Hope springs eternal: graffiti in Washington DC. CC-by-2.0: Mike Maguire / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Americans require a crash-course in authoritarianism if they are to develop effective opposition to our current government. Following our quick descent into absurdity under the Trump regime, the Soviet and Eastern European dissident experience provides demystifying insight into authoritarian tendencies. Americans speak more often with our wallets unlike Russians and their poetry, but the modern American opposition can still learn a lot from Russian dissidents and others.
Until Donald Trump’s election, white Americans in particular were deaf to wisdom born from life under authoritarian regimes unless it validated our checks and balances. Capitalism’s public relations victory in the Cold War only encouraged the neoconservative position that American institutions are for export. My generation was raised with the belief that for citizens of the world’s sole superpower other forms of governance were beneath us, unworthy of study except to find their faults.
Since the end of the second world war, the United States has milked The Constitution for global moral superiority, using it as an effective cover for our military and financial exploits. We fell for our own bullshit. That’s over now. Our president let the cat out of the bag on national television. When Bill O’Reilly called Putin a “killer,” Trump responded, “You think our country’s so innocent?”
Unfortunately, Trump’s realism is grounded in his and Putin’s shared, terrifying belief that coercion gets the best results, and that rule by law is preferable to rule of law.
It is unfortunate that nations rarely confront their sins unless forced. As the Germans can attest, public shame can deter against repeated mistakes. America’s inability to reckon with domestic horrors like slavery, Jim Crow, indigenous genocide, and Japanese internment is on full display with the Muslim Ban, Jeff “Blue Lives Matter” Sessions and the rubber bullets and tear gas flying at water protectors in Standing Rock.
Americans aren’t immune to the desire for strong leaders, fast action, and easy solutions. They are not above electing dictators
Despite, or perhaps due to our decades-long position as the preeminent global power, Americans’ worldview has become increasingly isolated and provincial. American leaders on both sides promote the banal myth of American exceptionalism, precluding self-awareness on Americans’ part about our place in the world historically and in relation to other countries.
We smugly assumed that the global anti-democratic trends would pass us by. In our complacency, we ignored the warning signs of the incoming white supremacist regime, one that seeks to criminalize protest and brands citizens of entire countries as dangerous terrorists overnight. As heartening as the ninth circuit’s recent sharp rebuke to Trump’s executive order is, there’s no reason to believe the courts alone can save us.
The likelihood of a terror attack has surely risen, given the Trump administration’s gross ineptitude at everything but causing chaos. Steve Bannon, White House Chief Strategist and Trump’s puppet-master, is itching for a reason to suspend habeas corpus. He’s already set America on a path to destroy the post-war global order, epitomized by the 1948 Refugee Convention.
Had our electorate understood the fragility of our democratic institutions, we might have cared less about Hillary Clinton’s emails and more about Trump and the GOP flushing political stability down the toilet. We might even have hesitated before effectively giving up our privacy rights post-9/11 in the name of national security.
It is increasingly apparent that the United States and the former Soviet bloc have more in common than previously thought. Americans are not immune to the human desire for strong leaders, fast action, and easy solutions. Americans, in that sense, are not above electing dictators.
From American isolationism to American humility. More than ever before, Americans now must learn to learn from others: namely, how to resist. Photo CC0: Unsplash / Pexels. Some rights reserved.
Don’t get me wrong – I am inspired by the resistance and mobilisation of U.S. protestors and lawyers. Americans still have a lot to lose and much to fight for. It is important for us to maintain perspective and to exercise our rights and civic duties as often and as loudly as possible, especially on behalf of persecuted minorities. But there are also lessons we must also learn from other countries’ histories.
If you’re struggling under an avalanche of fake news, remember that citizens from the former Soviet bloc know better than anyone how to mentally counter tsunamis of bullshit. They also have the cynicism that comes from survival under these regimes, because survival demands personal complicity in ways that are hard to avoid. This is why a strong, independent moral compass is the only useful guide you have in an authoritarian darkness. Maintaining a principled opposition is useful personally and politically.
To know what motivates anyone, you have to know what gives their life purpose and what causes them pain. Everyone has interests, rational or not. It’s true of Trump just as much as it is true of other authoritarians.
If you want to know what an authoritarian is scared of, for example, look at what sets off his tantrums. Tyrants have no sense of humor. Sound familiar yet?
When the poet Anna Akhmatova tried to publish her collection Anno Domini MCMXXI in 1922, she ran into an obstacle. Stalin was personally insulted by her poem Slander (Kleveta). The poem’s actual subjects were Akhmatova’s prickly literary critics, but Stalin’s feelings of victimhood regularly trumped reality (alt-facts, i.e. lies, are not new phenomena):
What made Stalin lash out against Akhmatova? Perhaps it was the poem’s paranoid tone which hit a nerve:
And slander has accompanied me everywhere / In my sleep I hear her creeping tread.
Or maybe it was the accusatory weight of these lines:
Then, unknown to anyone, she [slander] will enter, / Her unquenchable mouth bloody with my blood, /Listing my imagined offenses, / Mingling her voice in the prayers for the dead.
Though the offending interpretation was entirely in Stalin’s head, he persecuted Akhmatova in reality. The poem’s truth resonated in him, competing with his worldview. With his zero-sum mentality, this was unforgivable. Akhmatova challenged the dictator unintentionally, but made him feel small all the same.
When Trump bludgeons critics with his tiny hands, remember the poet Osip Mandelstam, whose secret poem about Stalin’s thick fingers cost him his life
A monopoly on truth and lies defined Soviet political culture, and Akhmatova’s artistry cut like acid through ideological fat. The same was true for many others persecuted by the Soviet regime, either for aesthetic reasons or for being talented, honest or funny. To the state, being this way was a political act. When Trump bludgeons critics with his tiny hands, remember the poet Osip Mandelstam, whose secret poem about Stalin’s thick fingers cost him his life.
To use another Soviet example, Vasily Grossman’s reports on Jewish atrocities in Soviet territories were buried after World War II, using similar reasoning to the White House’s recent statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. “Let’s not divide the dead.” The Soviet press skewered Grossman, their attacks’ thinly-veiled anti-Semitism not totally unlike Breitbart News. At one point Grossman feared for his life. He was spared by Stalin’s death, but his career was dealt a fatal blow.
Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelshtam (on right), 1930s. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
In order for the state to maintain control, Soviet citizens were repeatedly coerced into affirming their loyalty to the party-state by denouncing heretics and reporting saboteurs. Americans are now learning the term “gaslighting”, whereby the abuser chronically manipulates the abused person’s reality until the victim loses trust in their own perceptions. It’s Trump’s preferred form of reactionary psychological abuse.
Like other autocrats, Trump measures his success by how thoroughly he can bend reality to his will. When Donald Trump says, “Believe me!” it is a command, not a request. In this, Trump aspires to the kind of state power which allowed the Soviet state to convict writers for such seemingly innocuous acts as publishing satire.
Throughout history, the law of insult existed to protect powerful men’s feelings. Legal judgements, which can be bought or coerced, turn subjective opinions into facts
Have you ever wondered why Trump favors defamation suits to protect his reputation? Throughout history, the law of insult existed to protect powerful men’s feelings. Legal judgements, which can be bought or coerced, turn subjective opinions into facts.
Authoritarians obsess about honour because they’re insecure about their hold on power. By maintaining an image of infallibility, Trump believes he can control public opinion. And because he is the centre of his universe, he sees every political act as a referendum on his character.
The corollary here is not that Trump will be throwing Meryl Streep or Melissa McCarthy in jail. The takeaway is that the meaning of words still matters and that being a pain in the arse works. If the American aspiration was once for a marketplace of ideas, the Soviet ideal was a Marxist-Leninist command economy of information. Dissidents operated in its shadow. Their underground, alternative existence continuously threatened the fragile totalitarian veneer.
This fragility is a weakness to be exploited, especially in America where we have robust freedom of expression. Those who argue that being a thorn in Trump’s side is a waste of time are tragically wrong.
Trump’s goal is to control what we think of him and our job is to make him feel like a fraud in every way we can. Investing in the black-market of information is arguably what Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer turned president, had in mind with “The Power of the Powerless.” His greengrocer in the village refuses to put a party slogan in his window, thereby revealing its true meaning:
“For the crust presented by the life of lies is made of strange stuff. The moment someone breaks through…[and] cries out, “The emperor is naked!” – everything suddenly appears in another light and the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably.”
Trump’s goal is to control what we think of him and our job is to make him feel like a fraud in every way we can
Unfortunately for America, the old marketplace for political ideas, to the extent it ever existed, died on January 21, 2010, with the Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In his concurring opinion, Justice Scalia maintained (as arbitrarily as he made Bush our 43rd president) that “the [First] Amendment is written in terms of “speech,” not speakers,” circling around to corporations as legal “speakers” with protected speech. With a wave of his wand, this fiction was transformed into fact, and we watched as human people’s political speech drowned in a pool of Orwellian super PACs.
Souvenir banknotes featuring Trump, on sale during the presidential inauguration. Photo (c): Vladimir Astapkovich / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.
If corporations are people, they’re likely sociopaths with the unnerving benefit of limited liability. To paraphrase Animal Farm, all speech is created equal, but corporate speech is more equal than others. It’s ruined cable news and destroyed our elections. That said - and I admit that this is terrifying - but until we vote again in 2018, Americans may have to rely on corporations to hold Trump accountable.
Corporations are accountable to their boards, and those boards seek to make them profitable. If Trump hurts their bottom line, whether through boycotts or generalised political, economic and environmental instability, they could become our most powerful allies. There certainly are those that align themselves with Trump, but not all of them benefit from the chaos Trump causes.
Trump’s business is an extension of his ego. It helps explain his admiration for Russia’s corrupt strongman oligarchy as well as his deference to Rex Tillerson. Putin and Tillerson are likely far richer than Trump, which is enough to get his attention. Furthermore, Exxon’s corporate malfeasance surely rivals the misdeeds of Russia’s oil and gas elite. Considering this, anything we can do to diminish Trump’s brand and hurt his income is worth our time.
It’s important that we not only shun discrimination, but that we show that diversity and tolerance are rewarded by society
It’s important that we not only shun discrimination, but that we show that diversity and tolerance are there to be rewarded by society. It was a relief when Trump’s attack on Nordstrom caused the company’s stock to increase, and now Sears and Kmart have dropped his home line, which must sting even more.
Seattle has meanwhile divested billions from Wells Fargo over their financing of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Even libertarian Uber straightened up some when people began deleting the app in response to Uber breaking a taxi drivers’ strike against Trump.
Trump is using the presidency to enhance his business and rob us blind. This is why grabbing the crook by the wallet might be our best weapon yet. In order for that weapon to be truly effective, though, we must first admit that no, we are not exceptional, and yes, foreign dissidents and foreign disasters do have a lot to teach us.
Interested in the post-liberal age beyond America? Read our portrait of the rise of a modern authoritarian, when everybody was pleased to be back in control.