In the simple model of tyranny we learned as school kids, there is a bad guy on top, or perhaps several because he needs advisors, and then there is everyone else suffering under his yoke. The job of freedom is to overthrow the powerful bad guy and set everyone free.
I say the simple model, but I’m pretty sure that I believed this all my life. And there is more than a grain of truth in this. The biggest conflicts in world history always pit the government against the people. This is for the simple reason long highlighted by the liberal tradition: government uniquely enjoys the legal privilege of threatening and imposing violence. That power is subject to abuse.
And yet there is more going on here. I recall reading The Black Book of Communism when it came out in 1999. The chapter on China I found most riveting. It described the terrifying force called The Red Guard. It was what we call today a non-government organization. Terrorists more precisely. They were more convinced of Mao’s teachings than Mao himself. They were blinded by Red ideology and prepared to kill for it. They did. Many millions died.
It is reported that Mao himself was alarmed at their ferocity, which contributed to mass famine and eventually cannibalism, but not enough so to put a stop to it. His teachings had unleashed hell. He had to light the match, but the fuel that kept it raging came from below, as neighbors turned on neighbors, and families tore themselves apart. People competed with each other to see how much terror and oppression they could inflict on each other in the name of building communism and being loyal to the party.
But surely, I thought, this is a cultural habit unique to China. Something to do with the collectivist/conformist mindset. We know little to nothing about that in the West, because we celebrate individualism and are suspicious of power. We don’t join mobs. We don’t find meaning in conformity. We don’t inflict violence on each other out of choice. Such an example of grass-roots tyranny cannot be found in our civilization.
Or so I believed…
During this pandemic period, we’ve found out otherwise. It all began March 2020, when millions of Americans were recruited into the ranks of what I used to jokingly call Corona Justice Warriors. They were our flagellants, hilarious in their garb and their maudlin sufferings. Over time, they became less of a joke and more of a threat. They began by policing our communities for mask wearing. They would hang around the grocery stores and yell at people for walking in the wrong direction. They would denounce you for standing too close to others.
Initially, I had assumed that the nation would rise up against stay-at-home orders, school and church closures, and the discriminatory shutdowns on business that privilege big box retailers over local merchants. I was wrong. Governments were able to recruit multitudes into the ranks of the irrational. Fear made people compliant. That compliance turned many people into champions of their own plight and lustful for mass conformity with the new despotism.
It was a weird time. But it is hardly over. Just Friday, I wanted to help a person struggling up the stairs with a big box. She was heavily masked. I tried to help, but her eyes burned through me with fire. She shook her head right and left. I tried again and she jumped back in anger. Okay, I guess my little act of generosity is not appreciated here. So, I stepped away and she went back to struggling by herself, happier in her plight, than in taking the risk of having me infect her. Or something.
All these examples sound a bit petty. But actually the impulses behind these actions are much more threatening. They are tearing the country apart, and with the president’s encouragement. With each speech, Biden looks for and finds scapegoats for public consumption. First it was the South. Then the red states. Then the virus migrated so he turned on the unvaccinated. Now he demonizes those who don’t want it and encourages everyone else to do the same.
The unvaxed are the enemy, in exactly the way that philosopher Carl Schmitt said that enemyness is supposed to work: an arbitrary assignment of malice as a means of intensifying political power through social division. This is the essence of politics, Schmitt wrote approvingly. It is conflict, contention, and suffering – not social peace and prosperity – that give life meaning.
Any regime that wants to stay in power needs to know this secret to hegemony: the desire to cleanse society of the enemy is what compels compliance. Every tyranny in history has depended on recruits to its own ranks from within the culture. They believe the lie knowing full well that it is a lie. The lie allows them to participate in the purge. They become the willing executioners. It’s been true throughout history, regardless of the particular and shifting desiderata of the despotism of the moment.
The cultural impulse behind the demonization of the unvaccinated is essentially puritanical. We have to get rid of unclean things and people. This is why we hear of the unvaccinated being turned away from hospitals, and why there is near-silence on the part of the media for the cruelty of their firings.
Vaccination has come to serve as a proxy for political loyalty, just like masking did last year.
Holding the wrong political ideology makes you unclean. You should be purged. That is why the Biden administration is also not concerned about mass firings. It helps purify the country of recalcitrants. It is a Maoist impulse, and Biden has his own Red Guard, the Karens screaming on Twitter and in stores and wearing masks alone in cars. They are the grass-roots tyrants.
The historian Will Durant wrote: “There is always, in any society, a minority whose instincts rejoice in the permission to persecute; it is a release from civilization.” He’s right. It’s the Joker. It’s the Red Guard. It’s the malcontents looking for some meaning to their miserable lives, and they think they have found it in the persecution of others. Government benefits from this, and unleashes the lust for the imposition of pain. The sadistic impulse spreads and spreads, threatening civilization itself.
Hannah Arendt in "The Origins of Totalitarianism" offered the most prescient analysis, and some of her points are easily identified in our current environment:
"In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness."
Hence, the turning point comes when people believe the lie knowing full well that it is a lie. Morality, truth, and facts no longer carry cultural weight. No one is truly safe in this world. Humor, for example, is out of the question in the midst of social, cultural, and political cleansing. Dissent in general is dangerous. The intensification of “cancel culture” in the midst of this crisis is not accidental. It is all part of the blood lust that is unleashed in a world consumed by hyper politicization and the generalized rejection of the liberal spirit.
Think about this. This hell of lockdowns, persecution, and purging began in good economic times. We are headed now toward very bad economic times. We are being warned about double-digit inflation. In fact, double-digit inflation is already here, running 20 percent and above for producer inputs. The hashtag #emptyshelves trended right now on Twitter. I never thought I would see that in my lifetime. People blame supply chains, even if they do not know what those are. But the brokenness runs much deeper. Then you have the labor crisis that is intensifying. And heating oil futures are soaring as we move into winter.
I spoke to a famous epidemiologist yesterday. He expects a wave of sickness this winter, not just COVID (mass vaccination is not controlling infection or spread) but all the other diseases unleashed by the lockdowns that wrecked immune systems, stopped cancer screenings, and led to weight gain and drug and alcohol abuses. Depression and anxiety disorders affect hundreds of millions, and public anger has been unleashed at a level we’ve not previously experienced. Scapegoats are essential in such times, and there are always people ready and willing to inflict suffering on them.
Put all this together and you have the makings of impending disaster. We’ve already turned on each other in these manufactured bad times. When our times become really terrible, with food shortages and the spreading of ill health, it’s going to get worse. We’ll discover the truth about tyranny. When it comes, the driving force does not have to be the dictator. It is often our neighbors, co-workers, family, and friends.
Jeffrey A. Tucker is the American Institute for Economic Research's editorial director. He has authored thousands of articles and eight books, most recently The Market Loves You.
Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on the Brownstone Institute.