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As we enter into a new presidential administration, we enter into a new period of the President being compared to Hitler. President Obama had those who compared him to Hitler, but never before has the comparison been so readily embraced by a political opposition as it has by those who oppose President Trump.
Comparing the sitting president to a tyrant is a long standing American tradition. Andrew Jackson was compared to King George III for his expansion of executive power. In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt was compared to Napoleon Bonaparte when he tried to get a third term as President. But it would be World War Two that shifted political comparisons from monarchs to dictators.
As a people who once revolted against a ruler that was portrayed as a tyrant, we are quick to fear dictators. However, we don’t really know what a dictatorship in the United States would look like. Whenever we imagine dictatorships we think of the Nazis, or George Orwell’s 1984. The dictatorships we imagine are always highly militarized, and heavily influenced by early 20th century totalitarians. However, Dictatorships look different depending on where they are, so if we want to know what an American Dictatorship would look like, we need to look at different examples.
George Orwell’s 1984 is everyone’s favorite fictional dictatorship to cite. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen memes over the past 8 years that said “1984 is supposed to be a warning, not an instruction manual.” If a political leader isn’t being compared to Hitler, than their administration is being compared to 1984. This scenario is very militaristic, inspired by the rise of fascism in the early 20th century.
However, the United States has never been nearly as militaristic as the rest of the world. There are many who would disagree with this statement, pointing to graphics like this that list the wars the U.S. has been involved in, and how they cover almost the entire history of the U.S. since 1776.
However, most of these conflicts are Indian Wars. These were limited engagements, concentrated in a particular region. On top of this, they had limited impact outside the area they were fought in. If you look at all these wars, most of them were very low level. If you put these wars onto a graph, with a Y axis representing relative cost and scale, America’s War history would be relatively flat, with occasional spikes of intensity.
This is why we should look at Huxley’s Brave New World. 1984 is dark and militaristic. From both the inside and the outside, this world looks like a dystopian dictatorship. Brave New World, on the other hand, is a pretty nice place to live, all things considered. Everyone has a job, and all your needs are taken care of. Everyone is required to take drugs, but this is usually followed by orgies, sooo….
In this world, religion has been virtually wiped out, and everyone is kept distracted with drugs, sex, and frivolity. Humans aren’t born naturally, but grown in tubes. They are also genetically engineered, with some people being purposely given better or worse genes. People are punished for going outside the norms. The focus on this dictatorship is keeping people distracted with things that, in our world, are luxuries. If people are happy, or don’t know they should be sad, they don’t rebel.
So why is this a better example than 1984? Let’s look at public schools for a moment. Children today are medicated at higher rates than ever before. There are places in the United States today where people are not allowed to send their children to public schools unless they are vaccinated. Before I go any further I should tell you, I am pro-vaccination. Everyone for whom it is healthy to get vaccinated, should be. However, this doesn’t change the fact that we are seeing government mandated drug use. On top of that there is a greater emphasis today on medicating every problem a person has.
We also see more and more how people are being conditioned, for better or worse, to accept, celebrate, and participate in alternative life styles, and to feel no shame in behavior once labeled, perverse. The anti-Religion policies of the world government in Brave New World have shadows in our society today.
When looking for fictional examples of what a dictatorship would look like in the U.S., look for ones that have a softer hand.
Do you want to teach a lesson about power corrupting? Rome has it.
Or how about the over extension of empire? Rome’s got it.
Economic ruin due to a flawed monetary system? Rome has that too.
In the West, Rome is the ultimate example of what all nations want to be, and what they want to avoid.
Those are all important, but they are self-evident. I want to cover what people tend to miss about Rome, and how it is a great model for deciphering what an American dictatorship would look like.
When we think of dictatorships, we think of people coming to power by military force, doing harm to his people for his own personal gain, and putting a halt on democracy. But that’s not Rome.
There were plenty of Roman Emperors who came to power by military force, but that’s not how it starts. Historians debate over when exactly the Rome transitioned from a Republic to an Empire, but the latest possible point any of them point to is the assassination of Caesar, and the Rise of Augustus.
The death of Julius Caesar triggered a civil war, in which his nephew, Octavian, came to power. Octavian was given the title of Augustus by the Senate. As Augustus, he said that he was restoring the republic. And under Augustus, the Republic seemed to continue operating as it did before. The Senate continued to meet until the 7th century A.D. Elections continued to occur, and all the democratic elements of society continued to function.
The vestigial elements of the Republic lived on. What changed was the power these institutions had. The Senate went from being the legislative branch of government, to being an advisory body for the emperor. The Consuls went from being executives and generals, to being a pressure valve for those who sought political advancement. Elections went from being the way citizens participate in the political process, to being a public ritual, like saluting a flag.
When people think about the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, if they think about it at all, is mostly as a tragic story of a man who had a solution for world peace, but was undercut by those who put politics above ideals. Well, that’s not really the case.
Wilson’s first term was pretty uneventful for the most part. However, after he got re-elected by promising to keep the U.S. out of war, he asked congress for a declaration of war. During the U.S.’s short time in the war, the federal government put in place a number of boards that regulated the domestic consumption of goods such as paper and coal.
There was also the Espionage Act of 1917, and Sedition Act of 1918. Between these two pieces of legislation, the federal government arrested those who publicly opposed the war, or promoted non-compliance with the government’s war actions. The most famous case for these acts was of Socialism Activist, Eugene V. Debs, who ended up running for President from jail, winning over 3 percent of the vote.
The Wilson administration has many of the hallmarks of a dictatorship. But because there was a war going on, and his attempts at creating the League of Nations, we usually give him a neutral to positive review.
What are some things we think of when we think of twentieth century dictators? They wage wars? Check. They retain power for long periods of time? Check. They assert large amounts of control over the economy? Check. They round up people who are determined to be threats to their regimes? Super check.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt took power in 1933, and only vacated office after his death in 1945. He was not the first president to attempt to violate the 2 term precedent set up by George Washington (Ulysses S. Grant sought a third term in 1880, and Theodore Roosevelt sought a third term in 1912), but he is the first to actually obtain a third term, and the only one to attempt a fourth term. It’s merely coincidental that his years in power coincide with that of Adolf Hitler, but that’s not the only similarity.
Both Hitler and FDR asserted massive control over their economies. Contrary to popular opinion, Hitler was indeed a socialist, and his regime asserted massive control over the economy. FDR’s record on this is well known, and so I won’t get into it here.
The biggest similarity between FDR and the worst dictators people usually think of is his rounding up of Japanese Americans into internment camps. They were targeted because they were a different race, and the American populace was receptive to the policy in a time of uncertainty, similar to the willingness of Germans to the fate of the Jews. The only real difference between the two of them, aside from scale, is the intent of said actions.
Comparing Abraham Lincoln to a dictator will get the accuser into some socially messy situations. Lincoln is portrayed as the Man who freed the slaves. To oppose such a guy is socially hazardous. If you say anything negative about Lincoln, you are accused of being a racist, or at best a southern sympathizer. But if you look at what his administration actually did without any cultural lenses, you will see many of the major signs of a dictatorship.
When it comes to control over the economy, the Federal Government nationalized both the telegraph and railroad industries during the war. They used their control of these industries to move soldiers and war materials around, as well as to coordinate the movement of armies. We see nationalization of industries regularly during dictatorships in other countries.
Just like Rome, elections continued to occur during the American Civil War, but the Lincoln administration did some underhanded things to suppress opposition voters. The most notorious of these was to make sure that soldiers who were registered Democrat weren’t given leave during election time, so they couldn’t go home and vote.
On top of the nationalization of entire industries, President Lincoln also had property confiscated from southerners who supported the Confederacy. The most famous of these was the Emancipation Proclamation, and executive order freeing slaves in the occupied territory. Culturally, we see this event as being good, but it is still an assertion of power that any judge before the war would have ruled unconstitutional.
The biggest, of course, was the government’s declaring of an entire segment of the country to be enemies of the state, which is dictatorship 101.
When thinking about what an American Dictatorship would look like there are two things we need to keep in mind; The Aesthetics, and the Setting.
All the previous examples that were not from U.S. History, were all scenarios where the Aesthetics of Dictatorship were pleasant, or non-apparent. And all the examples that were from U.S. History are taken largely from War Time, which is when the power of the Presidency usually grows.
So is Donald Trump a dictator? If he is, than there are quite a few presidents before him who should also be called dictators as wells, including the man many of the protesters hold up as the greatest president who ever lived.