What happens when fanatical extremists capture all of a country’s institutions?
“I read recently that America was added to the list of countries most dangerous in the world for journalists. That comes hot on the heels of America being among the ten worst places to be a woman, the worst place in the rich world to be a mother or a child or a retiree, and many, many more places on dismal lists of worsts. Why is that?”
By Umair Haque
I read recently that America was added to the list of countries most dangerous in the world for journalists. That comes hot on the heels of America being among the ten worst places to be a woman, the worst place in the rich world to be a mother or a child or a retiree, and many, many more places on dismal lists of worsts. Why is that?
When I look at America, here’s what I see. A country where the extreme, fanatical right wing takeover of its institutions — all of them — is almost complete. From laws to courts, representation to presidency, norms to rules, from press to public sphere — America is now controlled almost entirely and exclusively by the most fanatical kind of right wingers the rich world hasn’t seen for decades, probably since Nazi Germany. Yes, I mean that. Let me make my case — and you can judge for yourself whether my words carry any weight.
(And let me say at the outset — I emphatically don’t say any of that to mean the reductive left versus right frame of American cable news and pop culture. “All conservatives are bad, man!!” Not at all. I have many conservative leanings, from my belief in virtue to the value of history to the need for meaning, found primarily in morality. I don’t think conservatism’s bad — I think it’s gone completely haywire, and it’s conserving all the wrong things, instead of any of the right ones. Hence, I don’t think every conservative is a fanatic or extremist — and so what I do think is that decent and sane people on both left and right should be deeply worried about what’s happening in America today.)
Let’s start with an obvious example. Until and unless the Mueller Report is released — and I mean in a substantive way, not the heavily redacted version — Americans should consider their judiciary not just badly compromised, but broken. But the judiciary often the last cornerstone of a democracy — because while you can lose many things, as long as there are even somewhat impartial courts to try crimes in, democracy has a chance. And so the capture of the American judiciary by extreme right wing fanatics is something that you should be very worried about, indeed. It suggests that democracy in America is now in profound jeopardy.
But you might have been worried about American democracy for some time now. After all, researchers are — America’s democracy is ranked as barely functional, and that’s generous, if you ask me. Why? Because the other two branches of government have been captured by the extreme right, too.
The sad story of America’s takeover by right wing extremists begins with the legislature. (At least in simple, tactical terms.) Through the 90s, a band of vocal extremists, the Newts and so forth, explicitly began to reject the basic tenets of democracy — representation, compromise, norms of decency, red lines of civility — and instead began something like a carefully, deliberately planned war against democracy.
They employed every tactic well known to those who wish to topple governments. Propaganda flooded American homes — robocalls. Districts were redrawn in ludicrous ways. Dirty money fueled the machine. Candidates were chosen not on the basis of whether they represented peoples’ preferences — but whether they represented the machines’ owners, which, by this point, were a bizarre cocktail of lunatic capitalists, ideological Ayn Randists, and crackpot pundits. Wham! Soon enough, the legislature had been captured by what many called cheap tricks — but were in fact tactics inimical to democracy, which is the exercise of equals, seeking freedom and truth and justice, in the first place.
That, of course, culminated in the Tea Party’s takeover of Congress — but the house of cards had been built for a decade or more by the time that happened. The GOP had been taken over by its extremists — and those extremists used tactics more reminiscent of KGB or CIA campaigns to destabilize banana republics than anything resembling democracy in a rich country. Irony, karma — call it what you will.
And then came the disastrous election of a demagogue. The executive was soon enough occupied by a team of the most fanatical right wingers imaginable — people with genuine white supremacist and Nazi sympathies (not to mention fantasies), the kind that the entire rest of the world reeled in horror and hilarity from.
Now the vicious cycle so familiar in poorer countries kicked in in America. Since the executive and legislature were both controlled by extremists, they could use their power to corrode the last institution of government standing — the judiciary. Hence, soon enough, courts were stacked, culminating in the bizarre scenario surrounding the Mueller Report: it’s Schrodinger’s Report, which both exists, and doesn’t exist. And you can bet that if and when it is released, the public version will be more black marker than text.
Bang! All three branches of American government had fallen to right wing fanatics — in about three decades or so. The pattern, for those who wish to really understand social collapses, matters. First the legislature — easy pickings. Then the executive — harder, but thanks to a little help from friends, eminently doable. Then the judiciary, using the powers of a corroded legislature and executive, to reshape it. It’s a pattern all too familiar to those who study democratic decline — we’ve seen it in, for example, Nazi Germany, African genocide, and Latin American civil war. And now, weirdly, strangely, sadly — in the US of A.
But you can’t capture the three branches of government if social institutions are working properly. Institutions such as the press, academia, media, and so on. And yet here too, American institutions failed, and failed catastrophically.
During the election, the press focused on “but her emails!!” — despite warnings of a fascist-authoritarian spiral kicking off from the other side. Never mind — don’t be an alarmist! After the election, instead of ruminating over their mistakes and learning anything, the press took an already bad job…and made it absurdly terrible. The New York Times did sympathetic profiles of neighborhood Nazis for a year or so. CNN and MSNBC and so forth have yet to say the words authoritarianism and fascism. And so on.
American media was hopelessly out of its depth. Jake Tapper and Morning Joe and the other privileged elite white dudes of America literally couldn’t believe what they were facing…so they didn’t. Ezra Klein and Chris Hayes laughed at the idea that America could see anything like genuine authoritarianism, replete with concentration camps…which took just a year or two to build. America’s press was perpetually surprised by what was happening right before its eyes, and still is: a fanatical right wing takeover of American institutions, that’s almost complete by now.
The press, though, couldn’t have gotten away with it, really, if America’s thinkers had been seeing things clearly. But they weren’t, either. Nobody, really, in America’s thinking class saw any of this coming. Nobody, really, connected any of the dots. Maybe a Chomsky — a fringe figure here or there. But in the mainstream, those licensed and applauded by the establishment? The Steve Pinkers and David Brookses of the world? Like the Ezras and Chrises, they’d have laughed a half decade ago if you said something like “hey, do you get that the extreme right is taking over America, institution by institution?”
But what about the people? One of the last institutions to fall to the fanatical extreme right in America was the public sphere itself. When Americans met each other for brews at their local bar, there might have been a little hope for opposites to get along. But by the 2010s, the American public sphere consisted of a few corporations — Facebook, YouTube, Twitter. These corporations weren’t just indifferent to right wing fanatics — they promoted them, recommended them, endorsed them, and paid them fortunes. You couldn’t spend a day on these websites — which were the American public sphere — without being harassed, bullied, mocked, and shouted at, or, if you were a woman or minority, worse: being threatened with violence.
Nobody quite understood it, but the public sphere itself had been taken over by right wing extremists, who, trolling, policed it for any dissent, any difference, any divergence from their backwards party line, with threats, intimidation, bullying, mob justice. America didn’t have a happy, buzzing town square anymore, so much as a square policed by marching wannabe fascists for anything resembling liberalism, feminism, or the hated social justice. But when a public sphere is taken over by fanatics — how can a democracy function?
And so here we are. The far right takeover of America is almost complete. Fanatical extremists of a kind unseen since Nazi Germany have taken over almost every single last American institution, from government to public sphere. It happened like this. The thinkers didn’t police the press. The press didn’t police the politicians. The politicians didn’t police the fanatics amongst them. The people couldn’t police anyone, because the fanatics were policing them by now. The blind were leading the blind, in other words. Soon enough, institution by institution, right before everyone’s disbelieving eyes, the fanatics had taken over American institutions wholesale.
In the press — where bizarre, idiotic fanatical right wing lines like “we’re too broke to afford healthcare for everyone!” (hello, we can literally print infinite money the world will buy) became not just “normalized” — but something like gospel, impossible to refute or even rebut or debate. Even “liberal media” like MSNC and the New York Times tilted so far to the right — never, for example, explaining to Americans just how poor their lives were now — that they were laughed at as absurd in working countries like Sweden, France, Canada.
Among politicians, soon enough, fanaticism grew to become centered, normal, desirable — not so long ago, America had 70% marginal tax rates — and politics became something like a competition for who could be the most idiotic, foolish extremist of them all. Hence, soon enough, places like Kansas and Wisconsin were closing schools and hospitals.
Among thinkers, nobody seemed to mind that society seemed to have lost its mind. Nobody stepped in to say “hey, guys? All our institutions are being taken over by right wing extremists. Hello? We’ve got to stop this trend before its too late.” Instead, they were busy promoting bizarre ideas like “resilience” and “austerity”, like greed being good, like abusing your neighbor being the best for everyone, which more or less sealed the extremist deal, legitimizing extremism as a way of thought, of life.
And in the public sphere, if you were brave enough to utter any semblance of decency or truth, look out — you’d be harassed and harried and threatened by an army of trolls, calling you all kinds of names. And meanwhile, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter were all recommending to your friends, family, and colleagues, that they follow extremists of the most fanatical variety.
Bang! Soon enough, it was game over. By 2019 — now — the following institutions had all fallen to the fanatical extreme right. The executive. The judiciary. The legislature. The press. The public sphere. What was left?
Not much, my friends, not much. And that is the point. The extreme right wing takeover of America is almost complete, finito, over and done with. There is very little standing in the way now. By my reckoning, one last barely functioning institution. An election. Will it matter — or will apathy and fear carry the day? You be the judge of that.