Fascist America, in 10 easy steps
They were not figuring these things out as they went along. If
you look at history, you can see that there is essentially a
blueprint for turning an open society into a dictatorship. That
blueprint has been used again and again in more and less bloody,
more and less terrifying ways. But it is always effective. It is
very difficult and arduous to create and sustain a democracy -
but history shows that closing one down is much simpler. You
simply have to be willing to take the 10 steps.
From Hitler to Pinochet and beyond, history shows there are
certain steps that any would-be dictator must take to destroy
constitutional freedoms. And, George Bush and his administration
seem to be taking them all
By Naomi Wolf
Guardian" -- -- Last autumn, there was a military
coup in Thailand. The leaders of the coup took a number of
steps, rather systematically, as if they had a shopping list. In
a sense, they did. Within a matter of days, democracy had been
closed down: the coup leaders declared martial law, sent armed
soldiers into residential areas, took over radio and TV
stations, issued restrictions on the press, tightened some
limits on travel, and took certain activists into custody.
As difficult as this is to contemplate, it is clear, if you
are willing to look, that each of these 10 steps has already
been initiated today in the United States by the Bush
Because Americans like me were born in freedom, we have a
hard time even considering that it is possible for us to become
as unfree - domestically - as many other nations. Because we no
longer learn much about our rights or our system of government -
the task of being aware of the constitution has been outsourced
from citizens' ownership to being the domain of professionals
such as lawyers and professors - we scarcely recognise the
checks and balances that the founders put in place, even as they
are being systematically dismantled. Because we don't learn much
about European history, the setting up of a department of
"homeland" security - remember who else was keen on the word
"homeland" - didn't raise the alarm bells it might have.
It is my argument that, beneath our very noses, George Bush
and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close
down an open society. It is time for us to be willing to think
the unthinkable - as the author and political journalist Joe
Conason, has put it, that it can happen here. And that we are
further along than we realise.
Conason eloquently warned of the danger of American
authoritarianism. I am arguing that we need also to look at the
lessons of European and other kinds of fascism to understand the
potential seriousness of the events we see unfolding in the US.
1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy
After we were hit on September 11 2001, we were in a state of
national shock. Less than six weeks later, on October 26 2001,
the USA Patriot Act was passed by a Congress that had little
chance to debate it; many said that they scarcely had time to
read it. We were told we were now on a "war footing"; we were in
a "global war" against a "global caliphate" intending to "wipe
out civilisation". There have been other times of crisis in
which the US accepted limits on civil liberties, such as during
the civil war, when Lincoln declared martial law, and the second
world war, when thousands of Japanese-American citizens were
interned. But this situation, as Bruce Fein of the American
Freedom Agenda notes, is unprecedented: all our other wars had
an endpoint, so the pendulum was able to swing back toward
freedom; this war is defined as open-ended in time and without
national boundaries in space - the globe itself is the
battlefield. "This time," Fein says, "there will be no defined
Creating a terrifying threat - hydra-like, secretive, evil -
is an old trick. It can, like Hitler's invocation of a communist
threat to the nation's security, be based on actual events (one
Wisconsin academic has faced calls for his dismissal because he
noted, among other things, that the alleged communist arson, the
Reichstag fire of February 1933, was swiftly followed in Nazi
Germany by passage of the Enabling Act, which replaced
constitutional law with an open-ended state of emergency). Or
the terrifying threat can be based, like the National Socialist
evocation of the "global conspiracy of world Jewry", on myth.
It is not that global Islamist terrorism is not a severe
danger; of course it is. I am arguing rather that the language
used to convey the nature of the threat is different in a
country such as Spain - which has also suffered violent
terrorist attacks - than it is in America. Spanish citizens know
that they face a grave security threat; what we as American
citizens believe is that we are potentially threatened with the
end of civilisation as we know it. Of course, this makes us more
willing to accept restrictions on our freedoms.
2. Create a gulag
Once you have got everyone scared, the next step is to create
a prison system outside the rule of law (as Bush put it, he
wanted the American detention centre at Guantánamo Bay to be
situated in legal "outer space") - where torture takes place.
At first, the people who are sent there are seen by citizens
as outsiders: troublemakers, spies, "enemies of the people" or
"criminals". Initially, citizens tend to support the secret
prison system; it makes them feel safer and they do not identify
with the prisoners. But soon enough, civil society leaders -
opposition members, labour activists, clergy and journalists -
are arrested and sent there as well.
This process took place in fascist shifts or anti-democracy
crackdowns ranging from Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s
to the Latin American coups of the 1970s and beyond. It is
standard practice for closing down an open society or crushing a
With its jails in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course,
Guantánamo in Cuba, where detainees are abused, and kept
indefinitely without trial and without access to the due process
of the law, America certainly has its gulag now. Bush and his
allies in Congress recently announced they would issue no
information about the secret CIA "black site" prisons throughout
the world, which are used to incarcerate people who have been
seized off the street.
Gulags in history tend to metastasise, becoming ever larger
and more secretive, ever more deadly and formalised. We know
from first-hand accounts, photographs, videos and government
documents that people, innocent and guilty, have been tortured
in the US-run prisons we are aware of and those we can't
But Americans still assume this system and detainee abuses
involve only scary brown people with whom they don't generally
identify. It was brave of the conservative pundit William Safire
to quote the anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller, who had been
seized as a political prisoner: "First they came for the Jews."
Most Americans don't understand yet that the destruction of the
rule of law at Guantánamo set a dangerous precedent for them,
By the way, the establishment of military tribunals that deny
prisoners due process tends to come early on in a fascist shift.
Mussolini and Stalin set up such tribunals. On April 24 1934,
the Nazis, too, set up the People's Court, which also bypassed
the judicial system: prisoners were held indefinitely, often in
isolation, and tortured, without being charged with offences,
and were subjected to show trials. Eventually, the Special
Courts became a parallel system that put pressure on the regular
courts to abandon the rule of law in favour of Nazi ideology
when making decisions.
3. Develop a thug caste
When leaders who seek what I call a "fascist shift" want to
close down an open society, they send paramilitary groups of
scary young men out to terrorise citizens. The Blackshirts
roamed the Italian countryside beating up communists; the
Brownshirts staged violent rallies throughout Germany. This
paramilitary force is especially important in a democracy: you
need citizens to fear thug violence and so you need thugs who
are free from prosecution.
The years following 9/11 have proved a bonanza for America's
security contractors, with the Bush administration outsourcing
areas of work that traditionally fell to the US military. In the
process, contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars have
been issued for security work by mercenaries at home and abroad.
In Iraq, some of these contract operatives have been accused of
involvement in torturing prisoners, harassing journalists and
firing on Iraqi civilians. Under Order 17, issued to regulate
contractors in Iraq by the one-time US administrator in Baghdad,
Paul Bremer, these contractors are immune from prosecution
Yes, but that is in Iraq, you could argue; however, after
Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security hired and
deployed hundreds of armed private security guards in New
Orleans. The investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill interviewed
one unnamed guard who reported having fired on unarmed civilians
in the city. It was a natural disaster that underlay that
episode - but the administration's endless war on terror means
ongoing scope for what are in effect privately contracted armies
to take on crisis and emergency management at home in US cities.
Thugs in America? Groups of angry young Republican men,
dressed in identical shirts and trousers, menaced poll workers
counting the votes in Florida in 2000. If you are reading
history, you can imagine that there can be a need for "public
order" on the next election day. Say there are protests, or a
threat, on the day of an election; history would not rule out
the presence of a private security firm at a polling station "to
restore public order".
4. Set up an internal surveillance system
In Mussolini's Italy, in Nazi Germany, in communist East
Germany, in communist China - in every closed society - secret
police spy on ordinary people and encourage neighbours to spy on
neighbours. The Stasi needed to keep only a minority of East
Germans under surveillance to convince a majority that they
themselves were being watched.
In 2005 and 2006, when James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote
in the New York Times about a secret state programme to wiretap
citizens' phones, read their emails and follow international
financial transactions, it became clear to ordinary Americans
that they, too, could be under state scrutiny.
In closed societies, this surveillance is cast as being about
"national security"; the true function is to keep citizens
docile and inhibit their activism and dissent.
5. Harass citizens' groups
The fifth thing you do is related to step four - you
infiltrate and harass citizens' groups. It can be trivial: a
church in Pasadena, whose minister preached that Jesus was in
favour of peace, found itself being investigated by the Internal
Revenue Service, while churches that got Republicans out to
vote, which is equally illegal under US tax law, have been left
Other harassment is more serious: the American Civil
Liberties Union reports that thousands of ordinary American
anti-war, environmental and other groups have been infiltrated
by agents: a secret Pentagon database includes more than four
dozen peaceful anti-war meetings, rallies or marches by American
citizens in its category of 1,500 "suspicious incidents". The
equally secret Counterintelligence Field Activity (Cifa) agency
of the Department of Defense has been gathering information
about domestic organisations engaged in peaceful political
activities: Cifa is supposed to track "potential terrorist
threats" as it watches ordinary US citizen activists. A
little-noticed new law has redefined activism such as animal
rights protests as "terrorism". So the definition of "terrorist"
slowly expands to include the opposition.
6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release
This scares people. It is a kind of cat-and-mouse game.
Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the investigative
reporters who wrote China Wakes: the Struggle for the Soul of a
Rising Power, describe pro-democracy activists in China, such as
Wei Jingsheng, being arrested and released many times. In a
closing or closed society there is a "list" of dissidents and
opposition leaders: you are targeted in this way once you are on
the list, and it is hard to get off the list.
In 2004, America's Transportation Security Administration
confirmed that it had a list of passengers who were targeted for
security searches or worse if they tried to fly. People who have
found themselves on the list? Two middle-aged women peace
activists in San Francisco; liberal Senator Edward Kennedy; a
member of Venezuela's government - after Venezuela's president
had criticised Bush; and thousands of ordinary US citizens.
Professor Walter F Murphy is emeritus of Princeton
University; he is one of the foremost constitutional scholars in
the nation and author of the classic Constitutional Democracy.
Murphy is also a decorated former marine, and he is not even
especially politically liberal. But on March 1 this year, he was
denied a boarding pass at Newark, "because I was on the
Terrorist Watch list".
"Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people
from flying because of that," asked the airline employee.
"I explained," said Murphy, "that I had not so marched but
had, in September 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised
and put on the web, highly critical of George Bush for his many
violations of the constitution."
"That'll do it," the man said.
Anti-war marcher? Potential terrorist. Support the
constitution? Potential terrorist. History shows that the
categories of "enemy of the people" tend to expand ever deeper
into civil life.
James Yee, a US citizen, was the Muslim chaplain at
Guantánamo who was accused of mishandling classified documents.
He was harassed by the US military before the charges against
him were dropped. Yee has been detained and released several
times. He is still of interest.
Brandon Mayfield, a US citizen and lawyer in Oregon, was
mistakenly identified as a possible terrorist. His house was
secretly broken into and his computer seized. Though he is
innocent of the accusation against him, he is still on the list.
It is a standard practice of fascist societies that once you
are on the list, you can't get off.
7. Target key individuals
Threaten civil servants, artists and academics with job loss
if they don't toe the line. Mussolini went after the rectors of
state universities who did not conform to the fascist line; so
did Joseph Goebbels, who purged academics who were not pro-Nazi;
so did Chile's Augusto Pinochet; so does the Chinese communist
Politburo in punishing pro-democracy students and professors.
Academe is a tinderbox of activism, so those seeking a
fascist shift punish academics and students with professional
loss if they do not "coordinate", in Goebbels' term,
ideologically. Since civil servants are the sector of society
most vulnerable to being fired by a given regime, they are also
a group that fascists typically "coordinate" early on: the Reich
Law for the Re-establishment of a Professional Civil Service was
passed on April 7 1933.
Bush supporters in state legislatures in several states put
pressure on regents at state universities to penalise or fire
academics who have been critical of the administration. As for
civil servants, the Bush administration has derailed the career
of one military lawyer who spoke up for fair trials for
detainees, while an administration official publicly intimidated
the law firms that represent detainees pro bono by threatening
to call for their major corporate clients to boycott them.
Elsewhere, a CIA contract worker who said in a closed blog
that "waterboarding is torture" was stripped of the security
clearance she needed in order to do her job.
Most recently, the administration purged eight US attorneys
for what looks like insufficient political loyalty. When
Goebbels purged the civil service in April 1933, attorneys were
"coordinated" too, a step that eased the way of the increasingly
brutal laws to follow.
8. Control the press
Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 30s, East Germany in the
50s, Czechoslovakia in the 60s, the Latin American dictatorships
in the 70s, China in the 80s and 90s - all dictatorships and
would-be dictators target newspapers and journalists. They
threaten and harass them in more open societies that they are
seeking to close, and they arrest them and worse in societies
that have been closed already.
The Committee to Protect Journalists says arrests of US
journalists are at an all-time high: Josh Wolf (no relation), a
blogger in San Francisco, has been put in jail for a year for
refusing to turn over video of an anti-war demonstration;
Homeland Security brought a criminal complaint against reporter
Greg Palast, claiming he threatened "critical infrastructure"
when he and a TV producer were filming victims of Hurricane
Katrina in Louisiana. Palast had written a bestseller critical
of the Bush administration.
Other reporters and writers have been punished in other ways.
Joseph C Wilson accused Bush, in a New York Times op-ed, of
leading the country to war on the basis of a false charge that
Saddam Hussein had acquired yellowcake uranium in Niger. His
wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA spy - a form of
retaliation that ended her career.
Prosecution and job loss are nothing, though, compared with
how the US is treating journalists seeking to cover the conflict
in Iraq in an unbiased way. The Committee to Protect Journalists
has documented multiple accounts of the US military in Iraq
firing upon or threatening to fire upon unembedded (meaning
independent) reporters and camera operators from organisations
ranging from al-Jazeera to the BBC. While westerners may
question the accounts by al-Jazeera, they should pay attention
to the accounts of reporters such as the BBC's Kate Adie. In
some cases reporters have been wounded or killed, including
ITN's Terry Lloyd in 2003. Both CBS and the Associated Press in
Iraq had staff members seized by the US military and taken to
violent prisons; the news organisations were unable to see the
evidence against their staffers.
Over time in closing societies, real news is supplanted by
fake news and false documents. Pinochet showed Chilean citizens
falsified documents to back up his claim that terrorists had
been about to attack the nation. The yellowcake charge, too, was
based on forged papers.
You won't have a shutdown of news in modern America - it is
not possible. But you can have, as Frank Rich and Sidney
Blumenthal have pointed out, a steady stream of lies polluting
the news well. What you already have is a White House directing
a stream of false information that is so relentless that it is
increasingly hard to sort out truth from untruth. In a fascist
system, it's not the lies that count but the muddying. When
citizens can't tell real news from fake, they give up their
demands for accountability bit by bit.
9. Dissent equals treason
Cast dissent as "treason" and criticism as "espionage'. Every
closing society does this, just as it elaborates laws that
increasingly criminalise certain kinds of speech and expand the
definition of "spy" and "traitor". When Bill Keller, the
publisher of the New York Times, ran the Lichtblau/Risen
stories, Bush called the Times' leaking of classified
information "disgraceful", while Republicans in Congress called
for Keller to be charged with treason, and rightwing
commentators and news outlets kept up the "treason" drumbeat.
Some commentators, as Conason noted, reminded readers smugly
that one penalty for violating the Espionage Act is execution.
Conason is right to note how serious a threat that attack
represented. It is also important to recall that the 1938 Moscow
show trial accused the editor of Izvestia, Nikolai Bukharin, of
treason; Bukharin was, in fact, executed. And it is important to
remind Americans that when the 1917 Espionage Act was last
widely invoked, during the infamous 1919 Palmer Raids, leftist
activists were arrested without warrants in sweeping roundups,
kept in jail for up to five months, and "beaten, starved,
suffocated, tortured and threatened with death", according to
the historian Myra MacPherson. After that, dissent was muted in
America for a decade.
In Stalin's Soviet Union, dissidents were "enemies of the
people". National Socialists called those who supported Weimar
democracy "November traitors".
And here is where the circle closes: most Americans do not
realise that since September of last year - when Congress
wrongly, foolishly, passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006
- the president has the power to call any US citizen an "enemy
combatant". He has the power to define what "enemy combatant"
means. The president can also delegate to anyone he chooses in
the executive branch the right to define "enemy combatant" any
way he or she wants and then seize Americans accordingly.
Even if you or I are American citizens, even if we turn out
to be completely innocent of what he has accused us of doing, he
has the power to have us seized as we are changing planes at
Newark tomorrow, or have us taken with a knock on the door; ship
you or me to a navy brig; and keep you or me in isolation,
possibly for months, while awaiting trial. (Prolonged isolation,
as psychiatrists know, triggers psychosis in otherwise mentally
healthy prisoners. That is why Stalin's gulag had an isolation
cell, like Guantánamo's, in every satellite prison. Camp 6, the
newest, most brutal facility at Guantánamo, is all isolation
We US citizens will get a trial eventually - for now. But
legal rights activists at the Center for Constitutional Rights
say that the Bush administration is trying increasingly
aggressively to find ways to get around giving even US citizens
fair trials. "Enemy combatant" is a status offence - it is not
even something you have to have done. "We have absolutely moved
over into a preventive detention model - you look like you could
do something bad, you might do something bad, so we're going to
hold you," says a spokeswoman of the CCR.
Most Americans surely do not get this yet. No wonder: it is
hard to believe, even though it is true. In every closing
society, at a certain point there are some high-profile arrests
- usually of opposition leaders, clergy and journalists. Then
everything goes quiet. After those arrests, there are still
newspapers, courts, TV and radio, and the facades of a civil
society. There just isn't real dissent. There just isn't
freedom. If you look at history, just before those arrests is
where we are now.
10. Suspend the rule of law
The John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 gave the
president new powers over the national guard. This means that in
a national emergency - which the president now has enhanced
powers to declare - he can send Michigan's militia to enforce a
state of emergency that he has declared in Oregon, over the
objections of the state's governor and its citizens.
Even as Americans were focused on Britney Spears's meltdown
and the question of who fathered Anna Nicole's baby, the New
York Times editorialised about this shift: "A disturbing recent
phenomenon in Washington is that laws that strike to the heart
of American democracy have been passed in the dead of night ...
Beyond actual insurrection, the president may now use military
troops as a domestic police force in response to a natural
disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack or any 'other
Critics see this as a clear violation of the Posse Comitatus
Act - which was meant to restrain the federal government from
using the military for domestic law enforcement. The Democratic
senator Patrick Leahy says the bill encourages a president to
declare federal martial law. It also violates the very reason
the founders set up our system of government as they did: having
seen citizens bullied by a monarch's soldiers, the founders were
terrified of exactly this kind of concentration of militias'
power over American people in the hands of an oppressive
executive or faction.
Of course, the United States is not vulnerable to the
violent, total closing-down of the system that followed
Mussolini's march on Rome or Hitler's roundup of political
prisoners. Our democratic habits are too resilient, and our
military and judiciary too independent, for any kind of scenario
Rather, as other critics are noting, our experiment in
democracy could be closed down by a process of erosion.
It is a mistake to think that early in a fascist shift you
see the profile of barbed wire against the sky. In the early
days, things look normal on the surface; peasants were
celebrating harvest festivals in Calabria in 1922; people were
shopping and going to the movies in Berlin in 1931. Early on, as
WH Auden put it, the horror is always elsewhere - while someone
is being tortured, children are skating, ships are sailing:
"dogs go on with their doggy life ... How everything turns away/
Quite leisurely from the disaster."
As Americans turn away quite leisurely, keeping tuned to
internet shopping and American Idol, the foundations of
democracy are being fatally corroded. Something has changed
profoundly that weakens us unprecedentedly: our democratic
traditions, independent judiciary and free press do their work
today in a context in which we are "at war" in a "long war" - a
war without end, on a battlefield described as the globe, in a
context that gives the president - without US citizens realising
it yet - the power over US citizens of freedom or long solitary
incarceration, on his say-so alone.
That means a hollowness has been expanding under the
foundation of all these still- free-looking institutions - and
this foundation can give way under certain kinds of pressure. To
prevent such an outcome, we have to think about the "what ifs".
What if, in a year and a half, there is another attack - say,
God forbid, a dirty bomb? The executive can declare a state of
emergency. History shows that any leader, of any party, will be
tempted to maintain emergency powers after the crisis has
passed. With the gutting of traditional checks and balances, we
are no less endangered by a President Hillary than by a
President Giuliani - because any executive will be tempted to
enforce his or her will through edict rather than the arduous,
uncertain process of democratic negotiation and compromise.
What if the publisher of a major US newspaper were charged
with treason or espionage, as a rightwing effort seemed to
threaten Keller with last year? What if he or she got 10 years
in jail? What would the newspapers look like the next day?
Judging from history, they would not cease publishing; but they
would suddenly be very polite.
Right now, only a handful of patriots are trying to hold back
the tide of tyranny for the rest of us - staff at the Center for
Constitutional Rights, who faced death threats for representing
the detainees yet persisted all the way to the Supreme Court;
activists at the American Civil Liberties Union; and prominent
conservatives trying to roll back the corrosive new laws, under
the banner of a new group called the American Freedom Agenda.
This small, disparate collection of people needs everybody's
help, including that of Europeans and others internationally who
are willing to put pressure on the administration because they
can see what a US unrestrained by real democracy at home can
mean for the rest of the world.
We need to look at history and face the "what ifs". For if we
keep going down this road, the "end of America" could come for
each of us in a different way, at a different moment; each of us
might have a different moment when we feel forced to look back
and think: that is how it was before - and this is the way it is
"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and
judiciary, in the same hands ... is the definition of tyranny,"
wrote James Madison. We still have the choice to stop going down
this road; we can stand our ground and fight for our nation, and
take up the banner the founders asked us to carry.
· Naomi Wolf's The End of America: A Letter of
Warning to a Young Patriot will be published by Chelsea Green in
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