Biden as an Authoritarian: A Phony Talking Point
Inventing an Imminent Left-Wing Dictatorship to Justify Right-Wing Illiberal Rule
"Biden is an authoritarian," warned Fox News on Sept. 11, responding to President Joe Biden's announcement that vaccinations or weekly Covid-19 testing would now be required for employees of large businesses.
No matter that Fox News has had a similar policy in place for months. Propaganda isn't about logic, but about evoking emotions. And in 2021 America, the Republican charge that Democrats are out to take away our liberty is just too effective at triggering anger and fear.
That's why Republicans and their allies are investing massive time and energy in circulating this political fiction. The alleged threat posed by "left-wing authoritarianism," and by Biden as a dictator in the making, are now central talking points for the GOP and its media, religious, and political allies.
It may be tempting to dismiss such rhetoric. Biden is hardly a man of the left, and he has made the defense of democracy against autocracy a theme of his foreign policy speeches. Yet we need to take this phony argument seriously. It is designed to take polarization to the next level, by peddling the idea that Commies/Radical Lefties/Socialists are out to destroy free will, spiritual life, and civilization as we know it. It is designed to depict Biden as an existential threat and foster survivalist thinking. And what do you do to survive? Anything necessary.
Unlike Democrats, Republicans have a formidable media machine that dispenses disinformation such as this to hundreds of millions every day. They know that propaganda works through repetition, but for maximum impact different sectors of society should deliver the same message, with small variations that cater to the tastes of their constituencies. That's what's happening right now with the "Biden as authoritarian" line.
Fox News hammers home the threat of socialism almost daily, providing a frame for its audience to interpret every Biden action. The president's public welfare measures, like subsidies to mitigate the pandemic's economic effects, become socialist handouts. And mask and vaccine mandates, which follow best public health practices, are evidence for millions that Biden is the Adolf Hitler of our times.
Fox also trots out survivors of state socialism in Eastern Europe, like Rebekah Koffler, to warn that political correctness, intolerance of religious feeling, and education in schools about "sex-related garbage" (presumably sexual diversity and the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals) portend the development of socialism in America.
Meanwhile, right-wing ideologues like Ben Shapiro and Mark Levin provide intellectual cover with books like The Authoritarian Moment and American Marxism, the latter of which debuted at the No.1 slot for non-fiction hardcover on the New York Times bestseller list, selling 400,000 in its first week of release.
Faith leaders who support Donald Trump's sham "stolen election" claims give their twist on the Biden-as-Duce talking point. Evangelical and nondenominational Christians preach the necessity of a spiritual crusade against a Marxist materialist who has seized power. And GOP politicians like Rep. Madison Cawthorn use a term associated with dictatorship to refer to individuals who were arrested for participating in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol: "political prisoners."
This last propaganda point will undoubtedly feature at the Sept. 18 "Justice for J6" rally at the Capitol, where "freedom fighters" will call for the release of these "prisoners" from the dictatorial Biden regime. Democratic lawmakers are warning of possible violence, and Capitol Police are preparing accordingly.
That's essential, because the message that Biden is an authoritarian will likely lead to more armed actions à la Jan. 6. This is the solution alluded to in a May open letter by 124 retired military and national security officials. It urged Americans to act to "save the nation" from the danger represented by "a hard left turn toward Socialism and a Marxist form of tyranny" --that being their characterization of Biden's administration. Shutting down democracy to supposedly save democracy is in the best tradition of authoritarian takeovers and coups.
This talking point will escalate in 2021-2022. The more authoritarian the GOP becomes -- criminalizing protest, suppressing voting, LBGTQ+ and reproductive rights, discarding the rule of law, and embracing violence -- the more it will have to label Democrats as the freedom-wreckers.
Democrats must address this head-on, exposing the idea that Biden is an authoritarian as a phony talking point in their public declarations on every occasion. Unified messaging on this point is key. For the "scarlet phantom" --the specter of an imminent left-wing takeover, used to scare people into supporting right-wing authoritarianism-- will be haunting American politics for the foreseeable future, threatening our democracy.
References: "Scarlet phantom": Giuseppe A. Borgese. Goliath: The March of Fascism (New York, 1937), 214.