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A Cowed Normality

On daily life in a fascist America

Illustration by Jeffrey Smith

“Would you describe the Iranian regime as ‘Islamo-fascist’?”

I hesitated before responding. The term was a favorite of the neoconservatives at the time, which was a year after Operation Iraqi Freedom began. It was a way of ginning up a possible new U.S. military adventure in Iran. But the question was from my former professor, a man I liked and respected, Ira Katznelson. Not a neocon. I had dropped by while visiting New York after living for a few years in Iran, and I knew he wanted my honest opinion.

I quickly ran a fascism checklist. Political power concentrated in a single (clerical) supreme leader—check. A single universalist and imperialistic political ideology brooking no heterodoxy or dissent—check. A police state using paramilitaries and vigilante groups to enforce a moral and social order—check. The forced integration of societal institutions into the state—courts, parties, media, professional associations, etc., reminiscent of Nazi Gleich­schaltung. And most important of all, the self-righteous use of violence and coercion against opponents and dissidents—check. The leading scholar of Islamic Iran, Saïd Arjomand, had compared the Islamic Republic of Iran to religious versions of fascism in Romania or Brazil. Arguably, Iran is more like Mussolini’s small-f fascism than the genocidal big-F Germany variety.

So I told Ira yes, it’s a plausible descriptor. But if it was a warning, I didn’t heed it. I could have remained in New York, where I had lived two decades of my adult life. Instead, I returned to Iran, country of my birth, which I had left as a child. I believed fervently I might help make Iran less fascist, and as I worked toward that goal, I built a life, with a wife and a daughter. Then I was imprisoned as a dissident in 2009. I was one of the Iranian American hostages freed in a landmark diplomatic exchange as part of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. This event opened the path for my wife, daughter, and me to relocate to the United States, though it also imposed the sobering condition that I must accept permanent exile from Iran.

Returning to the United States in 2016, like Rip Van Winkle, I found myself in a country that in many ways I didn’t recognize, and I found new reasons to worry about illiberal politics. On the left, the Black Lives Matter movement spoke a language that was entirely new to me; the more extreme articulations of anti-Americanism sounded uncomfortably close to the grievances of my former Islamist jailers. I had hoped to leave the world of ideologues, sometimes strident and self-righteous and making claims wildly disconnected from empirical reality, behind me in Tehran.

And on the right, oh boy. I was shocked by statements I never expected to hear in a Western democracy. I couldn’t believe my ears as candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric trashed basic democratic norms. Fighting for those same norms had led to my imprisonment in Iran. And then in 2020 and 2021, Trump’s actions seeking to overturn the election turned rhetoric to horrifying action.

The danger signs have only intensified. Trump’s popularity debunks the “Republicans want Trumpism without Trump” explanation, showing instead a powerful cult following. Trump’s pledge to pardon the January 6 “hostages” exposes his endorsement of political violence.

Seeing the continuation of many terrifying possibilities, I find myself contemplating a hard question, one I asked myself often of Islamo-fascist Iran, and that we may be forced, come next January, to ask of Trump’s America: How do so many endure life under such an obviously oppressive regime?

History shows most people manage to live under such conditions. By all accounts, even in Nazi Germany, for most of the population not officially persecuted, everyday life could be quite normal, even if many knew about the concentration camps. Iranians know that their country discriminates legally against religious minorities and women as second-class citizens and rejects in principle political and ideological pluralism, and a large number would likely prefer it were different, but most do not think or talk much about it.

Of course there are exceptions, like the young women and men who protested forced veiling in Iran’s first feminist uprising in 2022 and won a fragile victory, although the shift was minor and thousands of the protesters were imprisoned or killed. But many Iranians live full personal and professional and rich social lives; even many women who, if they conform to the mandatory veil in public, are free to serve as doctors, engineers, academics, managers, sports champions, business owners, and even politicians.

I believe there are many reasons for this. First, everyday life is much more important for most people on the planet than ideas or political principles or even politics. Most people would prefer to live under a system they can trust, to be free from arbitrary arrest, and to feel proud to be a member of that system. But most people also want to be left alone to focus on family and children—which is hard enough—and live in an environment that enables that. In my experience, streets and public spaces in Tehran are clean and safe and orderly—much more than, say, New York City, where I live. Comparing the two makes me cringe.

Paradoxically, the regime’s traditionalistic conservatism leads it to uphold two institutions that thwart its own totalitarian reach but support a positive everyday life: the family and private property. Traditional Islamic jurisprudence includes strong private protections. Homeownership is common in Iran, and personal wealth is protected and consumed in ways that the regime finds hard to control. In these homes, there is generally refuge. The norms of the Islamic regime highly value maintaining the traditional family, so the government does not interfere in families. Certainly, patriarchal norms are far from ideal, and the government’s hands-off approach no doubt exacerbates the serious problems of domestic violence, especially in poorer and less educated households. But, by the same token, the government cannot force those who reject the Islamist lifestyle to practice the norms; strong, cohesive extended families and neighborly support systems provide a private parallel universe in which the politicized ideological norms of the regime can be violated. At home, every message haranguing the populace to adhere to the regime’s Islamist patriarchal and political values can be ignored. The regime’s indoctrination in schools and workplaces can be neutralized in the home, and individuals can, as Vaclav Havel put it, “live in truth.”

Iran also has achieved a relatively high standard of living via significant government programs and subsidies for basics, including education, health care, and fuel. There are plenty of government jobs for the secular elite and middle-class professionals that offer job security, perks, and, thanks to large revenues from oil and gas exports, low taxes. This fact probably explains most of the toleration of the quasi-totalitarian political system and discriminatory social system.

Iran is indeed a police state, in that security services operate with near impunity. But there is an absence of the pervasive sense of terror and surveillance that was present in, say, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Stalin’s Russia, or East Germany with its Stasi. I am not sure how the regime achieves this, but it does. The vast majority go about their daily lives in a kind of cowed normality. There is a Persian genius of displaying grace under pressure, cultivated over the decades.

Cowed normality, to be sure, is not an appealing state. But Americans concerned about rising authoritarianism in our own country may have reason to hope that it, rather than something worse, could be the fate of many, and we are already becoming accustomed to it.

Contemplating this future, I think of my conversation with Katznelson—and a strange moment just before my release from Iran, in my last interrogation. “When do you think the United States will collapse?” my interrogator asked, completely seriously. I laughed inside at his wishful thinking even as I feared that a wrong answer might cost me my imminent freedom. I tried to give an answer that would appease him but not sound like a lie, and I suppose I must have succeeded.

I said to him, as I believed then and still do now, that American society suffers serious fractures, but it’s not going to collapse anytime soon and will probably remain the preeminent superpower for at least the next century. But perhaps my interrogator would rejoice to know that, only a few years after we last spoke, I would be reading How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s book about the Trump administration, and shuddering with recognition. (He would certainly also be amazed and delighted by the discord resulting from the often ugly and intolerant pro-Palestine protests on U.S. college campuses, including recent ones at Columbia, where I teach.) In the mid-1970s, the Iranian middle class could not have imagined that their modernizing, prosperous country could fall under the total control of a medieval clerical dictatorship. And this unimaginable system is still going strong almost half a century later. Perhaps the Iranian intelligence services were following the apparent polarization and the fracturing of the United States in 2016, and perhaps they were on to something. But because I’ve seen and lived under a quasi-totalitarian regime, I hold a high bar in contemplating the dangers facing America. A few mob riots, dirty tricks around elections, and intemperate rhetoric are bad, but they are not the genuine article.

Still, America is the only country I have left. My heart sinks as I think of living in another authoritarian state. For me, the question of the so-called Muslim ban is an intimate one, as Trump’s policy sharply reduced the number of immigrant visas to Iranians (and to those in several other Muslim majority countries). Trump has said he wishes to reinstitute and even expand it if reelected. It’s a worry, because my extended family in Iran and in the United States includes observant Muslims. My wife and daughter traveled to Iran a number of times during the ban, and they experienced no hassles on returning into the United States, because they are dual U.S.-Iran nationals. But the family reunification application for my sister-in-law and her family to come to the United States has been in process for almost 20 years, with still some years to go; Trump’s travel ban exacerbated an already broken and backlogged system. And the next iteration might be worse, creating an atmosphere of hostility that would certainly impact us and whole swaths of vulnerable migrants from Muslim countries wishing to apply to enter the United States either as immigrants, refugees, students, or tourists.

More broadly, it would also affect U.S. standing in the world, inflaming Muslim sentiments at home and abroad, harming the cause of Western liberalization throughout the Middle East. Trump’s bluster and demagoguery, painting America as a victim of free-riding scofflaws, are often so misinformed and myopic, and so denigrating of the achievements of the post-1945 liberal international order, that I fear a return to the tensions that preceded and precipitated the horrors of World War II. Under U.S. leadership, cooperation between countries has brought an unprecedented level of peace and prosperity to the people all over the world and an ability to tackle global problems that countries will find it hard to do alone. Losing that is both devastating and dangerous.

Daily life for me and my family would be lived under the shadow of the unraveling of the achievements of global cooperation, freedom of travel, and international solidarity. We are seeing the reemergence of Cold War frontiers. If Iran joins Russia, China, and North Korea in some Eur(Asian) bloc behind a new wall, my child’s and my students’ world will shrink and be a less rich place to grow. These gears are already in motion, and Trumpian foreign policy could make it worse. Even if Trump’s bluster has in some cases acted as the necessary bromide to shake up rigid, inefficient systems—nudging NATO countries to increase their defense spending and the real achievement of the Abraham Accords, or bringing necessary attention to China and to the southern border—Team Trump’s threats to the Western world order might very well reduce rather than increase security and prosperity of the American homeland.

Many Americans lack several of the advantages that help Iranians be more resilient in the face of their dictatorship. One is safe and calm neighborhoods where everyday life unfolds. I’m not that happy with the consequences of the progressive urban agenda in cities like New York for ordinary middle-class people like me. From my vantage, daily life is generally less affordable, less clean, less efficient, less safe, less orderly, and altogether less pleasant in New York City than in Tehran—so much so that fully half the population wishes to leave.

But there is a frighteningly imaginable scenario of things getting even worse in America. The chasm between the world views of left and right during the first Trump administration, especially in summer 2020, has not closed. Ronald Brownstein at The Atlantic has argued that Trump’s promised policies toward “blue cities and states could create the greatest threat to the nation’s cohesion since the Civil War.” Trump might seek to use federal authority, including military forces such as the National Guard, to deport millions of undocumented migrants, round up homeless people, fight crime, or quell protests—in short, to make war on Blue America. There could be actual standoffs between local police and National Guardsmen.

Former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s prediction of “chaos, confusion,” and “massive demonstrations” in the face of such attacks is plausible. As an urbanist, I fear the urban “doom loop” of ever faster declining and failing cities, greater crime and disorder, and loss of services for cities that are recovering. It would scar cities and American society for years to come. Daily life in struggling cities would become harder. I would leave New York, and many others would, too, and an important part of American life would atrophy.

Those with money will retreat even more into their private residences, workplaces, and cars, exacerbating social divides. Many Americans lack Iran’s advantage in a strong and large familial and community support system. A Trump protectionist economic agenda would likely slow down economic growth and opportunity, and the many losers in the economy would suffer. America’s labor market, though more flexible and efficient, offers fewer employment protections compared to Iran’s rigid and inefficient government-dominated economy. The country’s population will polarize even more into very rich and very poor.

I hate to give any theoretical pleasure to the intelligence officer who asked me when I thought the United States would collapse. But here I am contemplating unfathomable future scenarios. If the worst comes to be, and democratic liberalism begins to fray in America, daily life will always go on, as it did under the worst regimes in history. But ultimately, I fear, in daily life Americans are not going to be as resilient to fascism as Iranians are, for all the reasons I spelled out. We’re going to live through it, but it’s going to be harder on us.

Yet, in the contrast I’ve drawn lies an ironic twist: The very resilience of Iranians—or any people—living under authoritarian rule inadvertently nourishes the regime’s longevity. Conversely, the lower tolerance of Americans suggests a dual-edged fate: a quicker uprising in the face of tyranny, or, should the malevolent forces prevail, an arduous struggle to endure. This is the profound insight that Czeslaw Milosz recognized in the human condition under tyranny: It is not the keen intellect that ignites rebellion, but the visceral revulsion of those who can stomach it no more.