Historians' Watch

Autocracy in America won’t come with jackboots

Discussions of Trumpism in the United States have used a lot of terms, many of which are freighted with historical resonances – autocracy, dictatorship, authoritarianism, but most especially, “fascism”.  People who have any notion of what fascism actually entails no doubt think of it in terms of the European dictatorships of the 1920s and 1930s – Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal.  For others, it is merely a term of abuse: anyone on the far right of the political spectrum might be so labeled.  But so far, the most remembered symbol of interwar fascism — masses of uniformed Party members willing to do the leader’s bidding — hardly fits with what we have seen of Trumpism.

As I’ve observed in recent posts on my blog tracking Trump’s daily activities, No Time to Keep Calm, there are indeed stunning resonances of previous fascist regimes in the circumstances of Trump’s campaign, his platform, supporters and eventual election.  And the events of the past 12 days haven’t exactly led to any confidence that those resonances were merely for show. Many are now (rightly) afraid that Trump (and his chief ideologue, Steve Bannon, who seems to be bringing some coherence to Trump’s incipient racism, nationalism and authoritatrian urges) are working to undermine American democracy in favour of an extreme rightwing autocracy.  But it is a mistake to think that the slide towards authoritarianism under Trump will follow a mid-twentieth century model of fascism.  Unlike interwar fascists, there is no large organized Party with paramilitary support poised to use violence to support Trump.  Despite the fears expressed by some bloggers, the idea of an outright coup by Trump and his inner circle – the complete destruction of democracy – seems unlikely, mostly because it is unnecessary.  Rather, far right and fascist autocracy in the 21st Century – while following a similar dynamic to earlier movements in terms of its core appeal – has quite different means of establishing itself, which can be seen in the current regimes in Russia and Hungary.

To be sure the personalities of authoritarian demagogues today have quite a lot in common with those of Europe in the 1930s.  Most of them were/are narcissists, insecure, fearful and paranoid, which drives their machismo and obsession with personal loyalty.  But many of today’s autocrats are less driven by ideological imperatives than those in the past.  Russia’s Vladimir Putin is a good example.  The Russian journalist Masha Gessen characterizes Putin as a “grey, ordinary man” – absolutely ruthless, yes, but without a driving ideological vision, beyond extreme Russian nationalism and the desire to be an autocrat.  As Gessen describes Putin:

He’s a tiny, mean guy who will bite you if you get too close; and that’s the kind of country he’s tried to build. And that’s been the extent of Russian foreign policy for the last 12 years. What is Russia’s foreign policy agenda? You can’t figure it out from who Russia becomes friends with or sells arms to or negotiates with, because it’s really simple. Russia wants to be feared. That’s it.

At root Putin is an opportunist, personally enriching and empowering himself by manipulating the fears and anxieties of the culturally conservative within Russia.  He uses external and internal threats to silence dissent, tame the independent press and rig the political system for his own benefit.  The courts apply laws passed by the legislature, albeit with the implicit intent to crush dissent.  The press has largely been tamed and is given limited access to the supreme leader in a-once-a-year press conference – for access to the majority of journalists fight with one another.  When necessary, “dirty tricks” are used to undermine the credibility of opposition figures: secretly recorded sexual liasons played on national television, for instance.  Putin does not require the complete overthrow of democratic institutions – as was the explicit goal of interwar fascists – because those trappings of democracy serve as a fig leaf of his legitimacy.  Rather, supposedly democratic institutions can be used to prop-up the autocracy.

Putin has effectively been in charge in Russia since 2000.  In Hungary, since 2010 a similar process of the progressive undermining of democracy by the far right has occurred under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.  Hungary retains a constitution and is a member of the European Union, but Orbán now boasts that he leads an “illiberal democracy.”  As American conservative pundit David Frum suggests, Hungary has backslid into autocracy while retaining elections: they are held, but are clearly not fair.

Opponents of the regime have not been murdered or imprisoned; rather many are harassed by government in more mundane ways and they might risk their jobs by dissenting.  But the regime works more through inducement than through direct intimidation.  The courts are stacked against dissenters, and are forgiving of the regime’s allies.  Friends of the regime get rich through favouritism, while the economy falters.  Moreover, as Frum describes: “Independent media lose advertising under government pressure; government allies own more and more media outlets each year.  The government sustains support even in the face of bad news by artfully generating an endless sequence of controversies that leave culturally conservative Hungarians feeling misunderstood and victimized by liberals, foreigners, and Jews.”  Refugees and immigrants are easy targets for the government to exploit: witness the October 2016 referendum over the admisssion of refugees and the building of a wall to keep them out.  Deliberate scapegoating of the “other” within, and overemphasizing the threats to the nation from without, worked to generate support for fascists in the interwar years, and is being moblized by these regimes now.

The point is, Putin and Orbán have engaged the dynamic of fascist populism and have ruthlessly taken their respective states to the far right politically, but they have not needed black or brownshirted paramilitaries to do it.  This doesn’t mean violence has not also followed: it has, both state-sanctioned and that incited amongst the supporters of the regimes, but not nearly on the same scale as that committed by interwar facists.  Nor do the new methods negate the very real human rights abuses now endemic in both states.  But cynicism and manipulation of truth has largely done the necessary work to undermine liberal democracy.  As Gessen noted in a New York Review of Books article, one characteristic shared by Trump and Putin is that Lying is the message“:

It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.

Putin’s power lies in being able to say what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the facts. He is president of his country and king of reality.

Trump has exhibited similar behaviour, apparently for the same reason. When he claims that he didn’t make statements that he is on record as making, or when he claims that millions of people voting illegally cost him the popular vote, he is not making easily disprovable factual claims: he is claiming control over reality itself.

This is why the rise of politicized “fake news” and the relentless trolling of the internet by the rabid, harassing supporters of such regimes now is so corrosive.  It loosely correlates to the intimidation work done by the paramilitaries of the interwar fascists.

This is the threat that America now faces.

Originally posted at No Time to Keep Calm.

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