Dictatorship by Consent

The easiest way for fascists to grab power is to convince the great majority that it supports—or can tolerate—whatever Dear Leader is doing

Dictatorship by Consent
Photo by Kyle Cleveland on Unsplash

In his early days as Chief Twit, Elon Musk launched a flurry of Twitter polls to determine the future direction of the “global town square” that was now under his singular control*.

“Vox Populi, Vox Dei”

At first, Musk’s Twitter polls seemed to deliver the results he and his alt-right fanboys wanted. When more than 15 million “people” voted in his poll and narrowly approved the Twitter reinstatement of Donald Trump, Musk tweeted: “The people have spoken. Trump will be reinstated. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.”

Among other things, Musk has used Twitter polls to get “permission” to sell Tesla stock (Nov. 2021), decide that Twitter needs an edit button (April 2022) and to reinstate several journalists he suspended (Dec. 2022).

Whenever he was happy with the results, Musk leaned in to his “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” mantra. He conveniently ignored all the evidence that Twitter polls are easily manipulated by bots and, in the words of Nicole Gill, co-founder and executive director of Accountable Tech: “Open to manipulation by bad actors—including foreign governments.”

Things changed, however, after more than 17 million votes were cast in Musk’s biggest Twitter poll to date and users demanded—by a 15-point margin—that Musk step down as head of Twitter:

The people had spoken loud and clear—and turnout was higher than ever. But instead of accepting the overwhelming results and stepping down immediately, Musk waited two days to tweet: “I will resign as CEO as soon as I find someone foolish enough to take the job! After that, I will just run the software & servers teams.”

Anyone who thought that a vote for Musk to “step down as head of Twitter” meant he would leave Twitter completely quickly realized that—like Trump after his crushing defeat in November 2020—Space Karen wasn’t planning on leaving, no matter what “the people” wanted.

Musk’s supporters (who had previously enjoyed owning the libs via Twitter poll) were suddenly exposed as being in a weak minority. They began claiming the CEO poll was just a genius ruse to expose bots (finally!).

Meanwhile, Musk immediately latched onto the suggestion that future policy-related polls be limited only to those paying him $8 a month (or $11 through the App Store) to be “Twitter Blue” subscribers.

“Good point,” he replied. “Twitter will make that change.”

“Vox Populi, Vox Dei” be damned.

Gerrymandering comes to Twitter polls

In just a couple of months as Twitter owner, Musk has come to discover what white supremacy-favoring GOP politicians—and the Koch-sponsored judges who love them—have known for years: If you’re going to let the populi decide things, you have to be very careful who you allow to have a vox.

For most Twitter users, the idea of paying $8 a month in order to deliver free content (and your “assassination coordinates”) to Twitter/Musk/Saudi Arabia is anathema—not to mention unaffordable. The suggestion that it will soon cost $96 a year ($132 in the App Store) for the right to participate in Twitter policy polls makes a complete mockery of Musk’s “global town square/voice of the people” promises.

Musk’s “pay to play” requirement for Twitter polls takes an already dubious, easily manipulated process and blends it with a combination of extreme gerrymandering and highly targeted voter suppression.

In case you needed any more reason to get set up on Mastodon ASAP: Musk is also flirting with a “downvoting” system that, according to Mark Cuban and Mark Elias, could help far-right extremists systematically silence left-wing voices and establish Twitter as a “pro-elon echo chamber.”

“Stupid people are dangerous”—Katniss Everdeen

I have previously made the case that, in addition to being a criminal and a psychopath, Trump is incredibly stupid. (Howard Lindzon agrees.)

More recently, Oliver Willis made a strong case that “Musk Is Just… Dumb”.

Both Trump and Musk have a form of rich white guy stupidity that allows them to inflate their own sense of (stable) genius while remaining willfully ignorant—and maintaining convenient blind spots—on matters of great importance, especially those that suit their racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, anti-democratic, egotistical tendencies and their greediest financial impulses. As @LOLGOP told me a few days ago, both men have played into “America’s passion for rich dudes” to help mainstream a lot of bad ideas and conspiracy theories.

America’s passion for rich dudes has helped these two elite-but-mentally-feeble white supremacists parlay their fame into positions where they can control—and grift off—mass audiences comprised of society’s least educated and most gullible elements.

Snake-oil salesman Trump used the mass media and traditional brand marketing techniques to propel his rise to power.

Exploding carmaker Musk used memes and crypto hustles to build his Trump-like following on social media.

“Are you not entertained?”

At separate moments in their rise and fall—especially as evidence of their incompetence and waning real-world influence have become apparent to anyone paying attention—Trump and Musk have resorted to highlighting the popular appeal of their often-hateful antics.

Trump has previously “proven” his mass appeal by celebrating his TV ratings and the size of his MAGA rally crowds. Now he’s proving his worth by stealing stock photos to sell as cheap NFTs. Musk, meanwhile, routinely hops onto Twitter to claim that (despite the mass defections) Twitter usage is reaching new highs on his watch and that live events like the World Cup Final are getting YUGE ratings on Twitter.

Whether or not we can trust cherry-picked data points from a proven liar like Musk, one of the best comebacks to those kinds of tweets I saw came from @MarshaWarfield: “train wrecks always draw a crowd.”

Clearly, though, both Trump and Musk have realized that the best way to distract people from the fascism now threatening to destroy everything they once loved is to convince them they’re having fun. The “elites” may take offense. But Trump and Musk are simply giving the masses what they want.

I’m not an expert in the history of strongmen and dictators. For that, I recommend subscribing to Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s Lucid newsletter and reading my past interviews with her here and here.

But I did recently come across a 2007 lecture by British historian Richard J. Evans entitled “Coercion and Consent in Nazi Germany,” the abstract of which reads:

This lecture discusses three central propositions to a new consensus that the Third Reich was a ‘dictatorship by consent’. The first proposition states that the Nazis did not seize power; rather, they won it legally and by consent. The second is that the Nazi repression, which was exercised through the Gestapo and the concentration camps, was on a small scale and did not actually affect most of the population. The third proposition discussed in this lecture is that the overwhelming popularity of the regime was demonstrated by the staggeringly successful results it achieved in national elections and plebiscites.

If Steve Bannon had his way, of course, Trump would have already delivered on points one, two and three (actual vote counts notwithstanding). On a statewide level, it’s what Ron DeSantis is already doing. No wonder he’s already got Musk’s backing for 2024.

The full article of Evans’ lecture is available as a downloadable PDF. This passage, in which he cites the work of Canadian academic Robert Gellately, resonated strongly with me:

‘In their successful cultivation of popular opinion’, Robert Gellately has written, ‘the Nazis did not need to use widespread terror against the population to establish the regime.’ ‘The Nazi revolution’, he argues, ‘did not begin with a sweeping onslaught on German society, but moved forward in tune with what the great majority of people wanted or would tolerate.’ Terror, he says, was directed above all at small groups of social outcasts, and did not threaten the lives of the vast majority of ordinary Germans. Most Germans were indeed aware of the concentration camps and the terror apparatus, but their reaction was one not of fear but of approval. If terror did play a role in consolidating the regime, then it was the terror the Gestapo and the criminal police exercised against social outsiders, which helped convince the overwhelming majority of ordinary Germans that law and order were at last being restored after the chaos and disorder of the Weimar Republic. ‘The silent and not-so-silent majority’, says Gellately, ‘backed the regime.’

What I take away from that is that, especially in this divided, disinformation-filled nation, there’s a very thin line between “it can’t happen here” and “what the great majority of people” could be persuaded (or brainwashed) to tolerate.

Creating an “us vs. them” mentality is the entire basis of the Tucker Carlson White Supremacy Hour. And Republicans and Fox News are now marching in lockstep to target and demonize “social outsiders”—for example, by labeling undocumented immigrants “criminals” and “rapists,” and smearing everyone from to Drag Queens to teachers to librarians like this Catholic grandma as “groomers.”

Four years after Fox News launched in 1996, the Clinton-Gore Administration had been so vilified that popular vote loser George W. Bush was able to come to power following the “Brooks Brothers Riot” in Florida and one dubious Supreme Court decision.

If that was accepted as “legitimate political discourse” in 2000 why, 20 years later, would Trump (and Roger Stone) think that America wouldn’t accept one tiny armed insurrection—even if it involved one or two political assassinations—at the US Capitol?

Fascism rewards its supporters

Part of the appeal of a fascist dictator is that, for those willing to support the “charismatic leader,” fascism becomes a socialist welfare state. Trump proved that in 2017 with his unfunded $2.3 trillion tax cuts for corporations and the already-wealthy. He proved it in 2019 when, after his disastrous trade policies had caused a crisis, he bailed out farmers in Red States in a transparent bid to win back their favor ahead of the 2020 election. He proved it again during Covid when he and Kushner withheld aid to Blue States, even as he accelerated federal help to MAGA Governors.

Having embraced the adulterous money laundering pussygrabber Trump as their leader in 2016, the GOP is now fully invested on the divisive “us vs. them” path toward fascism.

Even as they try to divorce Trump the man, Republicans are not abandoning the dictator playbook he’s been using. Their new focus on “Christian Nationalism” imagines a post-Trump world where MAGA voters continue to reject everything Jesus ever told them, demonize undocumented immigrants and refugees, learn to hate their LGBTQ+ neighbors, and turn against democracy itself.

Republican voters are now required to accept that their party is fundamentally dishonest, as well as intellectually and morally bankrupt.

They must tolerate that their leaders have abandoned traditional “family values”—that adultery, paying for abortions, sexual assault and even pedophilia can be overlooked—in the name of lower taxes, “Christian” judges, demonizing the queer community, and reinforcing white supremacy.

They must reject the RINO idea that “character matters” and join a tribal movement in which being “one of us” is the only thing that’s important.

It can’t be fascism if “the people” want it

Trump, Musk and DeSantis are all part of a fascist experiment designed to fabricate the perception of popular support for even the most unpopular notions.

Trump’s reliance on mass rallies and his fixation on The Big Lie—the myth that he’s never lost an election—are two key pillars of his effort to reclaim his lost throne.

Musk’s willingness to manipulate Twitter polls reflects his need to pretend that “the will of the people” is justifying his authoritarian manipulation of the platform, even as he suspends or deboosts those who oppose him.

DeSantis’s targeting of innocent Black voters for “fraud” in Florida while ignoring actual white criminals, his demonization of the LGBTQ community—and his willingness to openly steal seats in Congress—demonstrate his long-term strategy to “divide and conquer” the entire country.

Meanwhile in Washington DC, Republicans routinely justify passing contentious bills by aggressively citing polls that show slim majority support for their policies while relentlessly ignoring polls—on issues like preventing gun violence and protecting Social Security—that show overwhelming support for policies they oppose.

The challenge ahead

In 2023 and 2024, the House of Representatives, key State Legislatures and Governorships—and Twitter—will all be in the hands of Dark MAGA/Christian Nationalist forces.

Fox News will continue to churn out its racist, homophobic, anti-democratic, pro-Putin propaganda.

Internet trolls will be out in force.

Thugs will be on the streets promoting hate and bigotry toward the marginalized communities that are most in need of our love and support.

The Dark MAGA Christian Nationalists will be trying to convince Americans that we’re living in a time of “chaos and disorder” and that “law and order” can only be restored if the “silent and not-so-silent majority” team up to accept the unacceptable.

Against these attacks on American values it’s more important than ever that the true majority continues to defend democracy and stands up for the rights of every American.

Don’t be fooled by fake election polls and rigged Twitter polls. They’re part of the psy ops campaign they’re running.

Fascists don’t want free and fair elections.

This year they tried—and failed—to seize control of the election machinery in several key states.

Yes, we won some key battles in 2022. But the war is not over.

From cities to suburbs, schools to libraries, churches to C-suites, we must continue to reject fascism—forcefully—everywhere it raises its head.

*Aside from the use of non-scientific polls, Musk is accepting public input from prominent right-wing Twitter users he likes to elevate, including “Catturd” and the vile and deadly conspiracy theorist Tom Fitton, whom the Federation of America Scientists has called: “a prolific amplifier of (Covid-19) disinformation.”

Musk is also getting an unknown amount of input from—and sharing an unknown amount of data with—his top investors from prolific human-rights violators Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

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