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As a society crumbles, as bitter divisions grow and disorder spreads and nothing seems to work, anger comes and people begin to want a man who will say “Enough!” and slap down the malefactors–by any means necessary. A man who will make the trains run on time. A man who will make it safe to walk in the parks.
This is the authoritarian impulse. As corruption grows, as a coagulated government fails to function, the temptation comes. It is coming.
Recently I read that in Brazil some thirty men gang-raped a young woman, left her emotionally devastated, bleeding, with a ruptured bladder, and laughed as they did it before posting the video online. My first thought was, that they should be rounded up, shot without ceremony, and dropped into a public sewer. I meant this without a trace of hyperbole.
First, what proportion of the general public would agree with me in private? Second, what proportion would say so publicly? That is, say to hell with legal procedure, clotted bureaucracy, years of appeals, plea bargains, the insanity defense, and how they were troubled youth.
The ratio of the first to the second I will call Fred’s Fraction in a lunge for sociological immortality. It is an indicator of a country’s explosive potential, of how much anger exists and how tightly the lid is held on. When a great many are very sick of misbehavior, and government prevents both discussion and remedy, people begin to want someone in power who will forcibly end the detested behavior.
As we read day after day after day of beheadings of priests in Europe, of trucks driven into crowds, restaurants blown up, staffs of newspapers killed, always to the cry of “Allahu Akbar,” how many people begin to think–Send the army to round them up, put them on a ship, and beach it on the African coast? How many dare say it publicly?
Authoritarian solutions are ugly, but appeal when there are no others, when governments allow no others. They work, quickly. Hence their eternal appeal in times of chaos. Often they lead to a society that no one would want to live in. In the short run, they are effective and satisfying. We live in the short run.
It used to be, and may still be, that the immigration card on landing in Singapore said in red letters–this from memory–”There is a death penalty in Singapore for possession in drugs. This penalty is enforced.” How much of a problem do you suppose Singapore has with drugs? As society falls apart, people will begin to think–have begun to think–that the approach would work for rapists, muggers, racial attackers, and armed robbers.
It doesn’t matter whether you, or I, think this a good idea. People behave according to what they think, not to what I might think they ought to think.
The authoritarian impulse arises when legitimate government can’t or won’t maintain order. Which is beginning to look like now. In America we have attacks by Muslim terrorists while, until recently, the government did everything it can to import more Muslims. Blacks engage in open insurgency of low but increasing intensity. Under Obama, a black federal government supported them. Much of the country is sick of open borders, but the government has supported it. As government imposes more and more restrictions on what people can think or do, on how they must live, government becomes just another enemy.
Explosiveness is low in a civil society with little crime, in which people can leave doors unlocked and do not daily see stories of outrage and violation of civilized norms. They have nothing to explode about. They will believe in due process when a crime is committed and not favor extreme measures.
Such was white America in 1955. Whatever the defects of that time, the suburbs and small towns were calm and safe. I know. I was there. People were not afraid or chronically angry.
Today in America everyone is angry, and perhaps the most angry are those who believe in what in all times and places has been regarded as civilization. The old phrase “Silent Majority” applies, or approximates. This majority watches as mobs routinely storm podia and prevent politicians from speaking. They watch as rioters burn cities and loot malls, as college children out of control hold universities hostage.
Yet they cannot say so. They cannot say that looters and arsonist should be shot, that they weary of tolerating useless affirmative-action hires, or that misbehaving brats in college should be told to sit and and shut up or be expelled. Fred’s Fraction would indicate repressed anger.
An exercise for the reader: Calculate Fred’s Fraction for this recommendation: Those on Wall Street responsible for the subprime disaster should be summarily arrested and have their delicate asses immediately put, without recourse, into the general population of Leavenworth for ten years.
That sounds radical and seditious, doesn’t it? It is both. But how many are thinking it?
The anger is dangerous because it is not visible. The rigorous censorship we call “political correctness” prevents expression of ideas disliked by the ruling classes. It leads to surprises. It is why the Talking Heads were consistently, universally, and utterly wrong about Donald Trump’s chances of being elected. They continue to suffer from this cerebrocolonic congruence.
The Authoritarian Impulse flourishes in times of Weimarian social chaos, in which America has dipped a great deal more than a tentative toe. Groups hate each other. Whites, blacks, browns, the traditionally moral, libertines, New Yorkers, Jews, Southerners. Much as Yugoslavia needed a Tito to keep the peace by force, so may the US. In 1955 the country was almost entirely white, Christian, Anglophone, and European, which provided enough commonality to permit unity-and communications and transportation were poor enough to prevent friction between regions that would have detested each other: Massachusetts and West Virginia, New York and Alabama. The intercourse physical and philosophical made inevitable by the internet and easy transportation makes impossible the old live-and-let-live.
A happy ending is hard to imagine. Racial antagonism seems unlikely to subside, and worsens. Unemployment grows and will grow as automation advances. This is not fantasy, nor is it far in the future. The culture coarsens, imitating the ghetto. Gun sales are way up, and there is a reason.
It could blow. Such a thing would not be pretty and the consequences would be unpleasant. When people feel threatened, scared, or pushed beyond forbearance, their behavior becomes visceral, violent, and unthinking. If conditions grow uglier, as it appears they must, it will be chaos or a man on a horse. The Authoritarian Impulse.