Authoritarian regimes need an enemy. Not just an “opponent on the football field” type of enemy where players share a reasonable context of reality and follow agreed upon rules, but an enemy of the vilest kind—one that is an existential threat. Without such an enemy, the regime will wither away into a pale reflection of itself. Authoritarianism reentering the world theatre, as well as in our own country has certainly heightened our interest in its nature and pattern of development. Its use of an enemy or scapegoat to sustain itself has relevance and should alert us to the potential of a foreboding future if such a movement gains control.
In a Nutshell
In a nutshell version of authoritarianism, it goes something like this—One, usually a narcissistic, personality disordered individual, chock full of demagoguery and plain old grift, plays upon the discontent of the people, typically during periods of great social change, tells them the cause of their troubles in life are due to some demonized figure or figures (the scapegoat, an enemy) who’ve been screwing over them, taking away their jobs or basic values, and the angst of the people shift to getting mighty pissed and direct their anger at those figures who the One is pointing his finger toward, and the angry people heeding his words, suddenly feel validated, understood, and in that stirring of feeling, bond together now possessed by a sense of purpose and meaning in life which is to destroy, in some form or another, the “enemy” who is pretty well reduced to the level of roaches and rats by the time it all reaches its apex. At this point, rational reasoning is lost; complexity is forbidden; facts and evidence have no relevance and that which was once considered abnormal gets normalized. Goals set by the leader with the pointing finger, are projected toward the return to a mythical, seductive past.
The “Enemy Thing” and What Would Happen If the Authoritarians Win?
As I’ve delved more into studies about authoritarian movements, their nature and development, I’ve been particularly intrigued by the “enemy thing.” How powerful a hold it can have over the discontented, right or wrong, when it’s utilized by a pathological manipulator. And such intrigue has brought me to some crucial questions. One of which is, If the projection of a vile, existential threatening enemy is needed to maintain the vitality of an authoritarian movement, how might the movement eventually end? Because embodied in the very nature of authoritarianism, the enemy cannot be defeated. If the regime defeated the enemy, (the Other) it would drain the life blood from the movement. In this sense, If the enemy is eliminated, then another must be born.
So, this brings me to questions relevant to our current times. What would happen if the Republican Party in America won both the House and Senate in the November 2022 mid-term elections, and the Presidency in 2024. Would the “enemy thing” diminish? Of course, this theoretical scenario assumes that the Republican Party is now an authoritarian body. The fabric of republicanism with its conservative principles of limited government, devotion to rule of law, fiscal responsibility, and human dignity now cloaks itself with the garments of authoritarianism—rejection of political plurality, suppression of democratic voting, and blind submission to authority. Also, its followers are inundated with fear and victimization messaging. You know, the “enemy thing.”
To exemplify, on the Fox Channel, Mr. Carlson daily blasts his heated meme to viewers—“They want to control you and then destroy you!” The They are, of course, Democrats and some Republicans who don’t fall in line, media members, big tech executives and, last but not least, sports and Hollywood stars. But, of course, it’s not just poor old, victimized Tucker crying about the liberal hordes coming to get you. The cries of fear and victimization spew rampantly across right wing media outlets, and, of course, out of the mouth of the gentleman from Mara Largo: “They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it.”
It’s quite surprising to realize after so many years of identifying as an FDR Democrat, that I am an evil entity wanting to take away guns, inculcate our children to hate America, replace every Caucasian American with an immigrant of color, put a stake in the heart of Dr. Seuss, ad infinitum. Enough of the facetiousness.
Back to the Question
Back to the question: What will America look like if the Republican Party, now inflamed in authoritarian culture, takes control of all three spheres of government? Would the “enemy thing” quiete down since “they” will have achieved, so called, political victory? I posed these questions to Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a scholar of fascism and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. She is also publisher of the newsletter Lucid on threats to democracy. Dr. Ben-Ghiat related that, “unfortunately, the opposite is true…historical patterns suggest that when the opposing party has been rendered as an “existential threat, gaining power gives you the means to exact that revenge.”
As I pondered this aspect of her answer, I could hear again in the background of my mind the cries of MAGA right-wing talking heads blaring the refrain, “They want to control you and then destroy you!” So, let’s check that one off the list—The authoritarians of Trumpism have rendered the opposing party as an existential threat, not just an opponent on a playing field whereby the teams share agreed upon rules. At this stage, oppression and violence of the most horrendous kind become possible.
Dr. Ben-Ghiat went on to note that historically many people’s reaction to the revenge taking or persecutions enacted is typically one of uncomfortable acceptance coupled with thinking that it would eventually stop. Instead, it’s just the beginning, “because the more they are able to do, the more they become empowered to do even more.” Relatedly, Dr. Ben-Ghiat emphasized the importance of “pushing back” or what we might call resistance or just plain old consequences to the illegal and unethical behavior. In other words, if the abnormal gets normalized and we just shrug our shoulders in response to unethical or illegal acts it just keeps building as it rolls down the hill.
The “Enemy Thing” Does Not Fade Away
By its nature, an authoritarian movement will not be satisfied after political victory and the “enemy thing” will not fade away into a sunset of memories. Life will not return to one of ordinary vexations. As Ben-Ghiat stated, “History would say it’s the opposite.” If wrongs are committed and illegal acts are followed without consequences, the power quest continues. Enemies will always be needed to fuel the fear and angst of the followers. One enemy is defeated, another must be conjured up and given over to the followers of the authoritarian movement to pump the blood.
Orwell wrote, “The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous.” That quote bears greater clarity to me now in this strange new age that I thought could never encroach upon America. The paradox of these times is that we are not truly enemies of the Other but made to think we are. Even so, the country approaches a prominent crossroads in November 2022. The midterm elections will constitute a choice between authoritarianism and democracy.