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It can (and almost did) happen here
Authoritarian dynamics are global; their symptoms are national.
And so it continues. Thousands of angry supporters of Jair Bolsonaro stormed the Brazilian Congress, Presidential Palace, and the Supreme Court on January 8, 2023, as President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office following his election after a run-off late last year.
This January 6-style violent assault and vandalizing of official buildings demonstrates the ongoing threat fascism poses to democracy. It further shows that fascism is not confined to 1930s Europe, nor to shaky Third World governments.
Fascism has now become a worldwide movement, tied together through shadowy networks and threatening the stability of presumably stable democracies. Those who think the US or any other country in which democratic institutions are in place are immune would be mistaken to become complacent.
Rising fascism is a global problem
Just last month police in Germany arrested 25 members of a militia group that investigators believe was organizing to overthrow the German government. Called Reichsbürger (“Citizens of the Reich”), this group appears to have been trafficking in “deep-state” conspiracies circulated by QAnon, an American-based, right-wing social media organization that enjoys global reach and influence. An indication of the scope of this reach and the depth of its influence is the heightened vigilance on law-enforcement as well as diplomatic fronts. By many measures, the far-right fringe is looking more mainstream in a political atmosphere that continues to draw people in, constituting some new aspirational assemblage of authoritarian-fascist rule.
Three NATO allies, Hungary, Turkey and Poland, have gradually, steadily, fallen under the sway of authoritarian centralism to varying degrees. And, of course, Vladimir Putin in Russia has systematically clamped down on any burgeoning democratic initiatives — the more so as the disastrous war upon Ukraine bogs down and as he further tightens control of the media and stifles any internal opposition.
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Meanwhile, in the United States antisemitism is experiencing a sharp rise in popular culture, and in some respects in government circles, as Republicans stand by and watch while their most rabid supporters deploy images and tender tropes targeting the Jewish community. Attacks have mounted against LGBTQ communities, as well.
Perhaps it was not a coincidence that as such dynamics were reaching crescendo, former President Trump offered up overturning the US constitution as an acceptable redress to what his party still views as a fraudulent presidential election by deep-state agents and unnamed conspirators. Strangely, the deep state is rarely defined. If it exists, where does the shallow state stand in relation to it, and who are its operatives? And are there degrees of deepness that constitute the state, reflecting various levels of entrenchment and cabalism? Or is there just one great cabal? Vague allusions to a Jewish or “globalist” conspiracy do the quick explanatory work without explaining anything.
Much was in evidence at a gala dinner Young Republicans held in Manhattan on December 10. Hundreds of election deniers and supporters of the attempted January 6 insurrection gathered to hear from speakers extolling the virtues of tearing down the deep state. Among those in attendance were diatribist Steve Bannon, disgraced former Donald Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump Jr., and James O’Keefe of Project Veritas. Featured speaker Marjorie Taylor Greene denounced support of Ukraine and claimed that if she and Bannon had had their way in organizing January 6, “we would have won, not to mention we would’ve been armed.”
Authoritarianism is a term that rolls off the tongue with great ease these days. Governments and populations across the globe are said to be flirting with ever more unaccountable authority structures, coteries of super-wealthy elites, corrupt governing officials beyond the scope of justice, media organizations feeling less inhibited, judicial restraints increasingly flaunted and centuries-long rule-of-law edicts curtailed. Meanwhile, the strongman steps in as the “efficient” manager, the only man (always a man) capable of transmitting some presumed will of the masses.
More distressing trends are also in evidence: violence is frequently incited in broad daylight and normalizing attitudes are encouraged in accepted venues of political discourse. In spite of many differences in orientation and temperament, across North America and Europe, in parts of South America and in much of Asia, unusually virulent strains of authoritarian politics have become increasingly prevalent.
The politics of negation
What appears to galvanize the extreme right (those agitating and organizing for the violent overturning of rule-of law orders) is an amalgam of ideas and perspectives that fall into a category we might call political negation: anti-Western, anti-elite, anti-deep-state government, anti-LGBTQ rights, anti-woke, and anti-science, and so on.
The new governing orientations embodied by the likes of right-wingers in the US find resonance in the masculinized politics of demagogues like Putin in Russia, Victor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, and the narrowly defeated Bolsonaro.
But the appearance of strength is a cover for a politics that, tellingly, is without any political affirmation. It proffers not strength per se, but instead a virile politics that is short on time because time endangers it. It is so impatient, in fact, that it stands willing to counsel violence for the sake of violence. It cannot afford to be inhibited by normal democratic checks on power, concerns about legitimacy, accounting for the true and the real, or the hard work required to ensure wide enfranchisement.
In contrast, any number of political affirmations, even those of distant times and places (ancient Greece, Rome), might fill an entirely different category — norms or ideals of inclusion, freedom, equality of opportunity, integrity of the rule of law, as well as active (rather than passive) citizenship, Or, such great commodities might be more contemporary — the pursuit of environmental rectitude, racial and intergenerational justice, urban revitalization, a transformed energy economy.
A community without political affirmation is a community that has been dispossessed of a meaningful conception of a future. More importantly, it is afraid to look to the future and take up its challenges. Ravaged by open and fiercely competitive markets that have been aided by sympathetic governments for too long, this community wrests a politics from exceedingly narrow categories of endangered identities — White, Anglo-American, predominantly male, etc.
In the US, rapid modernization and excessive global market integration have left too many behind. Governments have been too slow to develop tools of redress to slow the onslaught of impersonal forces that look to be inevitable. When large-scale dynamics like globalization look like they cannot be otherwise, resignation and defeatism easily ensue. Authoritarians stand ready to take up the slack, if only symbolically and by designating putative (internal) enemies deserving of blame.
A democratic future is still possible
Countless examples of an alternative politics, one grounded in positive affirmations of the collective, abound. No more inspiring example of fortitude and courage exists than Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy; his fellow Ukrainians fighting for their country arouse hope in countless communities the world over. Closer to home, the recent repudiation in the US midterm elections of many extremist candidates (Kari Lake in Arizona, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia) suggests that American sentiments are more moderate and conciliatory than the voices raging on behalf of illiberalism. But the margins of electoral wins are small and provide only short-term comfort relative to a much deeper set of issues that persists in the American landscape.
We stand in urgent need today of better tools to understand what is happening to us as a political collective. We also require innovative public measures to respond to emerging challenges. Recent legislative achievements of the Biden administration – the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act — represent important (albeit long-put-off) investments in the country. Treasury Secretary Yellen has introduced the "friendshoring" initiative as American companies rethink how businesses should engage global suppliers in a new geopolitical order. Further government initiatives are needed and can deliver huge returns, including major investments in education at all levels.
Leadership is, as ever, critical. But ordinary citizens must take up supportive positions to address major challenges such as the climate crisis, the digital economy, deglobalization, and the perpetuation of fascist drives themselves. Citizens must forge broad coalitions to advance on these and other fronts. And they must urge political discourse away from the incentive structures that encourage far-right idolatry, thereby inching the national collective toward a more sustainable and inclusive future.
Bradley S. Klein and Scott G. Nelson are political scientists and co-authors of Citizenship After Trump: Democracy versus Authoritarianism in a Post-Pandemic Era (Routledge, 2022)
That’s it for today
I’ll be back with more Friday.