Caged in the Present as Democracy Wanes


Lately I’ve been investing more time in studying 20th century authoritarianism, for hardly coincidental reasons, particularly through the work of Timothy Snyder. I can’t recommend his books enough, and hope to have reviews of them up at a later date. The rise of fascism and Nazism that gripped our grandparents’ generation, and the historical contexts in which they emerged, offer a bounty of insight into understanding our present political and social order and the foreseeable means by which they can unravel. Never has there been a better reason to arm ourselves with the knowledge of the recent past than that we might anticipate and oppose budding incursions into civil liberties and free society.

The drip-drip of revelations about the current administration has failed to register much more than a hint of surprise among those of us who expressed concern from the beginning. For anyone familiar with the undemocratic maneuvers favoring the autocratic regimes of the previous century, warning signs were everywhere. As Joshua Frost noted at the time, the early indicators of abnormalcy gleamed “like a flashing light at a railroad crossing.” When we referred to the despot-elect as a fascist, we meant it rather as a noun, not an adjective. We didn’t want to be right, but neither were we willing to bet our democracy that we were wrong.

And now as the color of our democracy grows less rosy by the day, one cannot help but notice how the “fascism is hyperbole” crowd has simmered down in recent weeks. Yet we will remember that it was Trump’s staunchest defenders who wrote off such charges as leftist hysteria and overwound partisan politics, this despite the fact that numerous conservative and right-of-center figureheads also raised their voice of rebuke to equal volume. His rough-hewn sympathizers were ready and willing to take the bet, reassuring themselves that their ungroomed populist hopeful was a necessary evil to right the wrongs of a system in decay. He has a plan, the best plans, if only we can look past the bluster and the bombast.

The fact is there is no hidden veil with Trump, no elaborate machinations ruminating behind the curtain, no ulterior, only surface. The mythos of the Machiavellian Trump was always an optimistic hot take, a comforting delusion we told ourselves to avoid facing the reality that he is every bit the imbecile, the despotic narcissist, the rancid truck-stop tramp stamp we always suspected. He is reactionary bile mixed with raw ego—a “raging fire of need,” as David Roberts has described him. Affixing POTUS to his name didn’t change who he is, nor did it miraculously shed the toxic brew of retrograde values, unabashed ignorance and crypto-fascism which ushered him into power.

The Trumpists got their wish, and the world is seeing the fruits of their fantasy unfold in real time. Loyalty pledges, obstruction of justice, unjust terminations followed by threats of further terminations, a general shirking of legal accountability and lack of respect for the rule of law, using the levers of government to enrich his family and his associates, a craven Cabinet of sycophants: the evidence on record demonstrates why we were right to take his rhetoric at face value, and why we refused to disregard his flavor of creeping authoritarianism as politics as usual.

A unilateral power play here, another broken norm there. As examples of executive misconduct stack up and political rivalries intensify, we find ourselves faced with a momentous decision as a nation. Do we continue on this foundering rollercoaster on the assumption we can disembark at will? This is a question that seems scarcely entertained by his most fervid surrogates. Those remaining in his corner dawdle and dither with denial and deflection, chalking up 45’s around the clock imprudence to unorthodox methods and a heavy touch, and in so doing have all but lost their sense of right and wrong. The historical parallels here, again, are unmistakable.

Hitler, lest we never forget, also campaigned on a raft of false promises and hyper-nationalist bigotry. Like 45, he tapped into a disaffected bloc seeking economic restitution. And as we’re observing from our front-row seats in the Trump era, businessmen, politicians and intellectuals at the time endorsed their demagogue du jour so as not to deviate too sharply from public opinion. They rationalized by telling themselves that Hitler’s wilder promises would never come to pass—that there were bigger issues at stake. How do we look back now at the millions of Germans who supported history’s darkest figure?


Normalization is the last gasp of democracy. Prewar Germany was filled with well meaning citizens as wise and as reasonable as today’s electorate who brushed off Hitler’s anti-Semitism and ethno-nationalist rhetoric as all posture and bravado with no bite. As a result, their institutions and their society gradually but surely slid virtually unnoticed from a state of normalcy in which freedoms were taken for granted into explicit despotism. What happened then can happen here. Indeed, if recent events have shown us anything, it’s that our political system and its outdated institutions are vulnerable to the kind of undoing authoritarians can and do exploit. Our vulnerabilities are different from those of 1930s Europe, but the institutions on which we rely are susceptible all the same to bad actors and partisan abuse.

The sweep of history unfolds over time, not overnight, something we as prisoners of the present tend to forget. Thankfully, the lessons and protocols haven’t changed. Resist the impulse to normalize. Lest desensitization and apathy set in, cling to your sense of outrage and keep it as well honed as the day is long. A loss of the latter will only ease the former along in historically dangerous directions. An assault on truth and fact-based communication is fundamental to authoritarian regime changes throughout history. Adhere to facts and refuse to acquiesce to “alternative” unevidenced realities. Rebuff sophists in power who deliberately abuse the norms of civil discussion. Treat truth as the virtue it is and reject con-man attempts to paint what is true as a partisan fancy.

As Timothy Snyder writes in his book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, “to abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” A compromise on or renunciation of verifiable reality is the most fatal step on the path to an undemocratic future. Rerouting from the current trajectory starts with civil resistance and noncompliance on the part of elected leaders, government workers, and ordinary citizens like you and me. As the past century’s European societies illustrate, the stakes couldn’t be higher.


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