We can’t remain silent about the authoritarian streak playing out this year in American national politics.

We can’t remain silent about the authoritarian streak playing out this year in American national politics.

A little over half a century ago, Richard Hoftstader published an influential essay in Harper’s Magazine, entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.  Hofstadter noted that the paranoid style is not new in America, nor found only in America.  

What Hofstadter thought was special about our version of the paranoid style was the following:

 “In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest – perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands – are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power – and this through distorting lenses – and have no chance to observe its actual machinery.”

Hofstadter’s essay appeared in November 1964, when Goldwater was running against Johnson for President, but it seems as if it could be written about America in 2016.

At present, there are both new tensions (for example, restrained economic growth and persistent income disparity) and old conflicts that have yet to be resolved (equality of opportunity, inequality before the law, racism, among many others) that have helped resurrect the authoritarian streak in some politicians and social commentators.  These are issues – and many others, such as legislative gridlock in Washington, issues such as infrastructure decline, climate change, terrorism – that need to be addressed through sensible discourse, not via appeals to our baser instincts, as do most such authoritarian approaches, which tend to be simplistic, often ruthless, and use moralistic devices to destroy ethical social constructs.  

While capitalism and representative democracy are not without their flaws, historical examples of authoritarian rule, just in the last century, whether in the Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Nazi Germany, or the Italian Fascist Party, fail to show that intolerance, obscurantism, and authoritarianism are better models.

But how can we recognize when we are at risk?  

Three decades after Hofstadter, the philosopher Umberto Eco published a ground-breaking essay in the New York Review of Books, “Ur-Fascism” 

Eco set out to explain how the word “fascism” came to denote what he called a “collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions.”  He noted that fascism was a “structured confusion” that, while “philosophically out of joint,” shared a set of archetypical or eternal foundations, what Eco called an “Ur-fascism.”  Eco recognized that many of the 14 signals expressed in his essay might contradict one another, but even this tendency to discordance is an essential feature of the authoritarian streak – and represents the fundamental opportunism of its adherents for power or influence.  And, as we have seen even in this century, the drive to power, at the expense of logic, reason, and the best outcomes for others, is not limited by religion, politics, race, class, sex, or income.  

The authoritarian streak in American national politics

I will illustrate a few ways in which we can see the authoritarian streak playing out this year in American national politics.

Eco noted two areas, the cult of tradition and the rejection of modernism, as frequent ideas in authoritarian movements.  While a flag or a slogan, for example, can have positive, uplifting effects, such as instilling a sense of pride in a group, it can be purposefully used to promote xenophobia or create barriers.  This includes the trope, “Make America Great Again,” which appeals nostalgically to some earlier, indeterminate time, perhaps when American was less culturally diverse or, perhaps, when one segment of society had nearly complete control of the reins of power.  But let’s return to that slogan a bit later.

Next, a common theme is an indifference to human rights. Authoritarian ideologues are motivated less by the best interests of their people – and less so of the peoples of other countries – so long as their words and deeds advance their political agenda.  

To take two examples:  denigrating the rights of one’s citizens or holding up certain groups for mistrust, by painting law-abiding citizens of one’s own country as inherently suspect with a brush that should be used, carefully, to highlight the misdeeds of a misguided fringe (for example, all Muslims versus extremists using the banner of Islam to legitimize their own authoritarianism).  Second, to suggest that one can ignore international treaties or violate international law in the name of protecting the homeland represents another of Eco’s principles of ur-fascism.

This also highlights the frequent need to identify a scapegoat or an external cause for internal problems.  While America has not had an unblemished record in welcoming immigrants, we are nonetheless a nation in which most of us came from somewhere else.  And, the United States continue to appeal to those who see economic, political, and social opportunity.  While good fences can make good neighbors, walls create barriers of understanding and mistrust.  The issues that continue to confront America are principally self-motivated and will require empathy and understanding and dialogue; and, likely, further economic growth and opportunity will require us to remain a nation of immigrants for decades to come.

This leads also to the idea that building a wall or bombing terrorists’ homes and families, irrespective of the fact that these may represent violations of international law or national treaties (and points back to an indifference to human rights), presents another principle, that action, simply for the sake of action, is beneficial.  And, to disagree, can represent not just a difference of opinion, but an act of treason.  Both ideas – acting just to act and denigration of others’ motives – are further instances of the paranoid style.

Authoritarians commonly have an obsession with a deteriorating nation and create the threat of a vulnerable nation to gain support. This brings us back to “Make America Great Again”.  While a simple slogan is not wrong, the triumphalism inherent in it, which, given Mr. Trump’s persistent attempts to marginalize and even demonize groups whose history in this country likely do not have roots in the halcyon past of American exceptionalism, further highlights the weakness of divisive slogans.  George Orwell, in his essay, “Politics and the English Languagerecognized that  “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”  And both Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton are often guilty of this “corruption.”  

Ms. Clinton, for example, continues to strain logic when she states that in keeping a private email server, she may not technically have broken a law.  However, over and over again, her language betrays her thought.  It is not unreasonable for us to expect that our highest public servants’ words and deeds will show that they value the spirit of the law above the letter of the law; that is, that they have our best interests at heart, not theirs.  

Now you might wonder, is this possible?  Would one of the victors in November’s presidential election actually impose an authoritarian regime in America?  Well, I don’t think it is likely.  But we have to ask ourselves these questions when we see leading figures in politics using the provocative and obscuring techniques of ur-fascism in 2016.

Here, we should remember the famous words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, from 1945:  “In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

Thomas Weil was a Yale Young Global Scholar in 2016.

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