by Giles Jackson
Should we give Trump the benefit of the doubt, as Obama is asking us to do? Absolutely not! That would violate Rule #1 for surviving an autocracy says Masha Gessen, who grew up in Putin’s Russia.
Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. “Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization”, says Ms. Gessen. “This will happen often: humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable. Back in the 1930s, The New York Times assured its readers that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was all posture”.
Clinton’s way of dealing with the unacceptable was to say: “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead”. This, says Ms. Gessen, is what she should have said:
“Thank you, my friends. Thank you. Thank you. We have lost. We have lost, and this is the last day of my political career, so I will say what must be said. We are standing at the edge of the abyss. Our political system, our society, our country itself are in greater danger than at any time in the last century and a half. The president-elect has made his intentions clear, and it would be immoral to pretend otherwise. We must band together right now to defend the laws, the institutions, and the ideals on which our country is based”.
Obama also acquiesced, saying that the “presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy”. Many other democrats have followed suit. Motivated by blind party loyalty and personal ambition, they have turned what was a Republican cave-in into a government-wide cave-in…to a demagogue who ran his entire campaign in bad faith. “There is no reason to expect the president to differ from the candidate”, warned the Financial Times. Remember, we’re talking about a candidate who claimed his father helped assassinate John F. Kennedy.
Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. Gessen: “Panic can be neutralized by falsely reassuring words about how the world as we know it has not ended. It is a fact that the world did not end on November 8 nor at any previous time in history. Yet history has seen many catastrophes, and most of them unfolded over time”.
Perhaps the greatest slowly-unfolding catastrophe of the modern era is what the legal scholar Harold Berman called “the massive loss of confidence in the West itself, as a civilization, a community, and in the legal tradition which for nine centuries has helped to sustain it” (Law and Revolution 1983). The incoming autocracy may mark the final phase in the breakdown of the Western legal tradition that’s been a century in the making. In the next four years, ‘public policy’ will be identical with the will of those in control. It will appeal to the norms of the Western legal tradition, while quietly undermining them at every turn.
“Mr Trump has promised to “make America great again”. But his ascension to the presidency is actually a terrible sign of national decadence and decline” ~ Gideon Rachman
Rule #3: Institutions will not save you. Gessen: “It took Putin a year to take over the Russian media and four years to dismantle its electoral system; the judiciary collapsed unnoticed. The capture of institutions in Turkey has been carried out even faster, by a man once celebrated as the democrat to lead Turkey into the EU. Poland has in less than a year undone half of a quarter century’s accomplishments in building a constitutional democracy”.
While acknowledging that the United States has much stronger institutions than Germany did in the 1930s, or Russia does today, Ms. Gessen points out that many of these institutions are enshrined in political culture rather than in law, and they all depend on the good faith of all actors to fulfill their purpose and uphold the Constitution. Don’t count on it, says Simon Schama:
“Now that Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress, Mr Trump will have a free hand to repeal the Affordable Care Act (depriving millions of Americans of insurance), fashion a Supreme Court to overthrow the Roe v Wade ruling on abortion, repudiate the Paris climate change accord, abandon the Iran nuclear agreement and get rid of the Dodd-Frank bank regulation designed to prevent a repeat of the conduct that brought on the Great Recession.
“It is said that Mr Trump’s slash-and-burn instincts will be moderated by experienced counsellors — they won’t. He did it His Way and the doubters and fence-sitters will all be replaced by dependable sycophants. Knowing that his appeal to the voters was all about big-boy attitude, Mr Trump will make this a presidency of ‘I Alone Can Fix It'”.
Trump has shown nothing but contempt for US law and institutions. There are six dozen lawsuits against Mr Trump and his businesses as he begins his transition to the Oval Office. A USA Today analysis found that over the last three decades, he has been embroiled in more than 4,000 lawsuits on a wide range of interests. The rest of the world should worry too:
“[Mr Trump] appears to have even more contempt for international bodies than for the institutions of America itself. His proposed policies threaten to take an axe to the liberal world order that the US has supported and sustained for many decades. In particular, he has challenged two of the main bipartisan principles that underpin America’s approach to the world. The first is support for an open, international trading system. The second is the commitment to the US-led alliances that underpin global security” ~ Gideon Rachman
Ms. Gessen says the national press is likely to be among the first institutional victims of Trumpism:
“There is no law that requires the presidential administration to hold daily briefings, none that guarantees media access to the White House. Many journalists may soon face a dilemma long familiar to those of us who have worked under autocracies: fall in line or forfeit access. There is no good solution (even if there is a right answer), for journalism is difficult and sometimes impossible without access to information”.
Russia’s Law 121-FZ may be a harbinger of things to come. Commonly known as the Law on Foreign Agents, 121-FZ was passed by the Ministry of Justice in 2012 to discredit and systematically persecute independent civil activism in Russia. According to PEN International (for whom we designed the Havel tartan protesting the persecution of writers of conscience), “it has caused significant damage to public life in Russia and, as a result, nullified the opportunity to engage in meaningful civic activism guaranteed to our fellow citizens by the Constitution of the Russian Federation. The law’s potential for harm is due in large part to the vagueness and ambiguity of its provisions describing key terms such as “political activity” and “foreign funding””.
Rule #4: Be outraged. Gessen: “If you follow Rule #1 and believe what the autocrat-elect is saying, you will not be surprised. But in the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock. This will lead people to call you unreasonable and hysterical, and to accuse you of overreacting. It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room. Prepare yourself”.
Here are a couple of ways to maintain your capacity for shock:
First compare Trump’s worldview with that of notable predecessors. The magnanimous John F. Kennedy said: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty”, whereas the benighted Donald Trump said: “My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security first”. The contrast could not be starker.
Second take note of how foreign autocrats are exploiting America’s folly for their own pernicious ends. “Have you seen the campaign of the two US candidates? Have you heard the facts they talked about? They revealed the US, they told a lot more than what I said in the past,” boasted Ayatalloh Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. “Human values are destroyed in that country”.
Trump’s ideal, says Ms. Gessen, is the totalitarian-level popularity numbers of Vladimir Putin, and the way to achieve that is by waging wars, both abroad and at home.
“There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am” ~ Donald Trump
Rule #5: Don’t make compromises. Gessen: “In an autocracy, politics as the art of the possible is in fact utterly amoral. Those who argue for cooperation will make the case, much as President Obama did in his speech, that cooperation is essential for the future. They will be willfully ignoring the corrupting touch of autocracy, from which the future must be protected”.
“Many are saying that the great democratic experiment of America — even of the west — has come crashing to an end. It certainly feels that way. It feels like the death knell for justice, inclusion, tolerance and peace. It will certainly work to undermine these values. And so we must all put our shoulders to their foundations, and help shore them up; they are bigger than we are, but they won’t stand without us. History tells us we have seen such challenges before. They must not be underestimated. They will test our character, and right now our collective character is failing. This was an election carried largely on spite, which is no basis for a system of governance. Too many of our reactions have become infantile, and the leader America just chose exemplifies the worst of that infantilism: howling selfishness, preening narcissism, depthless ignorance.
So first we must grow up. And the most important lesson that America must teach itself again is that tolerance, progress, compassion, equality, security, even the common bloody decency that has been trampled in the gutter during this filthy election campaign, are not trophies we win. We used to speak of the commonweal, common wellbeing, rather than the commonwealth. Any attempt to build a commonweal, a greater good rather than merely greater wealth, is a constant process, and it comes only from a willingness of the heart. It seems we are doomed to keep learning that the hard way” ~ Sarah Churchwell, University of London
Rule #6: Remember the future. Gessen: “Nothing lasts forever. Donald Trump certainly will not, and Trumpism, to the extent that it is centered on Trump’s persona, will not either. Failure to imagine the future may have lost the Democrats this election. They offered no vision of the future to counterbalance Trump’s all-too-familiar white-populist vision of an imaginary past. They had also long ignored the strange and outdated institutions of American democracy that call out for reform—like the electoral college, which has now cost the Democratic Party two elections in which Republicans won with the minority of the popular vote. That should not be normal. But resistance—stubborn, uncompromising, outraged—should be”.
“When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny” ~ Thomas Jefferson
We’ll forgive Ms. Gessen for omitting what just may be the most important rule of all:
Rule #7: Dress appropriately. The historians all missed it, but autocracy spread like wildfire following the invention of trousers, when we lost the sense of our being unquestionably born free. Fortunately there’s a way to reclaim it: Strap on a kilt.
The writer is cofounder of Liberation Kilt Co.