Why Collapse is Like a Tsunami — and Right Now, the Waters are Only Receding
Here’s a tiny question. Do Americans really understand what’s at stake in the midterms? Now, before you cry, “of course they do!”, perhaps it’s worth considering in a little more detail. Why? Because at every juncture of American collapse so far, the risks of, well, all this happening, have been vastly, fatally, lethally understated — minimized, denied, pooh-poohed away. Haven’t they? It’s not just that not a single mainstream pundit or thinker (go ahead, think about it) didn’t predict any of this — it’s that they actively refused to allow even the possibility, mocking and taunting those who did predict it. Instead, election season was spent pretending Trumpism was a joke, and the next year, sternly warning from on high that you and I mustn’t use words like “fascism” and “authoritarianism.”
LOL — that is how you get to little kids being put in camps, while women dressed as Handmaids protest a Supreme Court justice, Nazis sit in government, indictments that Congress won’t act on are issued, and a President destroys every institution and norm around him, all in about two years. The assumption was that everything would be more or less OK, because “it couldn’t happen here.” And that is precisely how it did begin to happen here.
What do I mean by “it”? I’ll come to that. First, I want you to think of a tsunami as you read this. What happens in a tsunami? First, the waters recede. The sand lies exposed. There’s a strange and eerie silence. And then — whoosh! — the waters roar back, and engulf the land, destroying everything in their path.
We are going to think about collapse, democracy imploding into fascism and authoritarianism, dynamically in this essay — not just as a static thing — but as a living, breathing, moving, changing thing. It is not like a fire, or a rocketship taking off, or a building being torn down. I’ve come to think that the best mental model we can have of it is something more like a tsunami. Something we struggle to understand well, because the ocean of democracy appears to dry up into a desert — baffling and bewildering us — but what is really happening is that the flood of fascism and authoritarianism is gathering lethal and deadly force, power, and momentum.
And that is what the midterms are really about.
Now. “It”. The “it” that’s already begun to happen here. What does it refer to? The classical sequence of a fascist slash authoritarian collapse (you can pick your place on that spectrum). It goes like this. Economic stagnation lights the spark, upon a nation already drenched in the fuel of an existing history of racial and ethnic “tension” or “grievance” — by which we mean something like a society in which there’s already been institutionalized division and slash or a body of thought that considers some people inferior to others. All that was the case in Weimar Germany — in which philosophies and ideas of ethnic .
Next, a demagogue appears. People who expected to ascend into prosperity, but are baffled and bewildered, confused and frustrated, by descending into poverty, are tempted and seduced by the demagogue’s easy, comforting explanations for their travails. He blames their woes on immigrants, Jews, Muslims, others. The weak. He tells the downwardly mobile they are the truly strong ones. The soil and all upon it belongs to them — and them alone. All that they have to do to prove it is to subjugate the weak. Cleanse them away, even. Because the weak are the burdens, liabilities, parasites, infecting the strong with their weakness, and that is how the strong came to be poor, afraid, and destitute.
It’s a tempting proposition, isn’t it? Especially in a society which only really has a kind of superficial harmony or peace — in which long-standing racial and ethnic grievances have never really been resolved, culturally, or socially, but only brushed under the rug, so there is the appearance of genteel tolerance, that hides growing resentment, envy, and enmity. So already unhappy, mistrustful societies where everything appears to be failing, where if you follow the rules, you don’t end up safe, secure, rich, and happy — but broke, miserable, and impoverished — are perfect breeding grounds for fascism. Places like Weimar Germany — or modern-day America. All they are waiting for is a spark, a match, a glint to light the fire.
That spark is the demagogue. What follows? The classical sequence of collapse. Scapegoating. Demonization. Dehumanization — first cultural, then social, then legal. People are unpeopled. Expropriation — unpeople don’t deserve to have things, whether homes, incomes, possessions, belongings, jobs, or citizenship. Ghettoization and segregation. Forced exile. Encampment. And then the unthinkable. We’ve seen this sequence in many societies. Germany. The Balkans. Even today, in China, Russia, Myanmar, and so forth.
America is joining this list. How far along the classical sequence would you say it is? It’s self-evident and obvious to see that it is already about halfway along it. Within two years, it has gone from scapegoating and demonization, to expropriation and encampment. Citizenship is being revoked, along ethnic lines — which is the beginning of true expropriation. Once a person is no longer a citizen, then everything that they have is fair game, isn’t it?
You might think, “well, so what?” But now you are minimizing a truly dangerous and catastrophic event in a society’s history. How did an SS officer, who was once maybe a minor-league criminal or thug, come to live in a fine home full of art, books, and elegant furniture? The Nazis seized them from Jews — that is how. And then they used such things as prizes to reward the most loyal — which is to say the most brutal — among them with. Enough of that, and a stagnant economy appears to be a prosperous place. Even the average person who is reluctant now becomes a supporter of the regime. This is the birth of true National Socialism, which is the end of a society, for at least a generation — I’ll come back to that.
Now. Let me come back to the tsunami. What does the above feel like? Seem like? The above doesn’t just proceed in a linear fashion. Scapegoating “leads to” demonization, which “leads to” dehumanization. That’s true — but it’s truer to say that each of these things builds on the other, and each of them keeps proceeding apace. And what they do is break old ways, forms, institutions — governments, norms, rules, codes, values, laws. Things grow stuck, the gears and mechanisms of a society seem to grind to a standstill.
So collapse isn’t experienced in a linear way, like a building falling down. It feels more like my tsunami. First, the water recedes. Democracy appears to be broken — and nothing can seem to fix it. People grows frustrated, irritated, angry, resigned, or apathetic. The idea of governance becomes a joke. But then the water roars back in suddenly — whoosh!! — and destroys everything. Only by then it is too late for anything at all to be done about it. Let me explain.
The water recedes — there’s a desert where there used to be an ocean. The government is paralyzed. Everything’s jammed up, broken, immovable. Intellectuals have pointless debates, which lead nowhere at all. Nobody has a plan for a society’s future. It as if there is a kind of void in a society. Stalemate, gridlock, impasse, standofff. Isn’t that exactly where America is? All three branches of government — paralyzed. An immovable Congress. Huge number of government posts left unfilled. A judiciary moving at a glacial pace. A President happier to break with friends and allies and send tweets than perform anything resembling fixing a broken nation. A media that’s still baffled and bewildered by it all. An opposition that sometimes seems to be waking up, but only barely. An almost comical lack of vision. An agenda for a new social contract that’s missing, at precisely the moment it’s needed most. So it appears as if the ocean of political economy has run dry. It has become a desert.
But that is not really what is happening at all. The ocean hasn’t become a desert. What is really happening is that the tsunami is gathering force, momentum, power — of a deadly kind. What I mean by that is those unfilled government posts, as we’re discovering too late, are going to literal Nazis. That the paralyzed Congress isn’t so much a brake, as a license. That if the judiciary can’t act, then it will be toothless, and redesigned not for political independence, but as a political tool. That the intellectuals “debating” foundational civilizational and moral concepts like personhood, are already back in the Stone Age, unable to think at all, granting the high ground to tribal illogic and unreason. It is not that everything is “stuck.” It is that everything is becoming weaponized. Government, culture, norms, values, even ideas themselves. As a tool to reward the pure and true and strong, and select and subjugate the weak. It is not that the ocean of democracy has become a desert. It is that the flood of something more like a true National Socialism is gathering deadly force and pace out at sea, where it is still mostly unseen.
What happens if the good guys lose the midterms? The bad guys have a license to do their absolute worst. But what is the absolute worst? It is the rest of the sequence above. Now government becomes a true tool of repression — it hires lawyers, “enforcement agents”, patrolmen, administrators, bureaucrats. But not do the old jobs, of constructive governance. To do the new ones, of real subjugation. Those jobs go something like this. Define who is a member of the true volk, a real human being — the managers. Make lists and count and sort them — the administrators. Craft laws to expropriate everything from them, beginning with their citizenship — the lawyers. Enforce these laws as viciously as possible — the agents and patrolmen. At this stage, we see the birth of the organs of a new government, more like a Reich — a Gespato, SS, Ministry of Truth, and so on. National Socialism becomes the new organizing principle of a society, whatever it is called this time. Yet Nazism is Nazism. The state is now used as an instrument to destroy, cleanse away, and eliminate the impure, so that the pure, who were downwardly mobile, remember, can be elevated again. And everything in society, more or less, is oriented towards that purpose.
Whoosh! The water has rolled back in and destroyed everything. It appeared as if government and society and politics were broken. But that is not what was happening at all. It was truer to say that all those were being reshaped institutionally, as instruments of subjugation and repression, gathering lethal force, momentum, and power. Laws, codes, rules, ideas, principles, organizations, agencies, branches — all of these things were being transformed, into weapons of social-self destruction. Now a society finds itself in the dark and rushing water of a true collapse into fascism and authoritarianism. Only it is too late to do anything about it.
That is what is likely to happen if the bad guys win. Yes, really. No, I don’t say it provoke you. I mean it. Remember how American thinkers, pundits, intellectuals, politicians and media have all fatally underestimated the dangers so far? This is what they underestimate now. And make my mistake, they are minimized, denying, and evading the danger ahead, even at this most crucial of moments, all over again.
The good news, though, is that the good guys — which is most of us — have to let the bad guys win. Right now, this moment, just before the midterms, is the point where the water has receded, creating the strange and baffling illusion of a desert in the sea — but the truth is that the flood hasn’t roared in yet, destroying everything in its wake. It is not too late to protect what is left on shore — and that is the fundamental task before America now. But it will be too late after the midterms — after that, there is only the flood.
Is America up to the challenge? I don’t know. Nobody does. What I can, say, though, is that if it isn’t — head for high ground, my friend. Because when the waters rush back in, not a soul will be spared.