If America lurches towards dictatorship, it will be more with a whimper than a bang. We won’t need to fear secret police so much as the oppressiveness of mass conformity, social pressure, the siphoning of wealth, and the spread of “official” viewpoints. I realize Americans’ fears of one’s political opponents assuming dictatorial powers are a bit overwrought and overdone. Neither W, Bush Senior, Clinton, nor Reagan was in any real sense a potential dictator, even though all three were reviled and feared by many opponents. Nonetheless, with the perspective of time, we see that their imagery, styles, goals, and personalities were American through and through.
The times and the place create the leader, and our post-religious, meaning-starved society more than ever wants atonement, purpose, and passion. The Obama message to white and black alike has resonated. To the former he promises forgiveness, to the latter, dignity and power. But his style, his words, and the imagery of his campaign are all new, whether in the form of enormous adoring crowds or the creepy posters. Coupled with an existing economic crisis and the Bush administration expansion of executive power, Obama certainly could move us in a very bad direction from which it would be very difficult to return to ordinary, constitutionally limited government. Some of the brakes we take for granted will be absent. Obama can cry racism, for instance, in the casual, insinuating way he did in his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. Further, his supporters and his support is both intense and untethered to specific actions. It is hard to imagine that Obama will be forced to deflect the kind of criticism Bush has been subjected to from the right. By 2004, Bush was widely treated by conservatives as a mere magistrate and widely defended simply as the lesser of two evils.
The best analog would probably be someone like the Four Term leader, FDR, who retained a cult-like level of respect long after his death among working class survivors of the Great Depression. In reading a collection of contemporary essays, I was struck by the prescience and continuing relevance of the following passage by Herbert Agar:
Our real danger is from people like the late Huey Long, or the amiable Doctor Townsend. If fascism comes to America, it will not come as the result of a comic-opera putsch in which Wall Street buys an ex-general of Marines to lead a march on Washington. It will come as it came to Europe, as a revolt of the lower middle class, of the people who want to be self-respecting proprietors, but who find themselves-dispossessed–proletarian in fact, but not in feeling. These people are easy game for the demagogue, for the man who will promise them the moon and promise it quickly, who will tell the desperate middle class the the problem of making them all kings, or all financially independent, is perfectly simple.
If the middle class is sufficiently desperate, it will vote the demagogue into power. And when the demagogue comes to power, he will find that his ‘age of plenty’ is not so easy to provide. At that point fascism is born. At that point the demagogue, threatened with a breakdown of the whole economic system, turns to the Lords and Masters whom he has been abusing, and makes a deal. The demagogue stays in office and keeps the people quiet. The Lords and Masters stay in power and run the economic systems just the way they ahve always wanted to run it. The corporate State is monopoly-capitalism made safe, monopoliy capitalism with the whole power of society behind it.
The economic bailout rammed through Congress will give Obama and his future treasury secretary incredible leverage over every sector of the economy. Apparently “helping” our basket case auto industry is now on the agenda, but everything will have a catch: obeissance to whatever faddish idea Obama has about giving his constituents a fair deal, anti-free-market environmentalist extremism, and who knows what else. The worst thing about this will be that Bush’s corporate welfare was always rightly labeled as such by genuine free market critics. Obama will have his mass movement in his corner, denouncing critics as retrograde special interests and uncompassionate failures. He’ll tie the passions of young people with the most small-minded and short-sighted indulgences in mercantalism. Judging by the way he handled things in Chicago and on the campaign trail, don’t expect kid cloves from The One, especially when he’s pursuing bad policies that help the connected few at the expense of the many.