Over the past four years, credentialed academics and public intellectuals published a mountain of books and articles warning of rising authoritarianism and even fascism in the United States—and offering guides on how to resist this political menace. “Save democracy” books became something of a cottage industry: If you had what publishers call a “platform” and relevant scholarly authority, you were a fool not to try your hand at the genre.
The titles revealed the high stakes: The People vs. Democracy, The Twilight of Democracy, How Fascism Works, On Tyranny, The Road to Unfreedom, How Democracies Die. And on and on. Only now are we beginning to witness the damage wrought by these irresponsible exercises in middlebrow hysteria, as radicalized activists set fire to American cities on the belief that they are locked in an existential battle with the forces of political darkness.
This past weekend, hard-left activists in Portland, Oregon, allegedly shot dead a man wearing a “Patriot Prayer” hat. Antifa types were soon celebrating his death on social media. In Washington during the Republican National Convention, leftist mobs accosted and in some cases assaulted GOP lawmakers; the unblinking rage on display in the video footage is terrifying.
What is the political theory behind that rage? How does a twenty-something recent liberal-arts graduate come to believe that his political opponents must be personally shamed and even physically beaten? Could it be that all those books and articles and cable interviews about fascism have had an effect?
No, not every knucklehead who takes a crowbar to an innocent stranger’s vehicle in Portland or Kenosha, Wisconsin, has read How Fascism Works by Yale philosopher Jason Stanley—a book that compares recent U.S. immigration restrictions with the “November 1938 pogrom of German Jews,” showcasing all the thoughtfulness and nuance of a high school AP history essay. Nevertheless, such ahistorical nonsense, amplified by the blue-check Twitterati and cable news, was bound to filter down from the NPR-tote crowd to a wider and more impressionable audience.
The market opportunity was no doubt irresistible. The university and journalistic classes had convinced themselves that Donald Trump’s election spelled doom for democracy, and they were hungry for literature that confirmed their gloomiest premonitions; literature, moreover, that lent the sepia-toned credibility of Old World anti-totalitarian movements to the hashtag resistance against Trumpian tyranny.
Reading bestsellers like On Tyranny, by the distinguished Yale historian Timothy Snyder, an advertising professional in Brooklyn could imagine herself stepping into the shoes of a German dissident in the 1930s or a French resistance fighter in the ’40s. Her pussy hat, too, bore a grand and dignified meaning, setting her apart as a heroic actor in a sordid ongoing history (“Stand out,” Snyder portentously advised. “Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can be strange to do or say something different”).
Ideas, as Richard Weaver reminded us, have consequences. If someone sincerely believes that Trumpism, and analogue movements across the developed world, aren’t just conservative-nationalist or populist but fascist or Nazi-ish, then he has a right and even the duty to oppose the elected government of the United States militantly, to help strangle in the cradle the 21st century’s equivalent of the most odious tendencies of the last century.
Authors like Stanley and Snyder did much to promote that belief. This served a palliative function just when voters on both sides of the Atlantic had shattered the post-Cold War consensus: neoliberal economics, cultural deregulation, open borders. If voters rejected these things, it wasn’t because the consensus had failed, the “save democracy” books insisted. No, it was because authoritarian demagogues had put voters under their spell. Liberals, then, didn’t have to concede anything to the broad swaths of society left unhappy by liberalism—because those swaths were just fascist.
But like all palliative drugs, the “save democracy” books had a side effect. Claiming to have uncovered the fascist impulse behind today’s populist ferment—“the targeting of ideological enemies and the freeing of all restraints in combating them,” as Stanley put it—they ended up authorizing just such a Manichaean, all-or-nothing approach.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post and author of The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, which will be published next spring.
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