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Demonization and Authoritarianism

Demonization has been a central concern of mine as it is, I think, what the path to authoritarianism is paved with whether the demonizers are on the right or the left. It is one of the temptations that lead us down the slippery slope toward repression, state violence, and more. Why?

First, because demonization animates hyper-nationalism as nationalisms are fundamentally xenophobic, clarified in opposition to perceived enemies. And, very importantly, demonization also favors the right in the U.S., as far right movements lean into historical bigotries in order to build on the nationalist impulse and suggest that exclusion on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or race, or even race/ethnic/religious cleansing is in the national interest.

But, second, demonizing benefits ethnic nationalists like the white nationalists in the U.S. whether they’re doing it or we are, as right wing and left wing demonizing are like bookends that make sense of one idea – that there are demons. When only the right is doing it, we progressives are able to represent the truth, that demons are fiction, and clarify the real problems that are causing people to react with rage to begin with. But when we let go of that truth, we reify (or as Dr. King put it, thingify and make to seem real) demons.

Third, demonization often treats as exotic acts that are commonplace, like sexual assault. Understanding how commonplace sexual assault is opens the door to an array of solutions that we have preemptively shut down in favor of law and order responses based on the notion that those who sexually assault women are demons, which suggests they are rare, and not intimate partners (51%) who find their way into the lives of 1 in 5 women who will experience rape because they are far more complex, far more like most men than unlike them.

Fourth, related to my third suggestion, demonization is a deflection that stands in the way of deep cultural change.

And, finally, fifth, demonization feeds an authoritarian impulse – as long as the rules serve and protect us, that’s all that matters. Those it victimizes are demons and beyond consideration, justifying super-authoritarian responses that will, almost certainly, be used against us as they become normalized or even institutionalized.

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at scotnakagawa@substack.com. He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.