The novel authoritarian pandemic, and how to stop it

In democracies, crackpot, lying "strongmen" like Trump almost never come to power by winning a majority of votes. Once in power, they use their position to win over a majority of support by manipulating crises, real or manufactured. In normal times, figures like Trump can barely manage to get on the ballot. In times of crisis, or after years of persistent national decline, they become viable long-shot contenders by exciting a small base around some combination of hope and hate. The strongmen squeak into power with a plurality, often as part of a multi-party coalition, only because the establishment fields corrupt and absolutely unappealing candidates. Usually, establishment leaders and pundits laugh at the strongmen right up to election night, on which they receive the news with shock, disbelief, and tears. Once in office, the strongmen wield power with one simple aim: accumulate more power. Unlike lazy establishment leaders, all of the strongmen's instincts are aimed at wielding power to build power. They use a dizzying mix of tactics every day, including telling absurd lies and scandalous truths, co-opting opponents' causes, unpredictably bullying both enemies and friends. The establishment has no defense against this. Eventually, as existing crises intensify or new ones pop up, the strongmen get the opportunity to start eliminating dissent and democracy altogether. As they take steps to do this, they speak openly of their intentions, sometimes walking back their remarks, sometimes doubling down, always with a lighthearted, half-serious tone. Establishment leaders and pundits never lose faith that they are on the other side of some line that the strongmen will fear to cross–all the way up until the day they themselves are imprisoned or killed.

Today in many countries, including the United States, anti-democratic strongmen are coming to power and eroding democracy in a new way. Liberal democratic societies developed immunity to 20th century authoritarian movements, but as with the "novel coronavirus," our societies have no immunity to this novel form of movement. Authoritarian movements in the 20th century grew as competing mass organizations that eventually coalesced around and were absorbed into one political party. The party was an organization with facilities and operations in every community, with many thousands or millions of members participating in a hierarchical structure fielding candidates in elections and wielding power through street violence and other acts of intimidation.

The new authoritarian movements, on the other hand, are not even movements in the traditional sense. They appear as accidents of history that, once they've occurred, receive mass support and win elections not because of clever campaigning but despite their utter incompetence. Insider accounts reveal that Trump never even intended to win the Republican nomination and never expected to win the presidency. Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, and several other national right wing national leaders would have been unthinkable just a few years ago and all came to power thanks to fantastic twists and turns of events. As it turns out, those twists and turns have always been there. We just haven't had leaders shrewd and shameless enough to instantly exploit them before, and mechanisms for them to do it right in the faces the entire electorate. All of the unexpected right wing leaders have one thing in common: they use the mass media to get their words, and their stunts, directly to the people. Exploiting the interplay between social media and the mass media which must respond to fill a 24-hour news cycle, the new authoritarians maintain an active day-to-day–sometimes hour-to-hour–conversation with the whole nation. Some do this through "earned media," by simply making news that the ratings-hungry media can't resist. Some do it by owning a chunk of the media, or being aligned with or puppets of the owners of the media. Some do it both ways at once.

The Coronavirus crisis is bringing us into a new phase of the development of this novel global authoritarian pandemic. We don't know what comes next. If Covid-19 kills few fewer people than expected, then Trump, Boris, Bolsonaro and the rest can say they were right to dismiss it, and blame the experts who forced their hand to shut the economy. The Covid Depression could be to 21st century fascism what World War I was to 20th century fascism. After Germany lost the war, the right-wing leaders who were responsible for launching and then losing the it almost effortlessly pinned the blame for the loss on progressives, accusing them of "stabbing Germany in the back" by forcing an unnecessary peace right on the eve of victory. After Covid-19, if the shut-down nations have permanently-damaged economies and "only as many dead as a bad flu season," then the new authoritarians will accuse progressive parties, public health experts, and the media of deliberately destroying the economy out of a yearning for socialism and self-hatred of their own countries.

If Coronavirus continues to spiral out of control and kills millions, then even better for the new authoritarians: that is exactly the kind of chaos they are waiting for. They will cancel elections and begin to use the unprecedented controls that have been placed on public life–for example bans against gathering–to curtail democracy and dissent. What's unclear is whether the new authoritarians will be able to govern functionally through prolonged economic depression and death. If they can't maintain basic law, order and access to basic goods and services, then populations will turn against them. When that happens, especially if they've suspended elections on the basis of public health concerns, then there's no telling what comes next.

We're still at the beginning of this cycle. There is one thing that can defeat it. We need new, competent, well-functioning leadership groups to emerge around the world with credible plans to solve the crises facing their nations, to reverse the systemic decline that's been eating away at them for decades, and to make them productive and prosperous again. In the 20th century, no society was able to put up such a leadership group until the outbreak of World War II. That is because no individual honest, productive, talented person has an incentive to join the cesspool of politics alone–especially in chaotic times–and no mechanism exists to bring in a whole new cohort of them at once. In other words, the rise of a viable leadership group to stop the rise of the new authoritarians before total collapse would be unprecedented.

But we must remember that people like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro coming to power without organized movements behind them is also unprecedented, so there is reason to hope. The same new mechanisms that allowed them to rise to power out of nowhere could do the same for a new leadership group of honest doers and makers with track records of success. The problem is that while it's unlikely for a single leader like Trump to rise and succeed, it's many times more unlikely for a whole slate of them to arise at once. It is something that has to be organized.

Time to get busy!