An Article of the Modern Survival Guide
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a long-running blog that attempts to untangle the thornier aspects of living in the modern world. One of the more salient issues to our survival at the moment is actually repeated over and over in history, and it goes like this:
Any attempt at democracy is under constant threat of devolving into authoritarianism. Sometimes, the dictators win.
No one should ever be complacent about this. No one should ever believe “it can’t happen here.” History is littered with the corpses of naive citizens who sleepwalked into an authoritarian state. It can happen here, and it will, unless we constantly prevent it. Arguably, in the US right now, the authoritarians are trying to win, and win big. The 2024 election is shaping up to be a critical test of the US democratic system, with the Project 2025 plan existing as one of the most critical threats to representative government in recent history.¹
We are arguably at risk of a Trumpian authoritarian takeover. Let me be absolutely clear: Donald Trump is a threat to democracy in the United States of America, and his supporters are laying the groundwork for his dictatorship. It is therefore critical, in my opinion, to understand what that groundwork looks like. What does authoritarian takeover look like? How can we spot it in the current political environment. And critically, what do we do about it?
Authoritarian Takeover: a Primer
Let’s start with a definition, as we often do. An authoritarian government is one that centralizes power, removes or critically weakens democratic systems, removes political plurality (i.e., having multiple political parties and viewpoints in society), and abrades the concepts of rule of law and separation of powers.² Those of you who passed high school civics probably recognize that this is Very Bad.
Those of you who don’t remember high school civics — go and look up those concepts right now. They are the foundation of modern democratic representative government, they are inherently important, and losing any of them represents a terrible loss of your rights as a citizen.
With that in mind, most authoritarian takeovers (that do not involve a military coup) tend to follow similar patterns. You should know what they are. Here are some of the big points that you should watch out for:
- Takeovers are quiet… until they aren’t
- Authoritarians exploit morality
- Authoritarians blame minority of vulnerable populations as scapegoats
- Authoritarians try to concentrate power in the executive body
- Dictators love police power without accountability
- Authoritarians like be seen as a Great Leader
- Authoritarians degrade the concept of “truth”
- Authoritarians restrict dissent
- Authoritarians try to destroy opposing ideas
- Authoritarians use state power to punish opponents
Now, I know that’s a lot to take in, and yes, the rest of the article is going to delve deep into these concepts. Buckle up and read. If you can’t be bothered to understand how an authoritarian takeover starts, don’t be surprised to wake up in a dictatorship where your neighbors vanish in the night.
Authoritarian Takeovers are Quiet, Until They Aren’t
Especially in the early stages, authoritarian takeovers that don’t involve violence tend to be quiet. You might not notice the warning signs if you aren’t specifically looking for them. Keep this in mind as we go through the rest of the points on this list — part of your job as a citizen is to maintain political vigilance.
Authoritarians are always out there, they are always eating away at the fabric of democracy, and they’re a bit like termites. Your metaphorical house can look just fine on the outside, until you try to lean on a wall and find yourself falling through a cloud of dust.
What does this look like in practice? It looks like local, regional, or state laws that do all of the rest of the things on this list. It looks like judicial elections or appointments that pave the way for court cases that degrade democratic principles or restrict civil rights. It looks like media personalities introducing anti-democratic concepts piece by piece and bit by bit.
The point is, if you just wake up in the morning, go to work, and live your normal life, you won’t notice the groundwork being laid. You have to pay attention. You have to start off knowing what is true and what isn’t, which means education. You have to have some idea of what the principles of democracy are before you notice their erosion. This is the point and purpose of high school civics, and sadly, it has failed in America.
It might be worth asking why it failed in America.
The quiet groundwork continues until it is either stopped, or it gains enough momentum that an incipient dictator feels able to make their move. Then things can get very loud, very quickly. Very few Americans thought that the Jan. 6 attempt at insurgency was even a risk, until all of a sudden it was a reality, just for example.
Authoritarians Exploit Morality
The #1 phrase that should scare you in any pluralistic society is the following statement: “We need to protect the children from sin.” You’ll see a lot of permutations of this concept; in the US it usually has a spin towards preventing the children from noticing anything remotely related to sexuality, for example.³ Regardless, there are two important things to understand about this statement.
The first is that protection from sin and protection from harm are two very different things. Protection from sin implies a moral judgement. Protection from harm does not; it implies a practical judgement. Do not confuse the two.
The second is that “sin” is a concept not based in reality but in metaphysics. Accordingly, “sin” can mean whatever you want it to. If that doesn’t terrify you, it should.
Authoritarians exploit moral systems for their own gain, usually by focusing on some perceived sin that they can remove from society. If you phrase an invasive security policy that, say, monitors all data on personal computers to detect porn usage as, “We must do this to prevent our children from falling into sin,” you’re well on track to win the support of a majority of whichever group believes in that concept of sin. If you claim that your opposition is morally degenerate, you automatically reduce the space for people to say you’re wrong. It’s an insidious tactic, and it pops up constantly.
This plays into our next point, which we’ll discuss in a moment. But the central ploy here is to point the finger of moral indignation at the authoritarian’s opponents, reformat morality arguments to suit the authoritarian’s interests, and then demonize anyone who disagrees.
Authoritarians Prey on Scapegoats and Vulnerable Minorities
Many authoritarians win support by convincing their followers that all of society’s problems are the fault of those people. The most popular target group, historically, have been the Jews. These days it tends to be gay people, illegal immigrants, Muslims, black people, and the Jews.
There are three points to make here.
The first is that authoritarians needs to blame someone. They typically use populist rhetoric that focuses on minority groups that are “undermining society” or “causing moral harm,” which is then used as a scapegoat for social problems. The easiest people to blame are vulnerable minority groups (e.g., gays, illegal immigrants, “woke” activists, religious minorities) who can be used as moral scapegoats, and who lack the resources or popular support to effectively fight back.
Authoritarians build support by playing to emotion, not by explaining that society is composed of a huge number of interconnected systems, each of which must be carefully tuned to ensure desired outcomes, and oh by the way we should tweak this bit over here. That’s hard. Blaming the Muslims for increased crime is easy. This plays into humanity’s natural instincts to distrust anyone who is “not our kind of people,” and it’s very dangerous.
The second point is that authoritarians do not stop. Once their audience has accepted that one group is responsible for some social problems, the authoritarian pivots to another group. The idea is to feed fear, suspicion, and anger in a never-ending loop. Eventually the authoritarian demonizes one group after another until large swathes of the population are either labeled as enemies of the state, or actively persecuted, or both. This gives them an endless supply of scapegoats for anything that goes wrong, and solidifies their claim to power, typically making the argument that they are the only one who can provide “security” against “those people.”
The third point is that authoritarians work by building fear. They only rarely come out and say “You can’t trust those insert group here!” At least, not at the start. More commonly, they and their surrogates simply build fear by association. “We have to restrict migration from Muslim nations because the migrants might be terrorists!!!” is a common phrasing, for example. That which is feared can be more easily hated, and hatred is an easy emotion to guide.
Arguably, this is an ongoing thing in the US right now, and has been going on for pretty much ever. The Trump-dominated MAGA right wing is just the newest incarnation, and has demonized the media, the LGBTQ+ community, black civil rights activists, Muslims, illegal immigrants, Jews, doctors, college professors, schoolteachers, federal works, atheists, and liberals in general. The scapegoating routine has proceeded to the point that almost half of the country has been set up as enemies of “the people,” which sets the stage for battle lines.
Authoritarians Concentrate Power
The concept of separation of powers is anathema to an authoritarian, because their entire goal is to be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, and run roughshod over opposition. Absolute power cannot countenance any restriction. Consequently, any burgeoning authoritarian will attempt to concentrate government power into their hands, typically into the executive body (for example, the Presidency).
This can take a lot of forms. Examples we have seen recently in the US include making the argument that anything the President does is legal, and allowing the President to pardon themselves for past crimes. Other examples might include things like removing term limits, delaying elections, removing or neutering apolitical agencies, appointing politically-motivated people to apolitical posts (for example, appointing a political ally to monitor an election commission), passing laws to increase the executive’s power, stacking courts with blatant political allies, giving the executive control of police powers, and passing overtly religious or repressive laws that demonize one group or promote one group over another.
The ultimate example, that tends to herald the arrival of a true authoritarian state, is usually the suspension of that state’s constitution or other founding legal documents. This may or may not be accompanied by dissolving legislative bodies.
Proper democracies separate power into different groups, and prevent any one individual from accessing all the levers of government. Attempts to concentrate power are constant, because separation of powers is inefficient by design, and it’s fairly normal for a democracy to waffle a bit on how much power is separated at any given time. But concentrated, large-scale efforts to degrade the separation of powers are inherently dangerous and usually a sign of an attempt at authoritarian takeover.
Authoritarians Glorify the Police
One of the central goals of any civilization is limiting violence among the citizenry, which most modern nations accomplish by giving the state a monopoly on legal violence. That monopoly rests with the legal system and, more particularly, the police.
Another way of saying that is as follows: if a burglar steals from you, the proper course of action in a well-run society is not to track him down and beat him up, it’s to call the police so they can track him down and put him on trial, whereupon the court system decides an appropriate punishment. Obviously this is a system that needs a lot of monitoring, but that’s kind of the point.
Authoritarians glorify the police, and actively work to remove oversights and controls on police activity. Their end goal is to create an unaccountable system where police loyal to them may arrest anyone, for anything, at any time, with no legal recourse, and no concept of habeas corpus, which is how you arrive at a situation where your neighbors disappear into the night and are never seen again.
One of the main goals of a representative society is to protect citizens from police overreach, and weaking these protections is a hallmark of authoritarian takeover.
Authoritarians Establish a Cult of Personality
A main goal of any authoritarian is to create a situation where not only are they never wrong, there is no capacity in society for the thought that they could be wrong. Good examples are the Party in 1984, the Kim family in North Korea, or Vladimir Putin in Russia. The preliminary step for any such effort is to establish a cult of personality.
Cults of personality are organized around the concept of a Great Leader, an individual who knows best, is a certified stable genius, is good at everything, and always has a plan for any situation. Donald Trump’s MAGA cult is an absolutely textbook example of a cult of personality.
The key things to remember about cults of personality are that, first of all, they are cults, and therefore their members are brainwashed devotees; and secondly, that they take serious effort to maintain. Every cult has a propaganda and media relations machine behind it, and cults of personality are no different. The Great Leader is always presented in the best possible light, as the height of physical perfection, and their decisions are always interpreted as part of some grandiose plan, no matter the actual impacts.
Cults of personality are laughably easy to spot, unless you’re in one. They are always a prelude to some form of authoritarian system. If you’re not sure whether you are a participant in a cult of personality, ask yourself this: is your leader justified in all of their actions? If the answer is “yes,” you’re in a cult of personality. The easiest way to avoid a cult of personality is to remind yourself, every day, that every single person on this planet is fallible, and no one is an expert at everything. Anyone claiming to be infallible or an expert at everything is an idiot and should be avoided.
Authoritarians Attack the Concept of Truth
Truth is the enemy of an authoritarian. It gets in the way of their cult of personality, and it reveals the missteps of their policies. It’s inconvenient, and reminds the people that the Great Leader isn’t so great after all. An authoritarian’s ideal state of affairs is that whatever they say is accepted as the full and only truth without thought or question. Therefore, every authoritarian will attack the very concept of truth at every opportunity.
THIS IS HAPPENING NOW. Be told.
Attacking the idea of truth is done by promoting “alternative facts” (i.e., lies) to an extreme degree. Every message by the opposition is called a lie, whether it is or not. Every position taken by the opposition is mocked or demonized as indecent, stupid, or morally poor. Every organization that tells the truth is termed an enemy of the state or enemy of the people. And on top of that, the authoritarian lies constantly, so that it’s not physically possible to untangle all of their lies due to simple limits on time. Gaslighting is not the exception, it is the norm.
The key thing to remember about such an assault on truth is the concept of the Big Lie — the idea that any lie will be believed if it is repeated often enough. People don’t fact check as a default action, unless they are trained to do so. Most of us just believe the things we hear from people in authority. If enough of those people start lying, it is very difficult for the average person to know what is actually true.
Trump and the MAGA crowd are one of the greatest modern examples of an assault on truth, and they will go down in history as one of the most successful. They have multiple media outlets (from FOX News to talk radio to YouTube and Tiktok streamers) who are willing to repeat known falsehoods on a routine basis. You can be in the MAGA bubble and never even know it in many parts of the country, just because all your local media is parroting the MAGA lines.
Trump himself is one of the most profligate liars of the modern world, having exceeded 30,000 documented lies on the record just while President, and his various acolytes are notable for parroting whatever he says and praising even obvious falsehoods as nothing less than Gospel truth.⁴
Assaults on truth are inherently dangerous. Society as a whole is built on the concept of trust — if you lose trust, you lose the society, and you just end up with a bunch of people staring suspiciously at each other instead of supporting one another. Trust rests on the ability to predict action, which rests on telling the truth. This is the fundamental reason why lies are ill-advised in the first place. An assault on truth is an assault on the bedrock advantage of human beings over animals, i.e., intelligent and forward-planned cooperation.
An assault on truth is also usually a smokescreen for atrocity. Be warned.
Authoritarians Restrict Dissent
The authoritarian mindset cannot countenance dissent. Dissent leads to opposition, opposition threatens an authoritarian’s hold on power, and therefore dissent cannot be tolerated.
Beware of any group that seeks to limit the ability of a population to criticize the government. Remember, authoritarians seek to control the concept of truth, and criticism of the government is usually founded in legitimate complaints based on a true situation, even if only loosely.
Note also that this is not the same thing as a society punishing libel or slander, although unjustified application of such punishments can be used as a smokescreen for restricting dissent. This is a really good reason to keep the courts and the police as apolitical as humanly possible.
A very popular technique used by modern authoritarian-leaning groups is to restrict internet access. Anyone who attempts to restrict your ability to gain access to information online dreams themselves your master.
Another popular technique for restricting dissent is to limit press access to the authoritarian. If, for example, members of the press who are critical of the authoritarian are routinely threatened at political rallies, denied access to interviews with the authoritarian, or restricted in the questions or reporting they may present, this is usually a good indicator of a restriction of dissent. It is not a coincidence that these are all things the Trump crowd has done.
Authoritarians Restrict Ideas
Active dissent is one thing, but authoritarians also seek to restrict the very concepts that might give rise to dissent in the first place. This traditionally takes the forms of book bans, restrictions on subject matter in public and private education, demonization of broad concept areas, and thought-terminating cliches.
We all know what book bans look like. We’ve just seen a whole bunch of them across the nation. Book bans are attempts to remove ideas from publicly accessible spaces like libraries and retailers, usually perpetrated under the guise of “protecting morality” or removing the voices of “enemies of the people.” The recent assaults on LGBTQ+ representation in children’s literature are a fantastic example of this tactic.
Similarly, restrictions on education serve the purpose of preventing the application of critical thought and impartial examination of history, politics, or social ideas. Removing references to the horrors of slavery or Jim Crow laws, for example, is a modern attempt to whitewash events of the past in order to water down the reality of the oppression of black people in America in the not very distant past, and consequently undermine recognition of modern conditions. You can’t understand the ending if you don’t tell the story.
Both of these types of attacks serve the same purpose: undermining the ability of the authoritarian’s political enemies to legitimately claim grievance (thereby leaving them characterized as ungrateful, treasonous, or “naturally” violent), and undermining the ability of the populace to apply critical thought in general.
If all you hear is that the United States was completely justified in the conquest of the West, for example, it makes it really easy to dismiss the plight of Native Americans in the present. If all you know is that President Trump is trying to save the nation from terrorists, it makes it really hard to question the usefulness of a multi-billion-dollar wall construction project, or to oppose a ban on refugees from “shithole countries.”
This type of idea restriction culminates in the demonization of groups or concepts (e.g., “Black Lives Matter is a hate group”) and the use of thought-terminating cliches. For example, a very popular thought-terminating cliche in the US is that “no true American can be a socialist.” Everyone’s heard a variation on that theme, usually from your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner.
All of these tactics are used to restrict a population’s ability to think outside the box the authoritarian wishes to keep them in. The population of North Korea isn’t stopped from revolting by the fact that the army would gun them down. They’re stopped because, by and large, they cannot imagine a world where the Kim regime is not in power.
Authoritarians Use State Power to Punish Opponents
This is end-stage authoritarianism — the moment when the authoritarian has seized enough power that they feel comfortable blatantly using the state’s monopoly on violence to punish their political opponents for the explicit purpose of retaining power.
The primary methodology used in the initial stages of this operation is the kangaroo court. This is a rigged trial in which overtly political appointees dominate the court, evidence is ignored if it is even admitted, and the guilt of the accused is a foregone conclusion.
Note that there is a BIG difference between someone complaining that they are being targeted by a kangaroo court (or, as some have called it recently, a political witch hunt) and someone actually being targeted by a kangaroo court. One of the key differences is that someone in the latter case generally is not able to avoid pre-trial imprisonment, and is usually denied access to the press. Another other key difference is evidence-based procedures; if these do not exist, the trial really is a witch hunt. Finally, a real kangaroo court’s procedures and presentations of evidence are almost never shown or reported in the media.
Remember — when information is freely available, it’s much more likely that any event is above-board.
The final stage of abuse of state power is the complete abdication of law & order in favor of the whim of the authoritarian. On the instant that an individual is arrested and imprisoned simply because the person in supreme executive power wishes them to be, the authoritarian state is complete.⁵
Donald Trump’s statements that he would direct the Department of Justice to arrest his political opponents should trigger all sorts of alarm bells. This is exactly the type of abuse of power that would showcase the start of the American authoritarian state, should it occur.
Now You Know, and Knowledge is Half the Battle
A final point: one should not simply believe any shmuck on TV who claims that they are the victim of authoritarian action. Lots of people play the victim, but the real victims tend to not get screen time because the authoritarian has already won. Know the signs of real authoritarian takeover, and recognize that any authoritarian worth their salt is more than proficient at gaslighting.
It can happen here. It could easily happen here. It is incumbent on every citizen to keep a constant, sharp watch for the tell-tale signs of authoritarianism and raise seven shades of hell to keep them from taking root. Protest and counter-protest. Write your newspaper. Talk to your friends. Put up signs on the street. Shout into the void online. Call your representatives. Pressure your business community. Organize. And VOTE. Guns don’t stop a slow slide into authoritarianism, but political action does. Vote the bastards out and away, before they grab so many levers of power that voting no longer matters at all.
Do your part, before we get to the stage where people start to consider guns a part of the solution.
¹At which point, a dispassionate reader might ask what my motivations are for saying such a thing. I make no bones about the fact that I am a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. That doesn’t actually matter in this analysis. No one involved in the Project 2025 planning makes any bones about their “conservative” orientation or intentions to deconstruct the federal government and implement a Trump-loyal authoritarian state. It’s literally the point of the plan. I don’t have to be liberal to see that implementing a deliberately partisan takeover of every US federal agency is critically dangerous. The bureaucracy is supposed to be apolitical and it currently IS. Any attempt to make it otherwise is inherently dangerous, period, full stop. Adding Christian Nationalism on top of that is just the poisonous icing on the cake.
²I’m using Wikipedia here because it is accessible, substantially accurate, and serves as a fine jumping-off point for additional reading. This isn’t a collegiate or academic article, and I’m not going to go into JSTOR to track down a paywalled article to explain these concepts when there is a perfectly valid explanation right there.
³Sex education is what we’re talking about here, a concept that has been so vilified in the US that it’s hard to even mention it in public now. This has had the dual effects of increasing unwanted pregnancies and increasing the vulnerability of children to sexual predators, since the main points of sex ed are to explain how the plumbing works and what to do if the priest touches you in your special place. A large proportion of US citizens seem to believe that sex ed actually means teaching kids about sexual positions or giving tips to sex acts, which is ludicrously wrong but has traction with the crowd that believes that liberals are an inherent moral threat.
⁴A short list, with references: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_or_misleading_statements_by_Donald_Trump
⁵This is not to say that any abuse of power by police is evidence of an authoritarian state; abuse of power by the police should be expected, monitored, and controlled by society whenever it pops up. The key differences between run-of-the-mill police abuse of power and authoritarianism are that the affected individuals are (a) specifically and often publicly targeted by the authoritarian executive, (b) never exonerated, and (c)vanish.