I thought we were different…
Watching one year ago as insurgents stormed the Capital with the goal of overturning a national election was just another parallel to so much of what I witnessed as a war zone correspondent in the 1980’s and 90’s.
Its an age old strategy for authoritarian strongmen to obtain or retain power:
Step 1: Create populist rhetoric that appeals to legitimate grievances, like the economic inequity that has grown over five decades of policies that favor the rich over the middle and working class in the United States. Once in power, pass policies that maintain or increase the inequity for personal power or gain, decrying policies that help these aggrieved groups, painting them in historically unpopular or anti-patriotic terms. Think tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, blocking minimum wage and healthcare access while painting efforts to level the economic playing as “socialism” or “communism.”
Step 2: Use name calling and historic, usually ethnic and religious, grievances or bias to divide people and turn citizens who used to support each other into enemies. (Think the support of white supremacy and the false narrative of white Europeans and Christians as “under attack” as prime examples). As Jason Stanley points out in “How Fascism Works,” such “….language is not used simply, or even chiefly, to convey information but to elicit emotion.” Unfortunately that emotion is what drives the clicks and views that sell ads online and keep people in dangerously biased information loops.
Step 3: Question the very nature of facts and truth so that democratic debate, the very rational objective of freedom of speech, is undermined. Wild conspiracy theories become more and more believable in this environment. (Q-Anon, “Stop the Steal,” and that January 6 is an FBI false flag operation, are just a few examples). The purpose and effect of airing multiple, conspiratorial ways to view facts is to undermine any shared reality, which is the basic requirement of democratic debate.
Step 4: Undermine democratic institutions, particularly the rule of law and the sanctity of elections, accusing judges or administrative officials (think courts, law enforcement, state election administrators, and independent media) as biased or enemies of the people and part of the conspiracy. (Happily even some Trump appointed U.S. attorneys, judges, and civil servants have resisted these attempts while unfortunately others have been part of the planning).
Step 5: Coopt a willing media eco-system, driven by the quest of political access or corruption, to promote the lies and propaganda designed to destroy the basis for truth, real informed debate, and the press’s role as a check on corruption and power. The dismantling of truth and the spreading of suspicion and doubt by partisan “opinion” leaders on cable news, radio, online websites, and streaming service actually undermines the mutual respect of fellow citizens and community members. One example is the lack of empathy for vulnerable people in the pandemic, with many eschewing masks and vaccines which can protect communities in favor of their “individual liberty.”
January 6 and the four years that preceded it were trauma-inducing for those who have lived in countries under authoritarian rule or witnessed violent insurrections, ethnic conflict, and war as I have in the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Ossetia, among others. I often thought, as I covered the enormous devastation that such conflicts bring to families, “this would never happen in the United States.” We need to start trusting each other and prove that our country and we as people won’t let it happen now.
(The preceding is my personal opinion and do not reflect the views of any employer or institution for whom I serve).