Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator
Americans' understanding of authoritarianism is molded by the media. Photo credit: The Great Dictator / Wikimedia
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Americans are afraid of the wrong thing.

When you ask most Americans what authoritarianism looks like, they’ll describe jack-booted thugs goose-stepping up to their house to drag them away to a concentration camp.

That, however, is not authoritarianism: That’s Nazi-style tyranny, aka totalitarianism, where the government controls every aspect of life — including those that are social, religious, and economic — along with a police state that uses terror to rule with absolute power.

While the transition from authoritarianism to totalitarianism can happen rapidly (just ask any Chilean alive in late 1973 and early 1974), typically it takes time, sometimes years and sometimes even decades, for its corrosive power to morph into totalitarianism.

Which is why most Americans don’t recognize the “softer” authoritarianism that is here now, on our doorstep, corrupting our electoral, legislative, and judicial systems.

This sort of authoritarianism is the greatest long-term threat to any republic, particularly when, fighting for its survival, it rises up toward open tyranny.

Authoritarianism American-Style

Authoritarianism has been bubbling under the surface in America, constantly in dynamic conflict with democracy, since our nation’s founding.

Most straight white Americans don’t even realize the backstory — and efforts like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, book and American history bans across red states, and school board purges across the nation are designed to keep it that way.

But authoritarianism in America has been interwoven into the fabric of our republic since its inception and the Republican Party is today fighting what will hopefully be a losing battle to hang onto and even revive its poisonous tentacles. Right now the momentum is on their side, with everything from attacks on school boards and polling places, to the dominance of right-wing media, a nation awash in guns, and the takeover of most evangelical churches.

As long as the authoritarians can prevent a clear-eyed understanding of what’s going on, they may well succeed at reversing the clock on America’s progress over, particularly, the past 60 years.

For example, from the birth of our nation until the end of the Civil War, southern Blacks lived under totalitarian rule and most southern whites lived under authoritarianism. A small handful of obscenely wealthy families owned and controlled the political systems of the South and even white dissenters were regularly ostracized, beaten, tortured, and lynched. The slave patrols and police systems kept enslaved and indentured people living in a constant state of terror.

A less explicit but still very real version of that racially-based terror persists to this day in the South, and has now spread to other parts of the nation as well. Just ask the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, or Treyvon Martin.

If you watched television for most of its history prior to the last decade or two, you’d have no idea that racial, religious, and gender minorities in America lived in a state of terror. Everything was all white, all harmonious, and father always knew best.

Women in America, however, knew they lived under an authoritarian system of government from our nation’s conception until the early 1970s. That’s when laws were changed to legalize birth control and abortion (1972/1973); stop financial institutions from requiring a male relative’s signature on financial forms or to get a credit card (1972); and in the years since, when workplace discrimination was progressively outlawed (1978, 1993, 2009). Although women, too, are still a long way from equality with straight white men.

People living out LGBTQ+ gender roles have also lived under authoritarian rule since the founding of our republic, being subject to social ostracization and workplace discrimination, and living under regular threats of violence and even death at the hands of their straight brothers and sisters.

Justice Clarence Thomas and the Republicans he represents want to roll back the LGBTQ+ community’s hard-won gains both at law and in society as a whole, as he recently noted in his concurring opinion in the Dobbs case that overturned Roe.

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Progress as a Mortal Threat

Since our nation’s founding, economic and political power have been concentrated in the hands of straight white men, who not only controlled our politics and our economy: Every single year in the history of America such men were the majority in every state and federal legislative body, led America’s largest churches and other religious bodies, and controlled the majority of America’s media and business institutions.

While it was almost never spoken of in white-controlled media, white men benefited from the tools of authoritarianism being used to maintain their privileged positions in family, business, and society.

As America becomes browner, as women now outnumber men in graduating from college, and as queer people are increasingly a visible part of America’s business, cultural, and media worlds, all three groups are on the verge of throwing off the authoritarian domination of straight white men. In the process, all three groups are calling for more equality in political representation, wealth, and political power.

Which is why all of a sudden the straight, white, male-controlled Republican Party is screaming about “Tyranny!!!”

The laws, rules, and regulations the GOP is trying to put into place to roll back the progress of women, queer people, and racial/religious minorities are, simply put, purely attempts to reassert the diminishing dominance of straight white men.

Push Comes to Shove: The Moment of Greatest Danger

GOP efforts to criminalize abortion and birth control, end gay marriage and adoption, and gut voting rights are all cut from the same cloth. But when people have tasted freedom, economic success, and political self-determination it’s damn hard to force them back into poverty, servility, and submission. And when they’ve achieved media, political, and economic power it’s even harder to take it away without tearing down the entire political and social system of a nation that has allowed or given them those gains.

That’s the point of maximum danger for a democratic republic overall: When those in power, sensing that they’re losing power, decide that, rather than share their wealth and power with everybody else, they’re going to simply change the form of government itself to hang onto their dominance.

This is why you see state after state changing their voting laws and empowering their election authorities to simply disregard the will of their people. In Nevada, for example, Republican politicians are preparing to declare the outcome of elections regardless of how the people vote.

This deadly-to-democracy moment has been set up by a handful of corrupt Republicans on our Supreme Court in collusion with our billionaire and corporate ownership class.

American workers know they’ve been screwed, but obscenely rich people and corporations have now, for example, thrown over a billion dollars into television and social media advertising in the past few months just to seize the US Senate! They’re using that tsunami of dark cash to convince white and Hispanic voters that the people screwing them and threatening American democracy are Democrats, Blacks, new immigrants, teachers, and trans people.

The Requisite Demons

Authoritarianism’s hallmark is the criminalization or extreme marginalization of political parties or movements that threaten the power of the authorities. To work, it must achieve among the population a broad belief that the opposition doesn’t just have alternative ideas but that both their ideas and the people themselves are actually evil.

Demonization of the opposition is the first warning sign of creeping authoritarianism, which is why for so many years elected officials would respectfully refer to their opposition as “my friends on the other side of the aisle,” etc. When civility starts to break down, when politicians and voters begin to identify their opposition as actually evil, you know that somebody is promoting authoritarianism.

This is why, for example, the movement within the GOP that claims Democrats are drinking the blood of children — a meme the Nazis promoted about Jews in the 1930s and now widely believed across the Republican base today in America — is so very deadly. Elected Republican officials now frequently describe Democrats as evil, as “baby killers up to the moment of birth” (a vile lie), and as less-than-human vermin. They openly speak with enthusiasm of the mass murder of Democratic Americans in a civil war, and delight in being photographed with weapons of war.

Another characteristic of authoritarian governments is the conversion of neutral federal or state agencies into tools to further empower those in control of the government. We saw this with DeSantis’s corruption of his state’s public health apparatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as Trump’s destruction of the EPA and corruption of the IRS, FBI, Secret Service, and CDC.

The story of America is the history of democracy being fought for, achieved, and then pulled back away from minority groups. African Americans fought for and gained the right to vote and run for public office after the Civil War and showed up in large enough numbers to, for example, take control of the South Carolina Legislature in 1868. But then came the white authoritarian backlash. Within 20 years, fewer than five percent of Black South Carolinians could even cast a vote, and the suppression of Black votes in the South remains a cornerstone of GOP policy to this day.

Women fought for and gained voting rights, personal economic independence, and bodily autonomy in the middle years of the 20th century, and today Republicans across the nation are fighting to force them back into the kitchen and bedroom.

LGBTQ members of our society have struggled for the full recognition of their humanity throughout history and achieved meaningful legal protections only in the past few generations. Republicans are fighting to push them back into the closet.

Republicans are engaging in all these attempts to recreate our authoritarian past so Americans won’t realize it’s those same oligarchs keeping them down in the workplace, using working-class tax dollars to stuff their money bins, twisting public opinion with billions in TV and social media advertising, and robbing Americans blind in the consumer marketplace.

The great danger is that this distraction-by-demonization strategy the GOP has embraced, particularly since the arrival of Trump, could follow the same path it did in Italy, Germany, Spain, Russia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Chile, and numerous other countries that made the transition from democracy to simple oligarchy to authoritarianism to tyranny.

Recognizing and Stopping Authoritarianism Before It’s Too Late

We keep waiting for the moment that armed Republican-aligned militias begin to drag Jews and Black people out of their houses and throw them into concentration camps. But that’s not the first step toward tyranny, or even the second. Our cartoonish vision of authoritarianism makes it harder for us to see the ground slowly shifting under our very feet.

Once a political movement large enough to capture one of a nation’s major parties has fully embraced authoritarianism, the only way to stop the slide of the entire country into tyranny is to crush that party’s political power.

World War II did it to Hitler, Mussolini, and the American fascist movement that was large, diverse, and well-funded in the 1930s. Today we’re facing a revival of that movement and, once again, wealthy industrialists are funding it.

This year, however, the US Supreme Court has given America’s rightwing oligarchs the power to overwhelm popular support for democracy with — literally — billions of dollars in dark-money-funded television and social media advertising leading up to this November’s election.

Every year that goes by without this modern American fascist movement being stopped is a year it becomes stronger and more powerful. As it gains legislative power, both state and federal, billionaire and corporate funding grows even larger to get more deregulation and tax cuts. Power begets power.

This 2022 election is our best chance to stop and even reverse the forward momentum this movement has sustained since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Double-check your voter registration and make sure everybody you know is voting. Spread the word far and wide. While this may be our best chance to rescue the ideals of American democracy, it may also be our last. 

Reprinted from The Hartmann Report with the author’s permission.

Thom Hartmann is a four-time Project Censored-award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of 34 books in print and the #1 progressive talk show host in America for more than a decade.


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