Slouching Towards Authoritarianism

Joe Pierre
4 min readJun 17, 2020

Back in 2014, Donald Trump went on Fox & Friends to predict that “when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster, then you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.” It has been claimed that a year earlier, Trump chief strategist-to-be Steve Bannon boasted of wanting to “bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Meanwhile, throughout the Trump presidency, Vladimir Putin’s troll army has been busy at work to “set Americans against their own government to provoke unrest and discontent,” with more recent revelations that Russia has been plotting to fire up long-smoldering racial tensions.

Sound familiar? In the wake of George Floyd’s murder under the knee of police, the nation seemingly erupted in flames this past week, epitomizing the very kind of “American carnage” that Trump vowed to halt in his inaugural address. And yet, with ambitions to deploy military forces within American cities with instructions to “dominate” and after parading a Bible and an Army general dressed in camouflage outside the White House, it seems increasingly clear that the reference to “carnage” wasn’t so much a commentary on the world President Trump inherited from President Obama. It was a vision of the future that he and Bannon fantasized about behind closed doors based on the biblically apocalyptic notion that one must tear things down to build them up. Taking a look around us in 2020, it would be hard to claim that at least the first half of that mission has not been accomplished.

To be clear, the “American carnage” narrative continues a well-established pattern of the Trump administration propagandizing Black people as “thugs,” Latin Americans as a teeming horde of migrant “rapists” and “animals,” liberals and Democrats as plotting the destruction of America, and the free press as “the enemy of the people.” It is a conspiracy theory narrative intended to instill fear that successfully handed Trump the presidency in 2016 and is being blatantly deployed again as we approach November, with protesters conflated with rioters and looters and violence and destruction attributed by Attorney General Bill Barr to Antifa “domestic terrorists.” It is false propaganda that refuses to acknowledge counterevidence that some of the agitators and provocateurs that have infiltrated the protests, including the “riot police” themselves, represent pro-fascist agendas. These opportunists exploiting the apparent chaos on the ground are hawks intent on creating anarchy and clamoring for civil war, providing ammunition to the hawks in power who, as Senator Tom Cotton recently illustrated so vividly, are itching to “send in the troops.”

From Hannah Arendt to Sarah Kendzior and Steven Levitsky more recently, expert witnesses of authoritarianism have repeatedly warned us that fascist regimes are often born by exploiting popular uprisings during times of crisis. Likewise, in his post-World War I poem The Second Coming, W.B. Yeats presaged an anti-Christ who “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born,” emerging when “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” [and] mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” These writers remind us that it is not the phoenix that rises from the flames, but more often the Reichsadler.

The outrage that has boiled over in response to George Floyd’s death, along with an ever-accumulating list of other Black people killed by both official and self-appointed policemen, is more than understandable — as the saying goes, if you’re not outraged, you haven’t been paying attention. And as Martin Luther King Jr. said, we cannot condemn rioting without condemning the conditions that spark it. But those of us desperate for social justice must take care to not allow our outrage in response to the knee of police, or the boot of authoritarianism, to be turned against the cause, playing into the hands or buying into the false narratives of those poised to profit from expansion of the police state and authoritarian rule.

This is not a call to “simmer down” — on the contrary, we must continue to protest en masse in the name of George Floyd against oppression in all its forms; resist the slippery slope of populist discontent, authoritarianism, and fascism; and most importantly, get out and vote in November for leaders dedicated to fighting for liberty and justice for all.

But we must also hold the center. We must be vigilant of ongoing efforts to subvert our collective anger, and fear, into an altogether different cause, while the likes of Trump, Barr, Cotton, and Putin sit back and high-five each other, champing at the bit to see the tanks brought in.



Joe Pierre

Dr. Joe Pierre is a professor of psychiatry at UCSF and author of the Psych Unseen blog at Psychology Today. Twitter @psychunseen.