I like to think of myself as a pioneer in warning about the rise of the New Totalitarianism in America, which is really not much different than the old totalitarianism. The most important difference is that the new breed is better at hypnotizing itself into thinking they’re good-hearted, compassionate souls who just want the best for everyone… except, of course, the dissenters they grind beneath their jackboots.
I can say with absolute certainty that most of the people responsible for the brutal oppression of the Sweet Cakes by Melissa bakers would insist they are compassionate people whose hearts are brimming with tolerance and love.
Push them harder, and they’ll claim their seething hatred for the Christian bakers – their totalitarian urge to use the power of the State to personally destroy these innocent people – isn’t a black mark against their “compassion” and “tolerance,” because those bakers aren’t really people at all, at least not in the same sense that loving gay couples who demand cakes for their weddings are.
That’s what I mean about the New Totalitarians being the same as the old. We’ve heard all of their ideas, rhetorical tricks, and ugly inner urges before. You’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelette. The ends justify the means. Everything inside the State, nothing outside the State. Everything Obama-era “liberals” are exhaling today was in the atmosphere of Europe a century ago. How can our young people be so poorly-educated that they don’t find the spectacle of howling mobs demanding vigilante revenge against “enemies of the people” to be both familiar, and terrifying?
One of my goals as a writer in the Age of Obama has been to rescue the proper meaning of terms like totalitarian, authoritarian, and fascist. They’re not synonymous, although the ideas are related. They are all aspects of collectivism, the true and eternal enemy of liberty.
It’s become difficult to discuss any of this without immediately being accused of a “Godwin’s Law” violation. You say you find the current embrace of totalitarianism in America disturbing, and someone immediately blows the Godwin’s Law whistle and accuses you of frivolously accusing your ideological adversaries of being Nazis. What a terrible paucity of moral and political imagination we live under, if we can’t understand that totalitarianism is possible (and bad) without descending into full-blown uniformed fascism!
If you want to defend liberty against the totalitarian impulse, you’ve got to do better than poking your head out of the political window and declaring the coast is clear, as long as you don’t see any concentration camps or goose-stepping Gestapo squads. Totalitarianism comes before all the other evils, and I have my dark suspicions that it inevitably slides into darker and more feral expressions, in part because of the economic and social pressures created by the politicization of everything. We ought to be on guard against the first level of collectivist evil, not complacent until it bares its fangs and starts vomiting bullets and barbed wire.
Tom Nichols at The Federalist has a superb piece explaining what totalitarianism is, and how it differs from authoritarianism, with which it is often conflated:
Simply put, authoritarians merely want obedience, while totalitarians, whose rule is rooted in an ideology, want obedience and conversion. Authoritarians are a dime a dozen; totalitarians are rare. The authoritarians are the guys in charge who want to stay in charge, and don’t much care about you, or what you’re doing, so long as you stay out of their way. They are the jefe and his thugs in a brutal regime that want you to shut up, go to work, and look the other way when your loudmouthed neighbor gets his lights punched out by goons in black jackets. Live or die. It’s all the same to the regime.
Totalitarians are a different breed. These are the people who have a plan, who think they see the future more clearly than you or who are convinced they grasp reality in a way that you do not. They don’t serve themselves—or, they don’t serve themselves exclusively—they serve History, or The People, or The Idea, or some other ideological totem that justifies their actions.
They want obedience, of course. But even more, they want their rule, and their belief system, to be accepted and self-sustaining. And the only way to achieve that is to create a new society of people who share those beliefs, even if it means bludgeoning every last citizen into enlightenment. That’s what makes totalitarians different and more dangerous: they are “totalistic” in the sense that they demand a complete reorientation of the individual to the State and its ideological ends. Every person who harbors a secret objection, or even so much as a doubt, is a danger to the future of the whole project, and so the regime compels its subjects not only to obey but to believe.
This calls to mind C.S. Lewis’ famous warning about how “a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive,” because “those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
To the warnings of Nichols and Lewis, I would add that totalitarianism involves politicizing every corner of life, imbuing even the citizen’s choice of which fast-food chicken sandwich he consumes with political significance. People who would rather not make political statements with their lunch choices are nevertheless forced into the game defensively… because if they don’t play, and play to win, they’re going to wake up one morning and discover they have lost vital freedoms.
Totalitarianism, you see, isn’t just about turning every aspect of life into a nasty political squabble. There are consequences. The compulsive power of the State is deployed to punish the losing side of nearly every social dispute these days. The fact that we speak of political arguments over every damn thing implies this grim outcome of compulsion and punishment, because politicians aren’t members of an academic debating society, no matter how much they love to posture that way. They control the compulsive power of the State. That’s their job. Everything the State does involves force, which means people get hurt. Regulations are enforced with muscle, as the Sweet Cakes couple can attest. Every dollar the government spends was seized by force from the people who earned it (or, under the modern enthusiasm for irresponsible deficit spending, seized from children who aren’t old enough to earn it yet.)
After all these years of Obama, it should be painfully clear to everyone that the Left isn’t interested in “winning arguments.” They’re not terribly interested in persuasion at all. They want power, and as soon as they have enough to get what they want, the very first thing they do is bellow that all further debate is over, forever – the “law of the land” is “settled.” They’re increasingly comfortable with casting aside their pretensions of adoring free speech and punishing those who verbally disagree with “law” that was “settled” by one weird election, one midnight congressional vote, or one Supreme Court justice.
That’s because, as Nichols notes, totalitarians want Total Victory. They understand ideas are dangerous, and when people are permitted to discuss dissenting ideas, they eventually desire the freedom to implement them. They start wondering where all the walls and prison bars came from, and why they shouldn’t be allowed to explore the free space on the other side of those walls. That’s why the Left is so insanely neurotic about all the social arguments they supposedly “won.” They didn’t win any of them by persuading a majority of people to embrace social change through the republican process. At best, they got to the 51-yard line, spiked the ball, declared a touchdown, and then announced the game was over forever. The Left understands that both totalitarianism and liberty are viral.
Totalitarianism is the antithesis of principle – the ends justify the means is their slogan, hovering on the lips of every single “liberal” in the United States today. It gives them an advantage in these brutal political scrums, because they fight dirty. The whole point of Saul Alinksy’s infamous Rules for Radicals is that totalitarians have no principles they can be pinned to, while their victims are great believers in intellectual consistency and the rule of law, which puts them at a severe disadvantage. Good luck asking any of today’s lefties what happened to the joyous celebration of free thinking, free expression, non-conformity, and provocative bravado they supposedly worshiped just a decade or two ago. They never really meant it – they’re totalitarians, so they only celebrated plucky upstarts who challenged consensus, stuck it to The Man, and fought The Power when they weren’t The Man. Now that they have all the power, you’re not supposed to fight it – conformity and unquestioning obedience are cool.
Totalitarians view everything through the lens of their power goals and preferred political narratives. That’s why President Obama will attend certain funerals and insert himself into certain local crime stories, but couldn’t give a rat’s ass about politically inconvenient horrors like the murder of Kate Steinle, allegedly by an illegal alien. The massed ranks of the Left are whistling past Steinle’s graveyard because her death is extremely inconvenient for them politically. Meanwhile, they’ll whip their supporters into a frenzy over “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” events that didn’t even happen. That’s actually a persistent feature of totalitarianism over the ages, because imaginary hobgoblins are much more politically useful that real, complicated, factually accurate stories. Every single totalitarian system has invented or exaggerated nemeses and instructed the people to focus all of their rage and despair upon them, while ignoring the actual events taking place right outside their windows.
Totalitarianism can begin by declaring benevolent intentions and citing popular support for its ideas, which is especially easy to do when the totalitarian party has near-total control over the media… but as I said, it always slides into something uglier. We’re arguably well into the ugly stages of the process now – how many people thought in 2008 that freedom of speech and religion would be on the chopping block by 2016? Things get ugly because power, like any other resource, suffers from the law of diminishing returns. The Ruling Class has to squeeze its captive people ever harder to produce each new droplet of power; taxes must become higher and more complicated to chase the dwindling pool of free dollars still fluttering through a statist economy; the regulatory apparatus must consume new areas of our lives to continue its growth.
Allow me to close by quoting from one of my early writings on the subject, from 2009, when I argued the importance of understanding exactly what fascism is, and why it must always be strangled in its crib:
Why is fascism bad? It seems like a ridiculously understated question, similar to asking why cancer is bad, but the answer is important. The grisly ornaments fascism has worn in the past should not distract from the deeper reality of what it is, and why it fails. The essential flaw of fascism is that it elevates the State to control of its citizens, because controlling the economy requires control of the people. A corporation is a voluntary association of people, not an inanimate machine that can be reprogrammed painlessly by wise government advisers. The people who comprise corporations must be kept alienated from the government’s supporters – fascism requires enemies, and turns feral quickly. The government does not require a majority of the people to support it, in order to maintain power. It can make do with much less than fifty per cent, if they are sufficiently motivated and obedient. In fact, maintaining control through an energized minority is much easier than keeping the majority of the population on board, especially in a large country.
The proposition that enlightened government officials should control the economy sounds appealing to those who feel capitalism has not treated them well. No matter what name it operates under, fascism never works. It can’t work. Fascist control might produce short-term gains for its favored constituencies, and the sense of organization it brings might benefit a highly disorganized or demoralized population, such as prewar Germany, for a while. In the long run, fascism falls apart because political control is always less flexible and innovative than free-market competition. The political masters of the economy have a list of alternatives they will not consider, mistakes they will not admit to making, and explanations that simply cannotbe true. Since they see the free market as inferior to their intellect and moral judgment, they never study it carefully enough to understand how it really works. They become highly adept at killing the geese that lay golden eggs.
What’s happening in America right now is bad, and it will get worse, because that is the nature of the collectivist beast. Its work is never done, and it grows increasingly angry with anyone who still dares to resist it. The number of actual voters required to form a compulsory “consensus” that cannot tolerate even the most polite verbal disagreement will continue to dwindle. The “tyranny of the majority” will degenerate into tyranny, period, because the actual majority has been intimidated into silent acquiescence. When everything is political, every freedom becomes a prize for the taking… and those prizes will be taken. There will be more injuries, and not all of them will bleed money.