The day after Trump’s second impeachment.
I started this blog, which I call Element of Uncertainty, on Martin Luther King Day 2017, just prior to Trump’s inauguration. The motivation was simple. I’d been writing since age ten, had commercially published four books and several articles, and worried that my right of free expression was in jeopardy. Before that right could be taken away, I wanted to share what I’d learned over my life.
Early on, I identified what I consider the three biggest risks confronting humankind: climate change, wealth inequality, and the demise of privacy. And yet, as I skim through the more than two hundred posts preceding this one, I find that the risk I’ve written most about is authoritarianism — the threat that provoked this blog.
Let me define the term and tie it to last Wednesday’s travesty. Largely following the scholar Robert Altemayer, I view authoritarianism as consisting of four key characteristics:
- A high degree of submission to chosen leaders. Although some in the mob that attacked democracy last Wednesday carried American flags, I saw many more sporting Trump banners, clothing, etc. There’s evidence the mob hoped to harm Mike Pence, Trump’s obsequiously loyal vice president, because that afternoon he “betrayed” Trump by honoring his Constitutional duty instead of subverting democracy on Trump’s behalf. And law enforcement found a pipe bomb at Republican National Committee headquarters. The mob’s loyalty was not to a party or patriotic ideals. It was to Trump.
- High levels of aggression in the name of the leaders. Six dead, including two police officers. And it could have been worse.
- The conviction that everyone must follow the norms and customs the leaders decree. Trump lied that he won the election in a landslide. The mob believed him unconditionally, so it attempted to impose his/its will on the entire nation, which in reality voted decisively for Biden.
- The limiting of compassion to groups favored by the leaders. As historian Timothy Snyder notes in a fascinating New York Times analysis, authoritarian mobs invert the relationship of the weak and strong, portraying themselves as the victims of groups that have historically been the actual victims, such as African-American citizens casting ballots in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Atlanta who put Biden over the top in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia.
Worse yet, authoritarian mobs consist of what The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan aptly describes for our own time as “deadbeat dads, YouPorn enthusiasts, slow students, and MMA fans.” Many mob members are ambitious, some are cunning, but few are smart or well-socialized (something I hope to address in an upcoming post), so their rule inevitably brings cruelty, destruction, and immense suffering, followed by societal collapse — which of course they blame on everyone but themselves.
And so, while I continue to believe the three biggest risks facing humankind are climate change, wealth inequality, and the demise of privacy, I’m coming to believe that none will be addressed unless we first quell authoritarianism—not just in the United States, but in China, India, Brazil, Russia, the Philippines, Poland, Hungary, etc. Because authoritarians don’t care about scientific facts like climate change; they abet the wealthy even as they purport to speak for ordinary earners; and they consider everyone’s personal business within their purview.
So where once I thought I’d discontinue this blog after the immediate threat to free expression passed, I’m going to stick with it and document the ongoing struggle against authoritarianism. (I plan to write about lots of other stuff too.) Because this, truly, is the single gravest question facing humankind: can we overcome our own worst impulses?
Let’s find out together. And thank you, thank you, thank you for reading!