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Countdown to RWA


DeWitt Cheng

The California F-Scale (F for fascism) was developed immediately following World War II in order to help understand what led to that catastrophe. In 1981 Dr. Bob Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba revised and improved the F-Scale as a statistical tool, renaming it the Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) Scale. Its 22 statements are rated from very strongly agreement to very strong disagreement. Go ahead, it’s fun, see where you rank. It will take less time than it takes to complete your midterm election ballot.


The countdown to election day has brought with it polls showing voters have forgotten their outrage over a variety of once-compelling reasons to oppose Trumpism: SCOTUS’s Dobbs anti-abortion decision; the January 6 insurgency; Trump’s casual theft of classified documents; the fumbling, dishonest nonsense over the covid pandemic; and the rest of the demented clown-car psychodrama. Instead, voters are apparently falling once again for the GOP’s golden oldies: Democratic-controlled government spending causing inflation and recession, non-WASP alien invaders, and crime due to liberal permissiveness. Wille Horton lives!

Photograph: Dr. Bob Altemeyer

Robbie Conal, “Supreme Injustices,” 2022, poster.

Top row L to R: Neil Gorsuch, Amy Coney-Barrett, Samuel Alito;

Bottom row L to R: Clarence Thomas, John G. Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh

The odds now favor — barring a blue-wave deus ex machina, which should by no means be dismissed — a Republican triumph in 2022, Congressional paralysis in 2023 and 2024, and Big-Lie partisans controlling state legislatures and election procedures in 2024, potentially guaranteeing GOP victory no matter the actual vote. That would be followed by four more years of continued pillaging of the taxpayers; destruction of the environment; economic enslavement of the working class; religious criminalization of pregnant working-class women and those who care for them (hail Texas Morality Police bounty hunters!); and Congressional show trials of traitorous Democrats who dared to counter the American orc mob. Can America awaken from its fascist fever dream, or will it continue to entrust its future to insensate crooks and nitwits lost in childish, absurd fantasies, who care nothing about serious governance or the rule of law? We are still waiting for the GOP health plan, the infrastructure bill, Trump’s tax returns, and completion of his border wall on Mexico’s dime.


The loonier members of the MAGA Borg may at times make for amusing viewing, but it is now far wiser to consider the marching, shouting deplorables, along with their leader, as appalling and dangerous. It is frightening to contemplate the prospective triumph of American fascism — which, apparently, most Americans, lulled by the myth of American exceptionalism, are unwilling to do, even after six solid years of national tumult and nonsense. That America’s history has its dark side has been made clear to all open-minded people of good will. That our cultural amnesia and hypocrisy regarding genocide, expropriation, antisemitism, and most of all slavery should be cited as a reason for isolationist garden-tending is absurd and dishonest.

Then there are those who comprise the Putin wing of the GOP, such as the ambitious potential House Majority Leader, hinting that we should cease our support for Ukraine. Dubya’s thrilling global March of Freedom was a hoax, yes, but the Greatest Generation’s war against the Axis wasn’t.

As America, the WWII Arsenal of Democracy, slides towards totalitarianism, I am reminded of Oliver Hirschbiegen’s 2004 film “Downfall,” depicting Hitler’s last days in the Berlin bunker as American and Russian troops converged. The ranting of the Führer, played by the late Bruno Ganz, has since been memorably modified innumerable times with audio of Trump tantrums. But an even more memorable scene concerns Magda Goebbels (played by a chilling Corinna Harfouch), the True-Believer wife of Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who briefly becomes Chancellor after Hitler’s suicide. Declaring that Germany will never surrender, the couple choose to follow the unrepentant, embittered Hitler into death, but not before having their six young children sedated, so that cyanide capsules can be inserted in their mouths and crushed between their teeth. A smiling family photograph of the family bears ironic testimony to the couple’s tragic fanaticism.


What does this horror story from 1945 have to do with the USA in 2022? It is difficult to imagine the GOP oligarchy responding to collapse and prosecution with such stoic self-destruction, like defeated Roman generals. Jorge Luis Borges wrote in “Deutsches Requiem” about a Nietzschean Nazi who gloried in the triumph of force, even in his own defeat: 

John Heartfield, “5 Fingers Has the Hand,” 1928. Translated from the German: 5 Fingers Has the Hand! With 5 You Seize the Enemy!”. The image supported the KPD, German Communist Party, in the 1928 Reichstag election. It was number 5 on the voting ticket.

“An inexorable epoch is spreading over the world. We forged it, we who are already its victim. What matters if England is the hammer and we the anvil, so long as violence reigns and not servile Christian timidity? If victory and injustice and happiness are not for Germany, let them be for other nations. Let Heaven exist, even though our swelling place is Hell.”

Joseph and Magda Goebbels with their children, 1945, archival photograph

Criminality is hardly redeemed by the braggadocio of the likes of Steve Bannon, or the might-is-right libertarian anarchism of Roger Stone. But one can at least feel a grudging admiration for the malefactor willing to take his lumps manfully. Milton’s Romantic-hero Satan anticipates Borges’ Nazi, neither of whom would dream of pleading the Fifth Amendment four hundred-plus times, as Trump did recently in a New York deposition (“Same answer. same answer, same answer …”). Lower down the hierarchy of cowardice there was the pleading for clemency by many January 6 insurgents, whining that their president had invited them to ransack the Capitol. They were only following the orders of their own tinhorn Führer. 

If we come to our wits and overwhelm the MAGA millions in November, forestalling Trump’s return to power, America will have learned — the hard way, with irreplaceable time and trillions of dollars wasted in a time of global crisis — that America the Exceptional is an ideal to be sought after and fought for anew by each generation. It is not a legacy to be taken for granted, only to be squandered by contemporary Know-Nothings. Are we as a nation up to the challenge? Stay tuned for two more weeks, perched on the edge of your chair, as the low-information, poorly educated entertainment addicts, jackaloons (to use the folksy terminology of the West Virginia populist progressive Richard Ojeda) who are nonetheless fellow Americans to whom we are roped like mountain climbers, capering at the edge of the precipice.


Last year Morning Consult applied Dr. Altemeyer’s RWA to a study that rated 26% of the U.S. population as highly right-wing authoritarian, about twice the percentage of Canada and Australia. If voters, unaware or disbelieving of the meaning of their vote, do take us over that escarpment, this quarter of Americans will redouble their efforts to put an end to the American experiment. They will be positioned to succeed.

Digital collage by DeWitt Cheng

Arthur Jafa, “Big Wheel II (l.) and “Big Wheel I” (r.), 2018, truck tires wrapped in chains, gantry.

Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York. Photo: Thomas Müller

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