Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law

Is the United States Totalitarian?

Gabriel Schoenfeld
Monday, May 23, 2022, 9:11 AM

A group of writers on the right contend that the United States has become dominated by “totalitarian” liberalism. They are wrong.

A protest in Washington D.C. in 2017/ (Ted Eytan,; CC BY-SA 2.0,

Published by The Lawfare Institute
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In the three months since Russia began its war of aggression, the character of the country has been changing before our eyes. Its much-vaunted military has been exposed as not only weak, disorganized, and corrupt, but also criminal, engaging in pillaging and the torture and mass slaughter of unarmed Ukrainian civilians and prisoners of war. Resorting to a practice not seen since the Stalin era, Vladimir Putin’s government has also been deporting captured Ukrainians, apparently by the hundreds of thousands, to distant portions of Russia, first passing them through “filtration” camps where prisoners are interrogated for nationalist leanings and selected out for punishment. The Russian judicial system has been mobilized to crack down on dissent against the war; among other things, it is a crime punishable by up to 15 years in a labor camp to refer to it as anything but a “special military operation.” To the extent that there were independent media before the war, they have been shut down and the only voices now in print or on the air are official propaganda. Access to independent news sources on the internet has also been sharply restricted. In sum, Russia has taken a number of steps back toward the repression of the Soviet era. 

But as draconian as these various measures all are, Russia is not yet properly called “totalitarian” as it rightly was during the reign of Joseph Stalin or even much of the Leonid Brezhnev era. About a century ago, Benito Mussolini called fascist Italy a “totalitarian state,” a concept that he defined with brilliant clarity: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” But whether the label of totalitarian actually applies to Mussolini-era Italian fascism, or, again, to Putin’s Russia today, is open to serious question. All-encompassing statism was more of an aspiration than an Italian accomplishment. Even the more thoroughgoing oppression of Nazi Germany did not quite fit the totalitarian model, at least according to the criteria set forth by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Carl Friedrich in their influential 1956 volume, “Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy.”

To Brzezinski and Friedrich, totalitarian rule was an extreme form of authoritarianism possessing six characteristics: an all-encompassing ideology, a single party, a terroristic police, a communications monopoly, a weapons monopoly and a centrally directed economy. All six were necessary to fit the bill of totalitarian. Absent one, and the definition was not fulfilled. Stalin’s Soviet Union was the premier case. Nazi Germany, with its only partially centralized economy, was a close second. Putin’s Russia is moving alarmingly closer, but it still lacks some of totalitarianism’s key features.

Here at home and in the West, the concept of totalitarianism came under assault as the Cold War consensus unraveled in the 1960s and 1970s. Revisionist scholars saw it as offering an intellectual foundation and implicit justification for the Vietnam War and the Cold War. A barrage of journal articles and books was launched in an attempt to demolish the construct. As the counterculture emerged, it became fashionable in some quarters of the left to identify the United States itself as totalitarian, or pre- or proto-totalitarian, on a plane with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In this, the novelist Norman Mailer was a pioneer, opining in his famous 1957 essay, “The White Negro,” that citizens were “trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.” Herbert Marcuse, the political theory guru of the New Left, came next, arguing that all industrial societies, very much including the United States, were totalitarian. To some on the extremes, we were not America but “Amerika,” the spelling signifying a shared identity with Nazi Germany. “We shall not defeat Amerika,” proclaimed Abbie Hoffman, leader of the leaderless Yippies, “by organizing a political party. We shall do it by building a new nation—a nation as rugged as the marijuana leaf.”

Today, in one of those remarkable inversions of history, the charge that the United States is totalitarian no longer comes from the left but the right, from America’s growing contingent of self-proclaimed “post-liberal” intellectuals.

To Rod Dreher, senior editor at the American Conservative and the author of a number of best-selling books, “liberal democracy is degenerating into something resembling the totalitarianism over which it triumphed in the Cold War.” To be sure, qualifies Dreher, “[t]his totalitarianism won’t look like the USSR’s. It’s not establishing itself through ‘hard’ means like armed revolution or enforcing itself with gulags. Rather, it exercises control, at least initially, in soft forms.” Dreher has in mind contemporary progressivism: “Under the guise of ‘diversity,’ ‘inclusivity,’ ‘equity,’ and other egalitarian jargon, the Left creates powerful mechanisms for controlling thought and discourse and marginalizing dissenters as evil.”

Patrick Deneen, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and the author of “Why Liberalism Failed,” maintains that U.S. constitutional liberties—freedom of speech, freedom of association, free and fair elections, and freedom of religion—have become an empty façade: “[O]ur capacity for self-government has waned almost to the point of nonexistence.” We live under what he calls “liberalocratic despotism,” in which the “liberal state expands to control nearly every aspect of life.” “Liberal totalitarianism” is a phrase he has taken to employing. 

To Yoram Hazony, the Israeli-American leader of the new U.S. national conservative movement, liberal democracy has become a kind of totalizing dictatorship: “[T]he opponents of liberalism have been vanquished one by one, and universal liberal empire has seemed to come within reach.” The consequence: There are “increasingly insistent demands for conformity to a single universal standard in speech and religion.” Liberalism “has taken on the worst feature of the medieval Catholic empire upon which it is unwittingly modeled, including a doctrine of infallibility, as well as a taste for the inquisition and the index.”

To Adrian Vermeule, an integralist—that is, an advocate of establishing a Catholic confessional state—and a chaired professor at Harvard Law School, communism and liberalism have far more in common than it would seem at first glance. According to Vermeule, “[t]he stock distinction between the Enlightenment’s twins—communism is violently coercive while liberalism allows freedom of thought—is glib.” Liberal society “celebrates toleration, diversity, and free inquiry, but in practice it features a spreading social, cultural, and ideological conformism.” And in his account, those who decline to conform—“illiberal citizens” like himself—live much like refuseniks in the totalitarian USSR: They are “trapped without exit papers, suffer a narrowing sphere of permitted action and speech, shrinking prospects, and increasing pressure from regulators, employers, and acquaintances, and even from friends and family.”

What can one say about this vision of America as a repressive society?

One of the arresting features of the supposed American totalitarianism is that it is invisible. Dreher explains that, given its soft form, “[i]t’s possible to miss the onslaught of totalitarianism.” To Deneen, liberalism is “more insidious” than its competitor ideologies—fascism and communism—precisely because, unlike highly visible fascist or communist repression, it is unseen: “[L]iberalism is less visibly ideological and only surreptitiously remakes the world in its image. … [A]s an ideology, it pretends to neutrality, claiming no preference and denying any intention of shaping the souls under its rule.”

Of course, another obvious explanation, other than unwitting enslavement by an invisible tyranny, is that the contention that the United States is under totalitarian rule is simply false. The definition of an onslaught is “a very violent or forceful attack.” If it is possible simply “to miss the onslaught of totalitarianism,” as Dreher claims, perhaps it is not really much of an onslaught at all. If one considers the six characteristics enumerated by Brzezinski and Friedrich, not a single one of them obtains in the United States. There is no over-arching ideology to which it is mandatory to adhere. No single party dominates with an autocrat at its head. There is no government monopoly on communications or force. No secret police is hounding dissidents. No central economic planning is in place. 

To assert, as Deneen does, that the “liberal state expands to control nearly every aspect of life” is to make a mockery of the real horrors of totalitarian societies, past and present, like North Korea, where such control is a grim reality. In lamenting the impossibility of obtaining “exit papers” and the “narrowing sphere of permitted action and speech” in which he and like-minded colleagues find themselves, Vermeule, a distinguished professor of law who prolifically expresses himself in public lectures, books, articles and even tweets, is doing nothing more than engaging in a vicarious form of victimhood. Likening his (highly privileged) position to that of someone trapped without exit papers is a particularly ugly exercise in America bashing, on a par with anything ever said or done by the Yippies. At any moment, of course, Vermeule is free to resign his Harvard chair and emigrate to the country of his choice; no exit papers are required. As for Dreher’s “soft totalitarianism,” on inspection it is a mere oxymoron, a nonsense phrase akin to “gentle terror,” that serves as a rhetorical grenade to toss in the culture war.

In characterizing America as totalitarian, post-liberals like Dreher are reacting to an over-bearing strain of American progressivism that travels under the name of political correctness and, lately, “wokeness,” a pejorative term that sheds more heat than light. Dreher would be on target if all he claimed is that some corners of the left have succeeded to a disturbing extent in putting in place mechanisms that attempt to control discourse in educational institutions and corporations. There is indeed a censorious cultural movement afoot that has spread widely, committing outrages along the way. But these outrages are overwhelmingly the handiwork of private actors, not overreaching government. Moreover, countervailing forces are in play: Organizations like the Academic Freedom Alliance and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have sprung up to defend freedom of thought and expression. There is no shortage of thinkers across the political spectrum—the names of Jonathan Chait, Anne Applebaum and Robert P. George come to mind—who offer withering criticism of progressive authoritarianism without rushing to the conclusion that America has descended into some sort of totalitarian nightmare. 

The fact of the matter is that in whatever direction one looks, the left-wing progressive agenda is in retreat. A “don’t say gay” bill that bans discussion of sexual orientation in kindergarten through 3rd-grade classrooms has passed in Florida, and copies are under consideration in numerous other jurisdictions. There’s a well-publicized backlash to the participation of transgendered athletes in women’s sports. The teaching of critical race theory—or just the perception of the teaching of critical race theory—has provoked a backlash, leading to books being removed from school libraries, not by the left but by the right. Supposedly “woke” mega-corporations are under assault from lawmakers, their tax benefits targeted, their antitrust status questioned. The landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion is almost certain to be overturned, and one state after the next is subjecting the procedure to tighter restrictions if not an outright ban. If one looks at the composition of the Supreme Court, it appears that conservatives have been faring rather well. Whatever one thinks about any of these developments, they are not exactly the hallmarks of a left-wing dictatorship, let alone a totalitarian one.

Ironically, even as the post-liberals deplore their own country’s totalitarian character, they have a soft spot for genuine authoritarians. Putin has presided over a regime with a long record of murdering rivals and journalists and engaging in aggression against neighboring countries. This did not deter Dreher from piling praise on the Russian leader for his Christian virtues in articles with titles like “Putin Gets It. Why Don’t We” and “Putin, Our Tsar Protector.” Only after Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine did Dreher evidently have a change of heart. Now his articles bear titles like “Clarity About Russian Brutality,” in which he expresses disappointment that the master of the Kremlin, his erstwhile hero of the culture wars, is an “utter disgrace.”

If the sun has set on one deity, it has long risen on another, namely Viktor Orbán, prime minister of avowedly illiberal Hungary. Hazony and Deneen have made pilgrimages to Budapest to pay homage to the Hungarian leader. At Orbán’s meet-and-greet with Deneen, reads the official press release, “the American academic spoke highly of Hungary’s family policy measures, stressing that the future would rest on local communities based on national and family values rather than on liberalism.” To Dreher, who had gone to live in Hungary for a spell, Orbán’s election victory in early April was a moment of triumph: “Make no mistake,” Dreher pronounced in a tweet, “#ViktorOrban is the leader of the West now—the West that still remembers what the West is.” Under Orbán, says Dreher, the Hungarians “are defending democracy and national sovereignty over and against the culturally imperialistic liberals of the West.”

Never mind that Hungary is a kleptocracy in which the media is overwhelmingly controlled by the state and the ruling Fidesz party. Never mind that Orbán has packed Hungary’s courts with cronies. Never mind that, as Arch Puddington has shown, Orbán has adopted a fawning posture toward a true totalitarian state: the People’s Republic of China. Never mind that Orbán’s party and government have engaged in a thinly veiled campaign of anti-Semitism, rehabilitating vicious Jew-hating fascist figures of the pre-war era, white-washing Hungary’s extensive role in the destruction of Hungarian Jewry, and turning the Jewish Hungarian-born American philanthropist George Soros into a national bogeyman. Like Putin’s Russia, Hungary makes a show of upholding family values and Christianity, and what is a little state-sponsored anti-Semitism compared to that? “Soft totalitarianism” may be a self-refuting oxymoron, but a more useful analytical term, “creeping authoritarianism,” certainly applies to Dreher’s new political paradise.

What follows from the notion that America is a dictatorship? One logical conclusion would be that the tyranny must be brought down. It would be foolish in the extreme to maintain that the mob that swarmed the Capitol on Jan. 6 was inspired by post-liberal theorists. The chief inspirer was Donald Trump himself. But a climate has been created, and wild ideas are in circulation, which Trump exploited. 

Deploying violent imagery, the post-liberal theorists are contributors to that climate. Vermeule calls for seizing “a strategic position from which to sear the liberal faith with hot irons.” “Civility and decency are secondary values,” says the integralist Sohrab Ahmari, another post-liberal and an editor at Compact magazine. It is necessary, Ahmari says, “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy.” The goal of the war is to enjoy “the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” The common and the Highest Good are to be determined, of course, by Ahmari and his like-minded post-liberal comrades themselves. Ahmari, it is pertinent to note, is a supporter of France’s far-right Marine Le Pen, leader of a political party whose roots lie in French fascism

If there is a whiff of fascism in the air or, perhaps, more precisely, a longing for a Franco or a Salazar, that is unsurprising. Ahmari and his fellow post-liberals hold liberal democracy in contempt. They despise the individualism that is liberalism’s underpinning. They valorize national solidarity and cultural homogeneity. They exude a loathing of America as decadent and depraved. “We are an evil civilization, and we will be judged,” declaims Dreher in a tweet. They follow the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, who contended, as Deneen approvingly summarizes his view, “that the great totalitarian threat of our age emanated not ultimately from the dictatorships of so-called communist regimes of the Soviet Union or China, but from the unfolding liberal logic of the West” (emphasis added). 

Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them, said George Orwell. But the claim that the greatest totalitarian threat emanates from the unfolding liberal logic of the West is worse than stupid, it is morally despicable, standing on its head the epic struggle between freedom and barbarism while erasing memory of the millions who perished at communist hands. Just as there is something called Holocaust denial, there is something called Gulag denial, and this is an instance of it. It would be interesting to ask Deneen, who has a doctorate in political science, to compare the number of people murdered by the Soviet Union and China with the number murdered by governments operating under the “unfolding liberal logic of the West.” He would discover that the resulting ratio—tens of millions of deaths on one side, zero on the other—is a telling measure of what constitutes a “totalitarian threat” and what does not. One is only left wondering why Deneen calls the Soviet Union and China “so-called” communist regimes. While tarring the liberal West as despotic, does he simultaneously harbor doubts about the communist character of these two countries?

Whatever lies behind such confusion (if that is what it is), both the post-liberals’ calumniation of their own country and their adoration of authoritarian leaders abroad seeps down from the intellectual sphere into the popular culture, where an entire ecosphere of illiberals—activists, journalists, aspiring politicians, militia members, crackpots of various stripes—has been energized. While retaining his affinity for Vladimir Putin, Tucker Carlson—the keynote speaker at Hazony’s first gathering of national conservatives—has broadcast from Budapest, bringing the supposed virtues of Hungary to the broad masses of the Fox television audience. This very month, the Conservative Political Action Coalition (CPAC), hosted a convocation in Hungary in Orbán’s honor. A strange assortment of characters is now lauding Hungary’s illiberal democracy, while lambasting America as a tyranny. “Dictator Joe Biden started phase 1 of the Dems’ Communist takeover of America,” is how Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene sees the world. The United States “needs to be liberated” like Ukraine, says Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert. “Rod Dreher makes an excellent case that totalitarianism has just about arrived in the U.S.,” writes Abe Greenwald, an editor at conservative Commentary magazine, adding—with the self-indicting irony escaping him—that the label totalitarian “is much abused.” 

A segment of the right is infected with arrant nonsense, but the content of that arrant nonsense did not spring from nowhere. At a moment when American liberal democracy is coming undone, a group of supposedly serious thinkers has been engaged in a travesty, slandering the United States while simultaneously trivializing the extraordinarily brutal history of 20th century totalitarianism. It is a scandalous falsehood, a perversion of language for political ends, to contend, as Dreher does, that American liberal democracy has degenerated “into something resembling the totalitarianism over which it triumphed in the Cold War.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spent much of his life caught in the maw of such a regime. His masterwork, “The Gulag Archipelago,” a chronicle of the torture and murder of millions, makes plain what totalitarianism is and what it is not. “Live not by lies” is Solzhenitsyn’s indelible admonition to those who would seek freedom. In a case of intellectual hijacking, “Live Not By Lies is also the title Dreher gave to his most recent book. It is past time he and his fellow post-liberals began heeding Solzhenitsyn’s famous words.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, is a contributing editor at the American Purpose. He is the author of, among other books, Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.

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