The Rise of Global Authoritarianism
How we got here and where we are going
This is a speech I gave at the Ethical Society in St. Louis on February 20, 2022. Four days later, Russia reinvaded Ukraine. The speech has never been published in full. But since excerpts of it have been circulating online, I decided to put it on Substack. You may recognize a few lines from my book THEY KNEW, which I was completing at the time.
It is unnerving to look back at this speech and see what has changed – and more unnerving to see what hasn’t.
On a related note, I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who subscribed to this newsletter. I am relieved to return to regularly publishing essays. As many of you know, this week I left my podcast, Gaslit Nation, after five years. This newsletter is now a primary source of income for my family. I intend to keep it free, but paid subscriptions are very much appreciated. Thank you for your support!
Sarah Kendzior’s Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The last time I was in this room was exactly two years ago, to the date, on February 20, 2020. That evening I was on a panel with two other speakers discussing Missouri’s future and the upcoming elections. We were unconcerned with pandemics back then. We were contending only with Missouri’s usual problems: economic decline, rampant gun violence, hyper-partisanship, systemic racism, climate catastrophe, endemic corruption – you know, the happy, fun topics of the good old days!
Are you getting nostalgic? Are you hungry for the “urgency of normal” yet?
That talk was the last time I spoke in public before the pandemic hit. I haven’t spoken to an audience in person for two years. And while I am glad to be back, it is overwhelming to be here. Because I’m not the same person I was the last time I stood in this room. And you are not the same people you were two years ago either. We have been through so much – as individuals, as a community, as a region, as a nation. We’ve been through so much that we continue to endure, and continue to deny, and that we cannot, in many ways, fully comprehend.
There’s a quote from Stephen King’s The Stand that has always resonated with me, and I’m going to share it with you now. That The Stand is a novel about people battling a global plague in an apocalyptic setting is incidental. The Stand is a horror novel, and the best horror novels deliver hard truths about the human condition, which is why they are so scary. Anyway, this is the quote:
“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side. Or you don't.”
That’s where I am now, charting that blue and lonely section of hell. I suspect that’s where a lot of people are now, and I know that’s where the United States of America is now. And because I love this country, I pray that it does indeed come out the other side.
But that is not going to happen on its own. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s to dispel the myth that the long arc of history naturally bends toward justice.
The long arc of history can function like a catapult, bending us backward into the past and launching us into a freefall future. The long arc of history is not something that moves on its own volition, but is a force bent and shaped by real people, for better and for worse.
And it is our job, our ethical obligation, to move it for the better.
Today I’m going to discuss some of the crises that led us to this juncture, what lies in store for the future, and what Missouri and St. Louis can teach us about political possibility. I’m also going to discuss the very fun topic in the title of my talk, which is “The Rise of Global Authoritarianism”. I can’t believe you all showed up to hear me talk about authoritarianism on a beautiful Sunday morning when you could have gone to the zoo. Thank you for that.
A vulture and the American flag over the Mississippi River, May 2021
* * *
I’m going to begin by reviewing some advice I wrote on Twitter immediately after Donald Trump was proclaimed the winner of the 2016 election. This advice was viewed as very controversial at the time, because it was seen as alarmist. Then, as my alleged alarmism was unfortunately vindicated, my advice became viewed as common sense. And now, six years later, in the midst of a backlash against common sense and accurate history, my advice is viewed by some as controversial once more.
Here is what I wrote on November 9, 2016:
1) Two things to research to understand Trump. One is the rise of authoritarian states and violent populism broadly. Recent and in history.
Here I was referencing the Brexit referendum, which had happened a few months before in the UK; the installation of autocratic governments in Hungary, Poland, Turkey and other formerly more democratic states; the growing aggression of established authoritarian states like Russia and China; white supremacist movements rising worldwide; mafia networks entrenched in governments; and fascism and demagogues throughout history: Hitler, Mussolini, Milosevic, Central Asian autocrats…
2. The other is state sanctioned brutality in the US: toward Native Americans, Black Americans, others. White mob violence. It HAS happened here.
Throughout 2016, in addition to hearing pundits proclaim that Trump could not win, it was common to hear them say that even if he did win, he would be held back by “checks and balances” and “the constitution”. This was a canard that ignored the long history of US state-sanctioned violence and persecution of marginalized populations, including slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, Jim Crow laws, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII…
I can go on and on, and I will a little more later, but my point then was: Autocracy not only can happen in America, it had happened in America. We are taught not to see it as autocracy, because it is selective autocracy, aimed only at certain parts of the population at certain times.
3. Apply knowledge of foreign authoritarianism to the long history of sanctioned persecution in US and you will see where we are headed.
This was my main point: when it comes to autocracy, there is no such thing as American exceptionalism. We were never the pure democracy we purported to be on paper. In general, the belief in American exceptionalism – the idea that America is somehow better or greater or immune from historical forces – has been destructive.
American exceptionalism has been used to justify horrible policies throughout our history, like Manifest Destiny, but most of all, it has been used as an excuse to look the other way when innocent people were being harmed. American exceptionalism has been used as a rationale to not hold our country accountable for its own behavior.
This is not a partisan problem. There is no administration that comes out clean, no party that looks good here, no era that doesn’t have its dark side, no matter how much people like to romanticize the American past.
American authoritarianism was never going to look like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. It was going to look American – bombastic, entertaining, media-hyped, money-making. There’s the old adage about when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross, and that’s true too. But what the United States turned into under Trump, and largely remains under Biden, is above all, a kleptocracy.
This kleptocracy is buried inside an infotainment complex. It is normalized through bureaucracy. But it is, at its heart, a mafia state.
We are suffering under decades of entrenched corruption, born of elite criminal impunity, coupled with apathy of the powerful toward mass suffering and mass death. We are all bearing a great burden. No one has it easy, but due to the way this country has historically been structured -- and the current campaigns an autocratic, white supremacist extremist party is waging-- some people have it worse than others and the system is designed to make it so. Our crises of class and race and abuse of power are all interconnected, as you would expect from a country that was founded on slave labor and that never fully confronted its own sins.
The United States was always vulnerable to authoritarianism, in part because the greatest advantage of an aspiring dictator is the belief of the majority that democracy is inevitable and autocracy is impossible – or that autocratic rule for some people is just the way things are, a natural part of American life.
It is imperative that you reject these dangerous ideas, particularly as we enter a new phase of the pandemic that appears designed to make those who have already suffered the most suffer more, and particularly as we contend with the loss of structural protections – like voting rights – for already disenfranchised groups. I’ll get more into that later. Now I want to share with you the fourth thing I wrote on November 9, 2016, which was:
“I don't think some people grasp how profoundly what you took for granted is going to change. How many horrors will be sold to you as normal.”
The key word here is sold. Just as justice is not inevitable, the streamlining of atrocity into American life is not inevitable either. It is a deliberate act by the powerful, meant to erode your morality, to make you abandon vulnerable people in their time of need, and ultimately make you abandon your values and yourself.
They are still selling you new horrors as normal, and you need to reject their pitch. You need to continue to recognize lies as lies, crimes as crimes, atrocities as atrocities, no matter how frequently you encounter them, no matter how much other people around you may be greeting them as normal.
In times of severe crisis, people lose their expectations, and what is worse, they lose their memories of their expectations. They lose their memories of who they were and what they valued and what they hoped their world would be. This is a natural process when a flawed democracy turns into a mafia state autocracy, which is why you need to stay vigilant. That this is a predictable process does not make it less threatening.
You need to remember your moral boundaries and not cross them. You need to remember who you are.
And that is a great challenge during a pandemic – two years in which time itself seems to have lost meaning, and in which nearly everything that was reliable was stripped from us at some point.
But holding onto your values is the most important challenge you face. If you are trying to figure out how to proceed, look to who is suffering. Who is suffering, who enables that suffering, who excuses that suffering, how do we abate that suffering? And then proceed from there.
Because that moral compass, that voice inside you that whispers what is right and what is wrong even when the rest of the world seems to be screaming in unified madness -- that voice is what prevents you from succumbing to the groupthink of autocracy.
* * *
Stained glass windows in my house built during the 1918 pandemic, photographed April 2020
They say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And since Americans spent centuries failing to learn from history, we get to repeat it all at once.
The last two years have felt like living through simultaneous revivals of the worst of the American past: The Civil War, the extreme wealth disparity of the 19th century Gilded Age, the Spanish Flu of 1918, the white mob violence of the 1919 Red Summer, the global fascist movements of the 1930s and 1940s, the Jim Crow era of voter suppression, the riots and unrest of the 1960s, the corruption of Watergate, the cover-ups of Iran-Contra. By the middle of 2021, this tendency to repeat the past had become almost uncanny. In August 2021, Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. One month before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Taliban retook Afghanistan dressed in US military uniforms abandoned in hasty retreat from the quagmire war. By the end of 2021, it felt like America was on its deathbed, watching its life flash before its eyes.
We’re still here, although Kremlin aggression against Ukraine makes it feel like World War I analogies are in order, so we can add another new dark parallel to the list.
But I want to revisit that Red Summer of 1919, because that’s the era that been haunting me most, in part because it set the scene for the dark decades that followed, and in part because the similarities are so stark and clear.
Like a lot of people, I’ve spent much of the past two years cooped up in my house, which happens to have been built in 1918, at the height of what was known then as the Spanish Flu pandemic. I have spent so much of the past two years wondering about the people who lived in my house during that time, putting in those St Louis-style stained-glass windows and brick walls and apparently constructing built-in bookshelves out of Kroger delivery boxes, which I discovered during my endless exploration of my limited space.
I kept thinking how even though this mystery family lived in a very different St Louis – a St Louis that was the envy of the United States, a St Louis that had held the World’s Fair a decade and a half before and was considered an innovative and prosperous city – they were witnessing a lot of the same horrors I did.
In 1917, for example, there were the East St Louis riots, when white mobs stormed East St Louis and murdered dozens of Black Americans, possibly as many as 150 people, in one of the worst cases of labor-related violence in US history. Though of course the riots were not only about labor, they were also about race, and about how fear is so easily converted into racist violence by a culture that normalizes white supremacy while placing all workers in a state of constant anxiety.
The East St Louis riots were part of a series of white mob riots occurring as World War I lurched on and as the Spanish Flu – which actually originated in Kansas – began to ravage North America. By 1918, the pandemic was in full force, and St Louis was having many of the same debates about masks and whether to open businesses and schools that we are having now.
In 1919, the pandemic finally began to wane. And after two years of everybody being cooped up, what happened?
Mass violence, led by white supremacists. In over three dozen cities, white mobs stormed black businesses and neighborhoods, killing with impunity. The riots continued into the new decade, with the 1921 Black Wall Street Massacre in Tulsa being the most infamous example. White mob violence was accompanied by a sharp rise in anti-immigrant sentiment. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe as well as eastern Asia were demonized in the media, and in 1924, new laws restricting immigration were passed.
This was followed by the birth of the FBI and the man who shaped it for decades, J Edgar Hoover, who of course blamed the white mob violence on Black people. The 1920s brought prohibition, which allowed mafias to thrive in the bootlegging business and then to collaborate, as the decades went on, with the US government officials, including law enforcement leaders like Hoover, who denied organized crime’s existence until the 1950s.
We are still dealing with the ramifications of that dark alliance: of the merger between organized crime, corporate crime, and state corruption.
The 1920s did not roar, they devoured. They were an era of mob mentality in every respect. And then in 1929, they crashed, and fascism rose in its wake.
Fascism rose from the ashes of collapsed empires and destroyed the new nation-states that had emerged between the two world wars: fledgling countries that in some cases had been fighting for their rights, for the right to their very existence, for centuries. I’m thinking here of countries like Poland and Ukraine, countries whose history show that you cannot count on a stable international order, and that your country often lives in your heart even more than it lives within defined borders.
Fascism emerged from the exploitation of dashed hopes and dead dreams. It emerged from the chronic underestimation of autocratic demagogues like Hitler, who staged a failed coup in 1923 and was treated as a joke until his comeback in the early 1930s.
That progression – social and economic instability followed by a global pandemic followed by a sharp rise in right-wing extremism and racism followed by fascism and world war – is similar to the progression we are facing now.
In the midst of this turmoil, Langston Hughes, the great American poet, wrote a poem called “Tired”. He wrote it in 1930, and published it in 1931. I’m going to read you this poem now. You may have heard the first four lines before. It gets circulated in memes, in that very 21st century way, in which soul and meaning gets stripped from the work.
I’m going to read the whole thing. It’s only eight lines, but the last four lines matter most:
I am so tired of waiting,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?
Let us take a knife
And cut the world in two –
And see what worms are eating
At the rind.
Like I said, folks love to quote the first four lines of this poem because they convey a universal sentiment: we are tired of the world being terrible, we are tired of people being cruel, and we are waiting for it to become better.
But the key here is that Hughes was not passively waiting. “Tired” is a poem of advice. And the advice is clear: “Take a knife and cut the world in two – And see what worms are eating at the rind.”
Langston Hughes wanted people to examine the roots of corruption and cruelty, and he wanted them to do it now.
Imagine if they had done so, instead of remaining in denial. Imagine what atrocities might have been avoided if they had been confronted head on in 1931, instead of buried or rationalized until they exploded in waves of brutality.
Langston Hughes is best associated with the Harlem Renaissance, but he is from Missouri. He was born in Joplin and then his family moved around the Midwest. The first poem he ever published was called “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and he wrote it here, during a brief stay in St. Louis, inspired by the Mississippi River.
Hughes was one of many writers who saw in the Mississippi River something akin to a current of history, an indominable force that compels contemplation and allows no compromise. You can read works about the Mississippi by Mark Twain after the Civil War, or TS Eliot between the two world wars, to find similar musings from their own perspectives – though they are all Missourians.
There is something about that river, about this city, about this region, that forces people to see the darkest truths, and occasionally, to demand justice in response.
In my last book, Hiding in Plain Sight, I described how Missouri had become the bellwether of American decline. After centuries of accurately forecasting the winner of presidential elections and anticipating national trends, it continued to be a trendsetter – but in the bleakest possible way.
In the 21st century, Missouri became a petri dish for the end of the American experiment. It is where sociopathic plutocrats let their dark money flow into political campaigns and where propagandists hone their extremist strategies. Missouri became a state where the unimaginable happened daily.
It became a state of corrupt officials who are indicted but rarely seriously punished, where guns and opiates and dirty money flow freely but funding for healthcare or education or other necessities is halted by a legislature that refuses to reflect the will of the people. Missouri is where the modern right wing emerged, from Rush Limbaugh to the Tea Party.
But it is also where progressive resistance emerged, as seen in the Black rights protests that appeared after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, or in the protests for a higher minimum wage that we’ve seen for over a decade, or in the protests to protect the rest of the rights we are so keenly aware we are losing: reproductive rights, voting rights, the right to free speech and free media.
Our resistance often came earlier than the rest of the country. It was St Louis who first scared away Trump at a rally back in March 2016. To my knowledge, he never returned. Our political activity is widely emulated but rarely credited.
In other words, St Louis – and to a large degree, Missouri in general, though it manifests differently in each region – takes Langston Hughes’ advice. It takes a knife and cuts the world in two and see what worms are eating at the rind.
Basic concepts I often struggle to explain to people who live elsewhere – that institutions have long been corrupt, that the government will overrule the people just because it feels like it, that racism is systemic, that fighting back often doesn’t work but you do it anyway because it’s the right thing to do – are easily grasped here.
This clarity of perception is the result of living in what is essentially a mini-autocracy on the state level, a model of what may emerge on the national level.
That is a horrible thing to endure on a daily basis. But it is much worse not to be aware of it, and the worst thing of all is to know and not to care.
You cannot solve a problem if you refuse to acknowledge the problem exists. So at least here, I have some consolation that people do know, and some of them do care, even if we are all not sure of what to do about it.
Even people who disagree with me on many other issues have the same view I do of entrenched corruption, of elite criminal impunity, of a fundamental unfairness in our way of life, of a grotesque snobbery and stagnation in our federal government, which orients its policies toward rich people on the coasts no matter what party is in charge, and who excuse and exonerate the wealthy criminals in their midst.
We are abandoned out here. But there is a certain perverse freedom in being abandoned.
We have the freedom to defy categorization, to come up with something new, something beyond what our political cults and rotting monoliths have to offer.
The United States is on a dark and familiar trajectory. But while I believe that events are predictable, I do not believe that they are preordained. That is the difference between realism and fatalism. That is the difference between compassion and surrender.
Calls to examine corruption, to relentlessly expose it and combat it, are ultimately acts of empathy. It’s looking out for your city, your community, your neighbor.
An informed public is a powerful public. That power may not lead to immediate results. That power may in fact be steadily suppressed by people calling themselves authorities. But the thing about that kind of internal power – the power of knowledge, of morality, of living life according to your own conscience and your imagination – is that no one can take it away.
So cut the world in two, St Louis – and do it on your own terms.
Sarah Kendzior’s Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Langston Hughes, 1942. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, photo by Jack Delan