Authoritarian regimes use threats of force, coercion and intimidation to cow the populace and force it into submission to that regime’s imperatives. Enlisting the aid of those who wield weapons – military and police forces with the power to arrest and incarcerate – regimes bent on subjecting civilian populations to their will have obvious advantages. As we now witness in the Philippines and have witnessed many times previously in world history, authoritarians establish their own “rules of law” in the name of preserving peace, but usually such “law” is used to wipe out dissidents and opponents.
America seems on the cusp of its own authoritarian episode. Tried and true authoritarian methods are being employed, and at the moment, to great effect. In a society like ours, unfamiliarity with authoritarian methods lulls a citizenry for a while; many people simply cannot believe that tyranny is possible in America. Yet, when one reviews the initiatives taken since the new administration took power, the imprint of authoritarian techniques is unmistakeable.
Calling the press “the enemy of the American people” for example; any authoritarian regime must invalidate the prerogatives of a free press in order to establish its own narrative. Thus the dark vision: America under siege by malevolent Islamic radical terrorists; degraded inner cities filled with crime; rapists and murderers streaming across our borders. Despite evidence to the contrary, these narratives are essential to the success of emerging authoritarianism. The generation of widespread public fear is the most basic tactic of the authoritarian.
It is also the case, however, that the rise of authoritarianism is always accompanied by the rise of an underground opposition. Though the methods and actions of an underground take time to develop, they always form in the wake of authoritarian regimes and the policies they implement. Just as the Underground Railroad (see map above) assisted escaped slaves in response to the depredations of southern state slavery in the 1850’s, so too will underground movements emerge in response to the depredations of the new authoritarian regime.
Consider abortion, for example. When and if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court, thereby removing federal protection of a women’s right to choose, the matter of regulating abortion will return to individual states. Some states will outlaw abortion, while in others it will remain legal. Given our many years of liberal policy towards abortion, organizations and efforts will arise in states where abortion is legal to help finance travel and medical expenses of women choosing to go out-of-state for abortion services.
Undocumented immigrants will also find support in “underground” networks established to provide safe housing, transportation and work. Much as ethically-minded Germans provided safe hiding places for Jews during the reign of Hitler, so too will ethically-minded Americans provide refuge to beleaguered immigrants, many of whom have resided in the United States for many years, have families and occupations. An underground, forged document “industry” will grow.
The harder an authoritarian regime presses its “boot” upon the necks of the vulnerable, the more dedicated the underground opposition becomes. As tyranny becomes more obvious and blatant in its actions, opposition within its own ranks arises, sometimes violently. This sort of political instability is commonplace in world history.
Historically, America has avoided such authoritarian episodes; our structures of government have often (but not always) buffered us. As to the present situation, time will tell.