10 min read

American Theocracy, The Three Forces of Collapse, Plus How Democracies Implode

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  2. Scientists under arrest: the researchers taking action over climate change (Nature)
  3. Trump compares himself to Navalny, arguing legal cases against him are ‘a form of communism or fascism’ (El Pais)
  4. Give Me Propaganda or Give Me Death (Wired)
  5. Walmart sales are up, but it’s flashing a warning sign about buying habits (Fortune)
  6. The Hot New Luxury Good for the Rich: Air (New Republic)
  7. Teen Subcultures Are Fading. Pity the Poor Kids. (NYT)
  8. Solzhenitsyn’s Warning (The Atlantic)

The Rise of American Theocracy

By now, you might have already heard.

WaPo: "Throughout Alabama, there is widespread shock, anger and confusion over how to proceed after the state Supreme Court ruled Friday that frozen embryos are people, a potentially far-reaching decision that could upend women’s reproductive health care in a state that already has one of the nation’s strictest abortion laws.

The state Supreme Court decision signals a new chapter in America’s fight over reproductive rights and marks another blow to women’s rights groups that expect similar challenges in other conservative states. The ruling is limited to Alabama, but legal experts say it could embolden the “personhood movement,” which asserts that unborn children should be granted legal rights beginning at conception."

What does this, as one desperate woman said in the article quoted above, even mean? How to make sense of a move this radical and extreme? This is what was set in motion when the Supreme Court struck down Roe—and similar decisions are more than likely to follow in other states. If and when it’s appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, there’s every chance that under the idea of “states’ rights,” such rulings might well stand, leaving America…what, precisely? A theocracy, in many key respects, or at least the beginnings of one.

It should go without saying what a disastrous decision this is. If embryos are people, and life begins at conception, which is what the ideology backing this claims, than of course any woman who has a miscarriage is a potential murderer—and it’s perfectly reasonable for her to be investigated, charged, and tried. That’s a slippery slope, and a dark alley, that no society should want to go down, because it’s called…

Theocracy. How to understand this? MSNBC put it well: “Birth control, same sex marriage, and no-fault divorce are among the likely targets for elimination in a second Trump term if Christian nationalists are able to leverage positions in the administration to impose their priorities.” In other words, this is just the beginning, or at least the continuation of the beginning, in a post-Roe society—but the eventual goal is something much more like a true theocracy.

I don’t use that word lightly. There’s no scientific basis for believing in any of this ideology, of course. But more precisely, here we have the beginnings of a society in which basic rights are being severely, dramatically curtailed. The end of Roe brought with it the possibility of sharp limitations of rights of movement, expression, association, privacy, intimacy—basic freedoms of all kinds. In this ruling from Alabama, we begin to see just how swift and stark that erosion really is, and can be. Can a woman discuss IVF with a doctor now? A friend? Is a miscarriage a felony criminal offense? Of course, if “life begins at conception”—meaning that personhood is defined divinely, not modern conceptions of equality, justice, or dignity—then it’s easy to see how birth control of many kinds becomes criminalized, too—or how same-sex couples and families fall under attack. Here we have drastic limitations of basic freedoms, in the name of purity and faith, which are the beginnings of true theocracy.

It’s important to note the opposite isn’t true. Nobody’s insisting on taking the basic rights of those who are fundamentalists or fanatics or what have you away. Rather, they’re taking everyone else’s away, in order to force a certain narrow, tightly, constrained vision of what human choice can and can’t be on society. But democracy is precisely a set of universal, inalienable basic rights and freedoms, not just voting and procedures, which are only there, really, to guarantee the former to begin with.

Let’s now put all that in context. We’ve recently been discussing the macro trend of democratic implosion. 

Macro Trend: Democratic Collapse. Democracy’s more than halved, from over 40% of the world, to 20%, in just two decades. It’s current rate of decline is 10% a decade, putting its twilight within recent sight and reach.

Alarm bells should be, and should have been, ringing, at the speed, scale, and looming threat of this macro trend. If you ask me, they’re not—not nearly enough. Leaders, civil society, people—they don’t seem to be nearly concerned enough. What does democratic implosion mean?

This is what democratic implosion means. When it’s discussed in the abstract, perhaps it feels remote—the “it can’t happen here” effect, or at least not tomorrow. But it can. And it is. The meaning of this macro trend is precisely what we just saw in Alabama, and is all but sure to replicated across many states. 

Let me put that more sharply. Democratic implosion isn’t just some grand theory, that we should all ignore. It means theocracy, fascism, and authoritarianism, rising. Right now. Not in some distant future, or not even “in our lifetimes,” but right here and now. In vivid examples like those we see in America.

Here’s another one.

WaPo: "Trump and allies plotting militarized mass deportations, detention camps"

Trump pledges that as president he would immediately launch “the largest domestic deportation operation in American history.” As a model, he points to an Eisenhower-era program known as “Operation Wetback,” using a derogatory slur for Mexican migrants. The operation used military tactics to round up and remove migrant workers, sometimes transporting them in dangerous conditions that led to some deaths. Former administration officials and policy experts said staging an even larger operation today would face a bottleneck in detention space — a problem that Trump adviser Stephen Miller and other allies have proposed addressing by building mass deportation camps.

“You’re talking about officers in tactical gear going into communities, being videotaped in the streets, putting kids in car seats, carrying baby formula. Then what do you do with those families?” said Jason Houser, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s chief of staff from January 2022 until March 2023. “Are you going to go into neighborhoods in Philly, New York, Baltimore and start tugging people out of communities? That’s what they want. It puts law enforcement and the communities at risk.”

Reflecting on the ideas Trump and his team discussed during his presidency, Houser said, “Their ideas were psychotic.”

That paragraphs above should give us all pause. However we feel about immigration, do we really want to be the kind of society that has “mass detention camps”? Or “mass deportation camps?” Surely history offers us plenty of resonant, eerie, crystal-clear warnings about what that does, and what kind of path is places a society on. That’s fascism, to put it bluntly—even if you think that immigration’s a problem, or a crisis, a mass-militarized answer takes society down a very, very dark road, usually one of martial law, tyranny, the abuse of power, and the end of democracy. Democracy’s most fundamental value is peace, and as that goes, succumbing to authoritarian norms of rage, spite, and hatred—so too democracy crumbles.

These are two vivid examples of what democratic implosion is. I have the unfortunate task—people like me do—of trying to explain the world in these big, nerdy ways, which can come across as theoretically aloof. But our warnings are not meant for dusty books and future scholars. They’re about what this all means, is, becomes, here and now, which, again, is theocracy, fascism, and authoritarianism—they’re what “democracy imploding” means.

The Triumvirate of Collapse: Authoritarianism, Fascism, and Theocracy

Let me put that to you a little more formally now. Democratic implosion is the rise of theocracy, fascism, and authoritarianism. Remember Rome’s Triumvirate—which led to its downfall? Crassus, Pompey, Caesar. This is our modern Triumvirate of Collapse.

It works in a process. These three factions jockey for power. Politically, legally, socially, culturally. Coalitions are tested, verdicts issued, resistance brooked and crushed, and so on. This is the real-world process of the formation of political power—they learn to work together, instead of apart. A society’s attention flickers between them, in a kind of series of bewildered, escalating panic attacks. When modern democracies begin to die, in other words, we tend to see toxic admixtures of fascism, authoritarianism, and theocracy begin to rise, in strange permutations and poisonous combinations, mutating until they form a coalition that can rise to absolute power.

Now think of the last few months in America. How have they gone? One month, the hot topic was Trump declaring himself proud to be “dictator for a day,” wink-wink, nudge-nudge, as in, that’s not-too-subtle code for: permanently. That provoked a firestorm of outrage on the one side, and gushing adoration from his base on the other. Just before or after that, Biden leaned into calling Trump—at last—a fascist. He reminded America of the horrors of history that unfold when nations choose this path.

Politico: “Echoing the grotesque rhetoric of fascists and violent white supremacists and threatening to oppress those who disagree with the government are dangerous attacks on the dignity and rights of all Americans, on our democracy, and on public safety,” White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said Sunday. “It’s the opposite of everything we stand for as Americans.”

“Tonight Donald Trump channeled his role models as he parroted Adolf Hitler, praised Kim Jong Un, and quoted Vladimir Putin while running for president on a promise to rule as a dictator and threaten American democracy,” Biden-Harris 2024 spokesperson Ammar Moussa said Saturday evening.

And before that, there was the despair and rage at the Supreme Court striking down Roe, handing an era-defining victory to the hard and far right. 

See the pattern there? Fascism. Authoritarian. Theocracy. In just a few short months, the focus has shifted from one to the next, in a kind of nervous, fidgety, breakdown, a mania, and there’s the sense of being overwhelmed, which is producing “crisis fatigue” (another topic we’ll discuss soon.) Part of the way that fanatical movements is to produce just this sense of overwhelmed dread, to numb majorities into submission with perpetual shock—thus producing the key institution of the “silent majority.” 

So in the last few months, you have a vivid, striking display of what “democracy imploding” is. This light-speed, neck-cracking, whiplash-inducing shift between authoritarianism, fascism, and theocracy. In a kind of cycle, that spins faster and faster, until at last, it tears apart the pillars of a society.

What’s happening when that process begins to unfold is precisely these three camps jockeying for power. Forming alliances. Testing the limits of the permissible, attacking this right, that freedom, this verdict, that election—and seeing what gives. Linking hands, sharing resources, forging networks, bonds, ties, groups. Becoming a kind of many-headed monster, where before there was just a pack of wolves.

How Democracies Implode

It’s hard to say what particular admixture of authoritarianism, fascism, and theocracy will prevail—that depends on a society’s history, norms, values, and trajectory. It’s easy to understand why, given America’s history with segregation and slavery, fascism and theocracy are linking up, for example. The precise combination doesn’t matter so much, in the end, apart from matters of national politics—the point is to understand that here before us, we see an advanced stage of democratic decline, in which the three major implosive movements which always oppose it are now at the phase of forming coalitions and testing attacks on its fundaments, to bring it down altogether.

When people refer to “Christian Nationalism,” that’s a label that implies each of those three components, in different degrees. “Trumpism” is another label that combines, perhaps, more authoritarianism and fascism. Then there’s the openly supremacist movements who are overtly fascist—the sorts who’d be gleeful about concentration camps, more or less. The labels aren’t the point—they represent different sorts of coalitions, now jockeying for power, and testing the limits of how far and fast a democracy can be collapsed.

That’s emphatically not a good place for a society to be. It means, of course, that the attacks will keep coming, because coalitions soon learn that they’re more powerful, often dramatically so, together, than they were on their own, where they were fringe groups or isolated fanatics. Together, in coalitions, authoritarians, fascists, and theocrats learn that bargains can be struck, to divide up power in a collapsed democracy—we agree to support you, the dictator, if you let us have power over the human body, we pledge our loyalty to you, the tyrant, if you let us eliminate and purge the subhumans. On and on it goes—this is how the dynamic process of democratic collapse works.

So speaking of democratic collapse isn’t something that we should take lightly. It’s something we should be far, far more concerned about. Before us we see the brutality of what it really is, the lightning quickness with which it can work, the speed with which its proponents learn, the bad faith with they act, and how effective the rise to power, through coalition-building and power-sharing, can be. And how much despair, fear, and anguish it provokes, too—because accompanying this process, which is bewildering, whiplash-inducing, frightening, is the sane part of a society going into shock, becoming a classic silent majority.

We can observe all of that in America in recent months—the shock, the Triumvirate of Collapse, the manic flickering of society’s attention on and off, as authoritarianism, fascism, and theocracy light up the skies with constant attacks on basic rights and freedoms, the numbness, the bewilderment, the jockeying for power, the sense of weariness, the fatigue of the opposition. We can see it spreading around the globe, too. This is the age we live in, and if we’re going to do better, we need to discuss this issue the way it deserves to be discussed. Democratic implosion is right here and now, not a theoretical abstraction. See authoritarianism, fascism, and theocracy laying waste to society after society? That’s what this macro trend means. And it’s not going to stop until and unless societies take it much, much more seriously than they are at the moment. The bad guys know they can put the sane and good into shock with these, as the man above said, “psychotic” blitzkrieg tactics—they depend on it. The world must snap out of its funk, and regain its vital spirits again—or else, my friends, this is the future.

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