The New Year’s Day inauguration of avowed authoritarian strongman Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil signaled an ominous start to 2019. Brazil, as the fifth largest country by landmass (larger than the Australian continent), the sixth largest by population (larger than Russia), and the ninth largest economy (larger than Canada), represents global fascism’s biggest gain in recent history. The rise of Bolsonaro follows the recent consolidation of power by reactionary nationalists Recep Tayyip Erdoğa in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.
We start out 2019 with neo-Fascists and assorted other “populists” and ethnonationalists holding office in 11 European nations, scoring recent double-digit vote tallies in Finland, Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Marine Le Pen’s French ethnonationalist National Front garnered one third of that country’s 2017 vote for president. Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s governing PiS Party, described migrants arriving in Europe as being physically different than Poles, with an ability to carry “various parasites and protozoa, which don’t affect their organisms, but which could be dangerous here.” Duterte celebrated New Year’s Eve boasting of his childhood molestation of his family’s maid. Bolsonaro praised genocide against Native Americans and told a fellow member of Brazil’s congress, on the floor of that house, that she wasn’t good enough for him to rape. He promised to jail his opposition. 2019 is promising to be ugly.
In the United States, while Republicans lost ground nationally, reactionaries solidified domination of the party, with moderates and constitutionalists retiring or losing primaries in 2018. Despite a large popular vote loss, Republicans added two seats to their Senate majority, giving them continued power to appoint activist right-wing judges.
After losing statehouse races in Michigan and Wisconsin, Republican legislatures in both states moved to curtail the authority of the incoming Democratic governors-elect, as they did two years earlier in North Carolina. Resistance to ceding power after losing an election is a critical warning sign of a failing democracy. Nationally, the party has been doubling down on its efforts to suppress voting while embracing propagandistic misinformation campaigns and xenophobic dog-whistles often associated with the rise of fascism. Trump isn’t leading the party to fascism—he’s the product of a sustained GOP effort to subvert voting rights and democratic norms. By the time this New York City sideshow authoritarian ran for president, the Republican rank and file was well groomed to receive him and the fascism he represented. Here are nine forces that are driving this rise of fascism.
1) Addictive Social Media
Americans spend 11 hours per day in front of screens, much of it on social media platforms that are designed to be addictive. Using them activates the neurotransmitter dopamine, which leads to a tickling of the brain’s opioid receptors, alighting its reward center and luring users back for more. The platforms harvest your time and attention, working most effectively as smartphone apps.
Facebook provides a good example how addictive platforms support the rise of fascism. They create a specialized experience for each of us in a universe that really is about you, filled with things you want to read and see, and, if it’s your preference, populated only by people like yourself. This is your Internet bubble and you won’t be disturbed by any reality that upsets your understanding of the world, xenophobic or detached from quantifiable reality as it may be.
The reality of fascism is that, historically, it has always sucked for damn near everyone falling under its authoritarian jackboot, including the dupes who supported its rise. How’d things work out in Germany, Italy, Chile, Argentina? Fascism is always embodied by repression of freedoms and kleptocratic corruption. The reality of what fascists do and how it plays out is never good news. Which is why quantifiable reality is fascism’s primary enemy. Propaganda-wise, rising fascists must crush reality. Thanks to data analytics, addictive social media platforms are now weaponized to do just that with pinpoint precision.
2) Big Data
The big data threat has risen as a by-product of our screen epidemic crisis. Social media addicts forgo privacy and give up their most personal data through posts, likes, and Internet use patterns. Google and Facebook are primarily in the business of not just harvesting but analyzing and thus monetizing this data to sell microtargeted advertising, knowing the innermost desires of each consumer.
Your time you spent reading this column, swiping Tinder, playing Candy Crush, paying bills, or reading product reviews is all captured. Myriad Google services and apps spy on your every move. Literally. Your Internet-connected cars, smart TVs, household appliances, thermostats, and fitness trackers also contribute to your intricate data profile.
Big data companies cross-reference and analyze this data, creating your unique psychographic profile—used to craft your irresistibly perfect dopaminergic bubble and effectively micro-market products and political ideologies specifically to you while predicting your future behavior. The techno-dystopian fascist potentials here are boundless. Recently we’ve seen this data deployed in sophisticated techno-propaganda operations to undermine quantifiable reality and divide us into tribes.
Of course, you can monkeywrench this system by disappearing off the grid and walking in the woods. But chances are your car will narc you out or your hiking partner will post a Yelp review of the trail. At the end of the day, Amazon will market you boots. Artificial intelligence (AI) is making this all possible.
3) Artificial Intelligence
The ability of data analytics giants to crunch billions of data point trails into billions of profiles is made possible by the same advances in computer processing speeds and memory that drives AI development.
AI is supercharging robotics and threatening most professions. While xenophobes blame immigration for wage suppression and unemployment, in reality, it’s automation. And entire professions such as Uber driver or Amazon picker exist to lay the groundwork for their own robotic destruction.
Decades ago, techno-utopian futurists predicted we’d only have to work a few hours per week. The current reality has workers with depressed earnings working multiple jobs. With more AI-driven robotics and millions of lost transportation, logistics, retail, medical, service, educational, and other positions disappearing, prepare to see more of the economic disruptions that tore the heart out of the American heartland and led to economic disenfranchisement and the rise of Trumpism. History shows extreme economic inequality as a driving force in the rise of fascism.
AI appliances can take human jobs but they can never be human nor achieve self-realization, a consciousness or a soul. In its worst incarnation, AI can operate robotic weapons and kill humans—like programable sociopathic assassins killing without hesitation and never questioning orders. Second Amendment fans are no match for clouds of killer drone bots. Governments are currently in an AI arms race, with 2019 threatening to tip us into an AI juggernaut.
Corporate monopolies have been rebounding since Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department relaxed anti-trust enforcement. The current consolidation of tech giants heralds a previously unimaginable rise of monopoly power, with Amazon, Google, and Facebook gobbling up and assimilating competitors, growing to control the very platforms upon which commerce and communication, including free speech, exist.
Free speech is the life force of democracy. Monopolies that have the power to pull the plug on free speech, by their very existence, stand as an existential threat. Monopolies may now tolerate corrupted “democracies” that allow their existence. The question is, will they be as tolerant of resurgent democracies that threaten their power. Or, put more bluntly, can you count on Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post, now a subdued counterpoint to the Republican Party’s Fox News operation, not to cozy up to authoritarians when, say, a Sanders or Warren Justice Department applies anti-trust laws against Bezos’s Amazon monopolies.
The history of European fascism in the 1930s and 1940s warns us that such conglomerates had no problem supporting fascism when it supported them. Let’s not forget the roles of IBM in providing technology supporting the Nazi Holocaust, or Ford and GM in arming the Nazi military. With monopolies purchasing American political assets on “both sides of the aisle,” their unfettered growth and continued consolidation of power is all but guaranteed and the window of opportunity to rein them in is quickly closing. Whether they chose to support or oppose fascism will be pivotal. History has given us reason to worry.
5) Migration Xenophobia
Global warming promises to send more climate change refugees fleeing famine, flood, persistent wildfires, deadly heatwaves, and rising oceans, while persistent poverty, the rise of fascist regimes, and the political collapse of civil societies are causing millions to join the migrations. The linguistic, cultural, and religious differences that migrants represent has become weaponized in the arsenal of fascists who work to sow fear of the unknown (xenophobia) in populations they wish to control.
Syria provides an example. The 2011-2012 uprising against the repressive Assad government in Syria and the subsequent violent chaos brought on by seven years of a five-way war, caused six million Syrians to flee, with about a million heading to Europe. The arrival of these Arabic-speaking, primarily Muslim Syrians in Europe provided an opportunity for previously fringe ethnonationalists to sow xenophobia. Simply put, the Syrian war, fueled by foreign invaders, drove fleeing Syrians to Europe where neo-Fascists exploited their presence to undermine European democratic concepts of liberalism and multiculturalism. These fascist movements are now threatening the political cohesion of the European Union, in whose creation Europeans envisioned a united front against the resurgence of Fascism.
2019 promises to see more migrants and more fascists.
6) Corrupt Religion
Religion usually lies just beneath the surface of most violent conflicts. It’s a social construct that despots often use to dehumanize enemies and allow for their killing. While many religions preach tolerance, intolerance is almost always justified by religion as well—even by religions whose core values rhetorically celebrate tolerance. Religion today is often perverted and weaponized as an instrument of social control, with a sizable portion of the US population succumbing to identity politics and voting to undermine their own personal values and go along with a fascist agenda. Such herd voting sits at the foundation of Republican political power in the United States while a convenient “prosperity gospel” provides theological cover for “sinful” greed.
7) Attacks on Education
The best defense against fascism is an educated population with the ability to think critically. This is why newly formed democratic governments usually invest in education while authoritarians slash education.
Education level is also a marked determining factor in voting in the United States, with more educated voters favoring Democratic candidates by significant margins in recent elections—which is a reversal from the 1990s. As a party with an established record of targeting demographic groups for voter suppression based on their voting patterns, educated voters are a Republican target. But education empowers people, making them more difficult to target for suppression. The obvious long-game is to suppress education availability by keeping college costs prohibitively expensive and college aid scant.
8) False Equivalencies
As of this writing, the Washington Post’s fact checkers have documented 7,645 false or misleading statements (a.k.a. lies) made by President Trump since taking office. For Trump, and many of his enablers, lying comes as naturally as breathing. This creates a problem for journalists. Call out liars for lying, which is the job of journalism, and it looks like bias to the untrained eye. The problem is that one group is doing almost all of the lying. So, if you report on lies, you’re essentially reporting on Republican lies, or just “attacking” Republicans. Reality is biased.
The corporate news media in the United States is not in the business of keeping us informed. It’s in the business of capturing and selling our attention. If they appear biased, in this case by reporting the truth, they risk alienating viewers. To appear less biased, they rhetorically balance the White House’s most egregious lies against oversimplifications or rhetorical generalizations from their opponents.
This causes a false equivalency—a “he said, she said” narrative with everyone fibbing—which has no bearing on the reality that one group is doing almost all of the lying. The end result is, instead of outrage and anger directed at the liars, we get a general antipathy toward politics, which leads to a disempowering apathy and yielding of the political area to fascists. We’ve got to demand better media—or make it ourselves—and stop patronizing media outlets that can’t quite call out liars and fascists.
9) Psychological Distress
Donald Trump is trolling us every day. That’s who he is. I never wanted to write about him, but here we are. Republicans have been depressing for a while, but the Trump presidency brings their obnoxiousness to a historically unprecedented level, with dozens of outrages each week since CNN began promoting him as a serious presidential candidate in 2015. Trump and his enablers have declared a war, not on an ideology or a people, but on the future itself. With multiple new arms races, bellicose threats against world leaders, new alliances with fascists, and the emboldening of racists that want us dead at home, we can’t ignore the epidemic of stress- and trauma-related mental illness that is sweeping the nation and much of the world.
So be aware of your mental health and the health of people around you. We are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis brought on by a sadistic bully and his enablers. Don’t just think that Donald Trump is a punk you can ignore way, and that he ain’t worthy of getting inside your head. He’s already there. And he’s the driving force behind the rise of fascism in the United States. To ignore him is to allow him. We can’t drop the ball in this struggle. The psychological distress we see in our communities can be disabling, and hence, a weapon in the fascist arsenal.
Seek out solace in community and liberation in activism. We can move beyond the fascist threat and be stronger because of it. The complacency of the Obama years, where things slowly got worse while a brilliant personable orator captivated our hopes, are over. Rather then foolishly trust the old Democratic Party to fix the problems they were complacent in making, we’re hitting the streets with a level of vigor not seen in over a generation. So, hang in there. But not merely as a spectator.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are archived at mediastudy.com and are available globally through syndication. This article was adpated from a piece published previously at Truthout.org.