How Could This Happen, and What’s Next: Complicity or Confrontation in the Age of American Fascism.
Are Americans courageous enough to stand up to Trump, render him unable to destroy democracy, and deal with whatever consequences the angry mob of his followers can cause? We will soon know.
Humans have an evolutionary tendency to follow charismatic leaders, including those that foster tribal identification and genocide, delusions of persecution, ingroup/outgroup distinctions, and ingroup superiority. Indeed, in a time when social media has learned that anger keeps our attention, humans may be more likely to follow leaders who stoke our capacity not only for outrage, but for rage. This human weakness—a capacity and even tendency--to follow leaders mindlessly, can likely be ameliorated by cognitive training, including rigorous education in critical thinking, and especially by teaching and fostering personal responsibility. In their landmark book, Crimes of ObedienceHerbert Kelman and V. Lee Hamilton reviewed such incidents as the My Lai massacre and the long list of experiments in the tradition of Milgram’s obedience studies. They conclude, with strong evidence, that high degrees of empathy are not reliably effective in stopping people from following orders to harm others. Personal responsibility is. In taking personal responsibility, people affirm the Nuremberg Principles, declaring that obedience is not a defensible excuse for doing harm.
In times of great fear and upheaval, most people look to leaders, and look for comrades. This is easy to understand in evolutionary terms. It’s a result of evolution for survival of the fittest—or at least the best adapted. Thousands of years ago, a person who was isolated from family and/or community was highly unlikely to survive long at all. In light of this, a simple playbook for someone who wants to acquire power over others might include instilling fear and confusion, attributing troubles to a third party or parties, inciting “justifiable” hatred of the third party or parties, and then promising to be the best (or only) source of safety and clarity, and the only one who can help defeat the terrible third parties. For those whose sense of personal responsibility is impaired or weak, following the leader—even if that leader suggests actions that violate one’s usual moral sense—is likely to ensue.
Terrorist recruiters follow this playbook. So do fascist and genocidal political leaders. It helps if the recruiters and/or leaders have skills and/or charisma that help them draw people into their orbit. It helps if they convince their recruits that they respect and care about them, even though they actually see them only as literal or figurative cannon fodder. It helps if they simplify their message. The more people they draw into their orbit, the more dangerous the situation. And when they have a significant number in their orbit, they can expand the enemy list to include everyone else, invoking the cliché that if you are not with us, you are against us. Full stop.
What to do when much of the world can see that a charismatic, fascist leader is drawing people into their orbit, sowing confusion and hatred, and, in coded as well as direct language, inciting violence? It seems obvious that the fascist leader has to be stopped. But how do you stop them, and what do you do with their loyal base?
These are the questions that are facing many in the US and many European countries who have seen this before; some remember fascism and the nazi party, and some have learned enough about it from their families, in school, and in their communities to recognize that they are seeing the evolution of a fascist leader and followers, many of whom are weak in personal responsibility. History tells us that being a bystander is being complicit. Fascist leaders thrive when those that are not part of the movement stand by.
Call the leader out? The leader makes it part of the narrative. Stand up to the leader and followers? That is a necessity. Intervene? Yes, and the earlier the better. But it is no longer early. And no one should fool themselves into thinking that intervening will be peaceful, bloodless, or simple. The longer that it goes on, the harder to intervene, as many who are not involved will commit to a cowardly bystander stance. And neither the leader, nor the followers, who have participated in power, will give up easily.
Copyright, Alice LoCicero, 2021
 Crimes of Obedience, Toward a Social Psychology of Authority and Responsibility Yale University Press, 1990