How does American democracy outlast Trump? We are about to experience the presidency of the least experienced, least qualified, most uninformed, most autocratic and most emotionally immature person who has taken on this job In our lifetime. His threats against the press and his promise to dismantle the civic protections and financial safety-net provisions that have evolved over the past 100 years put us in nothing short of an existential emergency. What can citizens do to keep our country from devolving?
In a recent article in In These Times, Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder offers strategies for countering a demagogue. Here are some of them:
Do not obey in advance
Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked…Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.
We have already seen evidence of the “anticipatory obedience” phenomenon. As the Republican Congress moves toward repealing the Affordable Care Act, you would have expected the health-insurance industry to object vehemently [because they would be losing millions of customers gained through the ACA]. We have not seen that. Why? A health-insurance executive was recently reported as saying that the insurance companies don’t want to get on the wrong side of Trump and the Republican Congress.” We are off to a bad start on this score.
Be aware of key words used by authoritarians
Snyder reminds us to listen carefully to politicians’ language:
When you hear the extensive use of “terrorism,” extremism,” “exception” and “emergency,” be on alert. Demagogues throw those words around to create excuses for extreme action, such as “emergency” military actions and limitations on free speech.
And when the inevitable, real crisis arrives, remember that “all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the book. Don’t fall for it.
We are already seeing Donald Trump’s fascination with military power, and we need to be very wary of his inclination in this area. He reportedly wanted to include tanks and missile launchers in his Inauguration parade as a show of America’s military might. It was a very “Red Square”-type move. Thankfully, cooler [military] heads prevailed, and all he got was an unusually large flyover of military jets and helicopters.
Trump, in his quest for America to “win” again, and in his personal need to get bigger and bigger wins, could be itching for a military conflict that he could use to claim a victory. When you hear him start using trigger words and phrases like “imminent danger” and “serious threat” and such, prick up your ears and get ready to hit the streets.
Snyder urges us to educate ourselves on the issues [something that Trump refuses to do.] Our new president is impulse and gut-reaction driven. We need to be smarter than that. Snyder recommends reading longer articles, spending the money it takes to get behind the paywalls of quality media outlets. Figure out who is saying what, and whether the sources seem reliable. Know the difference between propaganda and news.
Practice “corporeal politics”
“Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your bod in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends, and march with them.
This weekend’s anti-inauguration protests and Women’s Marches all over the country are good starts. But protest cannot just be a fad. We need to sustain the energy, unite against demagoguery, and never become complacent. This will be an ongoing battle to—literally—keep America safe for democracy.
Take responsibility for the face of the world
Snyder reminds us to notice “the swastikas and other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so,” he says.
Watch out for the paramilitaries
This is a very important lesson learned from the 20th Century. Think it can’t happen here? Here’s how Snyder describes this phenomenon:
When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.
As a corollary, Snyder reminds us about the dangers of evolving into a one-party state. We are already seeing this happening—not in a blatant abolition of our two-party system, but in the de facto takeover, by a monolithic Republican Party, of the U.S. Congress and state governments.
[In the 20th Century], the parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections when you can.
We are entering a frightening political era. I used to think that referring to the United States as an “experiment in self-governance” was a corny, political-puffery phrase that had become quaint, because we could all see that, after 240 years, the experiment had clearly succeeded. I know today, as Trump walks into the Oval Office, that my smugness about the sustainability of American democracy has been misguided. All the rhetoric about the fragility of democracy is not just high-school-textbook propaganda. We are about to witness—no, not just witness: experience—the biggest democracy stress-test of our lifetime. Let’s keep our eyes open, our writing muscles flexed, our voices tuned up, and our marching shoes ready at the door.