In these unprecedented times a variety of weighty and scary political science terms are swirling around the internet: totalitarianism, authoritarianism, autocracy, despotism, tyranny, and fascism. Only recently has it become important for everyone to know what they mean. What exactly is an autocracy? And what is the difference between totalitarianism and authoritarianism? Or between despotism and tyranny? Few people can give ready answers (I know I couldn’t before researching this piece). Because these terms are thrown around loosely and to powerful rhetorical effect, it would be good if we as a society understood their meanings and the relations and possible combinations among them. It would also be nice to know what risk there is of America becoming one of these states. Let’s bring a little nuance into the discussion.
When a government controls nearly all aspects of society, usually through mass surveillance and propaganda, it is totalitarianism. A lot of emphasis is on curtailing personal freedoms. A totalitarian state demands conformity and will achieve it through violence, repression, and nationalistic brainwashing. It is not simply concerned with the structure of the government, but it seeks to change and control the thoughts of the citizens. There is an official state ideology to which the citizens must adhere. Dissent and open critique are not tolerated. Think North Korea and 1984.
Are we headed there?
The value placed on bedrock principles like freedom of speech and freedom of the press makes America a place that defines itself explicitly as anti-totalitarian. It is difficult to see how some of the hallmarks of totalitarianism could come about in America. That said, others arguably exist already. Mass surveillance infrastructure is in place and there is something of a national ideology (though it isn’t as violent and exclusionary as it is in true totalitarian states). Basically, there would need to be radical and fundamental changes for us to be headed there in any meaningful way. But that doesn’t make it impossible.
When a government has a strong central power that limits freedom and political opposition, it is authoritarianism. The emphasis here is on the absence of any division of power. There is one main authority. Usually the power coalesces due to the fear of an evil, either internal to the country (a breakdown in social order) or external (a hostile foreign country or ideology).
This is fairly general. Dictatorships are authoritarian governments. All totalitarian governments are authoritarian governments. But not vice-versa. For instance, major institutions that are independent of the government might still exist in an authoritarian state.
Are we headed there?
The general trend of American political history is toward a stronger federal government. However, there is no doubt that political opposition is alive and well. As long as partisanship is strong and contentious, and the minority party still holds a moderate amount of power, we are not dealing with an authoritarian state. That said, leaders of non-authoritarian states can have authoritarian tendencies. They would seek to eliminate or discredit political dissent (as opposed to recognizing it as an important part of a collaborative system), ignore provisions that call for the separation of powers, and build their legitimacy on emotion. The question we face is simple. Which is stronger: the leader’s drive for power or the resilience of the people standing against him?
A government with concentrated power wielded in an oppressive fashion is a despotism. There are several differences between a despotism and authoritarianism, though the two can largely be used interchangeably. For instance, despotism seems to carry a stronger moral connotation. A despotism is especially cruel and oppressive, whereas authoritarianism, though certainly unpleasant, more so emphasizes the power structure. Despotism also emphasizes the ruler. A despotic government needs a despot, who is usually a single person but could also be a small group.
So a totalitarian state is not necessarily a despotism. All despotisms are authoritarian states.
Are we headed there?
The president and his executive branch might be small enough to qualify as a potential despot, but there are two other ingredients: power would need to be taken from other parts of government (including the states) and given to the executives, and the executives would need to use their power to rule in a cruel and oppressive way. If either of these ingredients are missing, we probably aren’t dealing with a genuine despotism. For instance, the executives might collect far more power but rule benevolently. Or, as is far more likely in America, the executives might want to be cruel and oppressive but lack the concentrated power
When one person governs with ultimate power, it is an autocracy. Ultimate power means there are no constitutional provisions that can block the autocrat’s actions. Autocracy is somewhat morally neutral. It is possible for an autocrat to be benevolent, but if they aren’t, you cannot really do anything about it. When talking about a despotism, if someone wants to emphasize that it’s a single individual who has all the power, they might use the term ‘autocracy’. This comes with a trade off since autocracy does not require cruel and oppressive rule.
Totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and despotism do not require a single, all-powerful ruler, though those three types of government could be autocracies. You can also have an autocracy that isn’t totalitarian, authoritarian, or despotic.
Are we headed there?
Since America was built on a revolution against a monarch (that is to say, an autocrat), the prospect of autocracy is inherently alarming. When pundits use the term they usually mean despotism. Autocracy sounds more scientific and less alarmist, but it is nevertheless meant to be frightening. It is truly difficult to imagine a series of events that would transform America into an autocracy. That said, just like authoritarianism, leaders of non-autocratic states can have autocratic tendencies. They would seek greater and greater amounts of power and the removal of mechanisms that could potentially limit their actions. They might simply ignore those limits and avoid consequences through the cowardice of those tasked to prevent the overreach. What truly prevents autocracy is people acting to enforce anti-autocratic provisions in the Constitution. So it is up to Congress and the Supreme Court.
When a government oversteps its constitutional bounds to oppress citizens, it is a tyranny. The term is broad and communicates a moral judgment more than a specific governmental structure. A tyranny is bad by definition. A tyranny needs a tyrant, who is usually a single person, but you can hear the term used more generally. Because we associate tyranny with the Founding Fathers, you’re likely to hear it in conservative circles to warn of overreach of the national government, a use that has a long heritage. The emphasis is on an illegitimate rise to power. For instance, in Federalist 33, the central government “exceeding its jurisdiction” is referred to as the “tyrannical use of powers.”
Tyranny is mainly about the usurpation of power, and so the origin of the style of government is the key. Totalitarianism and authoritarianism are probably forms of tyranny since they are illegitimate. Autocracy might be sanctioned by the state’s constitution, in which case, unless it turns oppressive, it probably isn’t a tyranny. Despotism is oppressive, hence it is a tyranny.
Are we headed there?
There is a popular tradition in America of calling the government a tyranny. It is a mainstay of conservative media during Democratic leadership. There is no doubt that the avoidance of tyranny is built into the founding documents. So, if America were to become a genuine tyranny, the people would have failed with respect to the central charter of the country. A bit ironic. Because ‘tyranny’ is so loaded and so multipurpose, there will always be someone arguing that America is a tyranny. When you choose to make that argument is mainly a function of your political affiliation. Since tyranny is more moralistic and less descriptive, the other terms are better suited for a careful political discussion.
Fascism is not easy to define in simple terms. It is a relatively new concept and has many features. Fascism is basically a specific form of authoritarianism. A fascist state has a powerful single leader who advocates a strong militarism and populism/nationalism. Fascism doesn’t fall neatly into the left/right political spectrum, but by and large, although it is critical of laissez-faire capitalism, it is far-right. It welcomes racism and utilizes violence. Fascism connotes a government that is inherently bad. And so it is used as an epithet, often with little substantive content. Since fascism is difficult to define and morally loaded, one group could take itself to be anti-fascist and be fighting a group they take to be fascist—while the other group does exactly the same.
Fascism is a type of tyranny, despotism, autocracy, and authoritarianism. Fascism need not be totalitarianism but can be (for example, Nazi Germany was both).
Are we headed there?
Fascism is in large part a distinctively WWII phenomenon. But now we hear the term “neo-fascism.” It is meant to include the general features of fascism: populism and nationalism, xenophobia, and a hostility to traditional norms-based government. All that sounds a bit too familiar, huh? Because the boundaries of fascism are a little fuzzy, the moral aspect takes center stage. For that reason, calling someone a fascist is not particularly productive (because they will respond by saying that making lists of “fascists” is itself fascism).
There is a panoply of fascism-related takes online, all by people more qualified than me. Here are some:
Is Donald Trump a Fascist (NYT), and again, Is Donald Trump a Fascist? (Slate) Well, is he? Donald Trump is a Fascist (Slate), Donald Trump is Not a Fascist (the Atlantic), Yes, Donald Trump is a Fascist (New Republic), Donald Trump is Actually a Fascist (Washington Post), and another one (Washington Post).
Here is a Venn Diagram for you: