There is a reason why secularism is under such direct attack, not so much because it is the antithesis to a religious right-wing agenda. That is a part of it, but it is also about the logic of power. Secularism is the key to preventing all forms of power accumulation because it organizes power within society pluralistically, placing a check on the totalizing propensity of power. In a secular society laws and customs prevent one of those voices from totally silencing others.
Through the pursuit of an ideological agenda, the GOP has morphed into a totalitarian party. This change has been gradual and largely unnoticeable until recently. The GOP cynically leverages one great benefit of secular society, the freedom of pluralistic expression, in order to impose an opposite condition, a Christian, white nationalistic order. A key strategy is the delegitimization of secularism by conflating it with atheism, defined by right-wing discourse as a direct threat to religious freedom. This strategy is a great example of the discursive game play right-wing influencers utilize so effectively. This post-truth rhetoric turns the facts inside out and upside down. The secular check on religion does not exclude religion from being a voice among many. If anything, it guarantees that right because religions tend to suppress each other.
“The best lies contain within them nuggets of truth, enough to give a listener pause.” ― George R.R. Martin.
Historically, secularism is seen as a check on religious power. The principles of secularism, however, are meant to bring a pluralistic society together. They can promote big tent political movements. Secularism also has a long-standing legitimacy and cultural affinity that goes back to the 18th century enlightenment. In these ways it can suppress all forms of totalitarianism in a way that atheism cannot and does not. For republicans to paint secularism and atheism with the same brush is not only to erase the distinction between them, this strategy functions to eliminate possibilities of resistance.
Certainly not all republicans, and not all conservatives, are totalitarian-minded. In fact, many find the very concept abhorrent. It is never that all nationalists, all capitalists, and all religious people want to take full control. It is the elements within those groups that seek power that grows and comes to dominate given a lack of checks and balances. The next phase is one of establishing purity, the purge of GOP representative Liz Cheney being one of the latest examples of this phenomenon. Notice that her life-long record as a strong conservative makes no difference.
It is about power, not ideology.
Secularism as a check on power accumulation is specifically under attack by one of the most formidable ruling institutions in America, the GOP. The totalitarian elements within this party mean to take control and use freedom against freedom. In order to prevent this assault on society we must be wary of the discursive efforts to pervert and conflate the principles of democracy and pluralism, just as much as we must also be wary of those who attack the institutions that keep totalitarianism in check.
Discursive and cultural strategies have been the means by which the GOP has positioned itself so that it can directly and overtly attack democracy outright. The January 6th insurrection is a glaring example of this, as is the eagerness with which GOP senators squashed any chance an honest assessment of the incident. We on the left err if our attention is diverted fully on the overt strategies because the discursive game play is still very much in effect.
Totalitarianism is a process
By definition, totalitarians pursue all ways to gain power. Power itself is the defining principle and the closer a movement gets to total power, the less the ideology that got it there matters. That is the key to understanding this phenomenon.
Totalitarianism is a term we ascribe to certain extreme political expressions of nation-states of the mid 20th century. Fascism and communism demanded a complete subservience to the bureaucratic order. That is what defined them, not values or cultural ideas. At a certain point, how the power accumulated, what ideological means it took, becomes irrelevant. This accumulation of power is what a secular society prevents even if imperfectly. There comes a point however when power can overwhelm all means to check it.
Many on the left will argue that America, organized as a secular society with secular institutions, has not been very successful. Such arguments minimize the historical reality that America has been able to keep totalitarianism from fully manifesting as it did in other places. The left must examine the successes in checking the accumulation of power as well as the failures. Unions, for example, acted as a secular civic institution that kept capitalist totalitarianism in check. Diverted by attention to cultural matters, the left since Reagan, did not (or could not) do enough to prevent their demise. Ignoring these power dynamics while focusing (or being redirected to) mostly on identity and culture has led to where we are today.
American history is also complicated by two totalizing political economies that could not mutually exist, but at the same time informed each other. The agricultural slave economy of the South was very powerful, in fact, most of the wealth in the US was concentrated there. Industrial capitalism made the north richer and more powerful until it reached at which it could challenge the slave-based south. Their confrontation created the opportunity to end slavery through a brutal Civil War. However, chattel slavery in the South was replaced quickly by an apartheid, racist order, and it took another century to see social progress.
Meanwhile, emerging industrial capitalism led to reaction against its many human rights abuses. In the 1930s, the US established checks and balances to the great force of capital accumulation… unions, new laws, a safety net. Around this time fascism as a new modern strategy of control, was also very popular in the US particularly by many captains of industry, like Henry Ford. This nation could have easily gone the way of Germany. It did not largely because of the power of unions and the radical economic left in the early 20th century. And this success too is a forgotten history, as is the history of brutal racial apartheid.
Beginning in the 1950s, many began to challenge the story of America painted for the purposes of supporting a jingoistic status quo of racist culture, patriarchy, homophobia and xenophobia. Totalitarianism did indeed manifest for indigenous and black Americans. This history has been largely erased and the effort to obscure the truth continues. Totalitarianism was a quotidian reality for women only broken a century ago by the suffrage movement. The battle for social justice is far from complete.
People who have awakened to these injustices understand that America has failed to live up to its principles. Of course, this realization is a must if we are to move forward, improve, become a better people. The downside, however, is that many in turn will condemn the whole American experiment. This is a dangerous conclusion. It is like saying — look at all the fires in the city, the fire department has failed. Without fire departments there would be no modern cities for there to be fires in. The same is true for American democracy. A large share of the reason America did not fall into dictatorship is because it has an institutional civic base that enshrines political rights and secularism. It does so imperfectly and unevenly but it still does so.
Consider what history would look like if the US had gone officially fascist in the 30s. Consider the US being part of the Axis Powers instead being allied with the UK and Russia. Consider whether the civil rights movement would have had a chance in a fascist regime. I could go on. The importance of stemming the tide of fascism cannot be overstated.
For a while, totalitarian fascism was wholly discredited by World War II, losing any legitimacy in America. The forces within capitalism eventually aligned themselves with older structures of power, race and religion. In other words, capital sought to take back the power it had lost by using the old ideologies of control. An alliance of these right-wing ideologies eventually led to a progression of right-wing radicalism, from Reagan’s neoliberalism, to Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, to New Gingrich’s hard partisanship, to the Tea Party movement, and finally, to Trumpism. Each step in this evolution reduced the moderate elements within the Republican party and augmented the extremists. Now even hard conservatives are being purged. Fascism has reemerged.
This right coalition succeeded in reshaping the rules of the economy creating a massive redistribution of wealth to the rich, but it failed in creating the cultural change it sought, because social justice movements eventually reshaped America’s heart. The final outcome was that the country became more socially progressive as it took a hard economic right turn. The concomitant decline in life chances for most opened the door not just for a right-wing cultural backlash, but for the re-emergence of fascist totalitarianism.
It’s Really About Power
Trumpism is simply the next level in this process of accumulating total power. The movement leveraged American economic decline, linked it with past hierarchies of control, and used that power to reverse the cultural progress in social justice. Unlike previous right-wing movements, it played loose with ideology along the way. One day Russia is the enemy, the next a friend. One day tariffs are bad the next they are good. State’s rights all the way, until they don’t matter. Patriotism defines a movement and then insurrection does. Many were mystified by this ideological confusion, but there is a logic to it. The greater power accumulates, the more it becomes the raison-d’etre for the movement.
This is why, in the end, there can be no social justice without economic justice and vice versa. One form of totalitarianism begets another because it is ultimately about power, not any particular ideology. Leave an opening and power will find it.
These rhetorical victories opened the door for the even more extreme political crises today. A strong majority of Republicans now believe this election was stolen and are using this lie to repress the civil rights of people of color at the state level. The Reagan revolution targeted unions, universal public education, and sought to change local laws. The right successfully reshaped a broad spectrum of society, targeting key aspects of civic power. It has always been totalitarian in strategy. It has always been about power.
Right wing narrative victories have converted once normal policies in our civil society, such as a ban on assault rifles, the fairness doctrine, ensuring the passage of the voting rights act into controversial, left-wing extremism. The power of this right-wing totalitarian impulse is so great that returning to the accepted rules and practices of the post war era are now considered radical in scope. Even the narratives are subservient to power. That is why the narratives continually shift.
A mediocre and conciliatory response to the rise of totalitarianism has never worked before anywhere in the world or in history. It has not worked in the last four decades in America. In order to stem this a now much more established and powerful totalitarianism in our nation, the rest of our society must be radical in its resistance. We must radically reaffirm our power sharing principles founded through secularism.
The achievements of myriad separate cultural and environmental issues the left cares about, no matter how important they may be, are all dependent on finally coming to understand that the accumulation of power and its final outcome, totalitarianism, is the foci of resistance. We should have diverted that asteroid when it was far away, when a small nudge would have done the job. Just like the issue of Climate Change, America has waited too long and opportunities for all the easy (non-radical) solutions have long passed.