Surviving Autocracy

A Trump-bashing book from early 2020 but I found local parallels from late last month.

To be sure, Americans in 2020 had vastly more access to information than did Soviet citizens in 1986. But the Trump administration shared two key features with the Soviet government: utter disregard for human life and a monomaniacal focus on pleasing the leader, to make him appear unerring and all-powerful. (page xvii)

On December 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov, the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad, was murdered by a lone gunman. The assassination is remembered as the pretext for creating a state of exception in Russia. (pages 14-5)

Trump’s project is the government of the worst: a kakistocracy. (page 40)

In fact, Putin was and remains a poorly educated, underinformed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world. (page 45)

Hannah Arendt called bureaucracy “the rule of Nobody.” Trump was this Nobody now. he did not know what he was not doing. (page 52)

These systems served as the foundations for the mafia states of Hungary and Russia, where the party was replaced with a political clan centered on a patron who distributes money and power. (page 66)

Conspiracy thinking focuses attention on the hidden, the implied, and the imagined, and draws it away from reality in plain view. (page 81)

what journalists call “write-arounds,” pieces reported without the participation of the principal subject. (page 97)

In the early 1990s, after the Soviet regime collapsed, Russian journalists faced the challenge of reinventing journalism, which had been a vehicle for propaganda, not information. (page 119)

As Hannah Arendt argued, the awareness of one’s subjectivity is essential to political conversation. (page 132)

Confucious warned: “If language is not correct, then…morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. (page 134)

If politicians, journalists, and even kitchen-table debaters adopted the habit of defining their terms, we would understand each other better – and begin the process of restoring language. (pages 135-6)

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 conferred the right to speak and not be challenged. Being right was a question of power, not evidence. (page 146)

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. (page 150)

Are you going to believe your own eyes or the headlines? This is the dilemma of people who live in totalitarian societies. Trusting one’s own perceptions is a lonely lot; believing one’s own eyes and being vocal about it is dangerous. Believing the propaganda – or, rather, accepting the propaganda as one’s reality – carries the promise of a less anxious existence, in harmony with the majority of one’s fellow citizens. The path to peace of mind lies in giving one’s mind over to the regime. (pages 153-4)

But American journalists, who shared a strong belief in reporting “what’s going on” neutrally, by which they usually mean without assigning value or providing more than the immediate context, were ill-equipped to problematize the normalization of what had indeed become the norm. The standard tools and approaches of American journalism translate into enforced restraint in language and tone – many journalists believe that these are hallmarks of objectivity. (page 173)

He was not there to answer the tough questions: he was there to show who was in charge. (page 191)

The pedantic insistence on only ever reporting empirically proven facts, and staying away from facts for which only logical, intellectual evidence can be summoned, creates the blurry style of American journalism. By using noncommittal statements, the blurry style in effect aids the Trumpian project of neutralizing the most important of media rights – the public’s right to know. (pages 207-8)

The Times‘ approach to covering Trump’s lies remained unchanged during the coronavirus crisis. The paper did extraordinary reporting uncovering the hidden truths of the pandemic – such as the story of the USNS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship, touted by Trump as aid to the city, that actually barred COVID patients and remained almost empty as city hospitals struggled under the strain – but it maintained its both-sides-of-the-truth way of reporting on Trump. (pages 212-3)

With the exception of Reagan and, to a much lesser extent, Obama, American presidents had come to define leadership in terms of competence, expertise, and technical prowess rather than ideals and ideas. (page 228)

American political conversation had become a space free from imagination and aspiration. Rather than talk about the future, we talked about policy; rather than talk about what’s right and just, we talked about what’s realistic and lawful; rather than discuss values, we discussed strategies. It was this dull, neutral, largely hollow space that Trump so easily filed with his crudeness, cruelty, and lies. (pages 228-9)

The phrase “nation of immigrants,” which generations of Americans had learned as children, was, like most national myths and more than some, a lie: the United States was a settler colonialist nation whose economy was rooted in the enslavement of Africans forcibly brought to its shores. (page 242)

Hypocrisy in politics, as infuriating and damaging as it can be, serves the function of reiterating aspirational values. But the Trump administration has no moral ambition. Indeed, Trump’s appeal to his voters lay in large part in the implicit call to “throw off the mask of hypocrisy,” as Hannah Arendt once described part of the appeal of fascism. (page 247)

In other words, she was saying, the available minds at the State Department were tasked with inventing passably diplomatic approaches that could plausibly be connected to the president’s utterances. (page 257)

Speaking from a place of moral authority – and moral aspiration – is the strategy historically adopted by dissidents in undemocratic regimes such as totalitarian Poland, apartheid South Africa, or contemporary autocratic Belarus. (page 282)

creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainly that functions as the ultimate deterrent (page 304)

In fact, these crimes are violence delegated by the American president in much the same way that Putin delegates attacks on his political opponents, Duterte delegates the killing of drug users, and Netanyahu delegates to Israeli settlers violence against Palestinians. Trump delegates by incitement and reward. (page 310)

The next chance at reversing the autocratic attempt of Trumpism will probably come in November 2020, at the polls. To succeed at reversing the autocratic attempt – and to hold on to that victory in the face of what is certain to be massive and possibly violent backlash – we will have to do more than vote, and more than campaign. (page 314)

These new ways of thinking about politics have not yet bubbled up into mainstream consciousness: the Democratic Party and most media still discuss the vote in terms of policy proposals, solutions, and, of course, fund-raising and electability, however they measure it. (page 317)

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Rex the Wonder Dog!🐶🐶🐶🐾🐾🐾 on September 7, 2021 at 12:48 pm

    Sounds like another Anti-Trump hit piece. I like Trump and thought he did a good job, and was intentionally hobbled by the far left wingnut Dem’s, with non-stop fake news and impeachments. I also think Trump caused his own problems at the end by failing to take his loss with respect. Bottom line I cannot go through another 4 years with either Biden or Trump. I will not vote for either. Hopefully someone I like will run…. Right now Desantis looks good, but who knows. It will not be either Biden or Trump in 2024.

    Reply

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