Surviving Autocracy; Masha Gessen; 2020; Riverhead Books; 233 pgs, Notes, No Index
Another book with no index! This really annoys me. For a book like this, just indexing the proper names of people and places would take all of a day, and would help a lot. The book has a lengthy table of contents which makes up for it a little. Masha Gessen is a Russian born, gay, trans, activist and critic of Putin.
This book should be taken seriously, but I feel that for many, it will be seen as a testament to the bleeding obvious… namely that Trump, Putin, dictators, and dictator wanna-bes around the world, are all taking their cues from the same playbook. This book tries to illustrate this fact.
The book consists of 22 short, roughly chronological, chapters. It is a very fast read.
For those that have followed Trump history, this book is an analysis of Trump sins… sins that seemingly go on forever and are never challenged.
Betsy DeVos, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Rex Tillerson, Mick Mulvaney, Jared Kushner, Ryan Zinke, Scott Pruitt, Tom Price, and David Shulkin were separately accused of stealing millions for themselves.
Trump ran the most corrupt administration in US history... by far. He surrounded himself with crooks, yes-men, and people who have a loose grip on their principles. When those people compromised themselves just once, they were Trump property.
When Erdogan thugs beat up American protestors at the White House, Trump and the White House did nothing. Professional courtesy perhaps?
Kavanaugh was put on the Supreme Court in the closest vote ever (51 to 50), despite credible sexual assault accusations from Blasey Ford. Eighty-three complaints were filed against Kavanaugh during the hearing. All were subsequently dismissed! Why? Because it was too late. He was now out of reach on the Supreme Court!
Certainly one way to get power is hire an AG who is in the bag. Trump got that with Barr. Barr, like Trump, lied all the time, but as always, without consequence.
Language has taken a beating under Trumpism. Everything is either "terrific" or "treason". Trump whined endlessly about "witch hunts" while he was in power, without realizing that witch hunts are only conducted by those in power.
"Fake news" is an oxymoron. Is it fake, or news? It cannot be both. Trump and Putin use the same tactic: accuse the accuser of doing the same crime. They are the very fountain from which "fake news" springs.
Gessen points out the similarities between Trumpism and Post Modernism (PM). Few people know what PM is, in part because it is hard to define. The BC Skeptics, of which I was a part, held a meeting at SFU where the topic was Post Modernism. The presenter read a passage from a PM magazine. The text was on an overhead projector (remember those?) so the entire audience could read it and study it. Some of the smartest people I know were in that room and no one could offer up a clue as to what it meant. PM basically says that all past events are just stories, and stories are entirely subjective. There are no facts, just stories. PM got punked one day. Alan Sokal wrote an essay for publication in the largest PM magazine of the day. It was published. Then the author admitted he had merely written a paper in the style of PM and that was utterly devoid of insight. He deliberately contradicted himself several times. In other words, it was gibberish, but it was published gibberish. PM seemed to me to disappear (it just fell off my radar), but my philosopher friend Dale Beyerstein assures me it is alive and well.
Case in point: Who can forget Kelly Anne Conway and her "alternate facts"? PM statements are designed to sound deep and contemplative, when, in reality, they are shallow and rambling. A typical PM essay is basically just word salad, and if that doesn't remind you of virtually every Trump speech, you haven't been paying attention. This is not to say that Trump uses PM on purpose. He is not that smart. But his speeches, especially when he goes off script, are little more than rambling, aimless, self-contradictory examples of verbal diarrhea.
Trump even lies about the weather. The one thing in the world most people can agree upon is the weather, and Trump lies about it. Trump lied about the weather at his inauguration, saying it did not rain. Thousands of open umbrellas beg to differ. He also lied about the path of a storm, which he had changed with a Sharpie. He did not lie about a suggestion to use a nuke to stop a hurricane. He was just too stupid to know how stupid what he just said really was.
On his road to becoming a despot, Trump referred to the press as "the enemy of the people". Stalin would be proud. The press does have some accountability in all this. In their zeal to appear neutral, they are automatically taking sides… namely, the autocrats side. Autocrats want language to be so loose that nothing that anyone says can be called a lie. This is very close to the George Costanza defense: "If you believe it when you say it, is it still a lie?" The answer to this must be "yes".
In addition to the Hitler-esque Big Lie, another major authoritarian tactic is to separate "us" from "them". Recall the Jewish threat to NAZI Germany and the "caravans" that were going to destroy America? The people at the Mexican border come every year, like the tide, for their own reasons. One of those reasons is the international legal right to apply for asylum. Trump treated them all like animals, and literally called them that too. To be fair, both sides use language that can divide us when they speak of African Americans, or Muslim Americans, or even women. Unfortunately, this use of language is fuel for the fires on both sides. The only way to defeat this prejudice in America is to always emphasize, first and foremost, that all American citizens are equally American.
I am a student of World War Two and the parallels between Hitler and Trump are very scary. It seems that he got more Hitler-ish every year he was in power. Gessen argues that all of these changes are signs of encroaching authoritarianism. The US likes to think of itself as the world's greatest democracy. Americans crow about rights and freedoms constantly while members of one party secretly try to restrict the rights and freedoms of their fellow citizens, all while knowingly allowing a criminally stupid pathological liar to be their president.
It can happen again.
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Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.