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Is America Ripe For Totalitarianism?

Updated on March 27, 2011
Eric Hoffer, American longshoreman and philosopher. 1902-1983
Eric Hoffer, American longshoreman and philosopher. 1902-1983
When times were rough, as they often were in the early days of WWII, Churchill frequently muttered KBO. (I leave it to any reader unfamiliar with the acronym to research its meaning.)
When times were rough, as they often were in the early days of WWII, Churchill frequently muttered KBO. (I leave it to any reader unfamiliar with the acronym to research its meaning.) | Source

Chomsky speaks about "corporate totalitairianism" at the end of this thoughtful interview: We Shouldn't Ridicule Tea Party Protesters.

Large corporations and government will work cooperatively for their mutual benefit while the people are told the government is working in the people’s best interest – it may sound like a description of a foreign power or fiction to suggest America is in danger of moving towards such a totalitarian government. However, in 1951 Eric Hoffer was suggesting that conditions similar to the ones that presently exist in the United States are ideal for the rise of mass movements that lead to totalitarianism in his book The True Believer. One bookseller suggests it is as current as ever challenging us with the question, "Certainly, he could be talking about radical Islam. Could he also be talking about the Tea Party?"

The horrors perpetrated by Stalin and Hitler’s regimes were in many writers’ and thinkers’ minds as they sought to draw lessons from the senseless inhumanity and slaughter that had occurred. Orwell’s 1984 is another book born from the same crucible as Hoffer’s work, and is still read widely. However, writing in 2011, it is surprising to find Hoffer’s The True Believer has been out of print for almost a decade, since his thesis may be more important than ever. But before folding Hoffer’s insights into an argument that suggests the above scenario is closer to reality than comfortable, a brief visit to the last administration is needed to properly set the stage.

In 2001, George W. Bush looked decisive after 9/11; he seemed to embody what many Americans look for in a president when the country faced a crisis. He had high approval ratings at home, 90% and more according to many polls posted on Polling, and much support overseas. When America and her allies invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, it was with the support of the majority of Americans and a number of active and passive allies.

The Roman Senate didn’t like to part with the power they held any more than modern governments but seemed willing enough to give power to an individual when Rome was under threat. Perhaps Julius Caesar is one of history’s most famous examples of having himself successfully appointed dictator for life in 44 BC, thereby probably ensuring his murder later that same year. (Caesar, unlike most dictators, served his country well.)

Governments and leaders have long known that it’s a lot easier to manipulate people who perceive themselves in danger and under threat. Certainly, Bush and then-Vice President Dick Cheney were not the first to be accused of bringing in legislation and successfully persuading their country to go to war with evidence that was either severely flawed or manufactured. The trick was well known to Roman Emperors and aggressors in various centuries who claimed self-defense as the reason for invading their neighbors.

The use of propaganda by Bush’s White House has been noted by many including his ex-spokesman, Scott McClellan, who went on to accuse the American media of being complicit – much to their chagrin. (I can well remember Wolf Blitzer shrugging off the charge and noting CNN had done a good job with its impartiality, when commenting on a report of McClellan’s charges against the media.)

Bill Van Augen, writing in 2008 for GlobalResearch, does not give McClellan’s book a particularly good review, noting others have made many of the same points better. But, he says, the book’s value is “to the extent that it further substantiates the way in which the administration lied to the American people in order to launch an unprovoked war . . . it provides one more bit of evidence for bringing those responsible for this crime to account.”

America’s Fifth Estate seems to have done little investigative journalism and some were missing in action before the country went to war with Iraq. show that Gallup and many of the major polls reported more than a 70% approval rating for Bush in the early phase of the Iraq War. In hindsight, it is easy to see that the approval rating was won by lying to the people. Worryingly but not surprisingly, it does show us just how easy it is for a democratically elected president and his administration to mislead its people.

Fox News was the most jingoistic of all. Also, it was the number one news station during the war. Fox and other news networks argue that they did give some coverage to opposing views, but a somewhat chilling message must have been sent when Phil Donahue was fired by MSNBC a month before the invasion in 2003 as reported in Wikipedia’s Media Coverage of Iraq War. Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting noted: ‘Phil Donahue's talk show was canceled in February 2003--despite being the channel's highest-rated show at the time--explicitly for his left-of-center political views. An internal management memo worried that his program could become "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda" (All Your TV, 2/25/03).’

Antiwar views were discouraged as being anti-American and a risible ploy except that it worked in the early stages. Nationalism and patriotism tend to become confused when people feel sufficiently threatened. Another reporter fired for his coverage was Peter Arnett in 2003 for criticizing the American-led war effort in an interview on Iraqi television. Undoubtedly, the majority of Americans had been sold on the need for war, and many just didn’t want to hear from anyone who had another argument, contrary evidence or even chicks singing from the wrong songbook.

Embarrassing though it is to say and hear, America was led easily to war.

The notion that a nation under threat requires strong leadership is not new or altogether flawed, and democracies have sometimes formed coalition governments at such times; however, these coalitions have tried to unify themselves behind one leader to defend their homeland. Churchill formed the British Wartime Coalition Government in 1940 after the outbreak of The Second World War in 1939. The arrangement is an example of how democracies can make fundamental changes to face crisis, such as war, while preserving the essentials and spirit of democracy.

Churchill lost the general election at the end of the war and the institutions of government remained intact. Whereas, at the end of the Bush presidency, Gene Healy in The Cult of the Presidency says all Americans, regardless of political affiliations, should be greatly concerned with the accumulation of power in the White House during these years since, he argues, these powers could well become as permanent as The War on Terror.

And America at the end of the first decade of the 21st Century is a very different place than it was at the beginning of the new millennium. The economic meltdown fueled by the avarice and greed of many in the finance industry made a few very wealthy while passing the tab to this and several future generations of Americans. And the vast amount of wealth that has been swallowed by the Iraq War and the continuing Afghanistan debacle has contributed to the country’s economic woes, high unemployment and general feeling that the American Dream has all but disappeared for many. But is America ripe for mass movements?

The True Believer is probably more relevant now than when first published in 1951 by Eric Hoffer. Hoffer was a longshoreman before writing one of the more interesting books of the 20th Century. He writes about mass movements of all kinds but he focuses on communism and fascism in particular.

In order to be successful, Hoffer argues, mass movements tend to devalue the present, glorify the past and promise a glorious future for its adherents. Poor people, those who feel thwarted and misfits are some of those who Hoffer identifies as the True Believers. (The term is meant to describe people who can be led easily to false beliefs.)

Wikipedia states that, in The True Believer, “part of Hoffer's thesis is that movements are interchangeable and that fanatics will often flip from one movement to another. Furthermore, Hoffer argues the motivations for mass movements are interchangeable: religious, nationalist and class-based movements tend to behave in the same way and use the same tactics, even when their stated goals or values are diametrically opposed.”

Politicians seem to fall over backwards not to mention the word “class” in the United States unless it is associated with “middle,” but the word has begun to appear more frequently. Bob Burnett, in an article in The Huffington Post, December 29, 2010, entitled America Held Hostage, says: “The big news of 2010: we’re having a class war and greed is winning. To get their way, the rich are holding working Americans hostage.” If full-blown class warfare isn’t in the cards, it’s hard to disagree with him when he notes that whatever is wrong is not going to be righted by political business as usual.

Eisenhower warned us of the Military-Industrial Complex and said “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Since then, agro-business and the food industry, petro-chemical companies, pharmaceutical companies and almost the entire financial sector including Wall Street and the banks should be added to Eisenhower’s list. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that many of the rich want to become even richer, and it seems to be the height of irony that the people who are presently profiting most in the USA are the rich and powerful.

Keeping the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy was crucial for Republicans working out a tax deal with President Obama. Troubingly, it seems to have been a policy that’s yielded irrefutable statistics showing that more and more of America’s wealth ends up in fewer hands. And many websites reported the statistics at the close of 2010 to demonstrate that the poor were increasing in number and getting poorer. Earthly Happenings, like other sites, questions what’s happening to the American Dream.

Perhaps The Tea Party was more of a Republican and Fox creation before it became a populace party; however, many in the Party are uncomfortable with the recent tax deal, and it may well become more independent, disarming some of the concerns about its nature. In any event, the populace nature of The Tea Party reflects the concern of many who worry about the receding goal of The American Dream. Noam Chomsky warns the left not to dismiss a lot of genuine concerns expressed by many in The Tea Party. But, if Hoffer is to be believed, The Tea Party may be a haven for many of those he describes as candidates for mass movements and, hence, worrying on that score. Also, he says, the Twentieth Century is full of examples of mass movements being used and taken over by those who know how to manipulate them.

Part of the appeal of the United States for Americans and all of its immigrants has been the notion that it is a country where the poor would not get poorer if they worked hard, while the rich got richer because they or their children had a shot at becoming rich or solidly part of the middle class, at least. The American Dream has always been about the belief that there are no barriers for those with initiative, drive or just committed to hard work. If barriers of class exist, they were always meant to be porous.

But there’s a real fear in the land that the American Dream has slipped away from many who worked hard and continue to, if they can. Hoffer’s work suggests that tough economic times and all of the attendant miseries coupled with many worried and angry Americans make for a perfect storm that will severely test the notion of democracy in the United States.


The Revolution in Egypt

Although the final outcome of the Revolution in Egypt is still to be written, a few comments should be made at this juncture with reference to the article above and Eric Hoffer. All news media seemed to acknowledge that at one point the mass movement that was being observed in Egypt could have careened off in a number of different directions. Egyptian state media were able to manipulate the mass movement into false beliefs about foreign media for instance, after contact to the Internet had been severed. For a time there was a very real possibility that the mass movement could have been subverted from their intent. They would have been manipulated easily for many of the reasons stated by Hoffer. The new media, including Facebook and other social media, does introduce an interesting dimension, to say the least.


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    • Sembj profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Chris57 I have only found other comments you've left on other's articles; I hope you see fit to leave some of your views on my other articles. Thanks, Sembj

    • Sembj profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      What an excellent point and I have spent a fair amount of time thinking of how to properly respond. The swinging pendulum theory does describe many quite cyclical, and sometimes quite predictable changes in patterns of human behavior and our strange beliefs. It doesn't properly represent what you've said but I think it is part of your argument. In any event, your argument should probably be responded to in an article because the counter argument deserves more time and space than I'll presently give it. Here's a try.

      First. Germany in the 1930s represented a time where big business and others cynically used Hitler as someone they thought could manipulate the masses for their benefit. Hitler happened to outfox big business and even then they were quite happy as long as the labor was cheap, competition kept in check and the profits high. Many of these businesses and those who controlled them emerged again after WWII. Big business and others cynically used a mass movement largely made up of disillusioned people who felt let down and betrayed by the system; they wanted stability and jobs. Things were so bad that jobs and stability trumped just about everything else - any problems that resulted from the quick National Socialist fix could always be sorted out later.

      Second and more important: I believe that the power of the modern corporations that spans borders and sometimes of profits greater than the GNPs of nations wield great power in the US. Even so-called American companies are not particularly national or patriotic in any discernible way unless they see it as profiting them. For instance, I seem to remember how Caterpillar was able to use tax money to create something like 2,500 jobs; 1,000 of them were in US and the other 1,500 in China or somewhere else overseas. If we do not believe large corporations are without consciences, there are many examples that should persuade us otherwise. Large corporations are without morals. They hire people to give them a public face that pretends to care about people rather than profits. Ideally there are win-win situations and these are some of the theories that I received when I received an education in Economics. At the time, it seemed that large companies seemed to appear to behave as bullies who were prepared to pretend to be anything and do anything to make a buck. We've received a lot of evidence to know that dollars are more important than customers lives from the past "accounting" of car manufacturers who knowingly sold defective cars thinking the cost of lawsuits cheaper than fixing problems that cost lives. Small businesses seem to better fit economic theories of competition and how they should behave than large corporations.

      I hope that we can continue this discussion. It has occurred to me that it would be interesting to undertake joint authorship with someone with an opposing viewpoint on an interesting topic. I'm now off to read some of your other work. Whether I agree or not, I am sure your work will be well thought out and interesting purely on the strength of your comment.

      I am excited to have to reexamine and question my work as a result of a comment. I am not certain whether I've convinced you of my viewpoint and I really hope I might be wrong. In any event, I do hope we are able to test each other's ideas. Thank you.

    • CHRIS57 profile image


      7 years ago from Northern Germany

      I agree with your analysis. I am not in line with your conlusion. No, democracy is not at stake. Just one remark :

      Generally politicians are easily corrupted by the smell of power. It only depends on how strong the power is and how much it takes to be brided.

      So what makes politicians vulnerable?

      If the inequality in a given society and economy is not agreed to by the public, this indicates a high potential for political incorrectness and dishonesty.

      Take the US GINI index (measurement of inequality) of 2010 and compare to 1929. Find out it is at the same high level = high inequality in wealth and income = high level of incorrectness.

      With the great depression and following WWII a lot of wealth was destroyed, having led to a more equal society, the American dream.

      Within the last decade, that has changed. Now inequality is the thing. And - why blame politicians and democracy for something, which is just "en vogue". Of course the consequences are bitter, economic downturn, crisis, you name the bad words.

      Wealth and prosperity distribution will be levelled again in the future. That will bring hard times with harsh consequences, but be optimistic.

      During the great depression democracy did not loose, why should that happen today?

    • OpinionDuck profile image


      7 years ago


      I agree, and I look forward to reading your new hubs.


    • Sembj profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Again, thanks for the post. I've just visited your profile page and agree with many of your views - that always feels good. I think you're right on with your post on Congress. Politicians, like the rest of us, should be judged by their actions rather than their words. But as you so rightly say on your profile, it's all about the spin.

    • OpinionDuck profile image


      7 years ago


      Save faith for God, judge Congress by its accomplishments and benefit to the people.

    • Sembj profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thank you for your comment. The US is not the only democracy that seems broken. It's amazing how elected officials almost everywhere seem to quickly lose any scruples they may have after they've won. In the US and elsewhere, the problem seems just to have been highlighted by the financial crisis. It's sad when so many of us now have so little faith in those who are meant to represent us.

    • OpinionDuck profile image


      7 years ago

      without congressional and presidential reform the country is falling to extinction.

      The current system is set for failure, and fail it does without regard as to which party is in control.

      Thait is because neither party benefits the people.


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