How is America going to end? Five steps to totalitarian rule.

How it will happen.
Aug. 6 2009 6:49 AM

How Is America Going To End?

Five steps to totalitarian rule.

Illustration by Jason Raish. Click image to expand.
Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

As Hitler and Mussolini prepared to storm Europe, fascism began to generate interest in the United States. In Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel, It Can't Happen Here, an American president uses an economic crisis as a pretense to take over the media, imprison dissenters, and build his own private army (the Minute Men) into an indomitable force.  

Fascism's appeal in America wasn't entirely fictional. In the 1930s, the U.S., Italy, and Germany all ratcheted up central authority during and after the Great Depression. In 1933, before Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reported that he was "much interested and deeply impressed by what [Mussolini] has accomplished." While Hitler and Il Duce ultimately used their might to achieve heinous ends, America reaped the New Deal's benefits without becoming a police state. Roosevelt did have authoritarian ambitions, but there were always checks to his power—the Supreme Court struck down portions of the New Deal, and Congress blunted the president's scheme to pack the high court.

In the end, FDR's despotic streak probably helped stave off fascism's rise. Even after the horrors of Europe's dictatorships were widely known, the Rev. Charles Coughlin —a Roman Catholic priest with a radio audience estimated to be in the tens of millions—lavished Mussolini and Hitler with praise and preached about a cabal of Jewish bankers. Once Father Coughlin (an early advocate of the New Deal) started railing against FDR's policies, the president pushed him off the air.   America's victory over World War II's evil empires finally vanquished the appeal of fascism here, at least for a long while: The United States had cemented its self-image as the protector of the free world.

On Wednesday, I talked about the possibility of the U.S. losing its identity by breaking apart. Today, I'll look at how the U.S. could shed its democratic principles, transforming from the land of the free into a dictatorship.

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There are as many scenarios for a totalitarian America as there are paranoiacs. We could become corporate slaves, cannon fodder for a mercenary army, or the pawns of a tech-savvy surveillance state. In American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Chris Hedges argues that today's religious conservatives are akin to the European fascists of the 1920s and 1930s. If you're on the lookout for lefty totalitarians, there are those who contend that environmentalists also have the stench of totalitarianism.

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The most feverish thinking along these lines in recent years was sparked by the presidency of George W. Bush. It Can Happen Here, Joe Conason's 2007 answer to Sinclair Lewis, argues that "Americans have ... reason to doubt the future of democracy and the rule of law in our own country." That same year, Naomi Wolf reported that America had taken 10 steps toward fascism: "Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy," "create a gulag," and "control the press" were all among the top 10.

Wolf is right—her 10-part plan would turn America fascist. Good thing it's not really happening. No matter what your political beliefs, it is clear that Bush and Cheney pushed to consolidate authority in the executive branch more strongly than any president since Nixon, or perhaps even Roosevelt. But the nation eventually rejected this power play—Bush, Cheney, and their Republican Party have lost credibility and clout. Once you acknowledge that the Bush administration didn't end America as we know it, the more-interesting question vis-à-vis the end of America becomes: How might a wannabe dictator go much further than Roosevelt or Bush?

None of the following steps is sufficient on its own to trash our venerable republic. A leader who meets all five requirements, however, would very likely become our authoritarian overlord.

Phase 1: Create a perpetual enemy.
After the Twin Towers went down, Toby Keith and almost everyone else in the U.S. was primed to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. The unambiguous evil of the terrorists allowed the president to build broad support for the Patriot Act and for a war on terror of indeterminate duration.

But what seemed like an existential threat in 2001 soon became a distant menace. For whatever reason, al-Qaida hasn't attacked America since Sept. 11, 2001. The war on terror is being fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than New York and Washington, D.C. That seems unlikely to change: In contrast to Western Europe, the U.S. doesn't have a large disaffected population of Muslim youths for terrorist recruiters to draw on.

For America to wobble toward totalitarianism, our enemy would need to pose a pressing, omnipresent risk. If Muslim extremists gained more of a foothold on U.S. soil, they would be a sufficiently scary boogeyman; in the event of regular, random suicide bombings and biological attacks, the American citizenry might be willing to exchange its personal freedoms for safety. If foreign terrorists never pose that level of perceived danger, illegal immigrants are another contender. Particularly in a time of economic trouble, a huge range of Americans could potentially blame their sorry state on interlopers from Mexico or climate refugees from the Western Hemisphere's most-scorched nations.

Phase 2: Be savvier than George W. Bush.

Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. Click image to expand.
Dick Cheney and George W. Bush

In It Can't Happen Here, the commander-in-chief is a populist nostalgia-monger''with something of the earthy American sense of humor of a Mark Twain." Once elected, President Buzz Windrip rewrites the Constitution and sends citizens to labor camps, morphing from a democratically elected executive to a ruthless tyrant with a wink and a smile. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney never aspired to be dictators. But even if the twosome had wanted to take over the country, they wouldn't have succeeded. For America to go off a cliff, the American people need to be willing to follow their leader. By the end of his tenure, most of the country was off the Bush bandwagon. As al-Qaida's wickedness faded from view, the president's many transgressions—classifying Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as two of a kind, fabricating intelligence, torturing prisoners—came into clear view.

A clever aspiring dictator would learn from the Bush administration's mistakes. Rather than bundle the country's potential enemies into an Axis of Evil, the enemy of the state would need to be singular and more clearly defined. The Bushies also provide a clear public relations lesson: Be open about your intentions. As Dahlia Lithwick and Julia Turner explained in Slate's 2003 guide to the Patriot Act, Americans might have found the substance of the law less discomfiting if Bush and his functionaries were more forthcoming about how it would be implemented. Rather than keep his questionable policies under wraps, a demagogic ruler would spell out why it's necessary to spy on your fellow citizens and water-board the evildoers.  

One thing the Bush administration did right, totalitarianism-wise, was assert its supremacy over the rest of the government. Bush and Cheney's commitment to the theory of the unitary executive was exemplified by the administration's use of signing statements. Then-Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage explained in 2006 that Bush "claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws … asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution." Our autocrat-in-training would do well to show a similar disregard for the separation of powers—if you just ignore the House and the Senate, it's a lot easier to have your way.

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.

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