Monday, August 24, 2020

Counterintuitive Musings on Authoritarianism

I'm no history geek, but I recognize two aspects of authoritarianism that are not widely understood right now:

1. The "Strong Man", more often than not, starts out as a mockable dweeb.
Hitler, with his ranting eccentricity, was a laughingstock until he wasn't. There was, at every step of his rise, a reassuringly large public consensus best expressed as "That guy? Seriously??". Franco and Stalin were brutishly ignorant peasants. Mussolini was a cartoon chin and fist. Their names echo down through the ages, making them seem titanic, but all were petty emotional wrecks projecting cheesy Wizard of Oz thunder in cheap stage makeup.

The nauseating erosion of value in public consensus and mockery is familiar to us today, but we assume Trump - weak, cowardly, and whiney - to be an edge case, while real dictators are genuinely awesome. That's wrong. Trump's dumber than most, and is only four years into his progression to tyranny, making him seem more of a vandal/crook than full-blown tyrant, but his pettiness, ignorance, uncontrolled emotionality, and self-defeating tics are directly out of the playbook. This, in all its absurdity, actually is the model.

2. Many of us actually want an authoritarian. Polls have reported (and been met with gasps of dismay, and quickly forgotten/repressed because it's unthinkably awful) that surprisingly large numbers of Americans, including (says the 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll) 32% of young people, disapprove of democracy.

And if you think it's just those damned traitorous Republicans, think again. The sentiment is registered on both sides (though Trump’s gravitational field certainly distorts the data for both).

Liberals feel extra democratic. I suppose it stems from all the activism against US-backed dictators in Latin America in the 1960s. People tend to define themselves via the -anti, and those struggles, and all those "Power to the People!" posters, added up. So how could liberals possibly feel anything but pro-democratic?

Let's do a thought experiment. Say your most favorite dream candidate won the presidency. Perhaps it was a Bernie or an AOC, and, announcing a new day, and a time to dismantle moldy norms and build from scratch, they signed a ton of executive orders to work around an obstructive Congress, loaded the Justice Department with ideologues, stonewalled THOSE ASSHOLES trying to interfere with their obviously righteous agenda, and fought like warriors against government functionaries and so-called watchdogs, who being institutionally conservative, are unwilling to get with the movement. They're finally doing what's right for this country, and if it means bending some rules created by stodgy people in a stodgy era, well, that's just boldness. At some point, they might want to ferret out some right-minded law enforcement agents to hit the streets and arrest RACISTS and HOMOPHOBES just for being the monsters they are, ala the Charlottesville crowd. Who'd shed a tear for such people? Bold moves! Let's fix it! Let's really fix it!

I won't paint the full picture, but take time to ponder the counterfactual, yourself (it's a nifty re-framing exercise). How much of such behavior would you tolerate if it were your guy/gal pushing your program?

I'll go first. And with a real-life scenario, to boot:

When Mike Bloomberg, who I liked and supported, used shady means to blast past term limit regulations, I can't say I was gung-ho about that particular move. I gulped and I prevaricated. But, in the end, I accepted it and went along, supporting his third campaign, because the city was in a profound fiscal crisis and I genuinely believed Bloomberg could fix it better than any of his likely replacements. The end justified the means. And while I still believe that my conclusion was factually true, I acknowledge that I briefly activated my authoritarian-enablement stem cells (I didn't know they were even back there).

Not to say I dreamed of NYC's mayoralty degrading into a personality cult with goose-stepping troops and cries of "Heil Bloomberg". But nobody wants that stuff in the beginning. The fall into authoritarianism is a classic frog boil. And it's all 'bout those stem cells, yo. You've got them, I've got them, and not everyone gulps or prevaricates.

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