On November 10, 2016, two days after the election that inflicted Donald Trump on all of us, the Russian-American journalist and author Masha Gessen published their seminal essay, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” in the New York Review of Books. Gessen’s terse, cogent primer set forth six indefatigable rules for the American public about the autocratic nature of Donald Trump, what his ascent to power entailed for American citizens wholly unfamiliar with living under an autocratic personality, and how to cope with it if we wanted to preserve our democratic system.
That essay was read by millions, and routinely cited and referenced on this site and elsewhere, for one reason: It proved (almost immediately) to be disturbingly accurate. Of Gessen’s six rules, however, it is the first, “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says,” that has flummoxed those in the media who still, after seven years, cannot seem to internalize that, in Trump, we are dealing with a Hitlerian personality. (For those who might scoff at this comparison, I suggest they closely read Volker Ullrich’s “Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939.”) Trump is wholly intent on turning this country into an oppressive, quasi-fascist state, embracing lawlessness, intimidation, and violence as a means toward preserving its power.
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As Gessen wrote at the time:
Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. 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.
As the world soon found out, it wasn’t “posture.” The autocrat—like all autocrats—meant everything he said. So does Donald Trump. As we approach one short year remaining until the 2024 election, an election that will almost certainly be a contest between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump, it appears that others in the media are finally understanding the nature of what this country is facing.
Gessen’s second “rule” for surviving autocracy was “Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.” When Gessen wrote that they were referring to the human tendency to treat periods of relative calm as somehow indicative that the threat posed by autocracy would pass. It’s natural for people to believe that “things will be okay”; viewing discrete periods of relative calm as something more meaningful and permanent is a natural reaction to living under unprecedented stress. Gessen simply warned Americans not to allow themselves to be deceived by this.
The three years that have passed since President Biden defeated Trump have re-established an illusory sense of normalcy in this country simply by virtue of the fact that Trump himself is no longer visibly in charge of things. It has provided a soothing interregnum that has effectively masked the reality that in many respects he continues to wield even more power over us than ever. The self-enforced obeisance and subjugation of the Republican Party to Trump—which still shows no signs of fading—is the most telling feature of that power.
No other political personage in American history has so thoroughly commandeered the obedience of an entire political party despite such glaring personal flaws and liabilities. The lengths to which the Republican party has adopted such extremist, nihilistic, anti-democratic policies—many of which are now actively pursued in states under their domination—owes itself in large part to his continued influence. Real lives are now routinely threatened and under siege in Republican states thanks to Trump and Trumpism. That is more than a red flag to be remarked on; it’s a blaring, five-alarm siren.
The fact that Trump’s violent rhetoric has dramatically escalated over the past few months also tells us two things. First, that Trump is (quite naturally) frightened of the criminal prosecutions now encircling him. Second, that his singular response to that fear is to escalate the violence and threats. If we are to follow Gessen’s maxim, then we are forced to acknowledge that Trump and the Republican party he commands will, without any doubt, carry out these threats if returned to power. And because we who sought to constrain him are by definition his enemies, that violence will be directed toward us, beginning, of course, with the most vulnerable and attractive targets. That is not a hypothetical, it is exactly what Trump has said, and because he has said it, we must accept that is his intent.
Alex Kingsbury is a member of The New York Times editorial board. While that board does not speak for the Times’ newsroom or the publication as a whole (and Kingsbury does not so attribute his piece), its mission statement defines the board's goal as: “[T]o provide a consistent, independent view of the world based on time-tested institutional values.” The title of Kingsbury’s opinion article is “Trump’s Promise of Lawlessness.” It’s an unusually stark, tightly written piece, devoid of any ambiguity.
Kingsbury alludes to an action occurring in Trump’s tenure that fairly captures the essence of the threat he now poses. It was the now mostly forgotten initiative by Trump in pardoning American soldiers convicted of committing war crimes. These soldiers, charged with brutally killing defenseless prisoners and civilians, had become a cause celebre to the political right. Their pardon by Trump set a tone of condoning patently lawless behavior in furtherance of his political ends, and Kingsbury recognizes that same tone in Trump’s rhetoric today.
As he writes:
[T]he American system is ill prepared to deter leaders bent on undermining the rule of law. Checks and balances spread powers across the government, but that isn’t enough to temper or stop bad-faith actors looking to subvert the law. According to a new article in The Atlantic, Gen. Mark Milley, upon becoming the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2019, “found himself in a disconcerting situation: trying, and failing, to teach President Trump the difference between appropriate battlefield aggressiveness on the one hand, and war crimes on the other.”
Unable or unwilling to contemplate that distinction, Trump’s lack of any “moral compass” is what truly bodes ill for a renewed Trump administration, because it is a feature of his personality that his own voters not only accept but also actively encourage and want from him. Kingsbury emphasizes that this complete dearth of morality—the absence of any discernment between right and wrong—represents the true nature of the threat Trump continues to represent. (Not coincidentally, Gessen revisited their essay in 2017, amending one of their rules to “Pay attention to the ways in which the Trump presidency breaks the moral compass.”)
It is no exaggeration to say that Mr. Trump is running for the presidency on a platform of lawlessness, promising to wield the power of the state against his enemies — real or imagined. Today, millions and millions of Americans support him for that reason or despite it.
And while Kingsbury doesn’t mention Gessen’s warning, he echoes their first rule—“Believe the autocrat.” He means what he says—using practically the same language. As Kingsbury writes:
There are many nations where citizens live in fear of governments that wield unchecked and arbitrary authority against their enemies, real or imagined. That is the America that Mr. Trump is promising his supporters. When Mr. Trump told supporters “I am your retribution,” all Americans should take him at his word.
As for the multiple criminal actions facing Trump, Kingsbury acknowledges them, but in yet another reverberation of Gessen (specifically their third rule, “Institutions will not save you”), Kingsbury warns that they are entirely dependent upon Trump being repudiated by the American electorate. Otherwise, the same man who has already hinted at pardoning the violent felons who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, would be in a position to nullify and thwart those proceedings, by violence if necessary. As Kingsbury observes, “there are few moral or legal hurdles left to clear after pardoning war criminals.”
The fact that Kingsbury’s acknowledgment of the true threat Trump represents so closely parallels Gessen’s warnings from 2016 compels us to pay attention to their fourth “rule.” It’s one that not only Democrats but the entire electorate needs to remember going into this election season: “Be outraged.” Not only at Trump, but at all the sycophants that support and emulate him, whether they’re standing on a debate stage, holding kangaroo hearings in our congressional chambers, or sitting behind their keyboards on social media. As Gessen wrote in 2016:
[I]n 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.
Trump means exactly what he says. The 2024 election will literally decide the fate of the Republic, and we shouldn’t expect the courts to save us. Like it or not, all of us, ultimately, are going to be the last line of its defense. Be outraged.
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