In the worst possible way we are living in the future. Back in 2016 I wrote about this future in an article that went viral. Around 20m people read the piece, all around the world. It caused a stir, predicting a dark future about how Brexit and Trump would play out. I refered to the cycles of self-destruction humans have initiated throughout history. I suggested that,
“At a local level in time people think things are fine, then things rapidly spiral out of control until they become unstoppable, and we wreak massive destruction on ourselves. For the people living in the midst of this it is hard to see happening and hard to understand.”
My point was simply that when things unravel it happens fast, without us seeing it coming. In that sense, I was right.
Here we are in 2020 with great American cities being evacuated as wildfires destroy homes, with people dying in a pandemic, and with democracies across the West falling to populism and authoritarianism.
America is months away from fascism. In her brilliant recent analysis of the history of American fascism, exploring early colour-shirt movements, the Klan, and media portrayals of fascism, Sarah Churchwell wrote:
“American fascism will be ultra-American. It will reject the atheism and statism of European models; it will be self-righteous, certain of its own innocence, and understand itself as libertarian. Nativist agrarianism goes to the heart of these American populist mythologies, as it did to the rhetoric of both Mussolini and Hitler, promising to regenerate the nation — to make it great again. It elevates an authentic, preferably rural, national folk and defines them as “real Americans”, while denying first the loyalty, then the citizenship, then the humanity of everyone else…The Republican National Convention…was broadcast, for the first time in history, and in violation of federal laws, from the grounds of the White House — using the symbols of the American state to conflate the nation itself with Trump’s cult of personality. This, too, is straight out of the fascist playbook.”
We are clearly at a turning point: this can become our future, or our past. In 2016 we had been warned, but had not yet experienced such effects of Climate Change, a pandemic, or seen that Trump would in fact become worse, not better, in office. Now we know, and we have a few months in which to save America, and to save the world.
There is so much going wrong right now that we are at risk of missing the real problems — the single screaming voices lost in the cacophony of outrage. Right now, we face three existential threats, each of which is influencing the other. We knew this would happen, yet we were not prepared, and collectively risk failing to act now.
We knew the pandemic was coming. For years, scientists and experts warned us about pandemics. In 2015 Bill Gates warned we should be doing ‘germ games’ exercises much as we do ‘war games.’ Yet we, as individuals, and we as countries, were totally unprepared. America disbanded the very body set up to prepare for a pandemic. The UK ran down its stock of PPE and medical equipment. We made cuts to bring down taxes, made easy political decisions, ignored the scientists, avoided complex concepts, and let national exceptionalism lead us to ignore the lessons from 2003 during SARS learned by countries like Taiwan that now, based on those lessons, have not been hit so hard by Covid.
We knew global warming was accelerating. For 30 years, scientists have warned us about climate change. They told us that around now, in our futures, things would be like they are now. Yet we may have recycled a bit more, or stuck a brick in our cistern, but we continued to elect governments who sat on their hands, side-lining green parties as political outliers. Collectively, as a species, we have failed to act, failed to suffer short term pain for a better future. We continue to poison our planet, to burn down our homes. We elect politicians who give us short-term wins over long-term plans. We buy from corporates who put profit before planet. Just 20 companies are responsible for a third of all carbon emissions, yet neither consumers nor politicians have done anything to stop them.
We knew the risk of populism. For years now, pundits, academics, writers, and politicians have warned about the rise of populism, the decline of democracy, and how easily democracies can fail and slip into authoritarianism or dictatorship. But we, as individuals, and as countries, have been complacent. Our media owners have preferred to profit from sensationalism rather than take on a public duty to inform. Our technology companies grew out of ideals that did not fit a world beyond the educated, liberal, wealthy confines of San Francisco. We built Social Media that we hoped would be used for good, but which has been hijacked by the very worst people and is undermining democracy. We’ve allowed our public political discourse to become putrid with decay, eroded by under-investment in education, and monopolisation in media and Social Media; information focussed through just a few lenses.
With all of this, every time there was an opportunity to change things, either our leaders failed to grasp it, or they undermined it. America has shown how populism innevitably leads to short-termism, and how mixing money and politics leads to kakistocracy and oligarchy. There is a connection between Trump’s path to authoritarianism, the wild-fires, and the failure to manage the pandemic. Populist and authoritarian regimes pander to the will of the people, and promote for loyalty not ability.
I argue that America is now one more failed election away from its own form of fascism, yet people shy away from using words like fascism because it is not there yet. In August, 2019, I wrote about the camps on the Mexican border, saying:
“The point is that we should be warning about what happens at the end — when a society loses its way as it appears to be doing now. It is not about saying that the internment camps on the Mexican borders are exactly like Nazi concentration camps, but that their existence now means our societies are beginning to do things that previously led to the Holocaust.”
My warning in 2019, as in 2016, was that we have to speak out now, when politicians are taking the first steps towards authoritarianism, and acting in ways that lead to fascism. Waiting until there is fascism is leaving it too late, because by then you cannot stop it — that is the nature of fascism. By definition, it does not allow opposition or challenges.
My point has remained the same. The great dark events of the past were predictable with hindsight, but at the time happened without being obvious. Pandemics, wild-fires, and fascism are all the same in that they start so small that people don’t notice, then grow so fast and uncontrollably that they cannot be stopped.
Throughout history, the Cassandras have been ignored and side-lined. Back in 1917 a handful of people warned that the web of treaties and events in Europe could lead to a major war, but they were ignored. In the 1930s people ignored the rise of Hitler, letting him slip almost accidentally into elected power, and then grab the remaining power to become an autocrat. People warned about the Holocaust, but were dismissed. As the war came to a close, Churchill warned us about the threat of Soviet Communism, but to little avail. As Communism fell, we gradually understood the threat of Putin, but failed to act. Germany allowed itself to become dependent on Russia for its gas supply, and Britain allowed Russian organised crime to launder its money through London. In America, Russian criminals used Donald Trump to launder their money, and yet despite that, America made him president.
The problem with humans is that despite plenty of free thought and free will as individuals, we find it very hard to change direction collectively. We get caught in death spirals, heading in the wrong direction but unable to change course. That problem has hit us in the face now with the three major crises of our time, all of which will define our future.
Now is that future. There are no more warnings about later, this is all happening now, and all at once. There is nothing about what is happening now that was not predicted by experts, written about by commentators, shouted about by activists. Cities are burning, thousands are dying from a flu pandemic, and American democracy hangs in the balance. We knew, we Tweeted about it, we went on marches with witty signs. We increasingly confuse expression of our anger with action. Online petitions, clever memes, and posting on Social Media are not action, they are protest.
America is now entering an election in which the person who wins the most votes may not become president, and in which the incumbent president may call armed militia onto the streets to help keep him in power by force. America now faces a form of fascism, as we predicted. Imagine, the country that sees itself as the world’s greatest democracy twice electing a president who received millions fewer votes than his opponent. What message does that send to all the other would-be autocrats?
Trump and the Republicans have slowly unpicked America’s democratic system to give Republicans an upper hand. Trump even admitted in an interview that if it were easier for people to vote, there would never be a Republican president again. Thanks to years of Republican voter suppression and gerrymandering, Democrat votes count for less than Republican votes. I wrote about this in 2018, around the midterms, quoting the Economist:
“The Economist estimates that in the midterms, “Democrats need to win 53.5% of all votes cast for the two major parties just to have a 50/50 chance of winning a majority in the House.”
I argued then that: “When people talk about Trump being a “fascist” or American democracy being eroded, they are often criticized for hyperbole. But this does describe an America where a minority of the population are able to remain in power despite winning fewer votes in elections, and are then able to appoint judges who perpetuate that imbalance. It becomes a country disproportionally represented by white politicians, elected primarily by white voters with disproportionate voting power.”
The Republicans realise that if American democracy was genuinely fair and functioning, they could not win any more elections. They have fewer voters, and their voter numbers are shrinking year by year. Rather than adapt and remain relevant, they are using what power they now have to keep and consolidate their power, fixing the system whilst they still control it. They know that if they lose now, the Democrats will undo their gerrymandering, and make it easier for everyone to vote. Meanwhile, the Trumps fear that if they lose power now they will deluged with criminal investigations. If they can hang onto power for one more term, they might be able to fix the judiciary and the democratic system so they can remain in power, or at least avoid prosecution.
Consequently, Biden needs to win with a landslide to win at all; he needs a 5% lead, or 7 million more votes over Trump to be sure of a win, anything less than this and his chances drop to as low as 1 in 10 if he wins just 1.5m more votes than Trump. And even then, without winning the Senate, Biden could be hobbled by Republicans dead-set on ensuring he fails before he even starts.
I have no doubt that Trump will try to steal the election. The question is, what will happen next. In particular, how will the army and police, the Republican establishment, the Justice Department and the courts will respond.
My best guess is that, based on early counts and estimates, Trump will say he’s won, and start calling out postal ballots, and any number of entirely made up events, stories, and reports as a massive fraud against him. As the postal ballots start being counted, Biden will edge ahead, and Trump will take to Twitter, the courts, the media. Every lie he tells will be amplified over social media by Russian trolls, the Alt Right, and more. Trump’s lies will seep into the other lies being generated by St Petersburg, Beijing, Tehran, and QAnon, and he will amplify them.
His followers will be swamped with misinformation, on a whole new scale. If they are lost and confused now, they will be incapable of any clarity after the election. Think about the armed man turning up to rescue the children being held hostage by Hillary Clinton in a pizza restaurant basement. That is a taste of things to come. We already have vigilantes on the streets shooting protestors. Trump is already sending in men in un-marked uniforms, as Putin did in Crimea, to round up and beat protestors.
Trump will call his people out to protest. He will agitate for violence, cause chaos, and play the first trick of the fascist playbook, arguing that only he can return the country to safety and order. As Sarah Churchwell put it in her article:
“Kellyanne Conway…made the administration’s strategy clear, amid ongoing violence in Portland. “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety, law and order,” she told Fox News on 27 August. It is yet another lesson learned from interwar fascism: deliberately instigating disorder to manufacture the ersatz “need” for a strongman to performatively restore the order he has destroyed.”
The courts will be clogged up with hundreds of lawsuits over the votes. Trump and his followers will want to drag this out as long as possible, knowing that right-leaning judges will find in their favour, and will be intimidated by seeing the country fall into chaos whilst they deliberate.
Eventually, maybe after some weeks, I believe Biden will be shown to have won the popular vote. It is hard to predict what will happen with the Electoral College, because as a non-America that bit really makes no sense at all. At this point it could really go either way. If Biden has a narrow majority, Trump could be declared the winner.
The people who did not vote for Trump would come out on a vast scale, as in Belarus, but would be met this time by armed militias, and elements of the military and law enforcement now loyal to Trump, also as in Belarus. The worse the unrest, the more power Trump will grab under the guise of trying to restore order. This is how Putin came to become a dictator, and Erdogan, and Orban. Fascist Playbook: create chaos and present yourself as the only person who can restore and maintain order; implement emergency powers to achieve that, and then keep them. There is nothing new happening here — don’t be surprised by it.
However, call me an optimist, but I think it will go another way. My hope is that mainstream Republicans will realise that they are being dragged onto the wrong side of history by Trump. If Trump loses, and then turns to lies, violence, and manipulation to stay in power, the mainstream Republican establishment will suddenly drop him, with leading politicians, judges, and donors abandoning Trump, and handing the election to Biden. Just as we are seeing Trump lay the groundwork for declaring the vote a fraud, we are also seeing the mainstream Republicans prepare to abandon him should he do so. The calculation is obvious: better to have a term of Biden to rebuild the Republican party post-Trump than be associated with the President who destroyed American democracy.
This all assumes Trump loses. Of course, that part is in the hand of Democrat voters. Anyone who does not vote because they don’t like either candidate, or who doesn’t vote Democrat because they don’t like Biden, or gets hung up about a single issue, a political ideology, or a personality, is complicit in bringing Trump to power. I’ve said that before too, and got shouted down, but this time it is clear as day — either you’re for Trump, or you vote against him. If Trump wins, he will dismantle what remains of democratic power in America.
If Biden manages to win, and is not blocked by a Republican senate, he will need to enact a science-backed response to the pandemic, which ignores the conspiracists and libertarians, forcefully if necessary. To make America the great nation again that it once was he will need to reform the voting system, and the Electoral College, enact universal healthcare, introduce gun laws, ban militias, confront racism, regulate Social Media, increase the size of the Supreme Court, and position America as a visionary leader in combating Climate Change. He will also have to respond to a swathe of his country who will emerge from a Biden win utterly lost in conspiracy theories being blasted at them online, from Trump, Putin, China, Iran, and more.
That is a tall order for the greatest of leaders at the best of times, and Biden will have 4 years to get this done if America is to climb out of its hole and help lead the rest of the world out of theirs. Western Democracy, liberalism, and Enlightenment thinking lacks leaders; Merkel is retiring, The UK has lost its way. Other countries, like New Zealand, are setting a great example, but are not big enough to counter-balance China-Russia-Iran. The world needs America back. We need Biden to be all of history’s best presidents all at once.
I hope for all our sakes that every person in America who is not actively for Trump will do everything they can to vote for Biden, despite all the obstacles Trump, the Pandemic, and Climate Change will put in their way. If that happens, I hope Trump will try to steal the election, be abandoned by the Republicans, and be escorted out of the White House, possibly in handcuffs. Only a definitive end to his rule can create a hope that Biden can get down to the critical job of saving the country, and the world, from Corona Virus, Wild Fires, and Fascists.