How America's authoritarians exploited liberalism's primary weakness
I am going to follow up on Wednesday's piece about the rhetoric of shut-the-fuck-up by asking a practical question: will it work? I explained the need for it. I explained why. But I didn't explain how. Here's how: authoritarians who desire a hero to save them from democracy will do what they're told, because they are authoritarians.
First, a reminder. Authoritarians are weak. They don't really know what to think. They have been trained since early childhood not to. They were often beaten into accepting as true whatever the leader thinks is true. This leader is a father figure, not necessarily a father, or the father. It's someone of authority who teaches the kids of authoritarians that morality isn't about doing good in the world. It's about obeying.
You might think people who are taught that obedience is the highest good would be ready and willing to fight tooth and nail if and when the leader tells them to. But you have to remember another side of the leader's teachings. Nothing is his fault. He can't be blamed. He's beyond reproach. The leader would not be the leader otherwise. (This is the fundamental source of the authoritarian's frailty.) Being wrong means being humiliated. That's not just unthinkable. That's an offense to God.
So the children of authoritarians are taught a series of closed but mutually reinforcing lessons: that the leader must be trusted above all (morality equals obedience). That the leader is never wrong. That when the leader is wrong, it's not his fault. Most of all, that it's the fault of malevolent forces (Satan, probably) that are always already threatening the authoritarian collective to which all of them belong. An injustice to him is one to all. When the leader is humiliated, stand by your man.
If the leader runs for public office a democratic republic such as the United States, his runs the risk of losing. But the leader can't lose. He's the leader. When he does lose — because he's unqualified or because he's a crank or because, you know, he's an authoritarian — it's not his fault. It's the fault of malevolent forces (Satan, probably) that are always already threatening the authoritarian collective to which all of them belong. When the leader says the election was rigged against him, he's telling supporters it was rigged against them. And here's the part I want you to understand. It's so important, I'm really trying to spell it out: He's telling them something they already believe is true.
Jonathan Bernstein mentioned Wednesday what he calls the GOP's "one-two punch" to demobilize Republican voters. When you say elections are rigged, supporters will probably believe it. And when they believe it, they probably won't think there's much point to voting.
That's right but also slightly wrong. They don't need to be told. They already believe it. Believing it was a precondition of supporting Donald Trump. His humiliation is theirs. His endless lying about it is their endless lying about it. Just as they'd rather give up on democracy than share democracy with people they don't like, they'd rather give up on democratic elections than face the possibility of another defeat.
This is where the new rhetoric comes in. Believe it or not, they want to be told they can shut the fuck up. I know it sounds crazy, but bear in mind all of the above. They already believe the system is rigged against them. They already believe the authoritarian collective to which all of them belong is a victim of malevolent forces. (Satan, probably.) They are acutely aware of their minority status in a democratic republic such as the United States, where the majority prefers democracy. When the majority says you can shut the fuck up, you probably will.
Bear in mind that the authoritarian collective to which all of them belong is premised on a pile of wild, howling lies. (That's what it means to identify as a "real American," also known as God's chosen people.) Democratic elections — or free engagement in the public square — run the risk of more humiliation. Other participants won't swallow all those wild, howling lies. They're going to say you're wrong. That's going to hurt so much, you won't bother doing it again. To be told you can shut the fuck up wouldn't be offensive. It would be a relief.
In closing, I want to say this. We must say they can shut the fuck up. Why? When we didn't, this authoritarian collective, which has always been with us and always will be with us, exploited liberalism's primary weakness: tolerating intolerance. We allowed the authoritarians to hope against hope that maybe democracy wasn't as liberal as they thought it was, that maybe they can make democracy authoritarian once again. The result was the election of an American fascist. We can't let them hope again. We must say they can shut the fuck up.