Learn from History: A Case Study in Authoritarianism

Earlier this month, the Claremont Independent (CI) published an article about a group of Pitzer College students who painted “White Girls, take OFF your hoops” on a wall for expressing free speech. It was a brief and technically factual article, but, like most of the CI's content, it was stripped of valuable context and analysis.

Predictably, the story was immediately picked up by right wing blogs, conservative opinion journals, and other outfits that have carved a lucrative racket out of selling stories about the “snowflakes.” The artists were trying to highlight the discrimination and stereotyping marginalized groups — particularly women and non-binary people of color — are subjected to for not conforming to upper class white norms, and the indignation of seeing white women break those norms without consequence.

Instead, CI readers imagined that left wing fascists were infringing on their rights, policing their bodies and behaviors, demanding that they remove their hoop earrings. The article made the Claremont Colleges the object of unwarranted ridicule and singled out our campus as a target for reactionary violence and rage. Students received death threats and were called racial slurs by who folks who, I suppose, imagined they were waging war against the identity politicking, PC leftists that Trump will deliver them from.

But this was not an isolated incident; it was a microcosm of a reactionary paranoia taking hold over millions of Americans, fueled by right-wing journalism and propaganda that exaggerates the cultural and political reach of “identity politics.” Though right wing populism is a political and economic problem, the power it holds over people is psychological — people were pushed to the right by the threat of a fictive leftist bogeyman, not the left’s actual discourse.      

The idea that Americans are becoming more susceptible to authoritarianism was postulated by European emigrés who arrived after WWII, many of them intellectuals associated with the Institute for Social Research. Having witnessed the rise and fall of fascism on the European continent, they noticed psychological tendencies, a political paranoia, that was easily susceptible to manipulation by mass media and popular culture.

In 1950, Theodor Adorno, along with a few other collaborators, catalogued the psychological and sociological profiles of individuals with potentially fascist tendencies in a highly influential volume titled “The Authoritarian Personality.” They were shocked by the amount of racist, antidemocratic, paranoid, and irrational sentiments they encountered in the interviews. The study’s political relevance waned with McCarthyism’s end, but Adorno’s moment of vindication may have arrived.

Trump’s presidency — the ascendancy of a charismatic leader with authoritarian tendencies — and the emergence of a politics of antagonism and confrontation rooted in extreme polarization has convinced many that America may be at its Weimar moment.

That is not to say that Trump is Hitler nor that the socio-political circumstances are identical. But the similarities are conspicuous and far more relevant that the differences; there is reason to be unnerved.

Like the Weimar Republic, we are in a period of crisis created by the rupture of linear development, and the opening up of a liminal period in which the liberal democratic order can be delegitimized and dissolved.

Germany’s descent into authoritarianism offers a strong framework for understanding how liberal democracies can rapidly deteriorate that can inform our analysis of what is unfolding today. Most of the comparisons with authoritarianism focus on Trump’s assault on the Lügenpresse (lying press) and his xenophobic rhetoric, but not enough comparisons have been made about the fascist tendency to view their projects as defensive maneuvers against leftists, providing their own counter critique of liberalism, ostensibly in defense of tradition but radically departing from it.

Ronald Reagan’s 1985 visit to the Bitburg cemetery, where Reagan solemnly observed the resting place of Waffen SS soldiers who died fighting the Soviets, was the catalyst for the Historikerstreit, a public debate between right-leaning and left-leaning public intellectuals in West Germany over Nazism’s legacy. The incident illustrated a preference for the far-right over the far-left which was highly problematic for Germany because it implied that East Germany was more reprehensible than the Nazi regime.

Der Stürmer, the Nazi newspaper infamous for its anti-Semitic propaganda, also emphasized the Bolshevik threat, a racialized “Asiatic” terror. Initially, the magazine catered to an alienated German working class and lower middle class, both eager to reassert German greatness, as well as their own dignity, as members of a body-politic. Of course, the purpose of this discourse was to convince Germans of the monstrosity of the far left and that they needed to respond preemptively — fascism was presented as self-defense against left wing extremist violence.

Both liberals and conservatives regard Trump’s rise as a reflex to progressive identity politics.

The argument is this: an intolerant, extremist left created right-wing extremism and alienated otherwise moderate voters, radicalizing the white working class and polarizing conservative viewers, making them more likely to support Trump. Fear of a leftist takeover is ingrained into the psyches of millions of Americans, changing the way they see the world.

The ugliness of this transformation can be seen in the CI’s comment section. CI commenters hate the “snowflakes.” They want to destroy them; they love the strong and hate the weak; they are proud of their hostility, their pettiness, and their suspicion and hatred of difference.

Joaquín Bañuelos is a student at Pomona College. He enjoys human activities and describing himself in the 3rd person.

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