It is impossible to predict what will happen in the US in the coming weeks. As I write, a number of crucial questions remain unanswered. Was there electoral fraud or not? If there was, was it enough to reverse the outcome? Will the transition be from Trump to Biden or from Trump to Trump? Or will it be from Trump to a Congressional agreement by means of which, just as in 1876-77, the winning candidate will take over the presidency on condition that he accept an extra-electoral compromise? Will there be violence on the streets no matter what solution is reached, given that any solution is bound to marginalize a significant and polarized part of society? All these remain major unknowns for the time being. Still, there are a few certainties, and very bleak they are, too, as far as the future of democracy is concerned. I will focus on just one. I allude to the intensive course on fascism 2.0 that Donald Trump has been offering to aspiring dictators, authoritarian leaders and fascists everywhere over the last four years. The course had its highest moment in the master class Trump started teaching from the White House at 2.30 am (Washington time) on November 4th. The course bears the title “How to use democracy in order to destroy it” and comprises several sub-topics. In this text I briefly address the main ones. The first three lessons concern the elections, the rest concern politics and governance. The overall aim of the course is to inculcate the notion that democracy only serves to rise to power. Once in power, neither governance nor democratic rotation is acceptable.
1. Do not recognize unfavorable election results
The topic of the November 4th lesson was how to reject election results when they do not suit you, how to generate confusion in the minds of citizens by making up suspicions of fraud that, no matter what the facts (and there could indeed be something to it), have to be formulated in the most extreme and zany way if they are to have any impact at all. In the 2016 election campaign, Trump had already addressed the topic, and the lesson was duly followed by his favorite pupils (whom he sees as his personal friends), the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. In September 2018 the latter proclaimed: “I don’t accept any outcome other than my election victory”. But many other pupils were also paying close attention that morning. Among others, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – whom Trump calls “my favorite dictator” – and India’s Narendra Modi. Another attentive pupil was Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president who has been in power since 1986 and is planning to run again in the coming year. There has also been a numerous following in Europe, including Viktor Orbán, Matteo Salvini, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Santiago Abascal and André Ventura.
2. Turn majorities into minorities
Whenever election majorities fail to favor the proto-fascist cause, it is imperative to convert them into sociological minorities. In this way, elections lose legitimacy and democracy becomes a maneuver on the part of the powerful interests behind the economy and the media. André Ventura, the Portuguese pupil, learned the lesson more quickly than any other. In a statement to the weekly Expresso (November 7th), he said the following about Biden’s victory: “I fear, however, that this has been a victory of the voice of the minorities who choose to live off the work of others.”
3. Double standards
Nothing that goes against the cause can be measured by the same standards that apply to what helps the cause. Thus, for example, if you happen to know that the vast majority of mail-in votes go to the proto-fascist cause, those votes must be considered not only legal but recommended in times of pandemic. That not being the case, they must be decried as an instrument of fraud that robs voters of a unique moment of physical and social proximity to democracy. Having to back the accusation with evidence is beside the point, as long as the suspicion is raised immediately and mixed with the invention of imaginary fraudulent strategies.
4. Never speak or rule with country in mind, but always and only with your social base in mind
This is a crucial lesson, as it is the one that contributes most directly to the undermining of democratic legitimacy. If the logic consists in promoting an anti-system current of opinion, it makes no sense to rule for those who, despite their grievances, have not yet given up on seeing them addressed by the democratic system. Ideally, the social base should be at least 30 percent, and its loyalty unambiguously cultivated over time, both while in government and in the opposition. Contact with the base must be direct and constant. The base is guaranteed to remain united and organized as long as it trusts no other source of information. Once that goal is achieved, any facts that contradict the leader cease to be relevant. Over the course of four years, Trump proved able to keep his base, just like Orbán in Hungary and Modi in India. The same could happen with Bolsonaro.
The social base’s self-esteem is the only legitimate political service. Slogans promoting self-esteem and greatness need to be recycled. “Make America Great Again” has been used before by Ronald Reagan. Besides, dictatorship slogans can be recycled as well, especially when the dictatorships have been made legitimate by time. Recycling can be either complete (“Brazil: love it or leave it”, used during the period of military dictatorship,1964-85) or modified (“Portugal is ours” instead of “Angola is ours”, the latter used by the dictator Salazar to justify, in the early 1960s, the colonial war against the liberation movements in Angola).
5. Reality does not exist
The leader shows he controls the facts especially (1) when he makes the supposedly adverse reality stop, or (2) when, being incapable of stopping it, he drains it of all drama. Once again, Trump showed the way: you stop the pandemic if you stop talking about it, and for it to stop being a serious threat, all you have to do is stop widespread testing. To fear the pandemic is a sign of weakness. Trump considered leaving the hospital wearing a Superman T-shirt; according to Bolsonaro, to fear the pandemic is to be a “sissy”. On the other hand, you downplay the pandemic by weighing it against the pandemics created by the system (unemployment, loss of sovereignty, no access to health services, etc.) or, in the tropical version, by pointing to death as our common destiny (Bolsonaro: “we’ll all die one day”).
Given that for fascism, lies are as true as truth itself, the more dramatic the contrast between invention and reality the better. Here are some examples of “irrelevant” truths: the Trump administration exacerbated rather than reduced social inequalities; during the pandemic, billionaires got $637 billion richer; 40 million Americans have lost their jobs over the past few months; 250,000 have died from Covid-19, making the US coronavirus mortality rate the highest in the world; the number of hungry families has tripled and the number of malnourished children has increased by 14 percent since last year; the eviction moratorium has expired and millions can be thrown out on the street. That which cannot be denied either has natural causes or is not controllable by humans. The extremely high number of deaths in Brazil is the work of fate and the same is true of the Amazon fires, because fires are “uncontrollable by definition and no one is to blame for them”.
6. Resentment is your most precious political resource
It is impossible to rule against the system, not least because fascism 2.0 is financed by a part of the system. It is therefore vital to hide the real reasons for social discontent and to make the system’s victims believe that the real aggressors are other victims. The organized base expects simple ideas and zero-sum games, i.e., intuitive equations relating who wins to who loses. Thus, for instance, the increase in unemployment must be attributed to the entry of immigrants, even if the latter is minimal and ultimately irrelevant; the impoverished white worker must be led to believe that his aggressor is the even more impoverished black or Latin worker; the crisis in education and values is attributed to the slyness of the poor devils – women, homosexuals, Gypsies, blacks, indigenous peoples – who, thanks to the “impresarios of human rights”, end up with too many rights. There is no shortage of scapegoats for you to choose from. This is the fascist leader’s number one skill.
In addition to scapegoating, the politics of resentment requires conspiracy theories, the demonization of opponents, systematic attacks on the media, on science and on all types of expert knowledge, incitement to violence and hatred as a way of shutting off arguments, and the self- glorification of the leader as the victims’s sole reliable defender.
7. Traditional politics is your best unknowing ally
From the moment the socialist alternative exited the political scene (symbolized by the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989), politics as an exercise of convictions has lost all credibility. That moment coincided with the strengthening of neoliberalism as a new version of capitalism. The new version – one of the most antisocial in the history of capitalism – has led to the destruction or erosion of social protection policies and the middle classes wherever they existed, to an increase in the concentration of wealth and to the acceleration of the ecological crisis. The liberal values of the French Revolution (freedom, equality, fraternity) have lost all meaning to the vast majority of people, who find themselves abandoned and marginalized, whatever the party in power.
Once the liberal values became discredited, the democratic ideologies associated with them – such as peaceful coexistence, respect for your political opponents, moderation and the adversarial principle, the rotation of power, accommodation and negotiation – became devoid of meaning too. These values and ideologies, which in fact have always corresponded to the practical experience of but a small segment of the population, are now historical waste that needs to be swept away. The absence of values opens the door both to contempt for the truth and to the imposition of alternative values like the primacy of family, racial hierarchy, ethno-religious nationalism and the myth of a golden age — even if that past was really more like lead. Such is the crucible of the culture of polarization.
8. Always, always polarize
Political centrism is dead and only radicalization will pay off. In the present circumstances, polarization will invariably favor the right and the far right. Polarization is no longer between the left and the right, but between the system (the deep state) and the impoverished majorities, the 1 percent and the 99 percent. In recent years this polarization has been experimented with by the institutional and the extra-institutional left, but they both ended up submitting to the established institutions in the most servile way. When the left rebelled, it was promptly neutralized. Now that cannot happen in the case of fascism 2.0, because, far from being against the 1 percent, it is financed by it. Polarization against the 1 percent is purely rhetorical, its sole aim being to mask the real, democracy- vs-fascism 2.0 polarization, so that fascism may prevail democratically.
The old right thinks it has the capacity to tame the extreme right, but in fact the opposite will happen. Let me illustrate with the Portuguese case: PSD, Portugal’s center-right party, voiced its willingness to form a coalition with the extreme-right Chega (Enough!) party, “if it becomes more moderate”; to which Chega’s leader immediately replied: it is not up to Chega to become more moderate, it is up to PSD to become more radical. In this case, the fascism 2.0 apprentice showed to be the best prophet of the times.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and Global Legal Scholar at the University of Warwick.