Op-Ed — As the country further cleaves itself into staunch factions of political ideology — sharply illustrated by the chaos unfolding in the 2016 presidential elections — a dramatic shift toward the outright acceptance of authoritarian principles has quietly underscored the more successful campaigns.
An imperative question warrants careful consideration: Will people in the United States so succumb to divisive propaganda they will be willing to accept its most logical conclusion — totalitarian rule?
Writing for Salon, Robert Sharp indicatively noted, “Many Americans are now openly admitting that they are willing to give absolute power to one person, as long as this power is used to persecute people that they see as enemies.”
And it isn’t only the general public acting in approval of totalitarian tactics. On Monday, House Speaker Paul Ryan capitulated to Trump’s threats to remove him from serving as chair at the Republican National Convention this July.
“He’s the nominee,” Ryan told the Journal Sentinel in response to the latest rift tearing through the GOP. “I’ll do whatever he wants with respect to the convention.”
Backtracking on his statement last week that he wasn’t prepared to back the presumptive GOP nominee, Ryan explained, “I just want to get to know the guy … we just don’t know each other.” Noting his original statement may have been exaggerated, the House Speaker added, “I never said never. I just said (not) at this point. I wish I had more time to get to know him before this happened. We just didn’t.”
Exploiting the extreme political polarization already in full swing, Trump continues to capitalize on the fears harbored by average Americans — or, at least, those who feel they should be categorized that way — that their livelihoods or fundamental security is somehow threatened by a nebulous Other. Since Trump has already targeted Muslims and Mexicans — whole swaths of the world’s population — with vindictively baseless statements and proposed extremist programs, it’s doubtful his ire would be any more limited by reason and rationality were he to win the White House.
Authoritarianism, where the rule of law reigns supreme over the protection of civil liberties and individual freedom with very little input from those governed, has deftly infiltrated U.S. policy for some time — particularly after the attacks of 9/11. Debatably, totalitarianism — where authoritarian principles commingle with ideology in a broadly powerful state, regulating every aspect of civilian lives — could be considered a natural culmination of increasingly authoritarian legislation and policy. In fact, as has been posited by many, it’s even likely Trump represents a move toward one of the most extreme ideologies — fascism.
Where totalitarianism uses the guise of law and order to effect control, but ignores law and order in pandering to a charismatic leader’s wishes, fascism — as evidenced by Hitler, Mussolini, and others — can be the detrimental ultimate conclusion of a people’s capitulation to rule.
Professor Noam Chomsky, among others, likened the current economic stratification in the U.S. to that of 1930s Germany during Hitler’s rise to power — with the dire caveat that today’s political atmosphere and political situation doesn’t offer ordinary citizens even the glimmer of hope present during the previous time period.
“It’s interesting to compare the situation in the ‘30s, which I’m old enough to remember,” Chomsky explained. “Objectively, poverty and suffering were far greater. But even among poor working people and the unemployed, there was a sense of hope that is lacking now, in large part because of the growth of a militant labor movement and also the existence of political organizations outside the mainstream.”
All three ideologies — authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and fascism — are marked by an extreme if not neurotic patriotism, itself guided by a sense of nationalist nostalgia, whether rooted in fact or not. Trump’s campaign based on the phrase, “Make America Great Again” perfectly illustrates this blind, misguided whitewashing of the nation’s bloody and troubled past.
To further evidence the current atmosphere, Sharp cites Hannah Arendt, a noted critic of totalitarianism, from her work in 1951:
“What prepares men for the totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the evergrowing masses of our century. The merciless process into which totalitarianism drives and organizes the masses looks like a suicidal escape from this reality.”
But Trump isn’t alone in thwarting legal strictures while simultaneously courting the masses. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been informally accused of dodging electoral laws in favor of fraudulent — or at least questionable — means of garnering support. Despite being caught in innumerable lies, her campaign oddly continues to experience success in multiple primaries. Indeed her megalomaniacal tendencies are seemingly only matched by Trump’s — and could disputably be traced to the very reason she is currently under investigation by the FBI. Had she not believed herself to be wholly above the law during her tenure as secretary of state, would she still have arranged for a private server situated in her residence for exclusive use for State business?
For Trump’s part, continually referring to Others as the source for problems of economic insecurity, and even corruption in government, conveniently scapegoats issues that might otherwise be solved through more effective or lessened governance — as he claims theoretically to support. But his continual thwarting of law, such as in the use of tax havens, evidences his belief he stands above it — and that, in itself, sets a dangerous and potentially totalitarian tone.
Perhaps the U.S. will yet see its own fascist dictatorship come home to roost.
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