The insurrection at the capitol and Trump’s second acquittal are proof that white supremacists are the best stealth authoritarians . Their attempted coup is a clear example that our political system lacks mutual toleration – the idea that political opponents aren’t an existential threat. In their New York Times Best Seller, How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt articulate that:
“When norms of mutual toleration are weak, democracy is hard to sustain. If we view our rivals as a dangerous threat, we have much to fear if they are elected. We may decide to employ any means necessary to defeat them – and therein lies a justification for authoritarian measures.” From When Democracies Die by Levitsky and Ziblatt
The authors continue to explain how in the absence of mutual toleration, the Spanish Republic fell apart. They note that in nearly all of the cases they’ve studied, would-be authoritarians justified consolidating their power by labeling their opponents as existential threats. Using this same strategy in pursuit of their twisted policies, white supremacists have become perhaps the most well-trained stealth authoritarians in the Union. It comes as no surprise to many Americans that white supremacists hold some of the most prestigious and powerful positions in our country, it is common in American history. Though it is new history, the right’s violent reaction to the 2020 presidential election and the Republican Party’s ongoing attempt to acquiesce these ideological bigots in order to maintain their core voting bloc is not surprising history. Our beloved union is in the midst of a cold civil war. A battle fought through legislation and courtrooms and academic discourse and television specials and social media platforms in which the weapons of choice are the words we choose to send, receive, and believe. It is a great flaw that the discipline takes for granted the United States’ high level of mutual toleration, likely attributable to the lack of diversity amongst Political Scientists. Despite the last few years, it is my assessment that the United States has perhaps the greatest level of mutual toleration we have ever had, and that it is exactly this newfound toleration for difference that has spurred a violent reaction by white supremacists. They view a pluralist, multicultural, democracy as an existential threat to their “true” America. And they have made clear they won’t stop until they think this perceived threat is eliminated.
The idea of weaponized communication offers us a great way to understand the way in which white supremacists enact their stealth authoritarianism. According to Mercieca, weaponized communication is when you strategically use communication as an aggressive means to gain compliance and avoid accountability . In this cold civil war currently facing the United States, we see dangerous demagogues seeking to bend America’s moral arc away from justice. These rhetorical soldiers sling weaponized communication to reject and weaken commitments to democratic norms. Our news cycle is overwhelmed with absurdities and misinformation to the point that white supremacists can storm the capitol building and for some reason it seems like nobody knows who to blame. This chaos is intentional and part of a long-term strategy. The fallout from the capitol insurrection and Trump’s months of baseless election fraud claims have set the stage for a much more subtle siege.
In statehouses across the country, Republican lawmakers are using this stolen-election myth to fuel a campaign to rewrite election rules and limit future voter turnout in predominantly BIPOC communities. The New York Times reports that in Iowa, the State Legislature voted to cut early voting by nine days, close polls earlier, and tighten rules on absentee voting. Likewise, they call out Georgia Republicans for seeking to limit early voting on Sundays in an attempt to prevent Black voters from engaging in “souls to the polls” church services and those in Wisconsin trying to limit ballot drop boxes to one per municipality. All the while, Trump has resurfaced peddling more lies about a stolen election and even taunting the idea of a 2024 run. Republicans are actively playing constitutional hardball as they work within their current positions to legislate election rules that will maintain their power at the expense of democratic participation. All the while their demagogue spews more and more misinformation about the election being stolen to embolden the party’s base to support these undemocratic reforms. Republicans’ failure to convict Trump based on weak legal arguments is another example of their constitutional hardball strategies. The morally correct thing to do would have been to convict, but instead they poorly argued that they don’t believe they can impeach a president who is already out of office, excusing themselves of any real accountability and rejecting the spirit of the impeachment process laid out by the constitution they claim to love so much.
This kind of stealth authoritarianism has long been a tool of white supremacists. After all, the very constitution itself was written by dangerous demagogues seeking to obscure their newly formed slavocracy as a true democratic republic. Nearly 100 years later their carefully crafted words led to a violent civil war. In the last few decades, we have seen white supremacists enact policies, such as the failed war on drugs, that specifically target lower-income communities of color. The prison-industrial-complex is perhaps one of the greatest examples of this type of stealth authoritarianism. With about 25% of the world’s incarcerated population in American prisons, some private companies see the $35 billion spent on imprisonment as a means to bolster the American economy and line their pockets. The Republican party has spent the last few decades placating to white nationalists. Now their base is losing its rhetorical power because we recognize what they’re doing. In the original civil war citizens were asked to choose sides, slavery or abolition, so too are we called to defend our nation against bigotry and racial hatred. And the most important thing to recognize is that we must be an existential threat to these old notions of America if we are to actually achieve our nation’s promises of liberty and justice for all.
This realization fuels the work of abolitionists looking to dismantle oppressive systems such as policing and prisons. This realization fuels the work of anti-racism activists and queer activists and women’s organizations looking to expand rights to these marginalized groups. This realization fuels the work of the next generation of politicians and government officials working to maintain our national trajectory on a course toward justice. Our chances for a truly multicultural democracy are at risk, and now more than ever we must take a stand.
Notes: Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): pp. 1673-1742. Parts I, II and III.  Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapter 5.  Mercieca, Jennifer R. 2019. “Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 49(3): pp. 264-279.