Fascist America, in 10 easy steps
www.guardian.co.uk/, April 24,
From Hitler to Pinochet and beyond, history
shows there are certain steps that any would-be dictator must
take to destroy constitutional freedoms. And, argues Naomi Wolf,
George Bush and his administration seem to be taking them all
Last autumn, there was a military coup
in Thailand. The leaders of the coup took a number of steps, rather
systematically, as if they had a shopping list. In a sense, they
did. Within a matter of days, democracy had been closed down:
the coup leaders declared martial law, sent armed soldiers into
residential areas, took over radio and TV stations, issued restrictions
on the press, tightened some limits on travel, and took certain
activists into custod
They were not figuring these things out
as they went along. If you look at history, you can see that there
is essentially a blueprint for turning an open society into a
dictatorship. That blueprint has been used again and again in
more and less bloody, more and less terrifying ways. But it is
always effective. It is very difficult and arduous to create and
sustain a democracy - but history shows that closing one down
is much simpler. You simply have to be willing to take the 10
As difficult as this is to contemplate,
it is clear, if you are willing to look, that each of these 10
steps has already been initiated today in the United States by
the Bush administration.
Because Americans like me were born in
freedom, we have a hard time even considering that it is possible
for us to become as unfree - domestically - as many other nations.
Because we no longer learn much about our rights or our system
of government - the task of being aware of the constitution has
been outsourced from citizens' ownership to being the domain of
professionals such as lawyers and professors - we scarcely recognise
the checks and balances that the founders put in place, even as
they are being systematically dismantled. Because we don't learn
much about European history, the setting up of a department of
"homeland" security - remember who else was keen on
the word "homeland" - didn't raise the alarm bells it
It is my argument that, beneath our very
noses, George Bush and his administration are using time-tested
tactics to close down an open society. It is time for us to be
willing to think the unthinkable - as the author and political
journalist Joe Conason, has put it, that it can happen here. And
that we are further along than we realise.
Conason eloquently warned of the danger
of American authoritarianism. I am arguing that we need also to
look at the lessons of European and other kinds of fascism to
understand the potential seriousness of the events we see unfolding
in the US.
1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external
After we were hit on September 11 2001,
we were in a state of national shock. Less than six weeks later,
on October 26 2001, the USA Patriot Act was passed by a Congress
that had little chance to debate it; many said that they scarcely
had time to read it. We were told we were now on a "war footing";
we were in a "global war" against a "global caliphate"
intending to "wipe out civilisation". There have been
other times of crisis in which the US accepted limits on civil
liberties, such as during the civil war, when Lincoln declared
martial law, and the second world war, when thousands of Japanese-American
citizens were interned. But this situation, as Bruce Fein of the
American Freedom Agenda notes, is unprecedented: all our other
wars had an endpoint, so the pendulum was able to swing back toward
freedom; this war is defined as open-ended in time and without
national boundaries in space - the globe itself is the battlefield.
"This time," Fein says, "there will be no defined
Creating a terrifying threat - hydra-like,
secretive, evil - is an old trick. It can, like Hitler's invocation
of a communist threat to the nation's security, be based on actual
events (one Wisconsin academic has faced calls for his dismissal
because he noted, among other things, that the alleged communist
arson, the Reichstag fire of February 1933, was swiftly followed
in Nazi Germany by passage of the Enabling Act, which replaced
constitutional law with an open-ended state of emergency). Or
the terrifying threat can be based, like the National Socialist
evocation of the "global conspiracy of world Jewry",
It is not that global Islamist terrorism
is not a severe danger; of course it is. I am arguing rather that
the language used to convey the nature of the threat is different
in a country such as Spain - which has also suffered violent terrorist
attacks - than it is in America. Spanish citizens know that they
face a grave security threat; what we as American citizens believe
is that we are potentially threatened with the end of civilisation
as we know it. Of course, this makes us more willing to accept
restrictions on our freedoms.
2. Create a gulag
Once you have got everyone scared, the
next step is to create a prison system outside the rule of law
(as Bush put it, he wanted the American detention centre at Guantánamo
Bay to be situated in legal "outer space") - where torture
At first, the people who are sent there
are seen by citizens as outsiders: troublemakers, spies, "enemies
of the people" or "criminals". Initially, citizens
tend to support the secret prison system; it makes them feel safer
and they do not identify with the prisoners. But soon enough,
civil society leaders - opposition members, labour activists,
clergy and journalists - are arrested and sent there as well.
This process took place in fascist shifts
or anti-democracy crackdowns ranging from Italy and Germany in
the 1920s and 1930s to the Latin American coups of the 1970s and
beyond. It is standard practice for closing down an open society
or crushing a pro-democracy uprising.
With its jails in Iraq and Afghanistan,
and, of course, Guantánamo in Cuba, where detainees are
abused, and kept indefinitely without trial and without access
to the due process of the law, America certainly has its gulag
now. Bush and his allies in Congress recently announced they would
issue no information about the secret CIA "black site"
prisons throughout the world, which are used to incarcerate people
who have been seized off the street.
Gulags in history tend to metastasise,
becoming ever larger and more secretive, ever more deadly and
formalised. We know from first-hand accounts, photographs, videos
and government documents that people, innocent and guilty, have
been tortured in the US-run prisons we are aware of and those
we can't investigate adequately.
But Americans still assume this system
and detainee abuses involve only scary brown people with whom
they don't generally identify. It was brave of the conservative
pundit William Safire to quote the anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller,
who had been seized as a political prisoner: "First they
came for the Jews." Most Americans don't understand yet that
the destruction of the rule of law at Guantánamo set a
dangerous precedent for them, too.
By the way, the establishment of military
tribunals that deny prisoners due process tends to come early
on in a fascist shift. Mussolini and Stalin set up such tribunals.
On April 24 1934, the Nazis, too, set up the People's Court, which
also bypassed the judicial system: prisoners were held indefinitely,
often in isolation, and tortured, without being charged with offences,
and were subjected to show trials. Eventually, the Special Courts
became a parallel system that put pressure on the regular courts
to abandon the rule of law in favour of Nazi ideology when making
3. Develop a thug caste
When leaders who seek what I call a "fascist
shift" want to close down an open society, they send paramilitary
groups of scary young men out to terrorise citizens. The Blackshirts
roamed the Italian countryside beating up communists; the Brownshirts
staged violent rallies throughout Germany. This paramilitary force
is especially important in a democracy: you need citizens to fear
thug violence and so you need thugs who are free from prosecution.
The years following 9/11 have proved a
bonanza for America's security contractors, with the Bush administration
outsourcing areas of work that traditionally fell to the US military.
In the process, contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars
have been issued for security work by mercenaries at home and
abroad. In Iraq, some of these contract operatives have been accused
of involvement in torturing prisoners, harassing journalists and
firing on Iraqi civilians. Under Order 17, issued to regulate
contractors in Iraq by the one-time US administrator in Baghdad,
Paul Bremer, these contractors are immune from prosecution
Yes, but that is in Iraq, you could argue;
however, after Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security
hired and deployed hundreds of armed private security guards in
New Orleans. The investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill interviewed
one unnamed guard who reported having fired on unarmed civilians
in the city. It was a natural disaster that underlay that episode
- but the administration's endless war on terror means ongoing
scope for what are in effect privately contracted armies to take
on crisis and emergency management at home in US cities.
Thugs in America? Groups of angry young
Republican men, dressed in identical shirts and trousers, menaced
poll workers counting the votes in Florida in 2000. If you are
reading history, you can imagine that there can be a need for
"public order" on the next election day. Say there are
protests, or a threat, on the day of an election; history would
not rule out the presence of a private security firm at a polling
station "to restore public order".
4. Set up an internal surveillance system
In Mussolini's Italy, in Nazi Germany,
in communist East Germany, in communist China - in every closed
society - secret police spy on ordinary people and encourage neighbours
to spy on neighbours. The Stasi needed to keep only a minority
of East Germans under surveillance to convince a majority that
they themselves were being watched.
In 2005 and 2006, when James Risen and
Eric Lichtblau wrote in the New York Times about a secret state
programme to wiretap citizens' phones, read their emails and follow
international financial transactions, it became clear to ordinary
Americans that they, too, could be under state scrutiny.
In closed societies, this surveillance
is cast as being about "national security"; the true
function is to keep citizens docile and inhibit their activism
5. Harass citizens' groups
The fifth thing you do is related to step
four - you infiltrate and harass citizens' groups. It can be trivial:
a church in Pasadena, whose minister preached that Jesus was in
favour of peace, found itself being investigated by the Internal
Revenue Service, while churches that got Republicans out to vote,
which is equally illegal under US tax law, have been left alone.
Other harassment is more serious: the
American Civil Liberties Union reports that thousands of ordinary
American anti-war, environmental and other groups have been infiltrated
by agents: a secret Pentagon database includes more than four
dozen peaceful anti-war meetings, rallies or marches by American
citizens in its category of 1,500 "suspicious incidents".
The equally secret Counterintelligence Field Activity (Cifa) agency
of the Department of Defense has been gathering information about
domestic organisations engaged in peaceful political activities:
Cifa is supposed to track "potential terrorist threats"
as it watches ordinary US citizen activists. A little-noticed
new law has redefined activism such as animal rights protests
as "terrorism". So the definition of "terrorist"
slowly expands to include the opposition.
6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release
This scares people. It is a kind of cat-and-mouse
game. Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the investigative
reporters who wrote China Wakes: the Struggle for the Soul of
a Rising Power, describe pro-democracy activists in China, such
as Wei Jingsheng, being arrested and released many times. In a
closing or closed society there is a "list" of dissidents
and opposition leaders: you are targeted in this way once you
are on the list, and it is hard to get off the list.
In 2004, America's Transportation Security
Administration confirmed that it had a list of passengers who
were targeted for security searches or worse if they tried to
fly. People who have found themselves on the list? Two middle-aged
women peace activists in San Francisco; liberal Senator Edward
Kennedy; a member of Venezuela's government - after Venezuela's
president had criticised Bush; and thousands of ordinary US citizens.
Professor Walter F Murphy is emeritus
of Princeton University; he is one of the foremost constitutional
scholars in the nation and author of the classic Constitutional
Democracy. Murphy is also a decorated former marine, and he is
not even especially politically liberal. But on March 1 this year,
he was denied a boarding pass at Newark, "because I was on
the Terrorist Watch list".
"Have you been in any peace marches?
We ban a lot of people from flying because of that," asked
the airline employee.
"I explained," said Murphy,
"that I had not so marched but had, in September 2006, given
a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the web, highly critical
of George Bush for his many violations of the constitution."
"That'll do it," the man said.
Anti-war marcher? Potential terrorist.
Support the constitution? Potential terrorist. History shows that
the categories of "enemy of the people" tend to expand
ever deeper into civil life.
James Yee, a US citizen, was the Muslim
chaplain at Guantánamo who was accused of mishandling classified
documents. He was harassed by the US military before the charges
against him were dropped. Yee has been detained and released several
times. He is still of interest.
Brandon Mayfield, a US citizen and lawyer
in Oregon, was mistakenly identified as a possible terrorist.
His house was secretly broken into and his computer seized. Though
he is innocent of the accusation against him, he is still on the
It is a standard practice of fascist societies
that once you are on the list, you can't get off.
7. Target key individuals
Threaten civil servants, artists and academics
with job loss if they don't toe the line. Mussolini went after
the rectors of state universities who did not conform to the fascist
line; so did Joseph Goebbels, who purged academics who were not
pro-Nazi; so did Chile's Augusto Pinochet; so does the Chinese
communist Politburo in punishing pro-democracy students and professors.
Academe is a tinderbox of activism, so
those seeking a fascist shift punish academics and students with
professional loss if they do not "coordinate", in Goebbels'
term, ideologically. Since civil servants are the sector of society
most vulnerable to being fired by a given regime, they are also
a group that fascists typically "coordinate" early on:
the Reich Law for the Re-establishment of a Professional Civil
Service was passed on April 7 1933.
Bush supporters in state legislatures
in several states put pressure on regents at state universities
to penalise or fire academics who have been critical of the administration.
As for civil servants, the Bush administration has derailed the
career of one military lawyer who spoke up for fair trials for
detainees, while an administration official publicly intimidated
the law firms that represent detainees pro bono by threatening
to call for their major corporate clients to boycott them.
Elsewhere, a CIA contract worker who said
in a closed blog that "waterboarding is torture" was
stripped of the security clearance she needed in order to do her
Most recently, the administration purged
eight US attorneys for what looks like insufficient political
loyalty. When Goebbels purged the civil service in April 1933,
attorneys were "coordinated" too, a step that eased
the way of the increasingly brutal laws to follow.
8. Control the press
Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 30s,
East Germany in the 50s, Czechoslovakia in the 60s, the Latin
American dictatorships in the 70s, China in the 80s and 90s -
all dictatorships and would-be dictators target newspapers and
journalists. They threaten and harass them in more open societies
that they are seeking to close, and they arrest them and worse
in societies that have been closed already.
The Committee to Protect Journalists says
arrests of US journalists are at an all-time high: Josh Wolf (no
relation), a blogger in San Francisco, has been put in jail for
a year for refusing to turn over video of an anti-war demonstration;
Homeland Security brought a criminal complaint against reporter
Greg Palast, claiming he threatened "critical infrastructure"
when he and a TV producer were filming victims of Hurricane Katrina
in Louisiana. Palast had written a bestseller critical of the
Other reporters and writers have been
punished in other ways. Joseph C Wilson accused Bush, in a New
York Times op-ed, of leading the country to war on the basis of
a false charge that Saddam Hussein had acquired yellowcake uranium
in Niger. His wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA spy - a
form of retaliation that ended her career.
Prosecution and job loss are nothing,
though, compared with how the US is treating journalists seeking
to cover the conflict in Iraq in an unbiased way. The Committee
to Protect Journalists has documented multiple accounts of the
US military in Iraq firing upon or threatening to fire upon unembedded
(meaning independent) reporters and camera operators from organisations
ranging from al-Jazeera to the BBC. While westerners may question
the accounts by al-Jazeera, they should pay attention to the accounts
of reporters such as the BBC's Kate Adie. In some cases reporters
have been wounded or killed, including ITN's Terry Lloyd in 2003.
Both CBS and the Associated Press in Iraq had staff members seized
by the US military and taken to violent prisons; the news organisations
were unable to see the evidence against their staffers.
Over time in closing societies, real news
is supplanted by fake news and false documents. Pinochet showed
Chilean citizens falsified documents to back up his claim that
terrorists had been about to attack the nation. The yellowcake
charge, too, was based on forged papers.
You won't have a shutdown of news in modern
America - it is not possible. But you can have, as Frank Rich
and Sidney Blumenthal have pointed out, a steady stream of lies
polluting the news well. What you already have is a White House
directing a stream of false information that is so relentless
that it is increasingly hard to sort out truth from untruth. In
a fascist system, it's not the lies that count but the muddying.
When citizens can't tell real news from fake, they give up their
demands for accountability bit by bit.
9. Dissent equals treason
Cast dissent as "treason" and
criticism as "espionage'. Every closing society does this,
just as it elaborates laws that increasingly criminalise certain
kinds of speech and expand the definition of "spy" and
"traitor". When Bill Keller, the publisher of the New
York Times, ran the Lichtblau/Risen stories, Bush called the Times'
leaking of classified information "disgraceful", while
Republicans in Congress called for Keller to be charged with treason,
and rightwing commentators and news outlets kept up the "treason"
drumbeat. Some commentators, as Conason noted, reminded readers
smugly that one penalty for violating the Espionage Act is execution.
Conason is right to note how serious a
threat that attack represented. It is also important to recall
that the 1938 Moscow show trial accused the editor of Izvestia,
Nikolai Bukharin, of treason; Bukharin was, in fact, executed.
And it is important to remind Americans that when the 1917 Espionage
Act was last widely invoked, during the infamous 1919 Palmer Raids,
leftist activists were arrested without warrants in sweeping roundups,
kept in jail for up to five months, and "beaten, starved,
suffocated, tortured and threatened with death", according
to the historian Myra MacPherson. After that, dissent was muted
in America for a decade.
In Stalin's Soviet Union, dissidents were
"enemies of the people". National Socialists called
those who supported Weimar democracy "November traitors".
And here is where the circle closes: most
Americans do not realise that since September of last year - when
Congress wrongly, foolishly, passed the Military Commissions Act
of 2006 - the president has the power to call any US citizen an
"enemy combatant". He has the power to define what "enemy
combatant" means. The president can also delegate to anyone
he chooses in the executive branch the right to define "enemy
combatant" any way he or she wants and then seize Americans
Even if you or I are American citizens,
even if we turn out to be completely innocent of what he has accused
us of doing, he has the power to have us seized as we are changing
planes at Newark tomorrow, or have us taken with a knock on the
door; ship you or me to a navy brig; and keep you or me in isolation,
possibly for months, while awaiting trial. (Prolonged isolation,
as psychiatrists know, triggers psychosis in otherwise mentally
healthy prisoners. That is why Stalin's gulag had an isolation
cell, like Guantánamo's, in every satellite prison. Camp
6, the newest, most brutal facility at Guantánamo, is all
We US citizens will get a trial eventually
- for now. But legal rights activists at the Center for Constitutional
Rights say that the Bush administration is trying increasingly
aggressively to find ways to get around giving even US citizens
fair trials. "Enemy combatant" is a status offence -
it is not even something you have to have done. "We have
absolutely moved over into a preventive detention model - you
look like you could do something bad, you might do something bad,
so we're going to hold you," says a spokeswoman of the CCR.
Most Americans surely do not get this
yet. No wonder: it is hard to believe, even though it is true.
In every closing society, at a certain point there are some high-profile
arrests - usually of opposition leaders, clergy and journalists.
Then everything goes quiet. After those arrests, there are still
newspapers, courts, TV and radio, and the facades of a civil society.
There just isn't real dissent. There just isn't freedom. If you
look at history, just before those arrests is where we are now.
10. Suspend the rule of law
The John Warner Defense Authorization
Act of 2007 gave the president new powers over the national guard.
This means that in a national emergency - which the president
now has enhanced powers to declare - he can send Michigan's militia
to enforce a state of emergency that he has declared in Oregon,
over the objections of the state's governor and its citizens.
Even as Americans were focused on Britney
Spears's meltdown and the question of who fathered Anna Nicole's
baby, the New York Times editorialised about this shift: "A
disturbing recent phenomenon in Washington is that laws that strike
to the heart of American democracy have been passed in the dead
of night ... Beyond actual insurrection, the president may now
use military troops as a domestic police force in response to
a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack or any
Critics see this as a clear violation
of the Posse Comitatus Act - which was meant to restrain the federal
government from using the military for domestic law enforcement.
The Democratic senator Patrick Leahy says the bill encourages
a president to declare federal martial law. It also violates the
very reason the founders set up our system of government as they
did: having seen citizens bullied by a monarch's soldiers, the
founders were terrified of exactly this kind of concentration
of militias' power over American people in the hands of an oppressive
executive or faction.
Of course, the United States is not vulnerable
to the violent, total closing-down of the system that followed
Mussolini's march on Rome or Hitler's roundup of political prisoners.
Our democratic habits are too resilient, and our military and
judiciary too independent, for any kind of scenario like that.
Rather, as other critics are noting, our
experiment in democracy could be closed down by a process of erosion.
It is a mistake to think that early in
a fascist shift you see the profile of barbed wire against the
sky. In the early days, things look normal on the surface; peasants
were celebrating harvest festivals in Calabria in 1922; people
were shopping and going to the movies in Berlin in 1931. Early
on, as WH Auden put it, the horror is always elsewhere - while
someone is being tortured, children are skating, ships are sailing:
"dogs go on with their doggy life ... How everything turns
away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster."
As Americans turn away quite leisurely,
keeping tuned to internet shopping and American Idol, the foundations
of democracy are being fatally corroded. Something has changed
profoundly that weakens us unprecedentedly: our democratic traditions,
independent judiciary and free press do their work today in a
context in which we are "at war" in a "long war"
- a war without end, on a battlefield described as the globe,
in a context that gives the president - without US citizens realising
it yet - the power over US citizens of freedom or long solitary
incarceration, on his say-so alone.
That means a hollowness has been expanding
under the foundation of all these still- free-looking institutions
- and this foundation can give way under certain kinds of pressure.
To prevent such an outcome, we have to think about the "what
What if, in a year and a half, there is
another attack - say, God forbid, a dirty bomb? The executive
can declare a state of emergency. History shows that any leader,
of any party, will be tempted to maintain emergency powers after
the crisis has passed. With the gutting of traditional checks
and balances, we are no less endangered by a President Hillary
than by a President Giuliani - because any executive will be tempted
to enforce his or her will through edict rather than the arduous,
uncertain process of democratic negotiation and compromise.
What if the publisher of a major US newspaper
were charged with treason or espionage, as a rightwing effort
seemed to threaten Keller with last year? What if he or she got
10 years in jail? What would the newspapers look like the next
day? Judging from history, they would not cease publishing; but
they would suddenly be very polite.
Right now, only a handful of patriots
are trying to hold back the tide of tyranny for the rest of us
- staff at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who faced death
threats for representing the detainees yet persisted all the way
to the Supreme Court; activists at the American Civil Liberties
Union; and prominent conservatives trying to roll back the corrosive
new laws, under the banner of a new group called the American
Freedom Agenda. This small, disparate collection of people needs
everybody's help, including that of Europeans and others internationally
who are willing to put pressure on the administration because
they can see what a US unrestrained by real democracy at home
can mean for the rest of the world.
We need to look at history and face the
"what ifs". For if we keep going down this road, the
"end of America" could come for each of us in a different
way, at a different moment; each of us might have a different
moment when we feel forced to look back and think: that is how
it was before - and this is the way it is now.
"The accumulation of all powers,
legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands ... is
the definition of tyranny," wrote James Madison. We still
have the choice to stop going down this road; we can stand our
ground and fight for our nation, and take up the banner the founders
asked us to carry.
Naomi Wolf's The End of America: A Letter
of Warning to a Young Patriot