It is unthinkable to most of us that there could ever be an “end of America” in the metaphorical sense. But it is when memories are faint about coercive tactics that worked to control people in the past that people can be more easily controlled in the present… We know that Karl Rove seeks the goal of a permanent majority. A permanent majority is easier to solidify for the future if democracy’s traditional challenges to power are weakened or silenced…
I have to assume that one reason for this assault on democracy is to secure the “permanent majority” status of a far smaller group, or rather of several smaller groups, driven by motives of power and money: the great power represented by access to an executive that is driving an agenda un-threatened by the people’s will, and the vast amount of money that has begun to flow from a condition of uninterrupted domestic surveillance and open-ended foreign hostilities.
America has flirted with fascism before. In the 1920s, a number of newspaper editors in the United States were impressed with the way that fascism coordinated with capitalism. In the 1930s, when Americans were suffering from economic depression and labor unrest, some U.S. leaders looked at the apparent order that Mussolini and Hitler had imposed on their own previously chaotic, desperate nations, and wondered if a “strong man” approach would serve the nation better than our own battered system.
As historian Myra MacPherson puts it, “In the thirties there was alarming support for Hitler [in America}, with American-style brownshirts proliferating…” Nineteen-thirties American fascism boasted many followers, nationally known demagogues, and even its own celebrities, such as aviator Charles Lindbergh, one of the most famous Americans of the day…
What is Freedom?
“It’s a free country,” any American child will say, a comfortable assurance… We scarcely consider that that sentence descends to that child from arguments for liberty that date back through generations of Enlightenment-era English and French philosophers, who were trying to work out what “a free country” could possibly look like — even as they themselves lived through or looked back on reigns of violently abusive and capricious monarchs.
We tend to think of American democracy as being somehow eternal, ever-renewable, and capable of withstanding all assaults. But the Founders would have thought we were dangerously naive, not to mention lazy, in thinking of democracy in this way. This view — which we see as patriotic — is the very opposite of the view that they held. They would not have considered our attitude patriotic — or even American: The Founders thought, in contrast, that it was tyranny that was eternal, ever-renewable, and capable of withstanding all assaults, whereas democracy was difficult, personally exacting, and vanishingly fragile. The Founders did not see Americans as being special in any way: They saw America — that is, the process of liberty — as special.
In fact, the men who risked hanging to found our nation, and the women who risked their own lives to support this experiment in freedom, and who did what they could to advance it, were terrified of exactly what we call dictatorship. They called it “tyranny” or “despotism.” It was the specter at their backs — and they all knew it — as Americans debated the Constitution and argued about the shape of the Bill of Rights…
What recurred regularly in various arguments as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights took shape was the widespread fear of an unchecked executive. It’s not surprising that these patriots would so deeply fear a single man invested with too much power. They had just freed themselves from being subjugated to George III, an abusive, not to mention mentally ill, monarch.
“The great masses of the people will more easily fall victims of a big lie than a small one,” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf. Fascists rely on “perception management” — what the intelligence community calls “info ops” — because their tactics won’t stand scrutiny by a free press. So in a fascist shift, as real reporters are being frozen out, smeared, or faced with unemployment, there is an increasing use of spectacle in conveying “message” — and the spectacle is accompanied by the production of fake news and false documents.
The messaging, combined with the spectacle, can be stunning in a fascist ascendancy. Fascist messaging has advantages that democratic communications and advocacy, even of the highest sophistication, just can’t demonstrate: You can use a monolithic, harmonized voice and vision, unimpeded by dissent, rather than trying to break though a clash of pluralistic arguments. This power of epic messaging in combination with the power of spectacle is a well-known aspect of the seduction of fascism…
Dictatorships specialize in faking news… Hitler wrote that “all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on the se in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand …” He argued that good propaganda speaks to feelings and not reason, and that “it should never admit a glimmer of doubt in its own claims, or concede the tiniest element of right in the claims of the other side,” according to Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power.
After a certain point in a fascist shift, it doesn’t matter whether most people believe the faked news or not — eventually they simply don’t have access to enough good information to assess what is real and what is not. In accounts of the Chinese pro-democracy uprising in 1989, you can hear well-intentioned Chinese citizens struggling with this: The Voice of America radio station was reporting on the uprising accurately, describing the protesters as idealistic students — but the Politburo was accusing the VOA of spreading unpatriotic lies. Chinese state TV, print, and radio called the protesters counterrevolutionary “criminals” and “ruffians.”
Citizens, frightened by this, were writing letters to their newspapers haplessly explaining that they had diligently compared the VOA reports and the Politburo reports — and they found the Politburo reports to be more accurate.
I find those citizens’ struggles to sift truth from lies to be so moving. At that point, the state had made truth fungible… Perhaps the barrage of lies serves a more substantial purpose than simply advancing a certain position. Sending a current of lies into the information stream is part of classic psychological operations to generate a larger shift — a new reality in which the truth can no longer be ascertained and no longer counts.
In this reality citizens no longer feel empowered or able to establish the truth on either side — and therefore give up their agency. At this point people can be manipulated into supporting almost any state action. For how can citizens know what is right? Truth itself has been cheapened, made subjective and internal, not absolute and external…
Why does this matter so much? Why does a government’s promotion of lying help facilitate a fascist shift? What does the truth have to do with democracy?
Democracy depends on a social agreement that is so obvious to us that it usually goes unspoken: There is such a thing as truth. In an open society, we know facts may be hedged and spun in the back-and-forth debate, but truth is the ground from which the hedging or spinning begin. Democracy depends upon accountability; accountability requires us to be able to tell truth from lies; and to be able to tell truth from lies, we all first must agree that truth matters.
If the ground of democracy is truth, the ground of dictatorship is assertion. In a dictatorship, reality belongs to whoever has the greatest power to assert… in the game of democracy: someone lies, you expose the lie — like a tennis tournament in which there is a net and a score and impartial referees. In democracy, lying is at most a sneaky tactic in the game. But in a fascist system, lies are the game board itself.
“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands … is the definition of tyranny,” wrote James Madison.
We need to look at history and face the “what ifs”. For if we keep going down this road, the “end of America” could come for each of us in a different way, at a different moment; each of us might have a different moment when we feel forced to look back and think: that is how it was before – and this is the way it is now.
We still have the choice to stop going down this road; we can stand our ground and fight for our nation, and take up the banner the founders asked us to carry.