Last week Tyler Cowen published an essay in Politico, No, Fascism Can’t Happen Here. He argues:
My argument is pretty simple: American fascism cannot happen anymore because the American government is so large and unwieldy. It is simply too hard for the fascists, or for that matter other radical groups, to seize control of. No matter who is elected, the fascists cannot control the bureaucracy, they cannot control all the branches of American government, they cannot control the judiciary, they cannot control semi-independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve, and they cannot control what is sometimes called “the deep state.” The net result is they simply can’t control enough of the modern state to steer it in a fascist direction.
I think Tyler is right, but for a wrong reason.
Before I explain, however, I’d like to step away from loaded terms like “fascist”, “Nazi”, etc., which lost most of their meaning and, instead, became an insult to be leveled at your political opponent. Let’s use, instead, the Classical Greek terms for different forms of government, such as those found in Plato or Aristotle. These terms are not perfect, as the meaning of many of them changed across the intervening two millennia, but let’s see how it goes.
Plato thought that there is a regular progression of regimes, starting with the best (Aristocracy) and then passing through increasingly “degenerate” forms of Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny (check out this Wikipedia article for details). Interestingly enough, Plato’s ideal forms map pretty well onto phases of secular cycles that I and others have studied within the framework of structural demographic theory (see Secular Cycles).
A secular cycle starts with an “expansion” phase, during which societies enjoy internal peace and order, population well-being is relatively high, the elites are small in numbers, modest in consumption, and reasonably prosocial in their attitudes. This phase can be compared with Aristocracy (especially in Aristotle’s definition, when the ruling elites govern to increase public good). The next phase (which we called “stagflation”) is when the well-being of the majority of the population collapses, while elite numbers and wealth continue to grow and their prosociality declines. The corresponding regime in the Ancient Greek scheme would be Oligarchy. Next comes the “crisis” phase with its rebellions, revolutions, and civil wars. The Greek equivalent is Democracy (remember that both Plato and Aristotle used this term in a very different way than us today; for them Democracy was not a good thing). The final phase of the secular cycle is “depression.” This is when we see an alternation of roughly generation-long periods of civil war interspersed with generation-long periods of fragile order, often resulting from regimes established by new leaders, whom one could call “tyrants.”
Both the Greek scheme of regime progression and secular cycle phases are, undoubtedly, highly stylized – one even could think of them as “caricatures” (or “models”). There is a lot of variation among different societies and eras. In fact, my next big project will be to collect detailed data on hundreds of societies sliding into structural-demographic crises (and then emerging from them). It will allow us to much better characterize both the general features of such societal dynamics, and variations on general themes. For now, my argument is based on roughly 20 or so cases studies that cliodynamicists studied in detail, and on my general reading of history.
The famous tyrants in history – think Caesar, Napoleon, Mao – all mobilized broad popular support in their struggle against the “oligarchies,” or the established elites representing pre-revolutionary order (the senatorial class, the Ancien Regime nobility, and “bourgeoisie”). These tyrants were supported by new elites, recruited from the masses of elite aspirants whose quest for elite positions had been frustrated by the established elites.
What I see as key in the rise of “tyrants” is that they always come after a prolonged period of social instability and political violence. Their appeal is, first, based on their promise to restore internal order and to end violence. Their suppression of the old and discredited old-order elites is of secondary importance (and may be absent in certain cases, such as in the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany – of course, this case is also different because political turbulence in Weimar Germany was brought about not by a structural-demographic crisis, but by a catastrophic defeat in an external war).
Returning to the question of whether a tyrant can arise in the United States in the near future, my analysis suggests, most emphatically, “no.” A tyrant-wannabe lacks most elements on which to base his or her power. We haven’t experienced a long civil war (at least, not yet), or a catastrophic defeat in an external war. The established elites, while fragmenting, are still very strong. Here I agree with much of what Tyler says in the paragraph I quoted above. An aspiring tyrant has to deal with the deeply entrenched bureaucracy, the powerful judicial system, and the mighty coercive apparatus of the American state (the FBI, the CIA, the military). Also important is that the frustrated elite aspirants are not organized in any coherent social movements. Tyrants never rule alone, they need an organization stuffed by dedicated cadres (a desirable feature of which is the animosity towards the old-order elites).
In my opinion, the greatest danger for us today (and into the 2020s) is not the rise of a Hitler, but rather a Second American Civil War.