The rise of totalitarianism in America

The difference between democracy and dictatorship dawned on me in eleventh grade.

 VANDALIZED STATUE of Christopher Columbus is seen in Miami in June.  (photo credit: MARCO BELLO/REUTERS)
VANDALIZED STATUE of Christopher Columbus is seen in Miami in June.
(photo credit: MARCO BELLO/REUTERS)
Marxist totalitarianism has gained unprecedented power in America. I hope Americans are too smart to succumb.
I remember the thrill I felt as a 12-year-old Romanian immigrant when I finally memorized the Pledge of Allegiance and pronounced it correctly. I had started seventh grade without a word of English. On my first day, the principal asked my uncle, who picked me up, if I was deaf-mute or retarded.
Despite the challenge of learning a new language, the pain of watching my mother struggle to find work, the humiliation of being mocked for my weird clothes and funny accent, I cherished my newfound freedom. In America, I could vote for the student body president of my choice instead of the Party Premier’s granddaughter.
I had always been an idealistic kid, taking after my father, who fell in love with communism in his youth, only later to be arrested for denouncing its lies. Although I was persecuted in school (for reasons I did not understand), my public speaking talent earned me the task of reciting poems at school assemblies. Dressed in the blue skirt, white blouse and red kerchief of the young “pioneer,” I passionately declaimed the uplifting lines: “The party is in everything/In the babe in his cradle/And in the gray old man/Reading in his rocking chair.” Like all Romanian children, I grew up steeped in Marxist ideology; the fiery words and heroic imagery made my heart throb. “My red kerchief/red for the blood shed/by workers and peasants/symbol of my solidarity/with the hungry and suffering/of far distant lands.”
I left Romania before I was old enough to process the disconnect between the beautiful words and the ugly reality. I saw but did not understand the long lines in front of the empty food stores. I heard but did not grasp the whispers about the disappearance of neighbors denounced by colleagues who coveted their jobs or apartments. When my father was sentenced to 25 years in solitary confinement for writing a political satire, Gulliver in The Land of Lies, I had no idea why he vanished.
The difference between democracy and dictatorship dawned on me in eleventh grade. Several classmates, in solidarity with the anti-Vietnam protests, refused to join our homeroom in the Pledge of Allegiance. They had notes from parents permitting them to sit it out. Such an unpatriotic act would have been unthinkable in Romania where disloyalty to the state was brutally punished.
Today, the act of walking out on the National Anthem, like that of destroying a statue of Abraham Lincoln or Christopher Columbus, can be interpreted as an angry gesture fueled by hatred against America. But I suspect many of the young people who support these acts are inspired by lofty promises of a fairer, nobler world than the hopelessly flawed one they learned they inherited.
This millennial generation grew up steeped in cynicism and materialism, mostly inspired to build great resumes to attract elite colleges and lucrative jobs.

THE SOCIAL JUSTICE movement satisfies a deep hunger for meaning, for purpose, for belonging, for dedication to a cause greater than oneself. Young “social justice warriors” see no connection between Marxist teachers, Marxist textbooks, Marxist principles, Marxist slogans and Stalinist gulags, the Chinese Cultural revolution, the starvation, incarceration, torture and murder of millions.
How can totalitarianism invade democracy, destroy its institutions, enslave its citizens, and replace freedom with terror? Precisely by exploiting the deep human hunger for meaning and connection. No current political analyst explains the rise to power of the Marxist movement now infiltrating an ever-growing number of our social, educational, cultural, literary, media and business institutions better than Hannah Arendt, in her 1951 work, The Origins of Totalitarianism.
People are driven to mass movements by “loneliness,” and “lack of normal social relationships,” Arendt explains. The refugee from Nazi Germany describes the irresistible attraction of “the energy and self-abandonment of mass movements” for people who are “bored and isolated” and come to derive their “sense of being in the world from belonging to a movement.”
The two great totalitarian movements of the 20th century – Nazism and communism – succeeded by undermining their populations’ faith in their democratic institutions and the structures designed to protect them. Once in power, leaders convinced citizens that their countries’ political systems were flawed and should be discarded along with their constitutions. “It has been frequently pointed out that totalitarian movements use and abuse democratic freedoms in order to abolish them.” Through both intimidation and propaganda, totalitarian leaders succeeded in desensitizing citizens to acts of crime and violence, weakening their regard for moral principles, the laws of self-interest and self-preservation and “even for the most obvious rules of common sense.”
Totalitarian movements thrive on lies. The more power they gain, the more outrageous the lies their adherents are forced to swallow. American liberals who rationalize that their elected representatives who are now tolerating the unlawful occupation of neighborhoods, the violent assault on courthouses, monuments, and businesses, are “progressives” committed to constructive social change, should read Amna A. Akbar’s July 11 column in The New York Times: “The Left Is Remaking the World.”
“‘Defund the police’ and ‘cancel rent,’” Akbar – a law professor who advocates revolution – announces, “aren’t reforms, but paths to revolution.” All American leftist organizations, she boasts, are now united behind a common cause. Their goal is not to fix our institutions, but to destroy and replace them. “They don’t want to reduce police violence… or create grace periods for late rent.... The people making these demands want a new society. They want a break from prisons and police, from carbon and rent.”
Only people who have lost their sense of self-interest and self-preservation would willingly surrender their individual and property rights, obliterate their history, abolish their police, open their prisons and capitulate to a mass movement that, like its historical precursors described by Arendt, will ultimately make “the demand for the total, unrestricted, unconditional and unalterable loyalty of individual members… the psychological basis for total domination.”
Marxist totalitarianism has gained unprecedented power in America. I hope Americans are too smart to succumb.
The writer is head of the English Department at Touro College, Los Angeles. She is the author of Subterranean Towers: A Father-Daughter Story.