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The groundwork for an authoritarian takeover will be finalized on November 8, 2022, crippling the Democratic administration's efforts to hold it back. Its movement has been by gradations, over four decades, its tide gathering strength. We fail to realize it because we are so easily distracted inside our media amusement and outrage chambers or confronted by the multiple vexations that constitute an ordinary day.

There Is a Pattern

The pattern toward authoritarian takeover is now clear. Its speed is accelerating as 2022 midterm elections near. That point in time will be the crucial flashpoint. The Republican Party, now fascist in design,1 and regaining majority rule in the House and Senate, will move quickly to consolidate power further and hurl back socio-economic policies that Biden and the Democrats were trying to enact.

If they had materialized to their full extent, such progressive policy actions might have helped defuse the seething discontent that enabled Trumpian cultism to arise. Voting suppression measures, designed to shave off votes and limit voting access within minority, mainly Democratic geographical districts of Republican states, will be entrenched as the Republican Party reestablishes its majority in Congress.

The right-wing misinformation and outrage machine, primarily embodied by the Fox channel, will continue its crucifixion crusade. Enemies created, howls of victimization, indignation solidified. The Us and Them mentality will be irrevocably grounded in place. The Other, from immigrants to so-called elitists and Democrats, cast in non-stop cadence as existential threats.

The Stealth Factor

The transition toward authoritarianism in this modern age doesn't move forward in an explosive, abrupt manner. Instead, it transitions incrementally and in an occult fashion—those seeking to replace democracy with authoritarian rule attack by stealth. Within the institutional frameworks of the democratic body, laws get tweaked, loyalists get inserted into judicial and legislative positions. Each little deviant maneuver accumulates into a big pile until our human brains begin to normalize the abnormal.

The transition toward authoritarianism in this modern age doesn't move forward in an explosive, abrupt manner.

In this regard, an evolutionary quirk works against us. Throughout our species' development, categorizing and making sense of things have been essential to our survival. Within the broad scope of human nature, the desire for normalcy is prominent. To function effectively, we must not be overwhelmed with anxiety by every little change. Thus, our brains work to normalize recurring atypical behavior. In the case of the ongoing Trumpian phenomenon, rudeness, lying, scapegoating, name-calling, law-breaking, and never having to take responsibility for your actions have become the norm. In a sense, cruelty is legitimized. That, which we once considered outlandish, is merely met with another shoulder shrug. History, in its most regressive form, illustrates how far these shrugs of the shoulder can extend—all the way to concentration camps and genocides.

The Conditions Had Been There for a While

The conditions for an authoritarian movement have existed for a long while. The discontent of a wide swath of the public, the seething anger building within so many as the cultural and socio-economic landscape gradually shifted over the last four decades. Too many people feeling abandoned by a government more concerned about the personhood of a corporate body than a human with a body. Call it what you will—increase in income disparity, factory jobs sent overseas, the fading of educational opportunity for the average person, the admonishment of dumb blonde jokes, gays having the audacity to be seen as people with the right to marry, blacks demanding that their lives matter, Birkenstock liberals coming to get everyone's guns, ad infinitum. The discontent just needed to be plucked and plucked it was within the echo chambers of a profit-driven media shed of its journalistic cloak, now naked with primary goals to titillate, foment outrage, increase ratings, drive profit.

Within such conditions, the pattern galvanized with the appearance of a charismatic leader, one borne out of media fantasy chambers. A time to supercharge the exploitations of the disenchanted. The leader heralded promises of a return to greatness to the gathered crowds, a time in the past replete with drippings of nostalgia. Forget the future. The future is the past. The charismatic leader proffers simple solutions. Creates enemies, real or imagined, scapegoats he cites as having caused the woes of the discontented, the abandoned. And the crowd, having directed their anger on Them, the abundant scapegoats, feel better.

Something began to happen. The discontented crowds felt validation of their angst. Someone was seemingly paying attention to them. A sense of purpose and group identity formed and solidified. To those attuned to the rhetoric of the charismatic leader, what seemed long lost stirred once more—hope. In the emotional tumult of the crowd gathered shoulder to shoulder, facing up to the leader, each person reinforcing the other, amygdala's flared, dopaminergic pathways flooded their way to brain reward centers, and the frontal lobes of the brain, so essential for logical reasoning and empathy, shut down.

From this point on in the unfolding pattern, reality became mired in the force field of tribalism. The charismatic leader reframed any criticism or challenge of his beguiling rhetoric as fake and established himself as the victim. Loyalty, not truth or fact-finding, was the ultimate goal. Within this context, reality became altered to serve the charismatic leader who has blessed himself as the only one who could fix things. His place is affirmed by followers now inculcated into the powerful addictive dynamics of tribalism or cultism if you please. Folie a plusiers, if you prefer the psychiatric nomenclature.

Later Stages of the Pattern

Once the leader and his minions gained power in the 2016 Presidential election, the pattern became littered with events that disregarded the rule of law, agency regulations, and ethical requirements. The 2016-2020 reign of Trump was glutted with autocratic attempts. Packing the courts with judges loyal to Trump, utilizing the Justice Department under William Barr like it was a personal law firm, appointing officials to federal programs who work against the aims of the programs, promoting voter intimidation, encouraging voter suppression, mobilizing armed supporters to prevent votes from being counted, attempting to change election rules and so on.

In and of themselves, these actions signaled what lay ahead—an ongoing quest to culminate authoritarian power. They illustrate what Masha Gessen, using the works of Balint Magyar, describes as the authoritarian attempt stage toward authoritarian rule. Authoritarian breakthrough, then consolidation follow the authoritarian attempt stage.

Gessen states that electoral interventions, such as voting, can still prevent autocracy during the attempt phase. However, when autocratic breakthrough occurs, government structures have been transformed, and peaceful preventions are unobtainable. The breakthrough phase is approaching. Though Trump is not in office, the pattern continues to unfold through the remarkable resilience of cultism and the manipulative skills of Trumpian acolytes subservient to power.

The Pattern Never Ceased

When there is a challenge to succession of power, such as through established election processes, the charismatic leader moves to maintain control. In the case of Trump, he began to sow the seeds of an alternate reality, exemplified in the following statement: "…the only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged. Remember that. It's the only way we're going to lose this election…" When he lost, the authoritarian pattern didn't stop but merely slowed its heartbeat behind a seeming shield of no accountability, no legal redress for the leader and his collaborators.

Along with an assembly of his devout loyalists, the leader plucked the cords of this alternate reality of a stolen election to the point of agitating true believers, the extremely devout of the tribe, to assault the Capitol and try to overturn the election. It was "big lie" time, and once immersed in the big lie, the coup de grace is given to logic, reasoning, and empathy for Others. Altruism is meant only for the benefit of the tribe, not the unindoctrinated.

Trump lost the election, but the unfolding pattern toward ultimate authoritarian rule did not collapse. That moment of Trump's defeat posed but as a transitory sigh of relief for the Others. The underlying madness of the Trumpian movement was not to dissolve. The "big lie" used to precipitate the coup attempt continues to be fueled. Right-wing media channels surge with misinformation of both the intentional and unintentional kind.

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In the unfolding pattern, a failed coup that has not been subject to accountability is a lesson for the next attempt. The voter suppression strategies of Republican-dominated state legislatures well illustrate it. The revisionism of the Capitol assault, the double downing of the absurd debates that vaccine mandating is a violation of liberty while people die of covid and its variants mutate. Republican-controlled state legislatures banning schools from teaching about systemic racism or critical race theory which isn't taught in public schools but is primarily taught in post-graduate studies and is used to examine American institutions and laws through the lens of race and racism. The continued deference of Republican politicians given to the cruel man in Mara Lago illustrates the unfolding pattern. Adherence to the values of the tribe, as illogical as it might be, is now the driving force toward a place that is without future.

In the Realm of Reason, Things Can Be Done, But We're Not There

 After the 2020 presidential election and following the failed coup attempt, the inherent desire for normalcy compelled Biden supporters and the Democratic Party into a fragile complacency. People wanted to get on with their lives and leaned against a narrow wall of hope that Biden and the Democratically controlled Congress would engender policies that demonstrated the government’s effectiveness. Policy changes would ensue that could genuinely create more significant opportunities to better people's lives. And from such policies would arise the instillment of another kind of hope, one in which Americans could feel good about the future again. 

Early on in the new administration, the implementation of an effective vaccine distribution program and the passing of the 1.9 Trillion Covid Relief Bill (without a single Republican vote) harbingered the return of a Democratic Party heeding the needs of working and middle-class Americans. Beyond the significance of pandemic relief, the Covid Relief Bill's child tax credit increase stood to cut the nation's child poverty rate in half. These were promising actions taken by the Democrats. Then, the bold policy ventures of infrastructure rebuilding and voting rights protections began a precarious movement across a political landscape flaring with culture war flashpoints that derailed focus.

The hopes of those looking toward a vigorous Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) type of regeneration, a renewed faith in democracy's ability to get things done, began to dim. Instead, familiar dynamics unfolded—Republican elected officials entrenched in saying no to progressive change and Democrats crippled by an ultra-thin majority. In particular, the movement forward is hampered by the Achilles heel of a couple of Senators—Manchin and Sinema. They, for unclear reasons, are unable to acknowledge our fragile hold on democracy.

Where We Are

 In full swing is a Republican Party endorsing the fascist mentality of Trumpism, shucking the principles of democracy while immersed in the whopper of a lie that Trump won the election. Never mind that there is no basis for such a "snowflakish" claim. Federal election infrastructure officials cited the election as being one of the most secure in American history.

Timothy Snyder, Yale Professor, and historian of authoritarianism, recently provided a salient insight about the possibility of an overthrow of the 2024 Presidential election if the Republican candidate loses. Snyder stated that we should not think that coordination necessary to overthrow an election could happen, but it is happening now. In other words, the pattern reflecting the road to authoritarianism is, in full measure, unfolding. Snyder added: "..the question is, can we accept this reality in time to take the measures we need to prevent it?" 1

As Masha Gessen noted, authoritarian breakthrough has been achieved when our institutions can no longer protect themselves because government structures have been transformed. Unless we circumvent the pattern toward autocracy, the Republican Party will regain control of the House and Senate and consolidate authoritarian power after the midterm elections. At this juncture, the opportunity to thwart the authoritarian movement flickers out. Republicans, now in control of both the House and Senate, will block progressive policy iterations enacted by the fragile majority of the Democrats. Without passing voting rights measures, the harmful effects of gerrymandering and the oppression of voting rights mark structural reformations, further consolidating the authoritarian movement.

Anna Grzymala-Busse, Professor of International Studies at Stanford University, described what such a government might initially look like.2 If you squint, you may still see the semblance of democracy but one that is profoundly eroded and fragile. Elections may continue, people may still gather, travel. Still, the minority rules like a majority, subverting democracy by attacking the courts and oversight institutions, denouncing the opposition as illegitimate, attacking the media as fake, enhancing propaganda channels, and skewing election laws in ways that favor the current government in power.

If such a description sounds familiar to the years within the Trump Administration, you are not out of your mind. You are looking at the reality of Trumpian politics through the lens of a brain normalized to authoritarian aberrations. 

Interventions…

Interventions to counter an authoritarian movement and re-establish faith in democracy exist. They range from the principled goal to make government effective for the common person, establishing programs and regulations to confront the plague of misinformation-disinformation that flow through modern media channels, legislative protection of voting rights, the establishment of open primaries and ranked-choice voting, ending gerrymandering, getting money out of politics, enhancing civic education in public schools, and so on. Yet, the window of opportunity to enact such interventions is as narrow as a razor's edge.

The most challenging action? Waking up before it's too late as the pattern of authoritarianism enfolds us. We should be alarmed, but the stealth of the authoritarian movement, the odd normalization of its aberrations, has not triggered those limbic regions of our brain that signal us to action. Disbelief and denial handicap the kindling of resistance.

I'm writing this to make sense of what's going on in this atmosphere of cultural-political confusion. I've held throughout my life, as so many, that it can't happen here. Yet, the elements of the pattern are here, unfolding. It's not that it could happen. It is happening. And we're just watching, anesthetized by our evolutionary prone brains not to want to believe the slow-moving train wreck coming down the tracks.

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In the face of it, I look around for immediate tools. I'll vote. I'll snap shut the computer for a while and call elected representatives and try to calmly express alarm that the pattern is revealing itself—it's happening now. Activism, organization, and hope to feel the energy of many heartbeats swelling into one—resistance.

Mack Green

Notes:

1 The question of whether the Trump phenomenon constitutes an authentic fascist movement or should be termed authoritarian has been debatable. Dylan Matthews provides an instrumental analysis of the debate in a Vox article titled The F Word.

2 Snyder provided his insight in response to Ari Melber's question about the possible coordination of partisan Republican officials to change election outcomes in the United States.

3Anna Grzymala-Busse gave this description of authoritarianism during an interview on the On Point podcast, June 9, 2021, titled Democracy At Risk, Scholars Offer Warnings and What Can Be Done. She was primarily referring to the current Hungarian government. 

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