The Plague of American Authoritarianism

Authoritarianism in the American collective psyche and in what might be called traditional narratives of historical memory is always viewed as existing elsewhere. Viewed as an alien and demagogic political system, it is primarily understood as a mode of governance associated with the dictatorships in Latin America in the 1970s and, of course, in its most vile extremes, with Hitler’s poisonous Nazi rule and Mussolini’s fascist state in the 1930s and 1940s. These were and are societies that idealized war, soldiers, nationalism, militarism, political certainty, fallen warriors, racial cleansing, and a dogmatic allegiance to the homeland. [i]

Education and the media were the propaganda tools of authoritarianism, merging fascist and religious symbols with the language of God, family, and country, and were integral to promoting servility and conformity among the populace. This script is well known to the American public and it has been played out in films, popular culture, museums, the mainstream media, and other cultural apparatuses. Historical memory that posits the threat of the return of an updated authoritarianism turns the potential threat of the return of authoritarianism into dead memory. Hence, any totalitarian mode of governance is now treated as a relic of a sealed past that bears no relationship to the present. The need to retell the story of totalitarianism becomes a frozen lesson in history rather than a narrative necessary to understanding the present.

Hannah Arendt, the great theorist of totalitarianism, believed that the protean elements of totalitarianism are still with us and that they would crystalize in different forms. [ii] Far from being a thing of the past, she believed that totalitarianism “heralds as a possible model for the future.”[iii] Arendt was keenly aware that the culture of traditionalism, an ever present culture of fear, the corporatization of civil society, the capture of state power by corporations, the destruction of public goods, the corporate control of the media, the rise of a survival-of-the-fittest ethos, the dismantling of civil and political rights, the ongoing militarization of society, the “religionization of politics,”[iv] a rampant sexism, an attack on labor, an obsession with national security, human rights abuses, the emergence of a police state, a deeply rooted racism, and the attempts by demagogues to undermine critical education as a foundation for producing critical citizenry were all at work in American society. For Arendt, these anti-democratic elements in American society constituted what she called the “sand storm,” a metaphor for totalitarianism. [v]

Historical conjunctures produce different forms of authoritarianism, though they all share a hatred for democracy, dissent, and human rights. It is too easy to believe in a simplistic binary logic that strictly categorizes a country as either authoritarian or democratic and leaves no room for entertaining the possibility of a mixture of both systems. American politics today suggests a more updated if not different form of authoritarianism or what some have called the curse of totalitarianism.

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