'The dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe."
That quip from Tom Wolfe is worth savoring as the U.S. prepares to celebrate the Fourth of July—and as overheated rhetoric emanates from fans of Edward Snowden, the proud thief of American secrets. Even supporters, like Sen. Rand Paul, who express discomfort with how he fled to China and Russia, nevertheless applaud Mr. Snowden for alerting Americans to a supposedly dangerous infringement of liberty from the government's monitoring of electronic communications. Mr. Snowden's more extreme acolytes credit him with stopping the rise of a new tyranny in Washington.
Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg recently took to the pages of Britain's Guardian newspaper—Mr. Snowden's megaphone of choice—to discuss the purloining of National Security Agency surveillance secrets. Mr. Ellsberg admitted that the "United States is not now a police state." Yet he claimed that "we do have the full electronic and legislative infrastructure of such a state." All it would take to bring about full-blown dictatorship, Mr. Ellsberg said, would be "a war that led to a large-scale anti-war movement" or "one more attack on the scale of 9/11." Mr. Snowden, he concluded, is saving us from an apparatus that the old East German secret police would approve of, the "United Stasi of America"—in other words, "the FBI, CIA, and NSA."
The assumption behind arguments like Mr. Ellsberg's is that a liberal democracy can slowly turn, as freedom is gradually infringed, into a fascist or communist dictatorship. But while there are a few examples of democracy giving way to dictatorship, it seldom happens gradually—and it never happens in a democracy as stable and secure as that of the United States.
Almost all dictatorships throughout history have arisen when a strongman has seized power by force from a weak and illegitimate regime. Think just in the past century of, in no particular order, Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Mobutu, Bokassa, Franco, Pinochet, Kim Il Sung, Castro, Noriega, Trujillo, Suharto, Tito, Hoxha, Qaddafi, Nasser, Assad, Saddam Hussein, Khomeini—a dictatorial hall of fame.
Not one of them became the lawful head of a democratically elected government and then proceeded by degrees over years to establish an autocracy. All of them seized power in revolutions or coups and immediately began abridging civil liberties and repressing rivals and critics to establish their rule. Their intelligence services, it should be noted, did not limit their activities to conducting surveillance of the population—they also imprisoned or killed dissidents.
Hitler, it is true, was selected through the democratic process as chancellor of Germany in 1933 and then proceeded to replace the Weimar Republic with a Nazi dictatorship. But Hitler was never a normal, law-abiding politician. He had long relied on Brown Shirt goon squads to intimidate the opposition, and he began the process of repression immediately upon being sworn into office.
By 1934 Hitler had banned all rival parties and proclaimed himself Führer, the absolute "leader" of Germany. That he found it relatively easy to take over can be explained by the rickety nature of the Weimar Republic, which lasted only 14 years and was beset by numerous troubles, from hyperinflation to open political warfare in the streets.
The Italian experiment with representative rule under a constitutional monarchy was longer lived, starting with the state's formation in 1861 and lasting until 1922, but it also was not undermined over the course of years. It came to a sudden end when tens of thousands of fascists marched on Rome demanding that Benito Mussolini be appointed prime minister. An intimidated King Victor Emmanuel III complied. Upon taking office, Mussolini set about creating a police state.
Robert Mugabe's ascension to power in Zimbabwe in 1980 was slightly more legitimate—he won an election marred by fraud and intimidation—but, like Il Duce, Mugabe immediately used the power of the state to repress rival factions. The new government, which replaced an old white-minority regime, was susceptible to subversion from the top because the country had no history of liberal democratic institutions.
The same might be said of such countries as Russia and Venezuela, which in the past decade have seen the rise of authoritarian rulers who took power via the ballot box. They also have little experience of democracy in action, in Russia's case amounting to less than a decade of its entire history. Ironically Mr. Snowden at last report was still in Russia—and Venezuela is reportedly among the few countries seriously considering granting him asylum.
Perhaps it is possible, as Mr. Snowden and his supporters allege, that a dictatorship could emerge by degrees in one of the oldest and best-established democracies in the world. But if such a thing were to happen in the U.S., it would be an event without historical precedent.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.