“Totalitarianism in any guise always represents not the result but the defeat of human reason, the cowardly retreat of human beings from real problems in the real world; it is an atavistic flight from responsibility into a dream (or nightmare) world of paranoid fantasies.” (Robert Goldston, “The Road Between the Wars: 1918-1941”, Dial Press 1978) This is perhaps one of the best one sentence explanations of the base of totalitarianism I have come across and given the state of the American body politic for the last few years and the Presidential election we are in the middle of, it is worthy of some consideration.
For those of you now rolling your eyes or mumbling a soft “Oh Please!”, I ask you to suspend your incredulity for a moment and review some of what has happened over the last ten years or so.
We have been at war, without declarations of war, for thirteen years, in places and for reasons that challenge the boundaries of American self interest or humanitarian goals.
Our national government has consistently been unable or unwilling to deal with profoundly serious political, economic and social issues. When action, regardless of how slight, has been taken it has happened in a process of mis-direction, deliberate obfuscation, or straight forward lying. It has happened in an atmosphere of fantasy that too often drives what is our political reality.
Unchallenged executive authority has grown so much and been exercised in so many different places in so many different guises that no one, including the members of the Supreme Court, can any longer clearly define the limits of Presidential action under our Constitution.
Our political discourse has degenerated into fear mongering, name calling, and the deliberate creation of red herrings designed to create political, or cultural problems located in places in our society and in forms that don’t exist, for the benefit of the self interest of a small minority of the American people: mostly hustlers and political gamesmen or people with too much money and too little understanding of any public interest other than their own.
This itemization is much too easy to create. Each of us can certainly think of other items that could be added to it. We are in the process of creating the world of paranoid fantasies that Mr. Goldston speaks of.
I am not necessarily concerned that we will be confronted with another of the Twentieth Century’s totalitarians such as Stalin, Hitler or Mussolini, although there are certainly a couple of people hanging around the edges of American politics who would like to try. Rather, I am concerned that over the next decade, we will continue to refuse to face our real problems, and our failure to deal with reality will generate even greater and grander paranoid fantasies than the ones that plague us today. We will slide into a totalitarian government when in our fantasies we decide that democracy is not working and reality is too harsh and demanding for us to deal with.
We will simply walk away from our responsibilities as American citizens. We will allow some slippery, slimy, shouter, haranguing us about national security, American degeneration, a completely dysfunctional Legislative Branch, and a politicized or complacent Supreme Court, whack away the last of the pieces that hold our democracy together so he or she can save us from ourselves.
Human reason wilts when the layering on of fear bears down too hard on individual lives. Human reason and trust are two essential ingredients to maintain a working democracy. We may be able to muddle along when one of these elements is wearing thin, but not both. What we have witnessed over the last decade and see in this Presidential election cycle are continuing attacks on human reason and the mutual trust among citizens essential for our democracy to work. Is it possible, that we are building our own incline plane that can slip us out of democratic government?
My hope is that I am creating my own paranoid American fantasy.