Much has been written about the recent rise of authoritarian power here in the “free world,” but when we live it day-in and day-out, it’s also easy to dismiss these claims as alarmist. That’s fair on some level; we live in a world where every “memetic” moment is driven by some degree of hyperbole, and with the need for flashy, emotive headlines that will tell you everything you didn’t need to know as opposed to fact-driven, nuanced journalism, is it any surprise that we can no longer seem to trust, well, reality?
It’s not that we should find ourselves “alarmed” over rises in authoritarianism so much as it is our responsibility as anyone committed to a free and democratic society to always look for and push back against authoritarian tendencies wherever we see them. In other words, we could find ourselves living in “normal times,” if such a thing ever existed here, and we’d still be responsible for being vigilant against fascism.
That said, there are a lot of different angles to take when looking into whether a country is becoming fascistic. Is the press free or mass media controlled? Are religion and government intertwined? Has corporate power been protected above all else? Are elections fraudulent? Is there a disdain for the arts and for the intelligensia? Is there widespread racism and sexism?
One of the scarier warning signs of a move toward authoritarianism, though, regards an obsession with “law and order” and national security. We tend to think of this when we rush to the stories of Nazi Germany as though, suddenly one day, there are gas chambers and a nationalized military carrying people away like it happens out of nowhere. But it takes time to build a systemic apparatus where that kind of power is consolidated nationwide against certain political entities.
What happens, first, happens at the local level: a politicized approach to community policing, a willingness to collaborate with law enforcement who refuse to identify themselves, and working with local militias for the creation of paramilitary forces. The latter two are sorta one in the same.
With regard to the former, we’ve certainly seen our local police politicized, though to be fair, we’ve seen everything politicized in today’s world where big tech tells us what and how to think. The best example of this I can give you is fairly horrifying but disturbingly common. Out of the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement arose a clear response: the idea that #BlueLivesMatter. Why is this so disturbing? Because it takes the idea of “community policing” where the police officer is intended to be someone you trust and literally creates and perpetuates an “us vs. them” mentality. They are black lives; we are blue ones. Nevermind how ridiculous it is that blue is not a skin color you’re born with but a job you can quit any day you want to; the phrase #BlueLivesMatter takes a political movement and co-opts it to the benefit of those responsible for being very careful with the immense power we have entrusted to them.
I could say more about this politicization of law enforcement, especially in how local militias like the one in Wisconsin have taken on these blue lives movements, but I’d like to focus on something more worrying:
A few of the most alarming moments in modern American history, in my opinion, have occurred very recently amid the #BlackLivesMatter protests. Some of these very alarming moments include the presence of unidentified law enforcement officials, in clothing anyone could purchase off the internet, partnering with police to snatch protesters, including journalists, into unmarked vehicles. More recently, when the Kenosha police thanked a local militia, offering these armed men water, they later pushed protesters toward this very alt-right group, guaranteeing violent confrontation. And, of course, the Portland caravan gathering outside the city and driving through the streets with paintball guns and chemical spray.
On the one hand, these incidents have been sporadic and limited in their degree of violent conflict. On the other hand, if this kind of behavior were to be mimicked in other American cities, where police partner with militias or caravans drive through and lay claim to the streets, the situation becomes ripe for mass violence at a scale we haven’t seen within our borders since the civil war. I want to be clear: I’m not saying we could foment civil conflict but that the conditions for radicalizing enough people to support paramilitary units could greatly damage our democracy and limit our ability to turn back and escape these fascistic tendencies.
To that point, in nearly every case where democracy has eroded and given way to dictatorship, this crucial step–the creation of paramilitary forces on the local, state, and then national level–is almost always present.
I’ll give you three examples: the classic story we all know and repeat in the form of Nazi Germany, and two more recent examples of Erdogan’s Turkey and Duterte’s Philippines.
The story of the Hitler’s rise to power would be nothing without the Sturmabteilung, also known as the SA, or the “brownshirts.” They were first assigned to offer “protection” at rallies and other meetings for the Nazi party. In fact, as early as 1919 a group of former World War I army companions to Hitler stepped in to shut down protesters who were shouting at a meeting where Hitler was speaking to around 2,000 people, and thus was born the SA on the grounds of crushing dissent.
At multiple junctures over the years, Hitler restructured or renamed this group but the function of the group always remained the same: silence dissent and disrupt gatherings elsewhere.
In fourteen years, this group had grown from a small band of Hitler’s friends to having three million supporters and following the Night of the Long Knives, a purge on Jewish business and synagogues, it had served its purpose and was phased out and ultimately “replaced” in form and function by the notorious SS.
The point I want to make here, though, without going into detailed history on Nazi Germany is that this was a rag-tag paramilitary force of Hitler’s supporters stoking violence wherever they could find it. It was not the established German army or a force of equal institutional weight commonly recognized by the people. It’s a clear example of toppling a democracy from within, wherein a small group of loud and violent people themselves incite hatred, thus requiring government officials to “step in” to bring about “law and order,” or in other words, to sanction the violence with a new group. Leaders in these cases secretly support and simultaneously publicly distance themselves from their own supporters. They promise to bring order but when they send in more law enforcement, the real goal is simply more chaos.
More recently, we’ve seen very similar behavior in Turkey with Erdogan’s rise to power. And it always goes back, ultimately, to silencing dissent.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan was Turkey’s prime minister in 2002, at a time when its military was a secular institution and Erdogan himself enjoyed support from both conservative and liberal politicians, fashioning himself aligned with progressive policies but slowly abandoning these as he consolidated his power.
He initially saw democratic institutions as limits on his ability to consolidate that power and worked to erode these institutions little by little.
By 2013, he began to see “the people” as the real threat to his power with increased protests. He relied on three different groups to silence their dissent: private security companies (known as SADAT), local gangs, and youth clubs which functioned like young militias. The protesters were beaten, jailed, tortured, and murdered.
Erdogan then emboldened these groups in 2017 when he issued decrees and orders, including KHK/696, which gave immunity to anyone who helped “suppress terroristic activities.” In his, let’s call them “executive orders,” he intentionally used vague language so that his broad definitions of “terrorism” would help his supporters interpret the law to the disadvantage of his political opponents.
I want to pause here, because you may be thinking at this point that all sounds pretty foreign to the United States, but in fact, the U.S. also uses private security companies and obscure groups to quiet dissent. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ brother, Erik Prince, ran a company that recruited ex-spies to infiltrate liberal groups and some reporting has suggested, though it’s unconfirmed, that his company had a presence in the DC protests when Trump staged the photo op in front of the church this year.
Whether it was Prince’s troops or not, we have started to see an increasing number of law enforcement who do not identify themselves but, often, have been assumed to be Border Patrol, Homeland Security, or–and this one is truly bizarre–the U.S. Park Police. Whether akin the early days of the “brownshirts” or SADAT, the similarities are striking.
That leads me to Duterte.
A week after Donald Trump used the phrase “fake news” for the first time, according to journalist Maria Ressa, Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, used the same phrase in his own country–and has gone as far as criminalizing news he disagrees with.
If you hadn’t heard of Duterte before 2016, it’s probably because you had never heard an American president praise him for his violence, but Trump did just that as Duterte wanted to appear to be cracking down on drug cartels in the Philippines.
In just six months following the summer of 2016, “the national police [in the Philippines] estimate[d] that more than 6,000 people were assassinated by law enforcement, paramilitaries and vigilantes,” adding that at least 2,000 of those deaths officers claimed they shot and killed “in self defence” [sic] and that over 38,000 had been jailed in that time.
I think there’s a few lessons to be learned there: first, that paramilitary forces arise as a response to some “opposition,” in Duterte’s case being drug cartels, whether that opposing force is real or imagined, and second, that the vigilante violence will always be justified by the powerful, whether it should be or not.
Again, we see similarities here in the United States. How many times were we warned of “dangerous” migrant caravans that magically disappeared when it was no longer politically expedient? How many times were we warned about gangs like MS-13 with groups like ICE stepping in to provide some faux justice?
And the justification of violence? That’s long been a characteristic of Trumpism, as he told the police to rough up suspects. More recently, with the vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse, the president’s supporters have been quick to point to self defense as justifying his actions. How can an underage, illegally-armed militia terrorist who sought out an area of violent conflict realistically claim self defense? The same way Duterte’s vigilante’s can.
And, of course, like Erdogan and Hitler, the crushing of dissent is absolutely crucial to these leaders and, often, the reason and motivation for their formation of paramilitary units in the first place. Right now, Maria Ressa, who I mentioned earlier, alongside her former colleague, Reynaldo Santos, has been sentenced to jail. What is her crime? She runs a news outlet that has been critical of Duterte.
In a year when there have been, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, over 740 reported acts of aggression against the press during #BlackLivesMatter protests, the United States has become one of the worst violators of press freedom with 60 journalists arrested just this year alone. Many of the recent attacks against the press, in fact, were targeted attacks of local and state police where they singled out reporters, knowing they were reporters. That might sound like Erdogan or Duterte’s dream come true, but it’s not their country. It’s here.
Look, I’m not looking to write a book. Much more could be said and my brief snapshots of some fascistic examples where democracy collapsed are nothing more than that–brief snapshots. Brazil’s Bolsanaro deserves a few paragraphs at least. Maduro’s revolutionary guards deserve some commentary. Putin’s paramilitary units and oligarchic mafias acting not just in Putin’s Russia but also, most recently, in Belarus. The list goes on and on.
But the refrain of fascism present to these other countries is becoming commonplace, if not more frequent, here in the United States, than at any other point in our history. I can’t say this clearly enough: we are quickly becoming a fascist country.
We have believed, of course, “it can never happen here,” in part because we believed that, here, we wouldn’t allow it to happen. We were so incredibly self-assured on that point, and it’s hard to stomach the dissonance in what it might look like if, indeed, it was happening.
The problem is, it’s already happened. If there’s a “path” to follow that makes a country a fascist country, we’ve been on that path for some time now without realizing or admitting it. Our fate is not solidified but the time to do much about it is quickly running out, and before it’s said and done, “good” people you and I know now may find themselves, for the sake of their livelihood at best or their survival at worst, aligning themselves with the very kind of paramilitary forces that helped topple nearly every democracy that ever fell.
I am asking you: pay attention to the events of Kenosha and Portland, yes. Pay closer attention to whether similar things start happening in other cities, especially the closer we approach our election. The survival of our democracy may hinge on whether you were willing to speak up to your friends and family and lay out for them what was really at stake.
Otherwise, much will be written about the United States–and its fall from democracy.