The Culture of American Authoritarianism

Just as inevitable as the confirmation of a “Justice Barrett” is the likelihood that the first case to go before the newly-confirmed justice will be a dispute over the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

By Anatole d’Ecotopia

Photo by Max Letek

In the last week, two things have occurred and one thing failed to occur that collectively further define the emerging culture of American authoritarianism.

Most recently, right-wing extremist groups “Patriot Prayer” and the “Proud Boys” made good their threat to hold an unsanctioned and non-permitted rally in the so-called “anarchist jurisdiction” of Portland, Oregon. The rally, declared for the ostensible purpose of memorializing recently slain member Aaron J. Danielson and showing support for President Donald Trump, had been estimated by organizers as having a potential turnout of 10,000 — at least an order of magnitude greater than previous Proud Boy stunts staged in Portland.

Citing legitimate public safety and COVID-19 concerns, permits for this gathering were denied. Demonstrating once again conditional — at best — respect for “law and order”, organizers announced their intention of holding the event whether permits were granted or not. Requests for crowd control assistance from law enforcement in neighboring communities was rebuked — ostensibly over Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s decision to ban the use of tear gas as a crowd control measure.

Shortly before the event occurred, Oregon Governor Kate Brown stepped in. By temporarily deputizing members of Portland Police Bureau as state police, a workaround was provided to ensure that misbehaving boys would, indeed, be gassed. Possibly as a consequence, attendance for the event was an order of magnitude smaller — not larger. An estimated 200 armed, armored, and belligerent would-be “Bugaloo Boys” turned out, with some 30 winding up under arrest. Later that evening, rather like clockwork, Portland Police Bureau once again declared largely non-violent protests against police brutality to be a “riot”, once again responding with yet more brutality — including, as reported in Willamette Week, the baton beating of a 73 year old man. 

The disparity of treatment between protesters of the Right and of the Left at the hands of Portland Police Bureau is fairly well-documented. On a previous Proud Boy incursion (few of these individuals are ever residents of Portland), police went so far as to provide would-be riot inciters with a police escort out of town. Not surprisingly, those protesting on behalf of police reform receive no such kid-glove treatment.

On the same day, on the other side of what is at least for now the same country, Donald Trump officially confirmed his intended fast-track replacement for recently-deceased Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Judge Amy Coney Barrett has been aptly described as a “dream for the Right, a nightmare for the Left”. A jurist of unquestionable credentials, a disciple of the late Antonin Scalia with equally unquestioned credentials as a deeply religious Catholic and doctrinaire conservative, Barrett’s all-but inevitable confirmation to the Supreme Court would even further tilt an already conservative court further rightward — for decades, given Barrett’s relative youth at age 48.

Given a Barrett appointment and a Trump second term, there can be little doubt that there will be legal challenges to Roe vs. Wade, the Affordable Healthcare Act, and anything else an emboldened Trump is reckless enough to attempt if he remains in office. The likelihood of these challenges succeeding… is frighteningly real.

In preparation for the expected battle over pushing through this nomination mere weeks before the election, the White House is preparing a team of what Fox News describes as “Knife Fighters”. It would be nice if the Democratic Party had the will to make this a case of “bringing a knife to a gunfight” — but they don’t. And even if the will was there… the votes would still be lacking.

Just as inevitable as the confirmation of a “Justice Barrett” is the likelihood that the first case to go before the newly-confirmed justice will be a dispute over the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. There can be very little doubt that Barrett will find in favor of Donald Trump’s efforts to remain in power. For one thing, it’s not her first rodeo. Judge Barrett was one of the attorneys on the legal team that brought before the high court the last legal challenge to a contested presidential election: The 2000 case of Bush vs. Gore

This brings us to the thing that has not happened, that even further defines the emerging culture of American authoritarianism.

It has been almost a week since Donald Trump demurred from affirming his commitment to a bedrock American principle: The peaceful transition of power, should he not prevail in November’s election — going so far as to say “There will be no transfer.” While this statement has been widely condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike, it has not been walked back in any significant way — not even rebranded, as is usually the case, as a “joke”.

Although commonly attributed to Sinclair Lewis, it was actually James Waterman Wise who said “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” What Wise neglected to mention, or perhaps could not foresee, was that it would also arrive with the widespread approval and support of a racist and corrupt police establishment, or that it would spread with the enthusiastic support of an equally corrupt corporate media establishment

The culture of American authoritarianism is based equally on religious, racial, sectarian, and nationalist intolerance. It is based on the feckless opportunism of a political establishment (within both majority parties) that is too thoroughly indebted to the corporatist donor class and too aligned with neoliberal corporate capitalism to provide more than token effort on behalf of the actual common good.

Even if we are so fortunate as to see Donald Trump out of office by year’s end, the authoritarian culture that created and enables him will remain — and so will the threat of America either finally collapsing into fascism or disintegrating altogether. Only by opposing this culture do we have any hope of defending ourselves from being further abused by the current system. Only by resisting do we have any hope of seeing that system changed.

That resistance will be ridiculed, despised, and preyed upon. It is hardly an accident that cities where resistance already exists are defamed as “anarchist jurisdictions”. To proponents of absolute authority, no epithet is more damning than the accusation of absolute resistance — which is what anarchism is. A society with no choice between those extremes is a recipe for disaster… but that’s where we’re headed.


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