Surviving Autocracy (book): how Donald Trump is trying to turn the USA into a dictatorship

Russian-American journalist and author Masha Gessen, has written a new book called Surviving Autocracy in which she describes how the United States has dramatically changed under the presidency of Donald Trump. In this important book, she shows how Trump has undermined the media, the judiciary, the US Congress, cultural values and norms, and language itself, and how and all of these changes have become normalized. She argues that the key to recovery is not an attempt to return to normalcy but a focus on reinvention and social progress for all.

Here are a few quotes from the book: 
  1. Trumpian news has a way of being shocking without being surprising. Every one of the events of that week was, in itself, staggering: an assault on the senses and the mental faculties. Together, they were just more of the same. Trump had beaten the government, the media, and the very concept of politics into a state beyond recognition. 
  2. We were using the language of political disagreement, judicial procedure, or partisan discussion to describe something that was crushing the system that such terminology was invented to describe. 
  3. [B├ílint Magyar] developed the concept of autocratic transformation, which proceeds in three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation. 
  4. Many of us reassured ourselves and each other that American institutions were stronger than ant one candidate or even any one president. [...] I warned readers, "Institutions will not save you". I was drawing on my experience reporting on Russia, Hungary, and Israel. [...] Their institutions had folded in remarkably similar ways. I couldn't know that American institutions would fail similarly, but I knew enough to say that absolute faith in institutions was misplaced. 
  5. The thoughtful design of our institutions is only one reason for the history of progress. The other is that American citizens have largely acted in good faith. 
  6. No powerful political actor had set out to destroy the American political system itself- until, that is, Trump won the Republican nomination. He was probably the first major party nominee who ran not for president but for autocrat. And he won. 
  7. Autocrats declare their intentions early on. We disbelieve or ignore them at our peril. 
  8. We imagine the villains of history as masterminds of horror. This happens because we learn about them from history books, which weave narratives that retrospectively imbue events with logic, making them seem predetermined. 
  9. Corruption would not be the right word to apply to the Trump administration. the term implies deception - it assumes that the public official understands that they should not benefit from the public trust, but, duplicitously, they do it anyway. 
  10. Trumpism builds on the weaknesses and opportunities inherent in the logic of the system. The American system of government has never separated money from political power, and in the two decades before Trump's election, the role of money in American politics had grown manifold. 
  11. Unlike the emperor in the fairy tale, though, Trump felt no shame and so was not transformed by the exposure...
  12. As long as the Democrats are performing for the audience of their voters, rather than for Trump, there is hope of reversing the autocratic attempt- but even now half of the country in which we are living is functioning, in the public sphere, like an autocracy.
  13. The conspiracy was not baseless. A covert Russian effort to influence the American election was well documented. [...] Conspiracy thinking focused attention on the hidden, the implied, and the imagined, and draws it away from reality in plain view. In plain view, trump was flaunting, ignoring, and destroying all institutions of accountability. In plain view, he was degrading political speech. In plain view, he was using his office to enrich himself. In plain view, he was courting dictator after dictator. In plain view, he was promoting xenophobic conspiracy theories. 
  14. Having a president who instructed his counsel to lie to Congress, a president who lied to the public himself, a president who was a con man, was, apparently, not an emergency- or at least American political institutions were not equipped to treat it as one.
  15. The first three years have shown that an autocratic attempt in the United States has a credible chance of succeeding. Worse than that, they have shown that an autocratic attempt builds logically on the structures and norms of American government: on the concentration of power in the executive branch, and on the marriage of money and politics. 
  16. The assault on language may be harder to define and describe than his attacks on institutions, but it is essential to his autocratic attempt, the ultimate objective of which is to obliterate politics. 
  17. Conway was defending a liar's right to lie. There were no facts in her universe, and no issue of trust. There was power. Power demanded respect. Power concerned the right to speak and not be challenged. Being right was a question of power, not evidence. 
  18. The Trumpian lie is different. It is the power lie. It is the lie of the bigger kid who took your hat and is wearing it- while denying that he took it. There is no defense against this lie because the point of the lie is to assert power, to show "I can say what I want when I want to."
  19. Unmoored from lived reality, the autocrat has no need to be consistent. In fact, the ability to change his story at will is a demonstration of power. 
  20. He communicated that his power enables him to say what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the facts. He is president of his country and king of reality. 
  21. The reiteration highlights the problem with fact-checking as an antidote to the lying: while the lying is repeated, fact checking is administered only once. The lie dominates in the public sphere. Worse, the fact-checking articles themselves, appearing soon after the lie is uttered in public or on Twitter, serve as a gateway to the lie's entrance into public consciousness. Worse still, this particular gateway has a way of placing the lie and the truth side by side, as though the facts were a matter of debate. 
  22. Less than three months onto the presidency, his being unhinged and uninformed had become normalized because it was, in fact now the norm, the everyday reality of American life. 
  23. A journalist who assumes that Trump's intention is unknowable, that repeated false statements- when the truth is indeed knowable- do not, factually, constitute lying, is abdicating the responsibility to tell the story, to provide the context of what happened a year ago, yesterday, or even in parallel with the lying. The journalist becomes complicit in creating the bizarre sense of ahistoricism of the Trump era, which seems to exist only, ever, in the current moment. 
  24. Trump has successfully reframed America, stripping it of its ideals, dumbing it down, and reducing it to a nation at war against people who want to join it. 
  25. Precisely because an autocratic attempt is the opposite of politics, it demands a narrowing definition of 'us', in opposition to an ever greater and more frightening 'them'. 
  26. People feel most comfortable and secure in a closed circle of 'us', but we also realize that broadening that circle to include others makes us better people. 
  27. Saying that his utterances had reignited a theoretical debate was like saying that someone who has carpet-bombed your city has turned your fellow-citizens into builders again: technically it's true, but morally and intellectually it is a lie. 
  28. The system is not designed to deal with a president like Trump- a bad-faith actor, one who rejects the possibility that his power should be limited by institution of tradition.
  29. We learn to think of history as something that has already happened, to other people. Our own moment, filled as it is with minutiae destined to be forgotten, always looks smaller in comparison. As for history, the bigger the event, the more mythologized it becomes. The myth becomes a caricature of sorts. Hitler, or Stalin, comes to look like a two-dimensional villain- someone who contemporaries, as we imagine them, could not have seen as a human being. The Holocaust, or the Gulag, are such monstrous events that the very idea of rendering them in any sort of grey scale seems monstrous, too. This has the effect of making them, essentially unimaginable. In crafting the story the story of something that should never have been allowed to happen, we forge the story of something that could not possibly have happened. Or, to use a phrase only slightly out of context, something that can't happen here. A logical fallacy becomes inevitable. If this can't happen, then the thing that is happening is not it. What we see in real life, or at least on television, can't possibly be the same monstrous phenomenon that we have collectively decided is unimaginable. 
  30. Raw power can overtake moral authority, and perhaps today it is easier than ever before, but a determined effort to preserve ideals when they are under attack can serve as a bridge to the future. 
  31. It is not that war abroad is impossible under Trump -indeed, his isolationist rhetoric notwithstanding, war is likely because Trump craves the adulation it can bring to leader. 
  32. The country that elected Trump was a country that had laid the groundwork for his presidency. 
  33. We relate to the virus, in some ways, as we relate to Trump. We yearn desperately to return to a time of imagined normalcy, before trump and before the coronavirus. But we can heal only by looking forward- perhaps to a life that will be slower, more environmentally responsible and less materially comfortable, but also more clearly rooted in mutual aid and the understanding of our fundamental equality and interdependence.

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