Authoritarian Past and Future

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United States president Donald Trump looks to his supporters seated behind the stage at a campaign rally in Cincinnati. 

The Open Mind explores the world of ideas across politics, media, science, technology, and the arts. The American Prospect is re-publishing this conversation.

As we witness the rise of authoritarianism in the United States and around the globe, Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley has authored How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Donald Trump’s rendition of these tactics, according to Stanley, “uses emotion to circumvent reason, to overwhelm reason, wanting us to get the situation in which there’s such fear and suspicion that the only happiness is winning over his enemies.” 

Alexander Heffner: How would you describe your peak concern right now about the demagogues’ not just survival, but permanence in the United States? 

Jason Stanley: I think my peak concern is with the idea that political opponents are traitors. And so if political opponents are traitors, then people are wanting to think that any tactic is legitimate to suppress them: Voter suppression, packing the courts, changing libel laws, remaining in office. So when you set up the political arena as war and when you define yourself in terms of an enemy, then you set things up that all is fair, all is fair in love and war. 

Heffner: When Trump tweeted the press are the enemy of the people, that was the first of many statements that are impeachable in and of themselves. If we have a democracy, if we are governed by constitutional principles, including the First Amendment. 

Stanley: That the rhetoric is extremely dangerous. Now we don’t have a clear sense of how the rhetoric leads to these strongly anti-democratic outcomes like purchasing the press, changing the laws on the press, creating an enmity and backlash against the process, violent reprisals, threats. I know it’s much harder to be a journalist right now than it was five years ago. I’ve heard that from enough sources and I experienced it to some extent myself. But we’re in that phase in authoritarianism where we have the authoritarian rhetoric and we are slowly seeing, or rapidly seeing certain effects. We’re seeing a welcome effect of people recognizing that the rhetoric is strange. And, secondly, we’re seeing differential effects on the people it’s targeted against versus the supporters. I think the supporters are doubling and tripling down. This kind of rhetoric is meant to reinforce the supporters’ belief that it’s a war, that they face an enemy. 

Heffner: We can’t say definitively from the emergence of the rhetoric how it’s going to go from here, or where it’s going to go from here.

Stanley: We, it’s up to us. I think that way of talking, you can’t say definitively, locks you in because there’s no stance from which we can stand apart and say that we are not involved in what’s going to happen. So it’s going to be up to us. 

Heffner: What about a press that’s going to own those concerns without giving fuel to the demagogic exploitation of a race war or an economic war? 

Stanley: I think history suggests it’s tricky because there are some clear maneuvers that demagogues employ against the press. For instance, they spread conspiracy theories, sort of outlandish untethered from reality: birtherism was an example like this. And then they trap the press. So then the press ends up saying, there’s this theory, but then by reporting the theory, they give theory greater credibility. 

Heffner: Right.

Stanley: Right now we see conservatives saying we will accept illiberal democracy, but it will retain our, our lock on power. And that’s really unfortunately cynical. If authoritarianism and fascism are going to be resisted, we need principled conservatives. We need the Justin Amashes. History shows that when conservatives go for these figures, that’s when we have real problems.

Heffner: And we need a press that is going to not identify people as constitutionalists believe they say they believe in the Constitution. 

Stanley: The press tends to go with the propaganda, with many of the propagandists’ own terminologies. 

Heffner: The authoritarian’s best friend today is social media. And it is this generation coming of age, graduating from the university, or recently graduated from the university, who are going to have to say to Twitter and Facebook and these companies, no, there is not space for Nazism on your platforms.

Stanley: Young people are very much the key, which is why we always find universities being attacked. In Brazil, Bolsonaro has threatened to defund universities by 30 percent because there were large protests, antifascist protests at universities. In the United States of course we have a sort of politicized attack on universities because the students of course are going to be the source of any protest movement. Now as far as social media goes, we had fascism before social media. But I agree that social media has made verbal harassment campaigns much more damaging and harmful: reputational destruction. It has definitely changed how democratic discourse functions. And we have to deal with that, and we have to deal with that simultaneously with what I call the fundamental difficulty with democracy. Democracy requires free speech, and yet free speech will lead to the end of democracy because it will enable demagogues. So this is the fundamental paradox of democracy. It doesn’t have an easy solution. 

Heffner: Isn’t free speech really only guaranteed in a free society that respects the dignity of all people?

Stanley: The liberal democracy has two great values. One is freedom, and the other is equality. And they’re connected as is often recognized they’re really two sides of the same coin. If everyone has freedom, then you have to give everyone freedom to operate in their own space and do what they want. And that leads to equality. So if you use your free speech to undermine the freedom of others, to restrict their actions, to deny them that space of freedom, then you are undermining the tenants of liberalism. And you’re undermining freedom itself. If you deny people’s humanity, if you deny people’s equality, with your free speech, then you’re also encroaching on freedom because by denying them their equality, you’re denying them a space for their own freedom.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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