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The Totalitarian Strain in American Democracy

Photo by Jim Mattis | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Jim Mattis | CC BY 2.0

A few days after the election in November 2016 I had several conversations with friends who were anxious, angry, and depressed. One said that she woke up on Wednesday after the election and no longer felt like she recognized America. There was a fear that the United States was moving in the direction of a new authoritarianism—a fear that has only grown since Trump’s ascension into the Oval Office. Trump’s calling the press the enemy of the people and undermining the judicial system by demeaning judges raise not just questions, but very real concerns. There are occasional references in the pundit press to Hitler and Nazi Germany—references that suggest both authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Even Republican John McCain, in affirming the necessity of a free press, alluded to dictators and their attempts to destroy or stifle a free press. The anxiety about Trump and his administration can be framed by the question: Will our political institutions be able to stave off the authoritarianism of a man who has never been elected to any office?

I certainly think the concerns about Trump’s (and his followers’) totalitarian and authoritarian tendencies need to be taken seriously. Yet, the angst of my progressive friends, most of whom are white and middle-class, led me down another path, though I will return to their concerns. I began to think about U.S. history.  In the 19th century Alexis de Tocqueville wrote,

If I say to an American that the country he lives in is a fine one, aye he replies and there is none its equal in the world. If I applaud the freedom its inhabitants enjoy, he answers “freedom is a fine thing but few nations are worthy of it.” If I remark on the purity of morals that distinguishes the United States he declares “I can imagine that a stranger who has witnessed the corruption which prevails in other nations would be astonished at the difference.” (in Niebuhr, 1952, p. 28)

This patriotic exceptionalism rings true today and seems to be an indelible feature of many citizens’ psyches, especially, to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’ (2015) phrase—taken from James Baldwin—those who believe themselves to be white. Of course, citizens can point to the fact that by all accounts the U.S. has been a stable democracy for nearly 250 years, though let’s be honest, groups of people have been excluded or impeded from participating in this democracy.  The fictional American might quickly respond saying, “Yes, of course, but this is further evidence of how vibrant out democracy is. We eventually get it right, which one does not see in other nations.” Exceptionalism and the belief that we are a democracy function, more often than not, as blinders to the anti-democratic or totalitarian strands that have accompanied U.S. democracy. Identifying these strands, while perhaps painful or disillusioning to many Americans, offers hope when we see the resilience and courage of people who have resisted the façades and machinations of U.S. democracy.

Before identifying examples, a brief turn to the idea of totalitarianism is necessary if we are to see clearly these strands in U.S. history. Philosopher Hannah Arendt (1976) wrote a classic text on totalitarianism shortly after the end of WWII. The objects of Arendt’s study were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. These regimes sought and demanded total or unquestioning loyalty, using propaganda to organize and motivate people. Violence and terror were counterparts of propaganda, insuring that dissent was quashed. Other forms of intimidation and coercion kept citizens from engaging in or confronting political institutions. Not surprisingly, these regimes constructed enemies from within (e.g., Jews) and without, which operated to heighten fear and hatred, which, in turn, mobilized the masses. For Arendt, the goal of totalitarian states like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was world domination.

There is, of course, a great deal more in her book about these regimes, but for my purpose I highlight the methods (terror, violence, intimidation) to marginalize, oppress, and kill people who are deemed to be threats or obstacles to the aims of the state. Before turning to U.S. history, there are two thoughts to add. First, Arendt studied two of the most despicable regimes of the 20th century to study and, like all scholarly analyses, the objects of study shaped her findings. While understandable, Arendt did not make attempts to include other nation states, which might have altered her perspective. What if she studied the parliamentary democracy of the British Empire or the representative democracy of the American Empire? Moreover, it is a human tendency to examine what we find abhorrent, while also failing to acknowledge any likenesses we share. To sit ensconced in an academic office in the U.S. and write about the horrors of these two regimes might reinforce the belief that one’s adopted country is mostly free of any blemish of totalitarianism. We might collectively sigh, “Thank God we are not like them.” While the U.S. is not like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, we have committed our own sins of violence, terror, and intimidation within and outside our borders.

Let me start by saying categorically that the United States is not a totalitarian regime. Now that that is out of the way, let me suggest that when considering U.S. history my statement is mostly true. Long before we removed the chains of British imperialism—only to place them on others—immigrants came to America, often believing and touting this country as a new promised land. The religious reference to the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert before entering the promise land was common enough. And like the scripture story, it completely overlooked the violence used to claim the land and subdue or kill its residents. The first enemies (within and without) to be constructed in the promise land of America were Native Americans. Colonialism and later U.S. expansionism were filled with diverse forms of violence associated with ethnic cleansing, use of germ warfare, and a trail of broken treaties. Native American resistance and dissent were ruthlessly put down. Those that survived were sequestered (concentrated) in areas of the country that white European settlers did not want and when they did, Native American residents were removed. Add to this litany the “well-intentioned” schools aimed at teaching Native Americans to be “civilized,” which ended up subverting Native American rituals, practices, and language.  We might ask our Native American brothers and sisters whether those events and experiences would fall under the rubrics of totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Was there not a totalizing tendency in the oxymoronic proclamation of the U.S. as an Empire of Liberty at the same time Native peoples were marginalized, suppressed, corralled, and killed? One could hardly call the treatment of Native peoples democratic, except in the sense it was propagated and supported by an entity that bore the name democracy.

The totalizing aspect of American expansionism was not confined to what is now the continental U.S. The notion of Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine—early examples of Trump’s “America First” policy—provided the legal and propaganda cover to subvert governments and institutions in Central and South America. Multiple U.S. interventions in Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Columbia, Panama, Haiti, etc. were not aimed at helping the residents of these and other countries, but rather for the sake of enriching the American Empire.  Even one of the most decorated and esteemed Marine officers saw clearly the aim of U.S. interventions. Maj. General Smedley Butler, in an article published in Common Sense, wrote:

I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped the raping of a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped Honduras “right” for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested…Looking back on it, I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated in three continents. (Schmidt, 1987, p.231).

Butler’s statement reveals that the ruthlessness and narcissism of U.S. expansionism were not confined to the Continental U.S. or this hemisphere. The Philippine people, like the Cubans, had fought Spain for freedom only to find another colonial power controlling them after the U.S. defeated Spain. The U.S., in its efforts to subdue Filipino citizens, killed and tortured over 200,000 people—people who were resisting U.S. imperialism. There were also incursions into other Pacific nations, including China, as Butler mentions. Though these methods were perpetrated by a democracy, they fall under the heading of totalitarianism and authoritarianism.  U.S. violence, terror, and intimidation subdued and controlled local populations and stifled political participation.

Of course, one could say that was long ago. We live in a post-colonial era, since WWII. Then what about Vietnam, which was a French colony? What about the British and U.S. removal of a democratically elected president in Iran and the installation of the Shah and his secret police? What about the CIA operation to overthrow Guatemala’s democratically elected president?  Or more recently, what about U.S. undermining Chile’s democracy and the support of the brutal dictator Pinochet? Despite the rhetoric that obfuscates the real reasons for these and numerous other expansionistic actions, there is, at bottom, not merely exceptionalism, but a hubristic totalitarian tendency.

Perhaps, it is okay for democracies to be empires, displaying a totalitarian tendency toward other peoples, but what about within the U.S. Let’s return to our shores and consider the plight of women and others in the 19th and 20 century. It took six decades of activism before women obtained the right to vote in 1920 and for those exceptionalists, the U.S. was not the first second or third country to do so before 1920. There is a strain of totalitarianism when people of an entire gender are denied access in participating in the political process and obtaining political office. Of course, one can point to the activism and resistance that culminated in women’s right to vote, we find, however, that a century later women continue to fight for equality and parity in the sociopolitical and economic realms.

Mentioning the early 20th century brings to mind people like Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman, both of whom were jailed. President Wilson and Congress, wanting to marshal the population toward war, enacted the Espionage Act of 1917, basically making it a crime to publicly dissent about the war. So much for free speech. Debs refused to be quiet and for his “crime” he was put on trial and later imprisoned—clearly a political prisoner. To squelch protest, through intimidation and coercion, is a manifestation the totalitarian tendency. Of course WWI was a century ago, but today there are 12 Republican dominated states considering legislation to curb protests. Whether they are successful or not, this represents the authoritarian and totalitarian strand in what is called democracy.

Perhaps the group that can most readily testify to the totalitarian tendencies in U.S. democracy is African Americans. I suspect many African Americans have a different take on U.S. exceptionalism, since they have experienced totalitarian realities before the birth of the nation. We are all familiar with the story of slavery and emancipation, which was followed by a century of Jim and Jane Crow laws, as well as decades of the totalitarian mechanisms of terror—rape and lynching. The 1950s and 60s saw the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, which over-turned Jim Crow laws, only to find, as Michelle Alexander (2010) demonstrates, occult Jim Crow laws making their way onto the books.

These laws and rise of the prison industrial complex insured that African Americans would disproportionately find themselves caught up in the penal system. Dissent in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as dissent by African Americans today   finds numerous obstacles. As James Baldwin (2010) noted, “A country which is supposed to be built on dissent, built on the value of the individual, now distrusts dissent at least as much as any totalitarian government can and debases the individual in many ways because it places security and money above the individual” (p.69).  Baldwin’s use of the term totalitarian is not for dramatic effect. He, like many other African American writers and activists, experience and describe firsthand the daily humiliations and intimidation that arise from the political and cultural institutions and practices that enforce the illusion of white supremacy and restrict, reduce, or deny political parity.

Today, with all the advances from the Civil Rights Era and the election of a black president, we might believe we live in a post-racial America, free of the totalitarian violence and terror of lynchings, rape, voter suppression laws, etc. If anything, totalitarianism takes on a seemingly softer more occult demeanor. African American protests associated with Black Lives Matter Movement are undermined and dismissed by white counter-protests—Blue Lives Matter or All Lives Matter. There is also a totalitarian tendency in forms of economic apartheid, which mostly impact African Americans and Hispanics. There is a totalitarian tendency seen in environmental racism that undermines the health of African Americans. There is a totalitarian tendency when poor African Americans (and other poor people) face tremendous obstacles in gaining access to healthy foods (food deserts, food insecurity).   Racism (and sexism) is necessarily supported by totalitarian thinking, institutions, and practices.

These examples are not evidence against the belief the U.S. is a democracy. Rather, it is to show that there is a totalitarian thread that runs throughout our history. Perhaps this thread is something that is part of every person, which, from different perspectives, psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas (1992) and theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (1941) claim. If it is a tendency in each individual, this would suggest that democracies will always need to be wary of totalitarianism’s many forms and how they undermine democracy. Consider a recent example of this. Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority leader, responding arrogantly and petulantly to the protests he encountered in Kentucky, said, “Winners make policy, losers go home.” This is clearly a recent sign of totalitarianism, amid others, like voter suppression laws, laws restricting and suppressing dissent etc.

So, my friends are correct to be concerned about the authoritarian and totalitarian strains seen in the current Administration. However, the thread of totalitarianism has been a part of every era of U.S. history, which is not a counsel of despair. Rather, in recalling this history we take heart in the women who fought for their rights, for the African Americans who fought and who continue to fight against the totalitarian aspects of racism, for Native Americans who continue to resist the totalitarian aspects of neoliberal capitalism, and for other minority groups who resist marginalization. There are voices of every generation that spoke truth to totalitarian power. My friend, who woke up and found she did not recognize America, can recognize America in the Women’s March, in people protesting the Muslim Ban, and for the other protests and organizations that fight this generation’s totalitarianism.


Arendt, H. (1976).  . New York: Harcourt.

Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow. New York: The New Press.

Baldwin, J. (2010). Cross of redemption: Uncollected writings. New York: Pantheon Books.

Bollas, C. (1992). Being a character. New York: Hill & Wang.

Coates, T. (2015). Between the world and me. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Meaning and Revelation. New York: Collier Books, 1941.

Niebuhr, R. (1952). The irony of American history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schmidt, H. (1987). Maverick marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the contradictions of American military history. Lexington: University of Kentucky Books.


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