Naomi Wolf: Fascist America, in 10 easy steps


Richard Moore

Original source URL:,,2063979,00.html

Fascist America, in 10 easy steps
Naomi Wolf

From Hitler to Pinochet and beyond, history shows there are certain steps that 
any would-be dictator must take to destroy constitutional freedoms. And, argues 
Naomi Wolf, George Bush and his administration seem to be taking them all

Tuesday April 24, 2007
The Guardian

Last autumn, there was a military coup in Thailand. The leaders of the coup took
a number of steps, rather systematically, as if they had a shopping list. In a 
sense, they did. Within a matter of days, democracy had been closed down: the 
coup leaders declared martial law, sent armed soldiers into residential areas, 
took over radio and TV stations, issued restrictions on the press, tightened 
some limits on travel, and took certain activists into custody.

They were not figuring these things out as they went along. If you look at 
history, you can see that there is essentially a blueprint for turning an open 
society into a dictatorship. That blueprint has been used again and again in 
more and less bloody, more and less terrifying ways. But it is always effective.
It is very difficult and arduous to create and sustain a democracy - but history
shows that closing one down is much simpler. You simply have to be willing to 
take the 10 steps.

As difficult as this is to contemplate, it is clear, if you are willing to look,
that each of these 10 steps has already been initiated today in the United 
States by the Bush administration.

Because Americans like me were born in freedom, we have a hard time even 
considering that it is possible for us to become as unfree - domestically - as 
many other nations. Because we no longer learn much about our rights or our 
system of government - the task of being aware of the constitution has been 
outsourced from citizens' ownership to being the domain of professionals such as
lawyers and professors - we scarcely recognise the checks and balances that the 
founders put in place, even as they are being systematically dismantled. Because
we don't learn much about European history, the setting up of a department of 
"homeland" security - remember who else was keen on the word "homeland" - didn't
raise the alarm bells it might have.

It is my argument that, beneath our very noses, George Bush and his 
administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society. It 
is time for us to be willing to think the unthinkable - as the author and 
political journalist Joe Conason, has put it, that it can happen here. And that 
we are further along than we realise.

Conason eloquently warned of the danger of American authoritarianism. I am 
arguing that we need also to look at the lessons of European and other kinds of 
fascism to understand the potential seriousness of the events we see unfolding 
in the US.

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy

After we were hit on September 11 2001, we were in a state of national shock. 
Less than six weeks later, on October 26 2001, the USA Patriot Act was passed by
a Congress that had little chance to debate it; many said that they scarcely had
time to read it. We were told we were now on a "war footing"; we were in a 
"global war" against a "global caliphate" intending to "wipe out civilisation". 
There have been other times of crisis in which the US accepted limits on civil 
liberties, such as during the civil war, when Lincoln declared martial law, and 
the second world war, when thousands of Japanese-American citizens were 
interned. But this situation, as Bruce Fein of the American Freedom Agenda 
notes, is unprecedented: all our other wars had an endpoint, so the pendulum was
able to swing back toward freedom; this war is defined as open-ended in time and
without national boundaries in space - the globe itself is the battlefield. 
"This time," Fein says, "there will be no defined end."

Creating a terrifying threat - hydra-like, secretive, evil - is an old trick. It
can, like Hitler's invocation of a communist threat to the nation's security, be
based on actual events (one Wisconsin academic has faced calls for his dismissal
because he noted, among other things, that the alleged communist arson, the 
Reichstag fire of February 1933, was swiftly followed in Nazi Germany by passage
of the Enabling Act, which replaced constitutional law with an open-ended state 
of emergency). Or the terrifying threat can be based, like the National 
Socialist evocation of the "global conspiracy of world Jewry", on myth.

It is not that global Islamist terrorism is not a severe danger; of course it 
is. I am arguing rather that the language used to convey the nature of the 
threat is different in a country such as Spain - which has also suffered violent
terrorist attacks - than it is in America. Spanish citizens know that they face 
a grave security threat; what we as American citizens believe is that we are 
potentially threatened with the end of civilisation as we know it. Of course, 
this makes us more willing to accept restrictions on our freedoms.

2. Create a gulag

Once you have got everyone scared, the next step is to create a prison system 
outside the rule of law (as Bush put it, he wanted the American detention centre
at Guantánamo Bay to be situated in legal "outer space") - where torture takes 

At first, the people who are sent there are seen by citizens as outsiders: 
troublemakers, spies, "enemies of the people" or "criminals". Initially, 
citizens tend to support the secret prison system; it makes them feel safer and 
they do not identify with the prisoners. But soon enough, civil society leaders 
- opposition members, labour activists, clergy and journalists - are arrested 
and sent there as well.

This process took place in fascist shifts or anti-democracy crackdowns ranging 
from Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s to the Latin American coups of the
1970s and beyond. It is standard practice for closing down an open society or 
crushing a pro-democracy uprising.

With its jails in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, Guantánamo in Cuba, 
where detainees are abused, and kept indefinitely without trial and without 
access to the due process of the law, America certainly has its gulag now. Bush 
and his allies in Congress recently announced they would issue no information 
about the secret CIA "black site" prisons throughout the world, which are used 
to incarcerate people who have been seized off the street.

Gulags in history tend to metastasise, becoming ever larger and more secretive, 
ever more deadly and formalised. We know from first-hand accounts, photographs, 
videos and government documents that people, innocent and guilty, have been 
tortured in the US-run prisons we are aware of and those we can't investigate 

But Americans still assume this system and detainee abuses involve only scary 
brown people with whom they don't generally identify. It was brave of the 
conservative pundit William Safire to quote the anti-Nazi pastor Martin 
Niemöller, who had been seized as a political prisoner: "First they came for the
Jews." Most Americans don't understand yet that the destruction of the rule of 
law at Guantánamo set a dangerous precedent for them, too.

By the way, the establishment of military tribunals that deny prisoners due 
process tends to come early on in a fascist shift. Mussolini and Stalin set up 
such tribunals. On April 24 1934, the Nazis, too, set up the People's Court, 
which also bypassed the judicial system: prisoners were held indefinitely, often
in isolation, and tortured, without being charged with offences, and were 
subjected to show trials. Eventually, the Special Courts became a parallel 
system that put pressure on the regular courts to abandon the rule of law in 
favour of Nazi ideology when making decisions.

3. Develop a thug caste

When leaders who seek what I call a "fascist shift" want to close down an open 
society, they send paramilitary groups of scary young men out to terrorise 
citizens. The Blackshirts roamed the Italian countryside beating up communists; 
the Brownshirts staged violent rallies throughout Germany. This paramilitary 
force is especially important in a democracy: you need citizens to fear thug 
violence and so you need thugs who are free from prosecution.

The years following 9/11 have proved a bonanza for America's security 
contractors, with the Bush administration outsourcing areas of work that 
traditionally fell to the US military. In the process, contracts worth hundreds 
of millions of dollars have been issued for security work by mercenaries at home
and abroad. In Iraq, some of these contract operatives have been accused of 
involvement in torturing prisoners, harassing journalists and firing on Iraqi 
civilians. Under Order 17, issued to regulate contractors in Iraq by the 
one-time US administrator in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, these contractors are immune 
from prosecution

Yes, but that is in Iraq, you could argue; however, after Hurricane Katrina, the
Department of Homeland Security hired and deployed hundreds of armed private 
security guards in New Orleans. The investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill 
interviewed one unnamed guard who reported having fired on unarmed civilians in 
the city. It was a natural disaster that underlay that episode - but the 
administration's endless war on terror means ongoing scope for what are in 
effect privately contracted armies to take on crisis and emergency management at
home in US cities.

Thugs in America? Groups of angry young Republican men, dressed in identical 
shirts and trousers, menaced poll workers counting the votes in Florida in 2000.
If you are reading history, you can imagine that there can be a need for "public
order" on the next election day. Say there are protests, or a threat, on the day
of an election; history would not rule out the presence of a private security 
firm at a polling station "to restore public order".

4. Set up an internal surveillance system

In Mussolini's Italy, in Nazi Germany, in communist East Germany, in communist 
China - in every closed society - secret police spy on ordinary people and 
encourage neighbours to spy on neighbours. The Stasi needed to keep only a 
minority of East Germans under surveillance to convince a majority that they 
themselves were being watched.

In 2005 and 2006, when James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote in the New York 
Times about a secret state programme to wiretap citizens' phones, read their 
emails and follow international financial transactions, it became clear to 
ordinary Americans that they, too, could be under state scrutiny.

In closed societies, this surveillance is cast as being about "national 
security"; the true function is to keep citizens docile and inhibit their 
activism and dissent.

5. Harass citizens' groups

The fifth thing you do is related to step four - you infiltrate and harass 
citizens' groups. It can be trivial: a church in Pasadena, whose minister 
preached that Jesus was in favour of peace, found itself being investigated by 
the Internal Revenue Service, while churches that got Republicans out to vote, 
which is equally illegal under US tax law, have been left alone.

Other harassment is more serious: the American Civil Liberties Union reports 
that thousands of ordinary American anti-war, environmental and other groups 
have been infiltrated by agents: a secret Pentagon database includes more than 
four dozen peaceful anti-war meetings, rallies or marches by American citizens 
in its category of 1,500 "suspicious incidents". The equally secret 
Counterintelligence Field Activity (Cifa) agency of the Department of Defense 
has been gathering information about domestic organisations engaged in peaceful 
political activities: Cifa is supposed to track "potential terrorist threats" as
it watches ordinary US citizen activists. A little-noticed new law has redefined
activism such as animal rights protests as "terrorism". So the definition of 
"terrorist" slowly expands to include the opposition.

6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release

This scares people. It is a kind of cat-and-mouse game. Nicholas D Kristof and 
Sheryl WuDunn, the investigative reporters who wrote China Wakes: the Struggle 
for the Soul of a Rising Power, describe pro-democracy activists in China, such 
as Wei Jingsheng, being arrested and released many times. In a closing or closed
society there is a "list" of dissidents and opposition leaders: you are targeted
in this way once you are on the list, and it is hard to get off the list.

In 2004, America's Transportation Security Administration confirmed that it had 
a list of passengers who were targeted for security searches or worse if they 
tried to fly. People who have found themselves on the list? Two middle-aged 
women peace activists in San Francisco; liberal Senator Edward Kennedy; a member
of Venezuela's government - after Venezuela's president had criticised Bush; and
thousands of ordinary US citizens.

Professor Walter F Murphy is emeritus of Princeton University; he is one of the 
foremost constitutional scholars in the nation and author of the classic 
Constitutional Democracy. Murphy is also a decorated former marine, and he is 
not even especially politically liberal. But on March 1 this year, he was denied
a boarding pass at Newark, "because I was on the Terrorist Watch list".

"Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because 
of that," asked the airline employee.

"I explained," said Murphy, "that I had not so marched but had, in September 
2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the web, highly 
critical of George Bush for his many violations of the constitution."

"That'll do it," the man said.

Anti-war marcher? Potential terrorist. Support the constitution? Potential 
terrorist. History shows that the categories of "enemy of the people" tend to 
expand ever deeper into civil life.

James Yee, a US citizen, was the Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo who was accused 
of mishandling classified documents. He was harassed by the US military before 
the charges against him were dropped. Yee has been detained and released several
times. He is still of interest.

Brandon Mayfield, a US citizen and lawyer in Oregon, was mistakenly identified 
as a possible terrorist. His house was secretly broken into and his computer 
seized. Though he is innocent of the accusation against him, he is still on the 

It is a standard practice of fascist societies that once you are on the list, 
you can't get off.

7. Target key individuals

Threaten civil servants, artists and academics with job loss if they don't toe 
the line. Mussolini went after the rectors of state universities who did not 
conform to the fascist line; so did Joseph Goebbels, who purged academics who 
were not pro-Nazi; so did Chile's Augusto Pinochet; so does the Chinese 
communist Politburo in punishing pro-democracy students and professors.

Academe is a tinderbox of activism, so those seeking a fascist shift punish 
academics and students with professional loss if they do not "coordinate", in 
Goebbels' term, ideologically. Since civil servants are the sector of society 
most vulnerable to being fired by a given regime, they are also a group that 
fascists typically "coordinate" early on: the Reich Law for the Re-establishment
of a Professional Civil Service was passed on April 7 1933.

Bush supporters in state legislatures in several states put pressure on regents 
at state universities to penalise or fire academics who have been critical of 
the administration. As for civil servants, the Bush administration has derailed 
the career of one military lawyer who spoke up for fair trials for detainees, 
while an administration official publicly intimidated the law firms that 
represent detainees pro bono by threatening to call for their major corporate 
clients to boycott them.

Elsewhere, a CIA contract worker who said in a closed blog that "waterboarding 
is torture" was stripped of the security clearance she needed in order to do her

Most recently, the administration purged eight US attorneys for what looks like 
insufficient political loyalty. When Goebbels purged the civil service in April 
1933, attorneys were "coordinated" too, a step that eased the way of the 
increasingly brutal laws to follow.

8. Control the press

Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 30s, East Germany in the 50s, Czechoslovakia 
in the 60s, the Latin American dictatorships in the 70s, China in the 80s and 
90s - all dictatorships and would-be dictators target newspapers and 
journalists. They threaten and harass them in more open societies that they are 
seeking to close, and they arrest them and worse in societies that have been 
closed already.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says arrests of US journalists are at an 
all-time high: Josh Wolf (no relation), a blogger in San Francisco, has been put
in jail for a year for refusing to turn over video of an anti-war demonstration;
Homeland Security brought a criminal complaint against reporter Greg Palast, 
claiming he threatened "critical infrastructure" when he and a TV producer were 
filming victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. Palast had written a 
bestseller critical of the Bush administration.

Other reporters and writers have been punished in other ways. Joseph C Wilson 
accused Bush, in a New York Times op-ed, of leading the country to war on the 
basis of a false charge that Saddam Hussein had acquired yellowcake uranium in 
Niger. His wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA spy - a form of retaliation 
that ended her career.

Prosecution and job loss are nothing, though, compared with how the US is 
treating journalists seeking to cover the conflict in Iraq in an unbiased way. 
The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented multiple accounts of the US 
military in Iraq firing upon or threatening to fire upon unembedded (meaning 
independent) reporters and camera operators from organisations ranging from 
al-Jazeera to the BBC. While westerners may question the accounts by al-Jazeera,
they should pay attention to the accounts of reporters such as the BBC's Kate 
Adie. In some cases reporters have been wounded or killed, including ITN's Terry
Lloyd in 2003. Both CBS and the Associated Press in Iraq had staff members 
seized by the US military and taken to violent prisons; the news organisations 
were unable to see the evidence against their staffers.

Over time in closing societies, real news is supplanted by fake news and false 
documents. Pinochet showed Chilean citizens falsified documents to back up his 
claim that terrorists had been about to attack the nation. The yellowcake 
charge, too, was based on forged papers.

You won't have a shutdown of news in modern America - it is not possible. But 
you can have, as Frank Rich and Sidney Blumenthal have pointed out, a steady 
stream of lies polluting the news well. What you already have is a White House 
directing a stream of false information that is so relentless that it is 
increasingly hard to sort out truth from untruth. In a fascist system, it's not 
the lies that count but the muddying. When citizens can't tell real news from 
fake, they give up their demands for accountability bit by bit.

9. Dissent equals treason

Cast dissent as "treason" and criticism as "espionage'. Every closing society 
does this, just as it elaborates laws that increasingly criminalise certain 
kinds of speech and expand the definition of "spy" and "traitor". When Bill 
Keller, the publisher of the New York Times, ran the Lichtblau/Risen stories, 
Bush called the Times' leaking of classified information "disgraceful", while 
Republicans in Congress called for Keller to be charged with treason, and 
rightwing commentators and news outlets kept up the "treason" drumbeat. Some 
commentators, as Conason noted, reminded readers smugly that one penalty for 
violating the Espionage Act is execution.

Conason is right to note how serious a threat that attack represented. It is 
also important to recall that the 1938 Moscow show trial accused the editor of 
Izvestia, Nikolai Bukharin, of treason; Bukharin was, in fact, executed. And it 
is important to remind Americans that when the 1917 Espionage Act was last 
widely invoked, during the infamous 1919 Palmer Raids, leftist activists were 
arrested without warrants in sweeping roundups, kept in jail for up to five 
months, and "beaten, starved, suffocated, tortured and threatened with death", 
according to the historian Myra MacPherson. After that, dissent was muted in 
America for a decade.

In Stalin's Soviet Union, dissidents were "enemies of the people". National 
Socialists called those who supported Weimar democracy "November traitors".

And here is where the circle closes: most Americans do not realise that since 
September of last year - when Congress wrongly, foolishly, passed the Military 
Commissions Act of 2006 - the president has the power to call any US citizen an 
"enemy combatant". He has the power to define what "enemy combatant" means. The 
president can also delegate to anyone he chooses in the executive branch the 
right to define "enemy combatant" any way he or she wants and then seize 
Americans accordingly.

Even if you or I are American citizens, even if we turn out to be completely 
innocent of what he has accused us of doing, he has the power to have us seized 
as we are changing planes at Newark tomorrow, or have us taken with a knock on 
the door; ship you or me to a navy brig; and keep you or me in isolation, 
possibly for months, while awaiting trial. (Prolonged isolation, as 
psychiatrists know, triggers psychosis in otherwise mentally healthy prisoners. 
That is why Stalin's gulag had an isolation cell, like Guantánamo's, in every 
satellite prison. Camp 6, the newest, most brutal facility at Guantánamo, is all
isolation cells.)

We US citizens will get a trial eventually - for now. But legal rights activists
at the Center for Constitutional Rights say that the Bush administration is 
trying increasingly aggressively to find ways to get around giving even US 
citizens fair trials. "Enemy combatant" is a status offence - it is not even 
something you have to have done. "We have absolutely moved over into a 
preventive detention model - you look like you could do something bad, you might
do something bad, so we're going to hold you," says a spokeswoman of the CCR.

Most Americans surely do not get this yet. No wonder: it is hard to believe, 
even though it is true. In every closing society, at a certain point there are 
some high-profile arrests - usually of opposition leaders, clergy and 
journalists. Then everything goes quiet. After those arrests, there are still 
newspapers, courts, TV and radio, and the facades of a civil society. There just
isn't real dissent. There just isn't freedom. If you look at history, just 
before those arrests is where we are now.

10. Suspend the rule of law

The John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 gave the president new powers 
over the national guard. This means that in a national emergency - which the 
president now has enhanced powers to declare - he can send Michigan's militia to
enforce a state of emergency that he has declared in Oregon, over the objections
of the state's governor and its citizens.

Even as Americans were focused on Britney Spears's meltdown and the question of 
who fathered Anna Nicole's baby, the New York Times editorialised about this 
shift: "A disturbing recent phenomenon in Washington is that laws that strike to
the heart of American democracy have been passed in the dead of night ... Beyond
actual insurrection, the president may now use military troops as a domestic 
police force in response to a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist 
attack or any 'other condition'."

Critics see this as a clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act - which was 
meant to restrain the federal government from using the military for domestic 
law enforcement. The Democratic senator Patrick Leahy says the bill encourages a
president to declare federal martial law. It also violates the very reason the 
founders set up our system of government as they did: having seen citizens 
bullied by a monarch's soldiers, the founders were terrified of exactly this 
kind of concentration of militias' power over American people in the hands of an
oppressive executive or faction.

Of course, the United States is not vulnerable to the violent, total 
closing-down of the system that followed Mussolini's march on Rome or Hitler's 
roundup of political prisoners. Our democratic habits are too resilient, and our
military and judiciary too independent, for any kind of scenario like that.

Rather, as other critics are noting, our experiment in democracy could be closed
down by a process of erosion.

It is a mistake to think that early in a fascist shift you see the profile of 
barbed wire against the sky. In the early days, things look normal on the 
surface; peasants were celebrating harvest festivals in Calabria in 1922; people
were shopping and going to the movies in Berlin in 1931. Early on, as WH Auden 
put it, the horror is always elsewhere - while someone is being tortured, 
children are skating, ships are sailing: "dogs go on with their doggy life ... 
How everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster."

As Americans turn away quite leisurely, keeping tuned to internet shopping and 
American Idol, the foundations of democracy are being fatally corroded. 
Something has changed profoundly that weakens us unprecedentedly: our democratic
traditions, independent judiciary and free press do their work today in a 
context in which we are "at war" in a "long war" - a war without end, on a 
battlefield described as the globe, in a context that gives the president - 
without US citizens realising it yet - the power over US citizens of freedom or 
long solitary incarceration, on his say-so alone.

That means a hollowness has been expanding under the foundation of all these 
still- free-looking institutions - and this foundation can give way under 
certain kinds of pressure. To prevent such an outcome, we have to think about 
the "what ifs".

What if, in a year and a half, there is another attack - say, God forbid, a 
dirty bomb? The executive can declare a state of emergency. History shows that 
any leader, of any party, will be tempted to maintain emergency powers after the
crisis has passed. With the gutting of traditional checks and balances, we are 
no less endangered by a President Hillary than by a President Giuliani - because
any executive will be tempted to enforce his or her will through edict rather 
than the arduous, uncertain process of democratic negotiation and compromise.

What if the publisher of a major US newspaper were charged with treason or 
espionage, as a rightwing effort seemed to threaten Keller with last year? What 
if he or she got 10 years in jail? What would the newspapers look like the next 
day? Judging from history, they would not cease publishing; but they would 
suddenly be very polite.

Right now, only a handful of patriots are trying to hold back the tide of 
tyranny for the rest of us - staff at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who 
faced death threats for representing the detainees yet persisted all the way to 
the Supreme Court; activists at the American Civil Liberties Union; and 
prominent conservatives trying to roll back the corrosive new laws, under the 
banner of a new group called the American Freedom Agenda. This small, disparate 
collection of people needs everybody's help, including that of Europeans and 
others internationally who are willing to put pressure on the administration 
because they can see what a US unrestrained by real democracy at home can mean 
for the rest of the world.

We need to look at history and face the "what ifs". For if we keep going down 
this road, the "end of America" could come for each of us in a different way, at
a different moment; each of us might have a different moment when we feel forced
to look back and think: that is how it was before - and this is the way it is 

"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the 
same hands ... is the definition of tyranny," wrote James Madison. We still have
the choice to stop going down this road; we can stand our ground and fight for 
our nation, and take up the banner the founders asked us to carry.

· Naomi Wolf's The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot will 
be published by Chelsea Green in September.

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