Micro Totalitarianism And Mass Violence
In The U.S. - It Has Happened Before
And May Happen Again

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BY ALEX HINTON
August 2022

The US is a reformed micro-totalitarian state on the brink of backsliding.  

Former President Trump’s contestation of the 2020 election, incitement of violence, and central role in fomenting the January 6 Capitol Insurrection dramatically revealed this danger even as it existed beforehand and continued afterward. Indeed, a number of  post-election polls found that tens of millions of people in the U.S. believe that anti-government violence is justified and may be necessary. Many contend there may be a second civil war

This is not who we are.” Some of the doubters invoke American exceptionalism, as House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy did immediately after the January 6 insurrection. He also called the insurrection “un-American,” a remark echoing another comment that circulated widely at the time, “This is not America.”

But, if dramatic, the insurrection was continuous with U.S. history, as is the on-going threat of mass violence and democratic backsliding in the U.S. As I underscore in It Can Happen Here: White Power and the Rising Threat of Genocide in the US, “it has happened here” – and often. 

“It” as Mass Violence

I mean “it” in two senses. The first “it” refers to mass violence including atrocity crimes, a term that encompasses genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. This “it” is straight-forward even if often masked or presented as politically contentious as recent debates about U.S. history and critical race theory illustrate.

As some reactionary critics of the “1619 Project” and critical race theory contend, there are many moments to appreciate in U.S. history, such as the promulgation of the founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. But this does not mean we should distort and gloss over the darker side of this history as texts like the Trump administration’s “1776 Report” do. For example, to glorify the Declaration of Independence without fully acknowledging its erasure of enslavement and view of “merciless Indian Savages” leads to a history that is closer to propaganda of the sort that back-sliding democracies and authoritarian regimes use. 

As such elisions suggest, U.S. history was intertwined with mass violence from the start. Settler colonialists took ownership of indigenous lands. Native Americans, devastated by disease brought by the settlers, endured a long, slow process of removal from these lands that was accomplished by war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. 

"The first “it” refers to mass violence including atrocity crimes, a term that encompasses genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing."

 

Labor was required to work the lands. While indentured European servitude initially helped solve this problem, the settlers found a long-term solution in African enslavement. The enslaved were deprived of basic rights and freedoms and suffered abuse in a host of ways including forced labor, sexual violence, family separation, whippings, lynching, and execution. This situation also involved a host of atrocity crimes including what civil rights leaders in the 1950s charged was a Black genocide that continued through Jim Crow. 

Systemic white supremacy legitimated, codified, and maintained enslavement and justified abuse of other non-white groups (and, for centuries, non-Protestant), especially during waves of immigration that stirred nativist fears and xenophobia: Catholic Irish and Germans in the (mid-19th century), Chinese and other “Asian Peril” groups (late 19th century), South and Eastern European immigrants, including Jews and Italians (early 20th century), Japanese (World War II), and Mexicans and Latin American groups (mid-20th century into the present). The U.S. has also committed mass violence during wars abroad, as illustrated by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Mai Lai massacre and extensive use of agent orange in Vietnam, and torture and other abuses during the “war on terror.”

The idea that “it can happen here,” then, is predicated in part on the fact that “it has happened here” repeatedly. Indeed, a history of atrocity crimes is one of the risk factors for the recurrence of such violence. Some maintain that democratic safeguards obviate this possibility in the U.S. While there is some truth to this contention, the U.S. has repeatedly committed atrocity crimes despite such democratic buffers. 

“It” as Authoritarianism

This brings us to the second inflection of the “it” in “it can happen here”: authoritarianism. To many, suggesting the U.S. once was or might become authoritarian, fascist, or totalitarian is an overstatement and even outlandish. 

This perception is due to two factors. First, in the popular imagination, such terms best fit cases like Nazi Germany under Hitler, Italy under Mussolini, the Soviet Union under Stalin, or China under Mao. 

I have conducted extensive anthropological research on another illustrative case of authoritarianism: Cambodia under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. To launch their super great leap forward” into communism, the Maoist-inspired, Marxist-Leninist Khmer Rouge collectivized the means and forces of production while banning freedom of speech, movement, and assembly and terrorizing the population through an extensive security apparatus. Almost a quarter of the population perished from disease, overwork, starvation, and execution during this genocide

"To many, suggesting the U.S. once was or might become authoritarian, fascist, or totalitarian is an overstatement and even outlandish."

The Cambodian case illustrates many of the key features of authoritarianism: the concentration of power in a leader or elite, use of fear and repression, a diminished public sphere, and the erosion of democratic institutions and check and balances such as representative and impartial government, free media and elections, rights-based rule of law, and a robust civil society. 

States that fall somewhere between a democracy and an authoritarian regime are sometimes referred to as “hybrid regimes” or “illiberal democracies.” While such concepts are contested, many view fascism as a type of authoritarian regime involving militaristic far-right ultranationalism promising renewal. 

Totalitarianism, in turn, involves the most extreme form of authoritarianism in which the concentration of power and a legitimating ideology are extensive, the public sphere is largely frayed, people are highly atomized, and fear, terror, and suppression are pervasive. Khmer Rouge Cambodia provides one example of such totalitarianism as do the cases Hannah Arendt underscores in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Union.

Micro-Totalitarianism

Arendt’s contemporary Theodor Adorno warned that such categorizations and related research may a “democratic bias,” or implicit assumptions that don’t account for anti-democratic tendencies and oppressive social forces within democracies. His admonition pertains to concepts like totalitarianism, fascism, and authoritarianism, which are associated with mass violence, terror, and repression. 

While authoritarian, fascist, and totalitarian regimes have committed a host of mass human rights violations, this association suggests that such violence is not characteristic of democratic countries like the US, which, as I have noted, is not the case. But there is a second and related problem: the state-centrism of these concepts. These terms are predicated on an “either-or” categorization of a state as democratic or authoritarian and therefore have difficulty accounting for the possibility that a state can be both democratic and authoritarian, fascist, or totalitarian at the same time. 

One way to escape this tension is to acknowledge that a democratic state may have sub-domains in which it operates in an authoritarian, fascist, or totalitarian manner, what we might call “micro-authoritarianism,” “micro-fascism,” or “micro-totalitarianism.” In other words, these terms refer to states that have overarching democratic traditions, structures, and practices while carving out sub-domains in which oppressed people live under authoritarian, fascist, or totalitarian conditions. 

"These terms are predicated on an “either-or” categorization of a state as democratic or authoritarian and therefore have difficulty accounting for the possibility that a state can be both democratic and authoritarian, fascist, or totalitarian at the same time."

Although there are many historical examples, especially in the colonial world, enslavement in the U.S. highlights the operation of such a situation of micro-authoritarianism and micro-totalitarianism. Prior to the Civil War, Black slaves in the U.S., especially in the South, lived under totalitarian conditions. Their lives were heavily controlled to extract their labor, and they were treated like commodities. Their enslavement was legitimated by a dominant white supremacist ideology, while their freedoms were almost non-existent. Families were torn apart, and the public sphere greatly diminished. The system was enforced by slave codes, terror, and widespread violence. 

The lives of the enslaved in the (micro-totalitarian) antebellum U.S. South very much resembled life in Cambodia under the (totalitarian) Khmer Rouge regime. After the Civil War, conditions for Black Americans abated but could still be characterized as micro-authoritarian, especially in the Jim Crow South. The plight of Native Americans could be discussed in similar terms – as can the situation of oppressed peoples in other parts of the world, such as apartheid South Africa, the caste system in India, and, more recently, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. 

While beyond the focus of this essay, it is important to note that authoritarian or fascist states may also operate even more repressive “micro-totalitarian” domains. Examples include King Leopold’s Congo, Jews and other groups under the Nazis (and the Nazis were partly influenced by the model of Jim Crow), Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, and China’s Uyghur penal colony

Backsliding and Exceptionalism

If the U.S. is a democracy with a micro-totalitarian and micro-authoritarian past, as illustrated by enslavement and Jim Crow, respectively, it is a democracy that backslid during the Trump administration and demonstrated how quickly the authoritarian “it” could potentially happen here. Indeed, in its 2020 report, International IDEA listed the U.S. as a backsliding democracy amid former President Trump’s assault on the democratic foundations of the country, ranging from eroding the rule of law and freedom of the media to attempting to overturn a free election and violently seize power through an insurrection. At the time, the threat of political violence and even atrocity crimes greatly increased, a situation that persisted into the Biden presidency. 

In the early 1930s, as Hitler was rising to power in Nazi Germany and extremism was on the rise in the U.S., novelist Sinclair Lewis similarly observed the danger of authoritarianism and mass violence in the U.S., a threat he depicted in literary form in his book, It Can’t Happen Here. Lewis’s title plays on the naïve assumption of many people in the U.S. that anti-democratic and violent assaults are “un-American.” 

These individuals would do well to heed Lewis’s warning that such American exceptionalism is naïve and dangerous. An examination of U.S. history underscores the point that mass violence and micro-authoritarianism are part of the country’s past, present, and possible future. 

REFERENCES:

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, 1973.

Hinton, Alexander Laban. It Can Happen Here: White Power and the Rising Threat of Violence in the U.S. New York: NYU Press, 2021.

Hinton, Alexander Laban. Anthropological Witness: Lessons from the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022.

Lee, Erika. America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2019.

Lewis, Sinclair. It Can’t Happen Here. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co, 1935.

Parker, Christopher Sebastian, and Christopher C. Towler. “Race and Authoritarianism in American Politics.” Annual Review of Political Science 22(2019): 503-19.

The Global State of Democracy Report 2021,” International IDEA Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, access July 6, 2022. 

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