When Meteorologists predict catastrophic weather events like hurricanes and tornados they distinguish between a “watch” and “warning.” A “watch” means that we should be on the lookout for dangerous weather (conditions are possibly dangerous); a warning means the dangerous weather is actually happening in the next few minutes.
We are a nation on “fascism watch,” but it isn’t a “fascism warning.” Conditions are right for fascism, we have all the ingredients for fascism, but fascism is not pre-determined—we can still stop it.
This is an important distinction. Wannabe fascists like Donald Trump seize power by telling the nation that democracy is weak, and fascism is pre-determined or fated. Fascists want us to give up in advance; they want us to believe that 2024 is a fascism warning, not a fascism watch. It’s a fascism watch, not a warning.
Meteorologists teach people the warning signs so they know when a tornado is heading toward them: the sky may turn dark or green, it might hail, there may be a loud roar like a freight train, and/or there might be a funnel cloud. If you see any of those signs you should seek shelter immediately because a dangerous tornado is likely to be nearby.
We’re on “fascism watch,” so what should we watch for? What are the warning signs that a democratic government like ours is backsliding into fascism?
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) studies democratic backsliding around the world. They define it as “a change in a combination of competitive electoral procedures, civil and political liberties, and accountability.” When elections are no longer free and fair, when civil and political liberties are denied to all, and when political leaders are no longer accountable to the rule of law, democracy has turned into autocracy.
In 2016, democratic erosion scholar Jeff Colgan created a useful 10 point list of signs of emerging authoritarianism. Here is his original list with a little bit of added explanation:
1. Media intimidation and restrictions (autocrats intimidate the media, so that they won’t try to hold the autocrat accountable to the rule of law).
2. Identification of crises or political paralysis to justify emergency measures (autocrats take advantage of crisis or make up crises in order to seize the opportunity as a “state of exception” to use dictatorial powers. Sometimes they use “nothing has been done” as a similar excuse).
3. Attacks on minorities; scapegoating foreigners (autocrats try to activate Right-Wing Authoritarians with fear appeals about “impure” foreigners, using “disgust” words like “vermin” and treating people as “hate-objects” to create a climate of nationalistic “us” versus “them).
5. Rhetorical rejection of current political system; discourse shift (autocrats denigrate American values like democracy and the rule or law or begin to change the meanings of the key terms of national values).
6. Expanding the size of courts or other bodies to stack it with partisan judges/officials (creating a set of loyalist judicial officials who will follow the autocrat’s will rather than the Constitution or the rule of law).
7. Modifying rules to impose or eliminate term limits on officials, especially election officials (autocrats prevent free and fair elections by gaming the electoral process with gerrymandering, changing voter qualifications, changing election laws, contesting election results, installing loyalists as election officials, intimidating non-compliant election officials)
8. Weakening the legislature/intimidating legislators (autocrats seek to prevent the checks and balances of the system from holding them accountable to the rule of law or the Constitution by weakening legislative power, installing compliant loyalists in the legislature, and purging non-compliant people from the legislature).
9. Silencing political opposition (autocrats use communication as a weapon with threats of force or intimidation, public shaming, overwhelming the public sphere with lies or distractions, controlling the networks of public communication).
10. Significant increase of internal security forces (using paramilitary organizations, gangs, militia, or police for the autocrat’s purposes rather than the common good).
Autocrats around the world have done these things as they’ve taken over governments. You might think the signs of democratic backsliding would be very obvious, but government scholar Lee Morgenbesser explains that if you’re looking for American democracy to end with a big bang, like a violent coup, then you’re looking for the wrong signs.
Today’s autocratic takeovers are more subtle and less obviously violent. Today wannabe autocrats like Trump use strategies that are “designed to mimic the presence of horizontal and vertical accountability, but also prevent the actual practice of it. The most sophisticated form of autocratic rule now encourages laws to be bent, not broken; institutions to be managed, not made meaningless; political opponents to be circumscribed, not eliminated; citizens to be disempowered, not indoctrinated; economic gains to be distributed, not concentrated; and foreign engagement to be self-reinforcing, not self-defeating.”
The 2024 presidential election will be between two political figures as much as it is between democracy and autocracy—between a government that follows the democratic principle of the “rule of law” (in which “the law is supreme,” which means it binds and protects everyone equally) and one that follows the autocratic “rule by law” strategy (the law is used as a weapon to reward friends, punish enemies, and consolidate power). Conditions are right for fascism; be on alert for the warning signs.
"The demagogue gains power by democratic means, claiming to be a champion of ‘the people’ and making wild promises...Anyone who opposes the demagogue is labeled an ‘enemy of the people’ and exiled or killed," writes Teri Kanefield.
Rick Wilson: "Vladimir Putin’s long hand of death reached out yesterday and struck down Alexi Navalny in a Siberian prison. The day before, Navalny seemed healthy during a video conference in his ongoing, manufactured legal torture. The Kremlin lie that Navalny 'suddenly felt ill' is the usual sort of deception told by authoritarian regimes around the world."
Ruth Ben-Ghiat taps into how public shaming and divide-and-rule tactics used by autocrats create toxic environments of fear and insecurity, where opportunists thrive at the expense of individual dignity and the good of the people.