“I’m Not Aware Of Any Aborted Autocracies In Modern History”

I quipped during the early part of the U.S. Presidential campaign that Donald Trump was “John Gotti with a Southern strategy.” Now, sadly, he’s a capo with nuclear capabilities. 

The real question is whether Trump is a vainglorious, horny kleptocrat like Berlusconi or a democracy-killing fascist like Mussolini. I’ll answer “definitely” on the former and “definitely if we let him” on the latter, though it’s possible even our best efforts won’t be able to still the degradation of liberal governance.

The Breitbart-ian nihilism of the orange supremacist’s campaign was no mistake, his Outstanding Leader rally not a misdirection, his bromance with despotic leaders a clear sign and his “I alone can fix it” dictum a bold pronouncement. He was letting us know that he’s Simon Cowell as a strongman, and it was initially so preposterous that few could believe what they were seeing. Now there’s no option to look away.

We can blame the economy, globalization, fake news (including Fox News) and many other culprits for America’s embrace of a demagogue, but a large minority of citizens just really seemed to like the idea of a bigoted, xenophobic tyrant in the Oval Office. The Make America White Again message really resonated.

From Fernanda Eberstadt’s Salon article with a troika of experts of autocracy, including Masha Gessen:

“I thought Trump was going to win because I’ve seen it happen before,” Gessen told me. “There are certain points in history when people lose a sense of their place in the world, and then they’ll go with the first person who offers them a return to an imaginary past. Americans’ basic understanding of who they are as a society has been destroyed over time, but it finished with the 2008 housing collapse, when people were kicked out of their own homes: That destruction was not acknowledged by the larger culture.

“What we’ve learned in the last few weeks is the kind of government Donald Trump is building: it’s a Mafia state,” Gessen continued. “In a Mafia state, the patriarch rules as in a family. He doesn’t need to spell things out — he expects intuitive obedience, and there are penalties for not intuiting his wishes. He’s going to choose people based solely on loyalty and family membership. If they get their positions through merit, they wouldn’t owe everything to him. It’s not his ultimate goal to destroy freedom and democracy, but you have to, if you want to steal as much as possible, especially if you have such a thin skin.” …

“I’m utterly pessimistic,” Gessen concluded. “I’m not aware of any aborted autocracies in modern history. Democracy is an aspiration, and it is defenseless against people who use it in bad faith. America’s advantage is that it has an incredibly rich cultural environment, a vibrant public spirit. Can we learn from other countries’ mistakes? The only thing to do is the exact opposite of what Germans, Poles and Hungarians did, which is to wait and see. We must panic and protest, presumptively assume the worst.”•

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