The seeds of extremism are everywhere. Instead of being educated, school children are handcuffed and punished for trivial infractions or simply taught how to take tests and give up on any vestige of critical thinking. Celebrity culture now works in tandem with neoliberal values to vaunt as models individuals who represent extreme forms of solipsism and a cultivated idiocy. The war on democracy by the financial elite and other religious and political fundamentalists is intent on defunding and eliminating every public sphere that serves the public good rather than moneyed interests.
A war culture now shapes every aspect of society as war-like values, a hyper-masculinity, and an aggressive militarism seeps into every major institution in the United States including the schools, the media, and local police forces. The criminal justice system has become the default structure for dealing with social problems. More and more people are considered disposable and excess because they are viewed as a drain on the wealth or offend the sensibilities of the financial elite who are rapidly consolidating class power.
The spirit of aggression and the spectacle of violence permeates the culture and deeply imprints domestic and foreign policy. As Robert Koehler points out, "America is armed and dangerous -- and always at war, both collectively and individually."[x] The outcome of this unfolding nightmare will be not only a political and economic instability but this disappearance of public institutions to serve public needs, if not politics itself. At the same time, the destruction of a public culture that embraces and sustains democratic values and practices will be intensified. Surely all this points to what Hannah Arendt believed was the harbinger of totalitarianism -- the disappearance of the thinking and speaking citizens who make politics possible.
What is particularly troublesome is the manifestations of totalitarianism in the discourse and proposed policy measures of the extremists that now govern the Republican Party and how this is taken up in the mainstream media. One finds in the rhetoric of Donald Trump, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and others a mix of war-like values, expressions of racism, a hatred of women's rights, unabashed support for the financial elite, a religious fundamentalism, a celebration of war, and a deep seated hostility for all things public. Chris Christie sells himself to the American public as a bully and believes that threatening violence is a crucial element of leadership. This was on full display when he recently stated that teacher's unions "are the single most destructive force in public education in America [and deserve] a punch in the face."[xi]
Threatening violence appears to be a powerful ideological register shared by many of the Republican Party candidates. Donald Trump comes close to supporting a form of racial cleansing by threatening to deport 11 million undocumented Mexican immigrants all the while demonizing them as rapists and criminals. This script has been played out before just prior to the genocide promoted in Nazi Germany.
Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker want to abolish a woman's right to abortion, and go so far as to argue that they would not permit women to get an abortion even if their lives depended on it. Huckabee takes this threat even further. When Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi asked Huckabee if he would send "the FBI or the National Guard to close abortion clinics," he answered ""We'll see when I'm president."[xii] Huckabee is a real piece of work stating at one point that he would deny an abortion to a 10-year-old rape victim. [xiii] This hatred of women and the need to control and domesticate them to the crudest forms of male hegemony and control is central to all fascist regimes.
All of these candidates, with the exception of Rand Paul, support the surveillance state and warrantless spying on American citizens. All of the candidates want to send troops to the Middle East to fight Islamic extremists, expand the military, and Trump goes so far as to claim he wants to seize the oil wells in Syria in order to appropriate their wealth -- no apologies for naked imperialism here. Rick Santorum brags that if he is the next president of the United States he will be a wartime president, and adds that he will also defend the "sanctity of life in the womb."[xiv] John Dean in resurrecting arguments about the authoritarian personality argues that Donald Trump, though this applies to most of the Republican Party leadership, has four clear characteristics or traits that distinguish them as authoritarian: "They are dominating; they oppose equality; they desire personal power; and they are amoral."[xv] This echoes the classic work by Theodor Adorno on the authoritarian personality.
Similarly, the mainstream media treats this group of extremists who promote a culture of fear, racism, and hatred as eccentric, odd, crazies, colorful, or simply toxic. All the while, they refuse to acknowledge that the extremism on full display among these politicians reveals a dark and more threatening side of politics, one that exposes the unapologetic register of totalitarianism and goes far beyond either the psychologizing of authoritarianism or locating it within the aberrant personalities of a few politicians. Totalitarianism is a complex systemic register that is deeply woven into American ideology, governance, and policy. It is present in the attack on the welfare state, the attack on civil liberties, the indiscriminate killing of civilians by drones, illegal wars, the legitimation of state torture, and the ongoing spread of domestic violence against minorities of class and color.
A few journalists have raised the specter of totalitarianism but they largely confine the charge to the bellicose Donald Trump. For instance, Connor Lynch's claims point to Trump's authoritarian discourse which is "full of race baiting, xenophobia and belligerent nationalism." [xvi] Jeffrey Tucker goes further, arguing that Trump's popularity not only draws support from "the darkest elements of American life" but also mimics a form of neoliberalism in which economics is affirmed as a way of governing all of social life. [xvii] For Tucker, Trump is representative of a mode of totalitarianism that "seeks total control of society and economy and demands no limits on state power."[xviii] Those on the Left, such as Norman Solomon, who raise this issue are largely marginalized.
What is useful about these critiques is that they acknowledge that democracy is dead in the United States and that the forces of tyranny and authoritarianism offer no apologies for their hatred of democracy and the culture of poverty, immiseration, and cruelty that they want to impose on the American people, if not the rest of the world. What they fail to acknowledge is that the anti-democratic forces at work in the new totalitarianism are not limited to the discourse of the new extremists. Totalitarianism is not merely about errant personalities. It is also about the ideological, political, cultural, and governing structures of society. These systemic forces have been building for quite some time in the United States and have been recognized by our most astute writers such as Sheldon Wolin and Chris Hedges. What is new is that they are not only out of the shadows but are enthusiastically embraced by a segment of the population and articulated in all of their fury by a number of politicians. Totalitarianism is not simply a personality disorder and is not limited to the power of a few erratic politicians; it demands and cannot survive without mass support -- it is systemic, a desiring machine, a politics, a culture, and a distortion of power. And it is not limited to Republican Party extremists.
Take for instance the comments on CNN by the alleged liberal Wesley Clark, a former 4-star general and one-time Democratic candidate for President of the United States. Clark called for World War II-style internment camps to be revived for "disloyal Americans." Clark unapologetically argued for people to be identified who are most likely to embrace a radical ideology stating that "If these people are radicalized and they don't support the United States and they are disloyal to the United States as a matter of principle, fine. It is their right and it's our right and obligation to segregate them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict."[xix] Calling for domestic internment camps for radicals is more than chilling and suggests the degree to which a poisonous nationalism mimics the legacy of Nazi Germany.
As Bill Dixon has observed "We live in an era in which the conditions that produce totalitarian forms are once again with us."[xx] A new form of authoritarianism is now shaping American society. What is equally true is that there is nothing inevitable about this growing threat. This dystopian politics must be exposed, made visible, and challenged on both the local, national, and global planes.
What is crucial is that the mechanisms, discourse, culture, and ideologies that inform authoritarianism must become part of any analysis that now addresses and is willing to challenge the anti-democratic forces at the heart of American politics. This means, in part, focusing on the ongoing repressive and systemic conditions, institutions, ideologies, and values that have been developing in American society for the last 40 years, at the very least. It means finding a common ground on which various elements of the left can be mobilized under the banner of a radical democracy in order to challenge the diverse forms of oppression, incarceration, mass violence, exploitation, and exclusion that now define the authoritarian nature of American politics. It means taking seriously the educative nature of politics and recognizing that public spheres must be created in order to educate citizens who are informed, socially responsible, and willing to fight collectively for a future in which a radical democracy appears sustainable. This suggests an anti-fascist struggle that is not about simply about remaking economic structures, but also refashioning identities, values, social relations, modes of identification as part of a democratic project along with what it means to desire a better and more democratic future.
Hannah Arendt was right in stating that "the aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any," suggesting that totalitarianism was as much about the production of thoughtlessness as it was about the imposition of brute force, gaping inequality, corporatism, and the spectacle of violence. [xxi] Totalitarianism destroys everything that democracy makes possible and in doing so thrives on mass terror, manufactured stupidity, and the disappearance of politics, all the while making of human beings superfluous. Yet, power however tyrannical is never without resistance. Dark times are not ahead, they are here, but that does not mean they are here to stay.
[i] See, for instance, Mabel Berezin, Making the Fascist Self: The Political culture of Interwar Italy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).