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'Autocracy: Rules for Survival'

I recently came across a remarkably prescient article, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” written by Russian-American journalist and author Masha Gessen. It appeared in The New York Review of Books shortly after the November 2016 election.

In that breathtaking moment, requiring a suspension of disbelief, Gessen had the presence of mind, based on the just-completed presidential campaign and the election of Donald Trump, to put down her thoughts regarding a future that she believed awaited the nation.

She began by sharing her disappointment with Hillary Clinton’s conciliatory concession speech wherein she said, “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.” Gessen would have preferred, “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.”

The phrase by Hillary suggesting we owe Trump an “open mind” seemed to Gessen particularly ahistorical. Had not Trump, during his campaign, “promised to deport U.S. citizens, promised to create a system of surveillance targeted specifically at Muslim-Americans, promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, advocated war crimes, endorsed torture, and repeatedly threatened to jail Hillary Clinton herself?” He is, Gessen bluntly wrote, “a chronic liar, sexual predator, serial tax avoider, race-baiter and the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat — and won.”

Gessen went on to say that she had lived in autocracies most of her life and had learned a few rules for surviving. What follows are those rules.

Rule 1: “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.” And so, whenever you find yourself thinking that he is dissembling, “know that it 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.”

Rule 2: “Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.” As a people we yearn for decency and decorum from the White House and feel only a perpetual sense of futility.

Rule 3: “Institutions will not save us.” Though our institutions are strong, Gessen wrote, “many are enshrined in political culture rather than law ” and are dependent on “the good faith of the actors to fulfill their purpose and uphold the Constitution.”

I would judge that today we are in just such a moment when the Department of Justice and the rule of law are being tested, as was the Senate when it voted to hear no witnesses and review no documents. Our institutional norms are crumbling and Trump is, at this moment, seeking retribution against those who answered lawful subpoenas and testified before Congress. The coming presidential campaign will be saturated with disinformation and trolling, and truth will grow ever more opaque.

Rule 4: “Be outraged.” Sustain your “capacity for shock,” insists Gessen.

I would suggest that what we are living through is not the “new normal.” But believe that our democracy will not escape profound damage should Trump be re-elected, for he will regard such a victory as a complete affirmation and vindication.

Rule 5: “Don’t compromise.” Gessen predicted that Republicans will fall into line. Conservative pundits who broke ranks will return to the fold. And those who counsel cooperation are “willfully ignoring the corrupting touch of autocracy.” Look only at the Senate during the impeachment trial or the revolving door at the White House where those leaving are diminished and later denigrated.

Rule 6: “Remember the future.” Offer a perspective to “counter-balance Trump’s all-too-familiar white populism vision of an imaginary past.”

Of course, to remain, in Gessen’s words, “stubborn, uncompromising, outraged,” is exhausting. But to paraphrase Ben Franklin, this is our republic — if we can keep it.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.