Uncommon Common Sense – May 2016

Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

Drifting Towards Authoritarianism?


Bill Frayer 2010Many people in the United States and, indeed, throughout the world, have become alarmed at the persistent popularity of Donald Trump. Political pundits immediately dismissed him as a serious candidate as soon as he announced his intentions to run for president, and they have been struggling to explain his success. 

Some have even made comparisons to Adolph Hitler. Whether you agree with such a characterization or not, it is clear that there are some parallels between Trump and some fascist leaders throughout history. In fact, there are similarities between Trump and a number of right-wing nationalist leaders in Europe today.

Fascism in Europe during the mid-twentieth century arose from a number of conditions which exist, to some extent, today.  Traditionally, fascism appeals to people when there is a great desire for order, there is widespread fear of outsiders, and significant economic disruption. When people are afraid and discouraged with their circumstances, they frequently look for a strong leader to make their conditions better. Sometimes the leaders are liberal democrats, like FDR. But sometimes they are strong authoritarian figures like Hitler, Mussolini, and Putin. 

If we take the long view, the rise of Donald Trump may be seen more as a symptom than a phenomenon all its own. I think one might make the case that the United States has been moving in an authoritarian direction since September 11, 2001. The serious terrorist attacks on the United States created such fear and instability that the US Government (and other governments around the world) began to enact laws and policies which compromised individual rights in the interest of creating stability and protecting the homeland.  In particular, the US Patriot Act allowed the government to monitor US citizens and non-citizens by viewing phone and computer records, library records, and using unprecedented wiretapping. The public was afraid of another terrorist attack and went along with these measures. Even with the disclosure of more severe domestic surveillance, many people were silent and did not see the issue as alarming. 

Amanda Taub, of Vox.com, published a piece documenting the rise of American authoritarianism in March.  She cited the PhD dissertation of Matthew MacWilliams, at the University of Massachusetts, which documented how the tendency of people to support some degree of authoritarianism has been gradually increasing during the beginning of this century. I think several developments, besides terrorism, have led to this desire for strong authoritarian leadership.  

The election of an African American president, combined with the demographic changes which are inevitably leading to a white-minority population, has alarmed many white Americans, especially those with less education and economic privilege. The persistent racial tensions in the country are still evident more than 50 years after the Civil Rights Act. 

The large number of undocumented aliens working in the United States have been unfairly blamed for taking American jobs. In fact, many of the jobs lost have been the result of economic globalization and trade pacts which have left many people, especially men without much education, without a job and without much hope.

The world-wide Diaspora of Muslims from Africa and the Middle East, and the conflation of radical Islam with law-abiding Muslims has led to widespread fear of terrorism at home.  Whenever people are faced with outsiders coming into their space, there is the tendency to react with fear. Social changes in the United States, particularly the blurring of traditional gender roles and the increasing acceptance of gay, lesbian and transgender lifestyles, have accelerated a sense of disorientation and fear among some people. 

It is not surprising, then, that people respond to a leader that wants to secure the borders, kick out the outsiders, bomb the families of terrorists, and generally “kick some ass.”  Trump is popular because he speaks to people’s fear and frustrations.  Authoritarianism is sneaking up on us.  Trump is a symptom of this tendency.  We must condemn his message, of course.  But we must also create a society of economic opportunity, accessible education, and racial tolerance.  Perhaps the first step should be to urge the media to stop stirring up fear to enhance their ratings and, instead, hold public candidates and government officials accountable for their irresponsible and harmful pronouncements.

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