Over the past year I have spent more time than I'd care to admit on social media trying to process the aftermath of the 2016 election with like-minded (and, almost as often, different-minded) friends, family, follows, and followers. Occasionally someone asks what can be done to stem the rising tide of authoritarianism in the United States and around the world. Sometimes it seems the question is merely rhetorical, and I imagine the person asking it with a shrug of the shoulders, like this:¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Sometimes, the question is posed more as a challenge, coupled with a less-than-subtle implication that posting on social media yet again about the latest lunacy coming out of Donald Trump's mouth or emanating from his Twitter feed is a colossal waste of time. "Great. We get it. Trump sucks. What are you doing about it besides posting another link to another article and arguing about it, huh?" It's a fair question, whether posed rhetorically or contentiously. Is there anything I can do? If so, what, exactly, beyond venting my spleen in front of a glowing screen.
Our democratic republic faces a threat from within more dire than at any time since the Civil War. That internal threat is made all the more grave by an external danger: a foreign adversary waging an asymmetrical battle against our democratic processes and institutions. And not only are the president and the party he leads not actively fighting that foreign adversary, they are aiding and abetting the assault on the institutions we all depend on to keep our society functioning in accordance with the rule of law and the Constitution we all hold dear.
Those whose aim it is to destroy our civic institutions are attacking on multiple fronts. The president and his fellow conspirators are following a tried-and-true battle plan for destroying democracy and replacing it with autocracy. It's a scheme most recently successfully implemented in places such as Russia and Turkey, and its elements are now, terrifyingly, becoming familiar to Americans. It goes like this. If you're an aspiring autocrat seeking to destroy democracy and make yourself a potentate, you should:
- Get elected with a campaign of demagoguery, fear, and bigotry advancing a platform based on lies told to a credulous populace, then get to work undermining confidence in and safeguards that protect the integrity of the electoral process.
- Attack legitimate media sources; threaten journalists and encourage violence against them, while creating an alternative media empire that promotes party propaganda. Use that state-aligned media to lie, often and repeatedly, about matters big and small, all while portraying facts as falsehoods and lies (aka "alternative facts") as Truth.
- Demonize your political opponents and criminalize even peaceful protest and opposition. Limit freedom of assembly and access by citizens to their representatives (in the name of security and public safety, of course).
- Engage in "whataboutism" and "projection" wherein any criticism leveled at you is dismissed with reference to something bad someone else has done (whether it's as bad as what you're accused of, or whether the other person actually did it doesn't matter--it's just a deflection) and wherein you get ahead of the game by accusing your opponents of doing whatever bad thing you are in fact doing yourself.
- Attack the legitimacy of the judicial branch and law enforcement. Criticize judges as biased and corrupt. Smear the reputations of officials who might be in charge of investigating your activities. At the same time, seek to install partisan hacks in judicial and law-enforcement positions. Pardon corrupt supporters.
- Change the meaning of words. Distort the language. Debate semantics.
- Hijack history and weaken the education system by punishing critical thinking and teaching the party line as the only acceptable truth.
- Never admit error or apologize. Take credit for things you had no hand in and refuse any blame for things you did.
- Move quickly and on multiple fronts at once while engaging in constant distracting skirmishes over inconsequential matters, splitting and weakening the opposition.
- If called on any of this, engage in gaslighting.
This list, I'm afraid, is non-exhaustive (though it exhausts me just reading it over). For more on the methods used by ambitious autocrats, I recommend Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Additionally, check out this guide from an Eastern European perspective on what we should expect in the first year of a transition to authoritarianism: Learn from Europe.
The forces arrayed against us are many and strong. In the face of what is happening it's easy to get discouraged, to feel the task too great, the fight unwinnable, the demise of our democracy inevitable. But I don't believe it. There are more authoritarians, racists, misogynists, and ignorant fools in America than I had thought possible before November 8, 2016. And yet, they are still a distinct minority. Democracy doesn't just die in darkness; it dies when the majority are complacent, divided. It dies when the majority feel helpless, hopeless, when they are stunned into silence, when they are paralyzed by confusion, fear, or fatigue. It dies in broad daylight.
In future posts, I will be sharing ideas on how we can be active against autocracy. As Rachel Maddow likes to say, "Watch this space."