Believe It

In an interview on MSNBC, Masha Gessen, author of Surviving Autocracy, reminded me recently of her six rules for living in a dictatorship.

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat.

Donald Trump has told us that he might not accept the 2020 election results. That the “peaceful transfer of power” might just be a “continuation.”

I believe him.

Now, to be clear, I also believe that Donald Trump is a coward and that, barring outside events (lawsuits brought by his lawyers, threats of violence brought by his supporters), in the event of a defeat he will not defy the law openly. He will leave the White House in a timely fashion, but others will fight on for him, continuing to disrupt the polity in any way that they can. He will likely continue to hold rallies in which he can interpret any action of a Biden administration as an attack on his base.

As President, he is “Commander in Chief” of the U.S. military, but he cannot actually “command” them beyond the limits of the Constitution. “His generals” have made that clear. He cannot command or coerce the media in any meaningful sense, but not for want of trying. And his attempt to put soldiers in the streets of our cities has been met with intense resistance spiced with a bit of laughter. Looking at you, Portland, putting leaf blowers in your front lines. But these so-far futile attemps at autocracy are still dangerous if he can convince us that he is capable of them. More dangerous still if he can convince the 30-40% of the nation that still purports to admire him that a dictatorship of Trump is somehow a victory for them. And even more dangerous if he can convince a third of the country that his defeat would be their defeat.

But Trump is no Putin. He’s not a Duterte, an Erdogan, or a Kim Jong Un. He would like very much to be included in that club, but the only reason any of them gives him so much as the time of day is his position as President of the United States. Once he walks out of that door and Joe Biden walks in, all of his invitations will be rescinded. They have all seen him as the hollow man that he in fact is. When the leaders of the nations call the White House, Joe Biden will pick up the phone. When Trump tries to call them, he will be put on hold.

In the meantime, he is still President of the United States, and when he speaks we should believe him. Not the obvious lies, of course. His promises spill from his mouth in flaming red letters that spell out the word N O N S E N S E. His threats, however … those are gospel.

As I type this, it is 38 days until election day, November 3, 2020. I have volunteered to do phone banking, which I never do, on the intervening weekends. Because I believe him.

But what, you may ask, are Gessen’s other five rules for living under an autocrat?

2. Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
3. Institutions will not save you.
4. Be outraged.
5. Don’t make compromises.
6. Remember the future.

Now, let’s get to work.