Step Ten: Updating the “Ten Steps to Fascism”: Authoritarianism in a Pandemic [Essay One]
Dr Naomi Wolf
Step Ten: Updating the “Ten Steps to Fascism”: Authoritarianism in a Pandemic.
Is the all-too-real COVID crisis being exploited in certain ways as cover for those who wish to erode democracies worldwide, and to grab other kinds of power – such as economic power, power to control and track populations’ movements, and powers to invade privacy? I’ll argue here that it is and show specifically what President Trump is likely to do in the next two months, based on the playbook that all tyrants use to suspend democracies. The all-too-real COVID emergency — and I repeat that phrasing so as not to be taken out of context — is indeed being used exploitatively, as we will see, by would-be authoritarians and would-be oligarchs, to generate rationales and cover, to execute power grabs on many levels, that a noncrisis situation would not permit.
. Before we go on: I believe in science and medicine. I wear a mask in public and think others should do so in a pandemic. I believe in a sane public health policy. This essay is not purporting to recommend policy based on medicine. It is asking us to look deeply at how the pandemic’s demands are being presented in ways unprecedented in free societies – in ways that previous infectious public health emergencies never attempted — in formats that result in restrictions of liberties; and to warn that we really need to understand exactly what liberties are at stake right now. The pandemic will be over someday; and we need to know that we are returning to a context of freedom; that the “new normal,” a phrase that appeared alarmingly early in the pandemic, and one that never bodes well, is not a future in which one crisis has passed, but has stripped us of liberties and economic rights forever.
Many have asked me to update my 2007 Guardian essay, “Fascist America in Ten Easy Steps.” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/apr/24/usa.comment.
I’ll do so now.
Authoritarian Trump is making the kind of use of the pandemic crisis that is predictable if you understand how democracies are killed off.
That essay was the basis for the bestselling 2008 book about the destruction of democracy, The End of America. The book spelled out how the administration of George W Bush set in motion a series of steps that authoritarian leaders on both the left and on the right have always taken, that reliably close an open society.
Seeing how the system of eroding democracy actually works, in times and places as diverse as Mussolini’s Italy in the 1920s, National Socialist Germany and the Communist Soviet Union in the 1930s, Argentina under Auguste Pinochet in the 1970s and Marxist China in the 1980s, gave these readers a blueprint with which to recognize the playbook of closing democracy and track key benchmarks.
These are the Ten Steps that I identified:
- Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy.
- Createsecret prisons where torture takes place.
- Develop a thugcaste or paramilitary force not answerable to citizens.
- Set up an internal surveillance system.
- Infiltrate and harasscitizens’ groups
- Engage inarbitrary detention and release.
- Target key individuals.
- Control the press.
- Cast criticism as “espionage” and dissent as “treason.”
- Subvert therule of law.
Briefly, I am sorry to say that we are now at Step Ten. Based on the playbook of fascism and totalitarianism, here is what you can expect to experience or witness in the next two plus months. I hope and pray I am wrong but this is how history says event may well unfold:
- There will be more and more sharply escalating “clashes” between Antifa, no doubt amplified by provocateurs and infiltrators, and their opponents, also no doubt amplified by provocateurs and infiltrators. People will continue to die. The violence will be more and more spectacular and shocking. It will also become the center of the Presidential campaigns messaging on both sides, as Trump will base the core of his appeal to voters on the mayhem in the streets and the Democrats will too-slowly react and too-weakly respond. This will prevent Democrats from showcasing their kitchen table issues, and will force them to appear aligned with increasingly brutal and destructive looters and rogue elements. They will fall into the trap, and will not repudiate the protesters/rioters.
- There will be a nationwide deployment of Federal troops, or DHS specifically, or ICE, to a dozen cities at once. Portland was a test. The rollout of Federal troops will be sudden and shocking, and will be explained as a response to the violence of “leftist rioters”. People will be so stunned that it will be difficult for them to process what is happening. Be aware that at this point in a closing society, authoritarian leaders seeking to stage a coup, essentially, escalate shock and spectacle; the goal is to traumatize and disorient a population.
- Increasingly, Republican lawmakers will make statements endorsing violence: Louisiana Representative Clay Higgins, for instance, stated on Facebook on Sept 2, 2020: “Look, fair warning. If this shows up [a black militia] we’ll consider the armed presence a real threat. We being, We, the people of Louisiana […] I wouldn’t even spill my beer. I’d drop any 10 of you where you stand. Because some of we, like me…We, are SWAT. Nothing personal. We just eliminate the threat.” Expect a shower of such statements, then a torrent, till the airwaves are so thick with them that the atmosphere of threat becomes overwhelming.
- President Trump threatened to send Federal troops to the polls. Expect that either there will be no physical polling places, with COVID-19 being the rationale, or that there will be, but that there will be an intimidating armed Federal presence at the polls. Mussolini used Blackshirts at the polls at a comparable point in history and you should expect that people will be beaten, pushed or threatened at polling places.
- Expect energy blackouts, food supply disruptions, checkpoints, travel disruptions, mail disruptions, internet disruptions. Jared Kushner, as Vanity Fair reported, allowed the COVID-19 pandemic to ravage blue states to get a political advantage. This disruption and harming of the population, formerly unthinkable, is happening already. While there will be narratives to explain all of these disruptions, events that disrupt “business as usual” and create chaos and instability will be maximized, and will be far more frequent than they have been. The goal in military terms is to “tenderize” a population – to exhaust and confuse them, leaving them so worried about basic day to day wellbeing that they can’t organize against or even absorb what is happening to them. The homelessness and hunger that the pandemic has brought about, will play into the hands of would-be authoritarians, as it did in Germany in the 1920s.
- You won’t see much of this, but public figures for the next two months will be quietly threatened. The threats will be of public exposure, or professional ruin, but threats of violence won’t be unheard-of. Examples are the way Tucker Carlson played a clip of Chris Cuomo, secretly recorded at the gym, talking to Michael Cohen, his putative friend, about being involved in possible sexual harassment cases; and Carlson noting that there are “many more such recordings.” Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, more ominously in regard to threats of physical harm, said on television that “something is going to happen” to Joe Biden before Election Day. https://www.businessinsider.com/jeanine-pirro-joe-biden-fox-news-2020-8
People should understand that such commentators don’t freelance with statements such as these; they are acting, most likely, as what campaigns call “surrogates”- mouthpieces. More and more public figures, politicians and even journalist will become timid or go silent altogether after being on the receiving end of quiet or public threats.
- The election will be rife with machines not working, electronic systems malfunctioning, records being hacked, impossible waits at polling places, absentee ballots uncounted, public humiliations of voters. Voters will be continually challenged at polling places. Once the votes are in, Republican lawyers will challenge every vote and Democrats’ lawyers will challenge the challenges. There won’t be a President on Nov 5. The vote count will drag on and on, for weeks and then for months. Lawsuits will fly back and forth, dragging out the process. People will become numb, awaiting an outcome.
- Meanwhile the instability and violence will continue to ramp up. There will be several really shocking, traumatic scenes of carnage or a spectacular rampage that leaves everyone stunned. Fires will break out, or arson will be on display, as in the early 1930s in Germany. The chaos will give President Trump the excuse to say that events are too unstable to count the vote safely and that for the safety of everyone, he must declare a state of emergency. At that point troops (including perhaps contractors or mercenaries, an army answerable to him and not to the Constitution) will appear in many places at once in US cities. “Lockdown” will be invoked again, this time not due to medical crisis, but nominally for public safety. Sadly, we will have become inured to “lockdown” and we will comply. Guns will be confiscated.
- The White House, which has been steadily becoming an armed fortress with fortifications added by President Trump, will be completely militarized. Journalists will no longer be allowed in; press briefings will be suspended for “public safety.” Trump simply won’t leave. What recourse will his opposition have at that point? None at all. The “state of emergency” will extend and extend, and six months in, there will be a “night of the long knives” when all at once, opposition leaders, journalists, editors, union leaders and clergy get arrested on inflated charges. The protesters kidnapped in unmarked vans in Portland is a preamble to this.
- After that, there is nothing more to be done. Again I hope and pray I am wrong.
- I wasn’t wrong in any of the predictions in The End of America.