Is Trump an Authoritarian, Fascist, or Totalitarian? You decide.
“We fought for social justice.”
–Khieu Samphan a leader of the Khmer Rouge, a group that murdered roughly 25% of Cambodia’s population in the 1970s.
Americans in the 21st century have it incredibly easy. We’re so used to freedom that we don’t spend much time thinking about the particulars of how others have had theirs taken away. But If you ask a history buff, that’s part of how we ended up in the shit-show that was 2016.
We’ve lost touch with just how bad things can get. And so when we’re mildly offended by our leadership we start calling them Nazis or fascists without knowing what these words mean. And that is very dangerous.
The Donald is the latest lightning-rod for such language. And there’s no question the man (and I use that term loosley) is a threat to our democracy. But what kind of threat? Is he a fascist, a totalitarian, simply a bully? He gets called all of the above, usually by people who don’t know their history and said the same about George W.
Let’s clear up the confusion because every time you misuse these words, the real fascists win.
What Kind of Monster Are You?
Authoritarianism, fascism, and totalitarianism fall on a spectrum. Totalitarianism is the worst, fascism/ dictatorship is a distant second, and authoritarianism sucks but it’s not the end of the world.
If these three systems were people: authoritarianism is an overprotective parent, fascism is a mob boss who will bury you alive if you cross him but is otherwise polite and wears the nicests suits, and totalitarianism is a cannibalistic serial killer who gets off on the screams of his victims.
Examples: Russia, South Korea, China, most Arab countries, the Jim Crow South.
Authoritarian is a general term for a government based on strict obedience and limited personal freedom. There are many authoritarian democracies. Most kingdoms are authoritarian. Trump ran a campaign based on authoritarian values. This is where I’d put him. That does NOT mean we now live in an authoritarian country, but this election is a win for authoritarians all over the world.
Authoritarian governments are marked by corruption. The authority can be yours at a price.
Freedom exists, but it’s lopsided. You’re free to make a fortune in China, but don’t try running for public office. Businesses have tremendous freedom in Singapore but there’s no free speech and you’re not allowed to chew gum. South Korea has freedom of the press, as long as the press has good things to say about the President and Samsung.
Internet censorship is rampant in authoritarian countries. It’s rumored that South Korea has a task force of puritanically minded volunteers who spend all day Googling porn in order to block it.
These places are where you want to send your friend who thinks the United States isn’t the greatest country in the world.
Fascism & Dictatorship
Examples: Almost any place where the leader wears a general’s uniform, Franco’s Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Syria, Peron’s Argentina.
Moving along the intensity spectrum, we enter fascism. This is a system where one man and his circle have all the power and the rule of law is absolute.
France gave us democracy, but Italy gave us fascism. Its leadership structure and moral philosophy are based on the Catholic church and ancient Rome, with a system of captains and enforcers like the mafia. Christopher Hitchens said Fascism is a synonym for the Catholic right. It has since been franchised on every continent by every sort of goon, thug, strongman, and Hitler-wanna-be. Many fascist regimes were propped up or set up by the United States during the Cold War.
Fascism is almost always fueled by nationalist or racist hysteria. Violence is it’s lingua franca.
Fascists are very good at delivering on promises of law and order, that’s often where they get their support. Assad is a monster, but he kept Al Queda and ISIS at bay. Elderly Spanish people have told me that as bad as things were under Franco, at least you felt safe walking around at night.
The danger of fascism is its seductiveness (see Orwell’s review of Mein Kampf.) Dictators are great storytellers, and they have a positive genius for aesthetics. Many of them (including Hitler) have been failed artists who have put those talents to use in designing a spectacle of power. They always win in the costume department. Wicked as they were, the Nazis rolled into battle wearing Hugo Boss.
Now I’m sure a few conservatives are reading this and saying, “wait a minute, what about left-wing dictators like Fidel Castro?” Even though communists often get into power by fighting fascism, the result is almost always a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Historically, you can’t have communism without a dictator–or to quote Animal Farm “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”
Castro wasn’t a fascist but he was a dictator. To anyone rotting in a cell for speaking against the Cuban government, the difference is just semantics.
Totalitarianism (it’s about to get dark)
Examples: Nazi Germany, North Korea, Stalin’s USSR, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Pol Pot’s Cambodia
This is the end of the line. No country starts out totalitarian, and few leaders are fucked up enough and charismatic enough to convince their people to march with them off this cliff.
In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt said the difference between totalitarianism and fascism is “the difference between zero and one.” If you lived in a totalitarian country (assuming you were allowed to live) you would give anything to live anywhere else.
To give you a real world example: some women leave totalitarian North Korea to voluntarily become sex slaves or be sold as brides in authoritarian China. That’s the kind of hopelessness we’re dealing with.
With that example in mind, if you can honestly call any elected official in this country “totalitarian,” I think we’re done here.
Totalitarianism is a moral black-hole. Good and evil are meaningless, and moral choice is impossible. Say you live in Nazi Germany. You’re a good person. You would hide your Jewish friends because that’s the good thing to do, right? Maybe you’d fight in the resistance. But say you get caught: everyone in your family, all your friends and their families and the people you were trying to save in the first place will go straight to the gas chamber. Is that a good thing? Is wiping out a whole town good?
The only way to defeat totalitarianism is the way your grandfather did: with guns and bombs and napalm for days. You can’t debate totalitarianism or protest it or reason with it. You can’t even starve it into collapse (look at North Korea.) If you don’t believe me, Google Gandhi’s pacifist answer to the Holocaust and prepare to throw up.
The goal is domination at any cost. For this reason, totalitarian regimes don’t tend to last long (with the exception of North Korea.) They’re forced to constantly one-up themselves in terms of violence and oppression and expand their sphere of domination until they implode like dying stars. Eventually, they cross a threshold of misbehavior that leads to their downfall. Saddam Hussein had to invade Kuwait even though he knew the world would intervene and he’d get his ass kicked. Hitler had to invade Russia even though it would cost him the war. Stalin had to kill off the doctors who could have prolonged his life.
Fascists are bullies. They want to control the words and actions of people in their realm, but they don’t care about their subjects’ thoughts or feelings. In a totalitarian regime, you can be guilty of thought crimes, you can be guilty of no crime at all.The only requirement is that everyone be afraid at all times. Except for the leader of course.
There was a very dark joke among concentration camp inmates in Germany:
“A man asked the guard ‘For what reason am I being sent to the gas chamber?’ The guard replied, ‘It depends, for what reason were you born?’”
Hannah Arendt: Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Christopher Hitchen’s “Visit to a Small Planet”
Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea