Phase 3: Come to power as America slips in stature.
The Nazis came to the fore in Germany after the country's defeat in World War I and the subsequent economic weakness of the Weimar period. The decline of Russia after the breakup of the USSR has fed the rise of Vladimir Putin's increasingly undemocratic government. This overlap between geopolitical humiliation and moral turpitude is no coincidence. In The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Benjamin M. Friedman argues that growth "more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity … and dedication to democracy." On the flip side, "when living standards stagnate or decline, most societies make little if any progress toward any of these goals, and in all too many instances they plainly retrogress."
Economic catastrophe isn't always a harbinger of authoritarian doom—see America during the Great Depression. But a sharp fall in relative wealth and power does seem like a necessary step toward trashing American democracy. The unquestioned global kingpin since World War II, modern America isn't used to being second—or third, or 18th—to anyone.
As the world flattens out, the United States will get flattened more than anywhere else. How might Americans deal with a global scene where speaking English gets you nowhere, a dollar doesn't buy squat, and you have to go clean pools in China to earn a living? We could open our arms and welcome everybody else to the top of the pyramid. We could also turn into a bunch of destitute burned-out slackers who blame the rest of the world for our loss of prestige. In the latter case, we'd be ripe for a demagogue who feeds those insecurities with xenophobic sloganeering: It's not your fault we're all sleeping outdoors and eating gruel—it's those dastardly Chinese.
Phase 4: Beef up the military and the secret police.
Russia, like all pretend democracies, makes a big show of its faux-democratic elections. In 2008, Vladimir Putin stepped aside as president (or, if you prefer, dictator) because of term limits and took office as prime minister (or, if you prefer, dictator-for-life). A think tank controlled by the ruling United Russia party recently decreed that Putin's continued reign is precisely what the country needs. "In times of war and crisis, a successful political system becomes charismatic, and therefore, inevitably more authoritarian," the think tank's report explained. "A storm requires a captain."
A future, authoritarian U.S. would not look like Putin's Russia. Our old Cold War foe never became a true democracy after the Soviet era, so its backsliding this century is a predictable reversion to forms of governance that go back to the time of the czars. One potential similarity to watch out for, though, is a puffed-up military and surveillance apparatus.
It might seem anachronistic to worry over creeping militarism just a few weeks after the Senate voted to kill the F-22 fighter plane. Slate's Fred Kaplan calls that decision the potential "beginning of a new phase in defense politics, a scaling-back of the influence that defense contractors have over budgets and policies."
But we learned in 2001 that America is still capable of assuming a military pose. I bet that when the U.S. faces a potentially country-killing threat, we'll try to shoot our way out of the mess. Our dictator will streamline the interface between the military and the executive branch. Instead of having to answer to a general who answers to the president, our troops can follow one man's marching orders.
Along with building up an overt military presence, the American Putin will seed the country with cameras—it's easier than ever to use technology to suppress dissent—and undercover agents. "Our country is led by people who were trained as spies," a brave member of the Russian opposition told the BBC in 2006. "The trouble is, ordinary people just don't care."
Phase 5: Steamroll a compliant populace.
That's the final ingredient: For a totalitarian takeover to take root here, ordinary people would have to let it happen. At America's totalitarian tipping point, we'll face a fundamental conflict between our freedom-loving past and our patriotic urge to see the United States continue its run as the world's most-powerful nation. The specter of America's death could frighten people into doing what they'd otherwise consider unthinkable. We'd demonize a foe we don't understand. We'd nod solemnly as the president suspended elections on account of national security. We'd sign away our civil liberties, because there are dangerous people in our midst. And we'd lose our country because we cared too much about saving it.