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.
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.