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June 03, 2020

Fear Leads to Fascism

Tyrants rise from civil unrest

In an emergency, we’re used to giving up some liberties. Most of us are obeying shutdown, stay home, and civil distancing orders because we fear the pandemic. If you’re in a fire, you do what the fire people say. In general we obey police orders. A city can impose a curfew to protect lives and property. A mandatory evacuation order can be given. In an extreme, marshal law can be declared and most civil liberties suspended (Lincoln did that).

There’s probably something in primate DNA which suspends our usual obstreperousness and makes us take orders in a dangerous situation.

But there’s a dark side to this survival trait: when we’re afraid, we forget that we want to be free. We listen for a strong voice, look for a master who will protect us, and focus on the immediate danger which has frightened us rather than the long-term risk that our protector will become a tyrant.

I saw this danger first hand a long, long time ago in 1968 when I was a National Guardsman mobilized for the Chicago Convention riots. We were stationed in our armory which abutted a park in the then-decayed northwest side of the city. We patrolled the park because that’s what soldiers do and because our helicopters landed there. It was hot, boiling hot. We were heavily armed.

“I’m so glad you boys are here,” an old lady said. “We haven’t been able to come to the park at night for years.” She was Polish; her children had long since gone to the suburbs. The neighborhood was definitely not Polish anymore. And it wasn’t safe for her. She was happy to have an army on her street. We were no threat to her. We made her safe. She wasn’t worried about a civil society. She was afraid.

People we talked to on a recent trip to Russia did not deny that Putin was dictatorial; but they were quick to point out that the streets were safe and they had enough food. Apparently they were hungry and frightened under Gorbachev and Yeltsin even though they were also freer.

Nazi Germany was born from the weakness of the Weimar Republic.

This is a dangerous time for our country. Fear was already palpable in the pandemic; then there was the brutal killing by police in Minneapolis. Quickly arsonists, looters, and anarchists took advantage of legitimate outrage to loot and burn. Our cities are literally on fire. Mayors and governors in some cases did not act quickly enough to quell the destruction. It has taken on a frightening life of its own. Police who brutalize and people who terrorize BOTH need to be apprehended and punished swiftly.

We have a President who does not seem to understand Constitutional separation of powers and has no skill as a peacemaker nor apparent desire to be one. He does understand that frightened people will not only accept but even demand strong action; it’s part of how he was elected in the first place. He will, in fact, have to use the army if the violence doesn’t stop. And he will be re-elected overwhelmingly if the electoral battleground states continue to be actual battlegrounds.

We have a Democratic Presidential candidate who appears to be a decent man; but he is apparently so afraid of losing votes from the left wing of his party that he can’t bring himself to make a statement unequivocally condemning the mob violence as well as the police brutality. Governors who acted decisively to assume great power to shut down their states to bend the curve of pandemic are hesitant to use the force they have available to curb anarchy. Our republic will be much better served if local police and National Guard instead of the army bring peace the streets. There is no way they can avoid using force to do that; and, within reasonable bounds, they need our support when they do use force.

Abuse of power and opportunistic looting and anarchy are part of human nature. They are not going away. They are best dealt with swiftly and harshly.

Those of us inclined to vote for leaders who think dialog is always better than confrontation must think of the harm that ducking confrontation may cause. Those of us inclined to vote for authoritarians because we’re frightened must realize authoritarians don’t give up power lightly.

Just as protests don’t excuse looting, looting does not excuse the use of force against peaceful protestors as Trump apparently had done in Washington yesterday so he could walk unhassled across the street for a photo op. That was reprehensible.

Those who would prefer Biden to Trump, especially those who suspect Trump of despotic tendencies, should do what they can to persuade their presidential candidate and other candidates to condemn street violence and promise to deal with it; otherwise they won’t be elected (and we won’t be safe if they are).

Especially never-Trumpers should want this agony of anarchy quickly ended. A frightened electorate will vote for frightening leaders. Leaders who don’t keep us safe pave the way to despotism.

This post as adapted from one I wrote a year after Trump’s election: Fear Leads to Fascism.

See also: Shooting Looters


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