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You have misunderstood the threat to liberal democracy

Why painting today’s tyrants as 20th-century totalitarians lets them off the hook
December 4, 2020

On 9th November 2016, when liberal opinion was appalled by Donald Trump’s election victory, Barack Obama delivered a message of reassurance from the White House Rose Garden. He restated his faith that America had a progressive destiny, albeit sometimes circuitously reached: “The path that this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag.”

Obama’s patience is partly vindicated by Joe Biden’s victory in 2020. A majority of US electors insisted on a course correction. But over 73m Americans voted to continue along the Trump trajectory—more than the number who backed him last time. They trusted the mendacious demagogue more than the institutions of American democracy. A hard core prefers conspiracy theories about electoral fraud to facts. The zigzag pattern played out not over decades but days, minute-by-minute as the results were disputed. The defeated President’s prolonged refusal to concede seemed to confirm that the US constitution was imperilled every day that he was in office. But the impotence of his rage—the fact that Biden is on course for inauguration—also underlines the resilience of democracy. 

Mainstream liberal commentary often casts Trump as dictator, a modern-day Hitler or Mussolini. The corrosion of US constitutional norms has been compared to the collapse of the Weimar Republic. After clashes between Trump supporters and protesters in Portland earlier this year, the letters page in the Los Angeles Times reflected the mood of his staunchest opponents: “Hitler’s purpose was to create chaos and discrimination, to flex the muscles of the right-wing fascists who made up his base, and to stay in power. Now the White House is doing something similar,” wrote one correspondent. “We are now descending into fascism,” said another.

The comparison has been made by experts in authoritarianism such as the Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of bestselling books on the slide into tyranny. Conservative critics depict Snyder as an hysteric, primed to hear approaching jackboots round every corner, but the parallels that he suggests with 20th-century tyrants are somewhat qualified: “If Trump is not a fascist, this is only in the precise sense that he is not even a fascist,” Snyder wrote in 2018. “He strikes a fascist pose, and then issues generic palliative remarks and denies responsibility for his words and actions.”

The caveat is important. There was plainly a fascistic streak in Trump’s style. But it comes with an absence of discipline and wilful shallowness taken from the showbiz milieu that brought him to prominence. He is more involved with personal gratification than any doctrine to mould the destiny of a nation.

None of that excuses the most sinister aspects of his regime: the abuses of power and the racism, the inhumane treatment of migrants—the caging of children—and cultivation of support among white supremacists and neo-Nazi militias. The rallies and the chanting mobs, the culture of intimidation, all carried chilling associations with the past. But it is also important to recognise how the contemporary threat is different—ultra-modern, a knowing performance of transgression, a product developed to shift units of outrage in the digital marketplace. We need to learn from history, but not lean too hard on it.

The totalitarian experience of the 1930s still, with good reason, defines the worst-case scenario. But given all of the subsequent developments, and the embedding of new norms during the long reign of post-1945 consumer capitalism, any downfall of 21st-century liberal democracy is unlikely to follow a 90-year-old template.

There are different modes of authoritarianism, as varying responses to the pandemic around the world have revealed. The conventional dictatorial reflex, still alive and well in many places away from the west, was to use the new threat of the disease as a pretext to silence critics and consolidate a grip on civil society. Here, after all, was a situation that positively demanded an extension of state power, reaching deep into the private realm. Lockdown measures applied across Europe were quasi-totalitarian in scope. For aspiring dictators, it is second nature to pivot from such expedients to repression. Vladimir Putin passed a misinformation law, ostensibly to stop the spread of fake Covid-19 news, but convenient also to a man who likes to suffocate dissent. Recep Tayyip Erdoan used the same technique in Turkey. “Sharing provocative Corona virus [sic] posts” has been added to the list of offences that can lead to detention by the Interior Ministry’s Cyber Crimes Unit. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán, a keen student of Putinism, used a compliant parliament to award himself powers to rule by decree during the emergency.

A more orthodox fascist than Trump would have likewise seen the new disease as a licence for repression. But he chose instead to deny the severity of the threat. His supporters rejected anti-Covid measures as an affront to personal freedom. That makes them tricky recruits to any traditional fascist project, which demands subordination of individual will into the collective project for national supremacy. The libertarian strain in Trumpism should be at odds with the authoritarian styling. But the lack of coherence doesn’t bother its adherents, who are not looking for specific doctrines. What matters is the sugar-rush taste combination—freedom from social convention laced with self-righteous anger.

[su_pullquote]“Most radical ultras in western democracies have grown up saturated in the lifestyle and expectations of consumer capitalism”[/su_pullquote]

The appetite for that product will not be diminished by Trump’s eventual expulsion from the White House. Nor will it be confined to the US. Something similar fuelled the UK’s exit from the European Union. Now Nigel Farage is executing the pivot from Euroscepticism to lockdown-scepticism. The Brexit Party will be renamed and refocused, mining the seam of opinion where Farage’s nostalgic, nationalist base shades into xenophobia and paranoid anti-vaccine conspiracy theory. The common thread is the need to be opposing establishment power. Since Brexit has become a legal fact, Brussels can no longer be the great bogeyman of oppression. A new oppressor has to be found and resisted. That is a project for perpetual opposition, not for the creation of a fascist state. Farage has enabled the spread of far-right ideas into the British mainstream, but he is uninterested in wielding executive power. His comfort zone is shirking responsibility and stoking grievances under (supposedly) “liberal” governments.

Boris Johnson rode the nationalist Brexit tiger to Downing Street, and he has a proven disregard for the protocols that uphold Britain’s unwritten constitution. But even his fiercest liberal critics struggle to cast him as a scheming tyrant. Johnson’s ambition, like Trump’s, is too centred on himself to resemble a project of authoritarian statecraft. There was a kind of Bolshevik radicalism about Brexit—a belief that all means were justified in pursuit of a utopian goal—but Johnson could not tear himself away from the mirror for long enough to complete the revolution.

The overthrow of a well-entrenched liberal democratic order is hard work. It requires sustained self-sacrifice. Those are not prominent features of 21st-century radicalism in western societies. There is plenty of angry energy, but much of it is expended online, which is a low-effort model of insurrection. Sitting at a computer and firing off enraged tweets or sharing propaganda memes can deliver the gratifying sense of participation in something daring or subversive without any cost in money, time or personal safety.

True, some clicktivist radicals advance to more active kinds of extremism: a wider pool of digital fundamentalists could, in theory, constitute a real-life threat. But not everyone will make the journey, and not just because they can’t be bothered. Most radical ultras in western democracies have grown up saturated in the lifestyle and expectations of consumer capitalism, with at least some values to match. (Their experience is very different, in that respect, to the pattern of authoritarian revival in former communist eastern Europe.) The late 1960s counterculture made a fetish of personal self-actualisation. That was followed by the 1980s cult of personal enterprise. Both promoted the pursuit of individual fulfilment over notions of duty and self-sacrifice. The accompanying social and economic shifts are not going to be undone any time soon. There may still exist some appetite to be part of a collective political project, but I suspect the bar has been raised, relative to the 1930s, in terms of how much individuality people are ready to surrender. Today’s young battalions of internet vigilantes are not drilled in taking orders—let alone handling real weapons—like the generation that emerged from the trenches in 1918, traumatised and alienated.

There is no doubting the potency of the current reaction against liberalism, on left and right (but with the right achieving more spectacular electoral returns). Nor should anyone belittle the grievances that have fuelled that polarisation. The economic consensus that underpinned late 20th-century globalisation has been discredited. The promise of widening prosperity and upward mobility failed with the financial crisis, and few answers have since been found with the old liberal tool kit. Voters have felt betrayed by self-serving elites and expressed their frustration in support for maverick populists.

But even the economics do not map neatly onto the conditions that cultivated totalitarianism in the 1920s—the issue then was not mere disappointment but hyper-inflation, mass unemployment and penury. Conditions in rustbelt Pennsylvania or Sunderland in 2020 are not very analogous to Berlin in 1933, or for that matter Petrograd in 1917.

The movements that channel today’s stresses have been marinading in stability and prosperity unprecedented in history. Yes, they borrow propaganda styles, tropes and rhetoric from totalitarianism and attract a maniac fringe with swastika tattoos or hammer-and-sickle stickers. But to the extent that there is doctrinal continuity from 20th-century fascism or Stalinism, it is hybrid—blended with concepts and privileges cultivated in the long period of liberal consensus.

On the left, there is still talk of overthrowing capitalism, but little plotting to do it by revolution. The study of Marxism-Leninism is confined to academia. The aspiration to proletarian control of the means of production has not vanished, but it has been eclipsed by cultural concerns. The activist left today is notably more animated by historical revision than economics. Pulling down statues fires their imagination more than requisitioning factories. There might be Bolshevik zeal in the way they police online discourse, but to a true Stalinist, the obsession with symbols is a distraction from the task of building new structures.

The new nationalist right is glad to meet the left on that terrain. It makes no great defence of free-market capitalism and corporate power, neither of which have served its target audience well in recent years. Plus, fighting the culture war from a socially conservative position is a way to connect with those broken-down industrial areas that used to vote for left-wing candidates.

While that culture war looks like a battle of left and right extremes, it is fought on classically liberal terrain. It is a contest of rights and freedoms. Right-wing culture warriors demand liberty to say offensive things (and accuse the left of censorship); their left-wing counterparts claim “freedom from harm” caused by the hate speech with which they charge the right. The left wants redress for historical injustice for groups that have been discriminated against; the right asserts that such a campaign amounts to “prejudice” against straight white men. The shrillest iterations of those views can be ferociously illiberal in tone, but they resonate with their audiences precisely because of a shared liberal assumption that individual rights are sacred. They do not add up to a new blueprint for government. They are not agendas to build 1,000-year Reichs or a new Soviet Socialist Republic.

The feature of that debate that really challenges the stability of democracy is not in the arguments themselves but the digital infrastructure on which they are propagated. It is the machinery of Facebook, YouTube, Google, WhatsApp and Twitter that facilitates polarisation, sorting people into irreconcilable tribes and spinning them off towards the most extreme iteration of any opinion. That process happens in an entirely new kind of civic space that is quasi-public but privately owned, and sprawls across jurisdictions.

The significance of this technical revolution in the flow and control of information dwarfs any “post-liberal” political doctrine. Yet it is little understood. Trump benefited from it, but has no discernible comprehension of how it works.

The intrusive capabilities of Google, Amazon and Facebook obliterate conventional notions of privacy in ways the Gestapo and Stasi barely dreamt was possible. The shift elicits hardly a murmur of dissent. As Tim Wu, a professor of law at Columbia University, has said: “Consumers on the whole seem content to bear a little totalitarianism for convenience.” We never read the terms and conditions before ticking the box that gives consent for our personal data to be used, including for exploitation by political campaigns. That whole area is the proper focus for concern about the sustainability of a liberal democratic order, which still relies on conventions and protocols carried over from an analogue age.

The real threat, then, comes less from fascistic doctrines that explicitly repudiate liberalism than from the loss of a common public frame of reference in which ideas of any kind can be civilly debated. It is a crisis that worries even the habitually optimistic Obama: “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work,” he said recently—“and by definition our democracy doesn’t work.” Trump did not plot to abolish political opposition. It was the digital engine of radicalisation and the corrosion of a shared vocabulary of truth that weakened the constitutional order and made it vulnerable to Trumpism. 

None of this is to diminish the threat of nationalist populism, or any far-left equivalent. But it is also important not to mistake shallow clickbait totalitarianism for the real thing. The fear of repeating old horrors can be perversely comforting because it implies we will know the enemy when we see it. We make a fancy-dress monster of 20th-century atrocities to frighten ourselves into vigilance, but also to reassure ourselves that vigilance works. The danger is that we scour the wrong horizon, looking in the rearview mirror for an old threat to return without exercising enough imagination about how a new form of dictatorship could evolve. It would work with the libertarian current of the digital culture. It would not seize democratic institutions by military force, but wash away their foundations with the acid of cynicism. It would not advertise itself with crass demagogy like Trump; his cartoonish fascism made the danger explicit to liberals. It made him easier to resist. A slicker, more insidious iteration could be more successful.

History is a vital guide to what can go wrong, but it is not a forecasting tool. It is right to listen out for echoes of the old fascism in modern America, not because the old fascism is on the way back but because the nature of the beast shows itself in the difference between then and now. History is not repeating, but it can warn us that something we haven’t understood is going on. “We never fall into the same abyss twice,” writes the French novelist Eric Vuillard in Order of the Day, an account of Europe’s descent into darkness in the 1930s. “But we fall in the same way, in a mixture of ridicule and dread.”