By Gregory Gordon for the Mises Institute | June 5, 2023
Here in the West, particularly in countries such as the United States and Canada, we have experienced radical political and cultural changes over the past several years, and the pace of these changes seems to have accelerated since 2020. In the minds of many, there is an almost palpable feeling that a switch has been thrown and that the relationship between citizens and the state has been permanently altered.
Perhaps the most salient revelation in the wake of these changes is a highly diminished pretense of state legitimacy in Western liberal “democracies.” In the Platonic ideal, this legitimacy flows from the citizens’ belief that their democratic government—ostensibly comprising peers and fellow citizens—effectively and uniformly administers justice and serves the needs of all citizens. These critical needs include protecting the individual citizens and their property from foreign adversaries and domestic criminals. In this ideal, citizens would rest assured that “their” government (which, as Barack Obama would say, is “all of us”) would never turn its destructive wrath upon its own constituents.
It is now the spring of 2023, several years after populist groundswells such as Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Despite what elites and erstwhile “true believers” may claim, fewer and fewer people believe that we are still striving in unison toward the idealized vision of a liberal Western democracy. Mostly peaceful, otherwise-law-abiding citizens are being targeted for relatively minor offenses and political transgressions, while radical leftist agitators and drug-addled street criminals who terrorize cities are quickly forgiven and, in some cases, characterized as victims of an unjust, bigoted society. Some call this situation anarcho-tyranny.
Nations that were once liberal paragons of “democratic” values such as tolerance, pluralism, free speech, freedom for political dissenters, and religious liberty are now mostly led by effete, tone-deaf cosmopolitans or malevolent geriatrics, who are cracking down on those they consider to be backward, superstitious, and racist troglodytes. (The “Q-Anon Shaman” guy could not have been a more perfect culmination of left-liberal stereotypes, even if he were plucked right out of central casting.)
It is a strange time in these Western democracies, though, because the effete ruling class are still learning how to brandish their iron fists. Crackdowns are increasing not only in frequency but also in intensity. Things are not progressing in a linear way; the tyranny is ramping up in awkward fits and spurts.
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has activated his authoritarianism whenever he has deemed it necessary, while simultaneously claiming the mantle of the enlightened defender of liberalism. He gets the privilege of proselytizing about tolerance in between episodes of cringe-inducing cultural appropriation and the unfortunate semiregular appearances of old photos depicting him in blackface. His battle against Canada’s truckers is a prime example of his newfound authoritarian tendencies.
In early 2022, the Freedom Convoy began as a protest against Canada’s vaccine mandates but quickly grew into a national populist movement against draconian covid policies and distant elites who controlled the lives of the residents in Canada’s heartland. In some cases, truckers traveled thousands of miles to Ottawa to park their trucks in the capital city as a mass civil protest against Trudeau’s regime. This level of populist civil disobedience was once rare in Canada. Soon, the politicians became desperate to squelch the movement. Truckers who had peacefully assembled near Parliament were arrested, and Trudeau’s government began shutting down access to the truckers’ bank accounts, blocking their access to cryptocurrency, and threatening to suspend the truckers’ insurance.
These actions were all done without criminal convictions, traditional due process, or the normal window dressings of the enlightened democracy on which the liberal West has always congratulated itself. The Emergency Act was invoked for the first time by a Canadian prime minister, in order to veil the nascent despotism.
Desperate to avoid being labeled as a dictator, Trudeau claimed that the crackdowns on rogue freedom-seeking truckers were just temporary and that things would soon return to legal constitutional norms in the country. These hallowed norms will surely be respected until the next “crisis” comes along.
Over the past few years, there have been many other instances of covid-related or progressive tyranny in Canada, including shutting down Christian churches and even arresting intransigent pastors. Recently, a teenager had been arrested for distributing bibles and confronting transgender activists on a public sidewalk in Calgary.
What has happened in Canada is emblematic of what is going on in the United States and elsewhere in the West. Liberal politicians are now having to deal with an increasingly disgruntled, divided populace and a long-overdue backlash to the politicians’ cosmopolitan, corporatist, and often militarist policies. The Freedom Convoy in Canada may have been peaceful, but as Trudeau reminded the world, the Canadian truckers held “unacceptable views.” That is the crux of the issue: those who hold unacceptable views are no longer welcome to partake in the societies of Western liberal democracies.
There you have it: one of the biggest changes the world has seen in the past few years has been the willingness of erstwhile mild-mannered liberal political leaders to use brutal authoritarian tactics for a brief period on an as-needed basis. At the end of these brief periods of repression, not at all unlike what we have traditionally witnessed in communist and “banana republic” regimes, the political leaders then attempt to return to normal, liberal, and ostensibly constitutional governance—perhaps hoping that nobody had noticed what had just happened.
However, in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, Brexit in the United Kingdom, and populist uprisings throughout Europe, things are different, and the proverbial toothpaste cannot be put back into the tube. The liberal authoritarians have now developed a metaphorical arsenal of different tactics and tricks with which they attempt to control their unruly citizen hordes. It should be noted that these tactics and tricks are usually employed temporarily or are broad actions that are implemented sporadically.
In the United States, where citizens have lived under the constant threat of weaponized dementia since January 20, 2021, we have witnessed this ephemeral authoritarianism on many fronts, from covid policies to federal law enforcement tactics.
President Joe Biden initially admitted that the federal government had no authority to implement vaccine mandates. Yet several months later, he changed course and implemented these mandates throughout the military, airports, and federal bureaucracy, which affected more than a hundred million Americans and foreign travelers. Biden went on to angrily chastise vaccine-skeptical Americans, warning them that he was growing tired of their resistance to the jabs: “We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us.” These veiled threats appear to have been effective, with millions of Americans coerced into receiving a covid vaccine for fear of losing their job or incurring the wrath of a tolerant, progressive neighbor/friend/politician. Biden’s vaccine mandates were quietly ended on May 11, 2023, with no mention of an apology or financial settlement for those who were vilified, fired, and ostracized during the covid hysteria.
Federal law enforcement in America has also seen its share of stochastic crackdowns and enforcement. Some nonviolent January 6 protesters and trespassers have received relatively light sentences and probation for their alleged crimes, whereas others—particularly those who had been active on social media in documenting and discussing the events of January 6—received much longer prison sentences. Compared to the relatively low numbers of arrests for nationwide left-wing riots and acts of vandalism against courthouses and other government buildings in the 2020s, investigations and arrests of January 6 defendants have been methodical, thorough, and numerous.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has certainly been busy recently. Aside from trafficking false intelligence reports and participating in the attempt by Hillary Clinton’s campaign to implicate Trump in a Russian-collusion scandal, the bureau has also been raiding the former president’s residence, luring unsophisticated Midwesterners into outlandish kidnapping plots, investigating parents at local school-board meetings, and arresting pro-life activists. (Don’t worry, though; when they knock on your door, the sharply dressed federal agents will be professional as they interrogate you and your family.) The FBI will make sure that, in the future, you think twice about voting for Trump, posting memes about Hillary Clinton, or praying outside of an abortion clinic. Unacceptable views, indeed.
Perhaps some of these authoritarian tactics are waning as we head into the second half of 2023. Perhaps the covid lockdowns and vaccine mandates are fully shelved. Perhaps the FBI and federal law enforcement have been brought to heel and will return to the constitutional limits on their power. However, one thing seems certain: the effete political leaders of the West have learned that they don’t have to be full-time authoritarians to impose their will on the masses; they just have to wait for the next crisis and then move swiftly.