This post originally appeared on Medium on November 22, 2017
As has been the case with the president-elect, the past 36 hours have brought two parallel but codependent stories: the “drama” of the media, and the “substantive” story (also drama) of his announced executive actions plan(he shared this, as his “contract with the American voter,” prior to his election; it has now been presented with narrowed points of immediate focus).
As a child of both 20th-century Soviet-style Latin American socialism and United States republican democracy, I have been balancing between enacting a cautious faith in the strength and resilience of American civic institutions, and watching the predictable pieces of authoritarianism fall into place; these pieces are, I imagine, recognizable to almost anyone who either knows their history or has lived in such a system.
History shows that it’s typically better to overreact in the early stages of authoritarianism — to switch the mind to a state of parallel-universe high alert — than to under-react and pretend normality. The authoritarian state becomes normalized very, very quickly — usually before most people realize it’s happened, and well before anything systematically, spectacularly traumatic happens.
In a conversation with a colleague last night (which began around the question of how much toxic internal undermining and second-guessing — essentially self-imposed gaslighting — we are observing in ourselves and our friends), I mentioned the mental difficulty of sorting out high anxiety (fairly normal in the face of the unprecedented); from the self-protective, reflexive agita of someone whose grandparents had numbers on their arms; from the demonstrated phases of authoritarianism that we can lean on history to help us identify.
I told her that I hoped I was being paranoid, but that I was increasingly certain I was not, based on the evidence of the developing administration’s appointments, policy priorities, and rhetoric. However disoriented we may be feeling, I concluded with her, if we want to be proactive about authoritarianism there are three very clear signals to watch for:
1. Persecution of the free press
Trump has been blowing this trumpet for a long time; when he was a buffoon it was buffoonery, but now he’s president-elect and the reaction must be outrage and alarm. He pulled a classic bait and switch with the Pence-Hamilton-Twitter nonsense and used it to attack freedom of speech in a multicultural historical theater production (Orwell, eat your heart out — you couldn’t make this up if you tried). Yesterday he gathered many lights of the reputable press in Trump Tower to announce, openly, his vendetta against them. He gave the Times some time today (after more absurd Twitter back-and-forth), where he reiterated how “unfairly” the media was treating him before moving on to his usual vague and contradictory statements. It is worth noting also that authoritarian governments usually have a press organ (cf. Pravda; in Cuba it’s Granma — my dad still has the one from the day I was born). Trump’s appears to be Twitter, and the press is already operating within it.
2. Isolation and targeting of a minority group (ethnic, religious, or both), preferably one linked in the mass imagination to violence or economic hardship (for centuries, keywords have been “blood libel” and “usury”; these seem to be enjoying a resurgent vogue today).
A meeting agenda of which a Getty photographer got a supposedly unauthorized shot (who even knows — watch for disinformation) shows that priorities include lowering Syrian refugee intake to zero, among other hardline immigration policies.
Hate crimes have increased alarmingly.
3. Language (doublespeak, codes, rebranding). Consider how easy the Republican branding of the Affordable Care Act as “Obamacare” (remember “death panels”?) has made it for many of its beneficiaries, susceptible like all of us to effective rhetoric, to hate it because they think they hate him. “Affordable Care” is harder to argue with. The Republicans have done this a lot (“Right to Work” = union busting; “School Choice” = gutting public education).
These are key indicators of authoritarianism in blossom.
How, then, to proceed? We must face chaos with reason; destruction with order. Maybe logical deduction can, if not save, at least prepare us.
Last night, my answer to my colleague was: Keep your wits about you. Observe the next few actions and interpret the situation accordingly. The analysis turns on the idea of “smart or not.” If Trump’s actions are “smart”, we’re in for a long slog; if not, it will be ugly but perhaps briefer.
The signals for “Smart” are: 1) Target immigrants 2) Promise jobs that are never coming back to poor, largely white areas. Keep them on your side.
Indicators of “Not smart”: 1) Move fast against the ACA 2) Shout about the wall-Mexico’s-paying-for 3) Prosecute HRC. All three would, in their sheer practical difficulty, either alienate his base or deflate his strongman image. Or both.
If Trump behaves according to the “not smart,” I said, it will end quickly — in impeachment or in a Republican devastation in the midterms. My reasoning lies in the sector of his support whose concerns are valid and urgent (i.e. notthe cross-burning, Sieg Heil crowd.). American voters can be volatile and reactive. That they flipped once, after voting for Obama twice; means they can as quickly flip back. The erstwhile Obama voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc. who switched to Trump tend to be poor, desperate people, easy pickings for a con man; they could turn fast once they realized they’ve been conned. If Trump was being “not smart,” he’d move quickly on his promise of demolishing the Affordable Care Act — which would be the swiftest reveal of the con (the campaign rhetoric of salvation rings pretty hollow when the person you’ve elected cuts off lifesaving medicine). Additionally, the protections around the ACA are pretty tight, so Trump would be in a double bind: if he managed to cut it in a significant way people would turn on him; if he failed after publicly proclaiming his will, he’d be (heaven forfend) a “loser.” This could translate electorally into big gains for Democrats in the midterm elections, and societally into quickly puncturing the fragile illusion of potency on which the autocrat’s authority rests.
If Trump was “smart,” I said, it would last a long time. And being “smart” means not alienating that crucial sector, and not touching the Affordable Care Act. It means continuing to lay the foundations for mass disinformation (see point 1); allowing the victims of the con to persist a little longer in the delusion that it is an “other” that is the source of their suffering, not their snake-oil savior (point 2); and normalizing bizarre language (point 3) to create a frightening alternate reality (see the seamless normalization of the term “alt-right,” as opposed to “White Nationalist” or “White Supremacist” (or “Nazi” or “Fascist” or “Klansman”)).
In a video on YouTube (again, the medium is the message: his platform is the populist internet, not the established press, which it’s in his interest to undermine), Trump outlined his priorities. They address immigration and trade, and tout deregulation of industries where people (wrongly, tragically)believe their jobs are coming back. They don’t mention the ACA. They don’t mention the wall. Today Kellyanne Conway announced that her boss won’t pursue his promised “Lock her up” prosecution of HRC.
What does this tell us? The signal is there to read. They are being “smart.” Gear up for the long fight.