This is America’s Great— and Maybe Final — Test. But Will it Pass?
I want to begin with a little note — indulge me, or just skip ahead. I hope by now you understand that when I write about America, I don’t do it to persuade you, argue with you, try to convince you, in the way that defines this age, from petty party politics, the Soviet style ideological rigidity that has come to define both sides, cable news hosts, or pundits. I don’t do it, especially, from a place of condemnation or shame or blame. Just from a place of gentle observation, that comes from things I’ve learned, in books, and in my own improbable life. I genuinely think Americans should be living better lives than they are — all of them, no matter how wedded to their own ruin might be. So think of this as something like a pep talk from the devil, not like a lecture from grandpa.
When I say “what happens if the good guys don’t win”, it’s not to score points, divide, or preach, but simple to observe a simple, bitter, undeniable reality. This may well be American democracy’s last, final, and greatest test. Yes, really. I will make my case, and you, as always, be the judge.
What will happen if the good guys don’t win the election is that the bad guys will take their gloves off. And they will shatter what is left of democracy, society, and civilization like a fist through glass. How so?
Once the process of institutional capture is complete, only then do authoritarians tend to reveal the most extreme parts of their agendas. These agendas usually have three components. One, the end of democracy. Two, the end of freedom. Three, the end of personhood. No, I’m not being hyperbolic — this is what authoritarians are, my friends — though I imagine you might think I am, so let’s consider it together.
Let’s imagine the end of democracy — that the next election is postponed, or that martial law is imposed, or that the constitution is suspended on some flimsy pretext. Bang! There you are — an Assad dynasty in the White House. Unthinkable? Think again — already, troops are being ordered to “shoot to kill” refugees, which is both unconstitutional, and a disgrace, really, to a soldier and the honor of an armed forces. The authoritarians are already trampling the idea of constitutional underfoot — and if they win this time, they will rip it up entirely. Do you think I exaggerate? Fair enough. Let me press my case a little.
Let’s imagine the end of personhood. It’s at this stage — when the bad guys solidify their power — that’s when the Final Solutions and genocides and so on appear. What’s likely to happen in this case? Well, plans are already afoot to eliminate citizenship in various forms. That is just a stepping stone in the authoritarian-fascist sequence, which always follows the predictable steps demonization-scapegoating-expropriation-eliminiation-extermination, to it’s truer goal — to instate, or in America’s case, reinstate, a hierarchy of personhood. Given the way technology’s evolved, it’s easily within the realm of possibility to imagine genetic tests deciding different tiers or levels of citizenship, which determine different levels of rights, which rest on the idea that some people are more human than others. The mechanisms are just details — the central point is that society’s great organizing principle, becomes the denial, ersasure, removal, nullifcation, of personhood. It’s great work and its project, to which all its effort, labour, time, energy are devoted— unlike that of a civilized society, whose great projects are things like art, science, literature, knowledge, ethics, and so on. But where does that lead? First, let me ask another question.
Who will stop any of this? You see, to really understand why this is America’s test, you have to see that America now has just one working branch of government left — barely: the judiciary. The executive is a raging dumpster fire of hate, obviously — and the legislature is standing by with a firehose in its hands, saying, “Does anyone know how to put this fire out? Anyone?!” That leaves the judiciary — and it’s barely working, because for the last decade or so, where they haven’t been able to win elections, where they’ve been found to be breaking the rules, the bad guys have simply gone around the judiciary, to disempower, stack, and otherwise corrode the power of courts to be something like neutral referees and interpreters of rights. How have they done that? By taking funding away from courts, by literally removing their powers, by making it transparently partisan how judges are chosen.
Now, that’s a lot of gobbledygook, to make one simple point. Once the judiciary is gone, then democracy is gone, too. It is the last institution to finally break in a failing state. Here are three extreme examples — from other countries. The state decides to erase the history of fascism from textbooks. It’s decided that you’ll need an internal passport to travel anywhere. Fascist mobs beat people up in the streets. And so on. Without functioning judiciary to decide these things are infractions of the law — the law soon ceases to matter as a restraint against predation, violence, and abuse. But when the law ceases to matter as a restraining principle, now the worst is possible, isn’t it? The unconstitutional becomes the possible.
Hence, now, with the final capture of all branches of government, the authoritarians are free to make more and more extreme, shocking, predatory, and abusive policies real — at lightspeed. In this case, that will range from the removal of citizenship, to the redefinition of personhood, to the militarization of daily life. What’s the most extreme example you can think of? Probably something like postponing or revoking elections, declaring martial law, and suspending the constitution. But are any of these really beyond the realm of possibility if the good guys lose? They are not, precisely because the bad guys will have the power to make their wildest dreams come true.
These wildest dreams, which are the nightmares of sensible people, will soon make themselves felt culturally and socially, too. Once authoritarian-fascist capture is complete, then the freedoms that people for granted in democracies erode with shattering swiftness. Freedom of speech, of assembly, of movement, of privacy, and so on. When the state is completely controlled by authoritarian-fascists, then, faster than anyone can really imagine, dissent and free thinking become transgressions. It happens in subtle ways — and also not so subtle ways. Some ideas are no longer expressed at all (like “we’re a fascist country now”), to curry favor, or to escape punishment. In either case — whether it is avoid being harmed, or whether it is to rise in power — the curtailment of basic freedoms comes to be a grim fact of everyday life. Do you think that can’t happen here? Perhaps you haven’t been paying attention to how passport are already checked on trains now, and so on.
So as a result of institutional capture making the worst kinds of policies easily attainable, norms and values soon begin to shift, too. In a decidedly authoritarian direction. You distance yourself from that dangerous, controversial friend, acquaintance, colleague, critic — hey, it’s just self preservation. You don’t want to lose your job, your career, your reputation. You stop “saying things” — which means, probably without knowing it, you’ve limited yourself from expressing certain ideas, histories, facts, realities, truths. Or are they thoughts? Now you are policing yourself for thought crimes. And soon enough, you begin policing those you love, too — you only want them to be safe, in what is suddenly a dangerous and hostile world.
At this point, a society is undergoing a great — yet often invisible — change. People are themselves becoming authoritarian. Not because they want to — but because they need to. The psychology of a society is changing, in other words. Now people are more concerned with safety, protection, and survival than they are with freedom, justice, equality, and possibility. Who can blame them? The stakes are real. Maybe that team of men in tactical gear really will invade your home, if you say the wrong thing on social media now. And yet the effects of all this on the human mind are all too easily overlooked. Conformity, obedience, submission come to be a people’s ruling principles, their true masters, the governors of their thoughts and actions, their relationships and their aspirations.
This is what I mean by “the end of freedom” — it is something that comes from within, not just from without, a subtler thing than we are used to seeing. People can choose, too, the end of their very own freedom. But then conformity, obedience, and submission to what, precisely? To what the authoritarian-fascists have wanted all along. What is that, exactly? What are they really after? Isn’t a bit maddening that still, at this late juncture, this question seems to have no answer in American thought?
What the bad guys are really after is the rule of violence. That is what all the bad guys in history have been after, and the job of the good guys, if you want to simplify history to the point that you really understand it, has been to accomplish a higher rule — the rule of law, the rule of justice, the rule of freedom, truth, knowledge, equality, and so on. What the bad guys want, in the end, is as simple and lethal as death itself — to undo all the history that has ever been, and plunge us right back to the Stone Age, where the biggest gorilla holding the largest rock, and smashing it on the most foreheads fastest, is the head of the tribe.
The rule of violence means, in practical terms, that the last few weeks — a mass murder at a synagogue, mail bombs to the opposition, the rise mass political violence — and in its wake, not a shred of remorse or dismay, but the opposite, laughter, taunts, cheers, and applause, an even more furious, hateful, bilious rhetoric, from those whose name it was done in — that all this becomes normal. Just another week — not an anomaly, but a regularity. But I want you to really understand it, so I will put it another way.
The rule of violence means that the most violent man, who threatens the greatest abuses, harms, and horrors, the biggest bully and pervert, the most hateful and spiteful and vicious one, rises to the top. Why? Precisely because he is the one who can intimidate the most, frighten the best. So, quite literally terrified, we all assent to live in a tribal fashion, where we have our place in a hierarchy of violence. “Well, I wouldn’t do that”, some say — such a person’s place is in the middle: what good is a peaceful, sane person in a society ruled by violence? “I’d go a little further, I’d beat people in the streets, and put them in the camps” — very good! This person rises higher. And at the top of this great pyramid of terror, like an emperor, sits the ruler of all this violence — who must be, if you really understand all this, the one who will do the most of it, the worst of it, who will stop nowhere, who has no moral soul or conscience, the one who will happily imagine and commit true atrocities, laugh — and even more grotesquely, order you to laugh, too. Does this sound familiar yet?
And yet while the rule of violence is a terrible and fearsome thing — it is, also, as Arendt, Kafka, and Brecht pointed out, a banal affair, which soon enough just becomes everyday life. And so a society can normalize it, adjust to it, take it for granted, resign itself to it. It is much easier to accept the rule of violence than it is fight for democracy — because conformity has always been a simpler and more direct route to safety than struggle.
And so the rule of violence arrives much faster, harder, and more viciously than a society ever really supposes it can. It took Syria less than a decade to become a shattered, ruined wasteland. Russia, after communism’s fall, was, it was assumed, going to be a great democracy — not a comical mafia state. Then, of course, there was Weimar Germany. And so on. The examples are endless, but they tell us three things. When the rule of violence arrives, it is very, very difficult to undo it. Afghanistan has been there for decades now. When the rule of violence arrives, part of society finds a kind of relief and even pleasure in it. Just take a look at the Middle East. And when the rule of violence arrives, many people even suppose it is freedom.
It is freedom, in a way. It is freedom from democracy, from civilization, from reason, from truth. From decency and humanity and wisdom. It is absolute and perfect freedom. Ah — but isn’t that what the extremist wing of America’s conservatives have wanted all along? They are about to find out, to their own horror, some of them, anyways, that winning the wrong battle sometimes means a truer defeat.
Let me sum all that up. I want you to understand what is really at stake here. It isn’t just left versus right. It is everything. Civilization. Democracy. Freedom. Truth, justice, the American way. That corny and weary old cliche. Does it still carry any moral weight, any power? It’s true that America realized too little of its very own ideals, too late, perhaps. But that is no reason to give up on them. It is every reason, if you ask me, to redouble the pursuit of them. They are noble and beautiful things.
I’ll end with something I don’t usually end with. A practical note. I could have reduced this essay to four letters. V-O-T-E. Do everything in your power to get every young person to vote, too — and then make sure they make their friends vote, too. This is the moment — the turning point, the critical juncture, the test of a people’s soul, grace, truth, and might. The choices are stark: renewal, or ruin.
The price of apathy, my friends, in times like these, isn’t that life goes on. It’s that it doesn’t.