East Asia, replete with the worst abuses. And of course the Nazis themselves, and their almost cartoonish sadism. The sadism is there for a reason. It bonds people together in the project. It's the psychosocial glue of implosive movements. The reward, the rush, the thrill, that replaces the despair, pessimism, and hopelessness.

Why am I bringing all this up, and diving so deep into how it all works? The question was: is America really embracing dictatorship? Now we can begin to answer that question a little. The kind of sadism we're beginning to see is a hallmark of an embrace of a certain kind. When demagogues turn this sadistic, it's one thing—when they're met with roars, cheers, and adulation, it's quite another. Both together warn of a fatal embrace.

That embrace, though is even darker than mere aspiring authoritarianism. I used the word totalitarianism above, and I did so for a reason. The transition from authoritarianism to totalitarianism is precisely what confronts America now. The first Trump years were an attempt at the former, which ended, spectacularly, with an attempted series of coups. The second Trump years, though, promise to be different—from the sophisticated plan to reshape governance, the rhetoric now at the outer edges, the manias, the willing denial. All these are elements of totalitarian movements, which are more advanced, harder, more rigid even than mere authoritarian ones—devoted to totalizing society around a project, idea, end, mission. Total control, under an authoritarian's thumb, plan, purges, mania, approval, all.

So the danger now isn't just that America embraces authoritarianism—but of a more advanced degree still: it's that totalitarianism is now openly proposed, and met with approval, not just from a die-hard fringe, but from a very significant portion of society—even a majority. Who aren't thinking it through very clearly yet, because the price of the despair and hopelessness that's now endemic is that the rational mind shuts down. Think about that for a second, because it should give us all pause. Trump's open about the agenda of totalitarianism, and yet he's currently the leading candidate.

I put it to you in these precise terms for a reason. All along the way, America's establishment has been behind the curve, and struggled to understand what sort of movement it really confronts now. First, it was slow to say fascism, during Trump's election campaign and Presidency, then it was slow to say authoritarianism, until Jan 6th happened. Today, the situation's different—and yet still the same. The White House, among many others, from the New York Times and The Washington Post, speaks of fascism and the Nazis.

And yet even at this stage, like before, the understanding is still slow to arrive. Totalitarianism is the agenda. The sadistic manias it's met with signal it's acceptance. These are severe warning signals, and though we've all been inured to Trump, his flock, American collapse, and the ongoing decline of democracy, and it's wearying to have to even consider all this—what is that a wise mind once said about vigilance?

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