They're in power. They *are* power.
How Trump managed to get and maintain as much support as he did, winning roughly 46 percent of the vote in two successive elections, remains a source of endless mystery and fascination for political journalists and scholars. Yes, the fact that he was a major party nominee in a polarized era tells us a lot, but still, why was his brand of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and narcissism not disqualifying for more people? Why do so many Rust Belt diner patrons not just tolerate him but enthusiastically support him?
In many ways, this was a key subject examined in an influential TV miniseries that aired in 1983. (Bear with me.) “V,” a two-night NBC sci-fi show that would later give rise to “V: The Final Battle” and multiple TV series (including a 2009 reboot), taught us a great deal about why some people support authoritarian leaders.
The original show itself was a pretty transparent analogy to Nazi Germany. An alien humanoid race from Sirius (known simply as the Visitors) shows up purportedly to help Earth. But they quickly fabricate a number of crises and then blame those crises on a conspiracy of scientists, supporting ever more totalitarian crackdowns to ensure order. By the end of the miniseries, we have learned that the aliens are, in fact, reptiles masquerading as humanoids, and they have come not to help humanity but to literally devour it, as well as drain its oceans.
This is a solid enough sci-fi premise, and it’s good fun. And one of the angles I always enjoyed was watching a collection of not-particularly-radical people become radicalized, slowly learning how to organize, use weapons, manipulate public opinion, and more.
But another important angle is the people who are slow to resist or never resist at all. Some are not only quite comfortable with the authoritarian takeover but actually work to advance it. I want to highlight some of those characters here and why they, at least initially, support the Visitors:
Elias Taylor: Taylor eventually becomes a prominent resistance fighter, but it takes him some time. Initially, he sees himself on the bottom of the social hierarchy. He’s hardly the poorest person in LA -- his father works at a chemical plant and his brother is an MD -- but he mostly spends his time hanging with gangs and committing petty theft. He doesn’t particularly like the Visitors when they show up but doesn’t see them as any more odious than the white humans previously at the top of the social order. “Just another man to be The Man,” he describes the Visitors. Indeed, the disorder created by the Visitors’ arrival is initially a boon to Elias, allowing him to profit as a black marketeer. Only when a relative is killed does he become motivated against them.
Kristine Walsh: Walsh is a prime time television newscaster, one of the first to cover the Visitors’ arrival and one generally trusted by the Visitors. She isn’t enamored of their leadership style and undoubtedly has concerns about the erosion of democratic government and a free press. At the same time, she has access to the Visitors, as they see her as a trusted human face, and their arrival has been a huge career boost for her. Ultimately they offer her the role of spokesperson, a betrayal of her objective journalistic goals but still a chance to speak to literally billions, and at a point when objective journalism has become more or less impossible under the Visitors’ rule. She only turns against them in what is basically a deathbed conversion.
Eleanor Dupres: Dupres is a wealthy industrial heiress living in Los Angeles. Knowing the Visitors require chemical plants, she aggressively courts their business and befriends several of their leaders. Her relationship with the Visitors is complicated by the fact that her son, news cameraman Mike Donovan, is becoming one of the leaders of the resistance, and the two of them occasionally have harsh exchanges about it. “I know the Visitors aren't saints,” she tells her son. “But they're in power. They are power. You and I are in unique positions, don't you see that?” Donovan responds, “I can't survive at the expense of other people, it's not right!”
Daniel Bernstein: If not for the Jewish surname, Bernstein would have Proud Boy written all over his face. He was a loser before the Visitors showed up, unpopular at school, an annoyance to his family, and generally aimless in life. But given a chance to don a uniform, join a cause, and have power over those who had previously looked down on him, he jumps eagerly to sign up with the Visitors’ human auxiliary. And he gleefully abuses his new power, claiming that the girl next door who is uninterested in him will become his wife or he’ll turn in her family, and even forcing a scientist to lick his boots at gunpoint. Bernstein’s faith in the Visitors isn’t even shaken when they arrest and torture his own relatives.
Importantly, in none of these cases do the collaborators see the Visitors as a benevolent presence. They’re not blind to the abuses of power, the demise of democratic rules, or even the loss of the lives of their fellow humans. But they don’t see it affecting them, and they’re benefitting enough personally that they can put it out of their minds, at least for a while.
Authoritarian rules often have considerable force and technology on their side. But as this TV series demonstrated, that’s usually not their only or even their best assets. What they have is willing collaborators among the population, people who see short term advantages from the new rulers even while cognizant of the price society is paying. “V” tends to make those advantages look pretty materialistic -- collaborators are getting money, fame, trust -- but as we’ve learned, sometimes just being attached to power can be enough of a reward.