The Great Authoritarian Arms Race

There is a quote floating around, variously attributed to Lenin and to Marx, which enjoins authoritarians to: 

Accuse your enemies of doing what you’re doing. 

Whether this was the work of Lenin or a fortune-cookie writer in Akron, it doesn’t matter. Powerful authorities are actively deploying such tactics.

When President Biden gave his now-famous “Dark Brandon” speech against a blood-red backdrop that authorities could have cribbed from a Leni Riefenstahl film, it revealed as much about the machinations of the powerful as the depravity of their strategists. Up to this point, the authoritarians were slowly boiling us lowly frogs. Now the politburo just turned up the heat. 

Click-click goes the burner.

There is a sinister brilliance in calling for “unity” while at the same time referring to half of the country as fascists. There is a glorious perversity in the psyop of calling voters extremists while directing the state Apparatus – that extraordinary fusion of corporate and state power – to censor speech and harass your political enemies. But the true genius lies in whipping half the country into such a frenzy that they are willing to let the Apparatus put the 150 million under thumb. After all, they’re just troglodytes. They are the Other. 

And it’s all being carried out in the name of protecting democracy.

DVEs and the American Stazi

The stage was already being set in 2021 when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released an advisory memo warning that “domestic violent extremists (DVEs), including…anti-government/anti-authority violent extremists, will continue to pose a significant threat to our homeland.”

Speaking of anti-government/anti-authority extremists: One of the American Founders wrote that the “tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Does it matter that today’s anti-authoritarians are often peaceful people who want to express their skepticism of state power in a Tweet? 

To the DVE advisory, DHS Secretary Mayorkas adds that “DHS has renewed its commitment to work with our partners across every level of government, the private sector, and local communities to combat all forms of terrorism and targeted violence.”

DHS needn’t conscript a Stazi. Volunteers have lined up to “work with” them. Nina “hide-a-little-lie” Jankovicz had been just another fangirl of the Apparatus before she was recruited to head up the Ministry of Truth Disinformation Board, which was (and may still be) a thing.

Let us not forget that the FBI raids the homes of voters they don’t like, and “works with” social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to silence dissent and brand dissenters as extremists. 

Click-click goes the burner.

When it comes to branding half of America extremists/fascists, Team Blue is positively credulous, sometimes frothing. That means they care as much about Team Red’s rights as they do about those of the Uyghurs. Indeed, the administration’s latest efforts reveal more steps toward sino-forming America—up to and including a CBDC (Central Bank Digital Currency), a monetary panopticon that will roll out under the watchwords: The innocent have nothing to fear.

Those afraid of creeping authoritarianism coming from the Left might be inclined to look to the Right for electoral salvation. But increasingly, you will find that the other side will be motivated more by revenge than by the protection of any principles or American ideals. That means Team Red is more likely to seize the Apparatus and turn it right back on Team Blue. Far from decrying such moves out of principle, Team Red will bask in all the Schadenfreude.

That is, until the pendulum swings back.

Negative Sum

The current configuration creates incentives for reprisals likely to swing back and forth until the Apparatus breaks down. And that could mean a Civil War that pulls most of what is currently the Indifferent Center into picking a team.

So, the nation finds itself pulled into a game-theoretical construction that is unlikely to lead anywhere good or healthy. It’s an arms race to see who can be more authoritarian. 

The cleverest in the beltway will try to tell you otherwise, even those whose work you might have long admired. They have decided that the EvidenceTM already demands you pick a team.

I’m reminded of the old Nolan Chart, which, though not a perfect political typology, is more accurate than a spectrum that goes from left to right. David Nolan added another axis – libertarian to authoritarian – that was designed to add an important dimension to the political landscape.

Unfortunately, the incentives and culture are like centers of gravity pulling people down. That is, progressives, moderates, and conservatives are becoming more and more authoritarian. Historically, red shirts and brown shirts hated each other, but both had their feet planted on a lot of common ground. It’s not even clear that these groups are conscious of the process. It’s more that animus can turn people into what they claim to loathe. That’s certainly happening today. Each side defines itself against its enemy and imagines it is on the side of the angels. They think of their tactics as a necessary evil, so stepwise, embrace evil. 

Click-click goes the burner.

Partisan intellectuals on either team will waggle their fingers and warn us of “both-sides-ism,” as if there were some cosmic scoreboard of authoritarianism only they are privy to. Some even call themselves libertarian. But notice how they scratch themselves, having lain down with dogs. They are selective in their outrage. They join in on the finger-pointing and tu quoque. They pick a team.

The Submission Instinct

On a personal note, I am fully aware of the impulse to tolerate the growth of authoritarian power rooted in fear and animus. After 9/11, I failed to heed the warnings about what kind of surveillance state measures such as the PATRIOT Act and, later, the spinning up of the new Department of Homeland Security, would mean for Americans’ civil liberties. I was wrong. In hindsight, I can see that I had been overcome by fear and polarization. I had picked a team. 

Click-click went the burner.

Since that time, subsequent administrations and legislatures have built on these measures to create what is now collectively known as the Deep State. And I had been a cheerleader for its rise, despite everything I knew about mission creep and the march through the institutions. Now, the Deep State has turned its capabilities onto ordinary citizens. 

I understand that a few rare events have caused us all to raise our concerns about extremist violence against innocents, from church and synagogue killings to clashes between protestors resulting in deaths. To some degree, we accept that police powers must be applied to deal with such threats. But we must remain vigilant, for any police power that can be turned on violent extremists can be turned on those labeled violent extremists.

Even though rare-but-scary things happen from time to time, including mass shootings and protests that burn out of control, many of these events flow as much from ideological polarization and this illiberal arms race, as from any evils endemic to ordinary Americans. 

It would be a grave mistake to let partisans pull the rest of us into something like the following:

“It is the State which educates its citizens in civic virtue, gives them a consciousness of their mission, and welds them into unity.”

A State run by whom? For whose idea of virtue? For what mission? And unity welded by what means? Yet both sides seem to have accepted Mussolini’s words implicitly as they struggle to seize power. 

Affective Polarization

Writing in Reason, Stephanie Slade warns,

What has not changed—what may even be getting worse—is the problem of affective polarization. Various studies have found that Americans today have significantly more negative feelings toward members of the other party than they did in decades past.

But partisan animosity suits the authoritarian elements on the left and right just fine. Their goal is power, and they have little patience for procedural niceties that interfere with its exercise. As history teaches, a base whipped up into fear and fury is ready to accept almost anything to ensure its own survival. Perhaps even the destruction of the institutions and ideals that make America distinctively itself.

Slade is right, and she’s got the data. Anyone who accuses her of “both-sides-ism” has his head where the sun don’t shine.

So, no. Now is not the time to “retire the both-sides-ism trope.” It’s time that an anti-authoritarian coalition turns against affective polarization and the impulse to pick a team. It’s time we call out authoritarianism anywhere it rears its head. And we must do everything in our power to innovate so that there are exits from this crumbling, top-heavy conflict machine. God forbid any “side” wins this war. God forbid we descend into Civil War, especially as the real authoritarians are waiting in the shadows as we continue to preoccupy ourselves with the spectacle of it all.

Click-click goes the burner.

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