The Authoritarian Instinct

This checklist for ‘surviving an authoritarian regime’, posted in January this year by the Polish journalist Martin Mycielski, is uncanny in its alignment with the first year of the Trump administration.
Attempts to delegitimise independent media? Check. Creating chaos and constant conflict? Check. Denial of verifiable facts? Check. Fabricated scandals? Check.
On Twitter, I wondered aloud at how deliberate this process is for the would-be dictators who practice it? Or is it somehow instinctual, like migratory birds who are biologically hard wired to sense the earth’s magnetic currents and fly north or south at the turn of the seasons.
“If I were to guess,” says Mycielski on Twitter, “I’d say with Trump it’s rather an instinct,” although of course outside actors such as the Kremlin are pushing and catalysing these tendencies. “With Kaczynski and Orban it is definitely deliberate and premeditated.”
(That’s Jarosław Kaczyński, the former Polish Prime Minister, and Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary.)
I’ve been mulling all day which would be worse. In the case of President Trump, I think Martin must be right. Certainly, people talk of him as having a ‘knack’ or a ‘feel’ for populist messaging, which implies some kind of innate skill rather than anything tactical. The evidence (from his illiterate and illogical tweets, to his political ineptitude in other areas) suggest it is not part of some grand masterplan.
However, that does not bring me comfort. If an authoritarian power grab were planned, then, well, that would suggest that the plans could be uncovered and compromised. This cannot be done when your antagonist is a malevolent force of nature.
Of course, in America we could be seeing the worst of all possible worlds: an natural born front-man of limited insight, steered by people far more methodical.

One Reply to “The Authoritarian Instinct”

  1. This quote used to get a lot of play:
    “He sounded like Jean-François Revel, a French socialist writer who talks about one of the great unexplained phenomena of modern astronomy: namely, that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.” — Tom Wolfe
    For perspective, there was an image passed around last winter of an old poster listing “Early Warning Signs of Fascism.”
    It was at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. But it was at their gift shop, not as a display.
    It wasn’t really that old either. It was written in 2003 by a Bush-hater. Most of the items on that list, as well as on Martin Mycielski’s, could probably have been said against any U.S. president since WWII.
    Near the end of the ’90s, some on the right had been warning that President Clinton would arrange an emergency to cancel the election and keep him in power for years afterwards. Some on the left said the same thing about Bush in 2008, and then the right had the same murmurs about Obama in 2016. Expect the same about Trump in 2020/2024.

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