Revisiting 'Rules for Survival': Here are 6 immutable rules of autocratic behavior — and tips for countering political tyranny

It’s stunning to look back and realize it now, but this was written just two days after the 2016 election.  Along with Adam Serwer's piece in the Atlantic, bluntly titled “The Cruelty is the Point,” and Timothy Snyder’s tract, “On Tyranny,” Masha Gessen’s brief essay in the New York Review of Books,  “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,”  warning us of the threat Donald Trump posed to our nation’s continued existence as a functioning republic, has proved itself over and over as a frighteningly prescient and disturbingly accurate prediction of how this would all play out, down almost to its very last word.


Gessen, a Russian-American writer and National Book Award winner, has lived in autocracies most of her life. As an outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin, she was one of the first to point out that Trump would, based on all evidence at the time, essentially govern in Putin’s shadow, slowly and inexorably transforming the American Republic by imposing a corrupt, autocratic system on so-called American “institutions.”  As it turned out, Gessen’s assessment of the looming danger posed by Trump and his collaborators in the Republican Party, and her pithy but sound advice on what to expect from a regime that considered itself unbound by such institutions, resounds even more prophetically today as we watch another supposedly hallowed institution, the United States Senate, crumble into dust and irrelevancy, right before our eyes.

The purpose of this is not to revisit the entirety of Gessen’s essay. Most here have already read it (if not you should read it now). Briefly, she sets down a list of six immutable rules of autocratic behavior and explains how ordinary citizens must react, cope, and counter this type of tyranny; and she predicts how the Trump administration would fulfill each of those rules in its efforts to transform our government into something as near a dictatorship as possible. Those rules are: 1) Believe the autocrat—do not for a minute believe anything he says is intended simply to shock or exaggerate; 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; and 6) Remember the future.  Each one of these principles is followed by a prediction of how Trump would turn them into reality for our nation.  And each one, more or less, turned out to be accurate.

If you have any doubt as to the legitimacy of Gessen’s analysis or the soundness of her advice, then consider the following excerpts from it, written two days after the 2016 election and two months before Trump actually took office. The signs of just how perilously weak the American Republic would be in withstanding such an assault were evident in the concession speeches of Hillary Clinton, the words of the Democratic runner-up Bernie Sanders, and even former President Barack Obama, all of whom offered varied forms of the standard “olive branch” owed by the politically vanquished to the victor. Expecting Trump, whose real goal was absolute power, to respond to these platitudes was a depressing exercise in outright naivete, masking as political politesse. Gessen saw it for what it was: ridiculous and dangerous.

However well-intentioned, this talk assumes that Trump is prepared to find common ground with his many opponents, respect the institutions of government, and repudiate almost everything he has stood for during the campaign. In short, it is treating him as a “normal” politician. There has until now been little evidence that he can be one.

Gessen first predicted that contrary to the common assumption that Trump could never command the allegiance of so-called “mainstream” conservatives, the  Republican Party would instead rush to embrace Trump. In this she was, again, absolutely correct.

He has no political establishment into which to fold himself following the campaign, and therefore no reason to shed his campaign rhetoric. On the contrary: it is now the establishment that is rushing to accommodate him—from the president, who met with him at the White House on Thursday, to the leaders of the Republican Party, who are discarding their long-held scruples to embrace his radical positions.

After what is expected to be a full-blown acquittal of Trump in the Republican Senate next week (possibly accompanied by a few shiny votes of some Democratic quislings fearful of Trump’s wrath), there is no doubt whatsoever that the Republican Party, including nearly every elected Republican official in the country, is prostrate under Trump’s boot-heel. It was almost amusing to watch the media circus solemnly placing the fate of an autocratic monster in the hands of proven cowards such as Susan Collins, Mitt Romney and Lamar Alexander.  The Republican-controlled  Senate is now as laughable an entity as was the Roman Senate in Caligula’s age, and it seems only a matter of time before Trump sees fit to place a horse in the chamber.

Gessen also assured us with dead-on certainty that Trump would continue with his campaign-stated plans to dismantle not only the Affordable Care Act (which he has tried to do, with some success), but most if not all of the legislation and rulemaking passed in the Obama administration (which he has done), and would continue to use the functions of government whenever possible to punish his political opponents.

Observers and even activists functioning in the normal-election mode are fixated on the Supreme Court as the site of the highest-risk impending Trump appointment. There is little doubt that Trump will appoint someone who will cause the Court to veer to the right; there is also the risk that it might be someone who will wreak havoc with the very culture of the high court. And since Trump plans to use the judicial system to carry out his political vendettas, his pick for attorney general will be no less important.

With the nomination of Executive Power ideologues  Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Attorney General William Barr, Trump again has performed exactly how Gessen predicted. She suggested that a Chris Christie or Rudy Giuliani could be chosen for AG, specifically for the purpose of investigating Hillary Clinton. As it turns out, Trump found someone possibly worse than that in Barr, while retaining Giuliani as his personal consigliere.

Gessen also predicted how the stock market would respond to Trump--it would leap to embrace his lies as if on cue: “Confronted with political volatility, the markets become suckers for calming rhetoric from authority figures. So do people. Panic can be neutralized by falsely reassuring words about how the world as we know it has not ended.”  This is exactly what (until the Coronavirus reared its head) the financial markets have done in response to Trump’s lies about the “trade war” with China. They and the financial press have reacted like trained monkeys, eager to accept the most absurd assurances about Trump’s tariffs and his trade “policy.”

But the harshest prediction has been the most devastating. Gessen, asserting that “institutions will not save us,” first noted that Vladimir Putin took a year to totally assimilate the Russian media landscape and an additional four years to dismantle its electoral system, so-called “institutions” which Americans also claim as their own. The same dismantling of the “cherished bulwarks” of these paper-thin “democracies”  occurred in Turkey and Poland over the span of a few years.

Gessen acknowledges that the United States has stronger institutions than these second-world nations, as we were continually reminded at the start of Trump’s term in office. But here’s the thing:

The problem, however, is that many of these institutions are enshrined in political culture rather than in law, and all of them—including the ones enshrined in law—depend on the good faith of all actors to fulfill their purpose and uphold the Constitution.

The abdication of its responsibilities by fully one-half of the United States Congress and Senate in support of a wannabee dictator like Donald Trump—and the complete and wholesale embrace of corruption that this represented—is the most visible demolition of our institutions, but the pollution of our Federal judiciary with rabid  (and in many cases totally incompetent) ideologues is no less corrosive to the American constitutional order. For our Democracy to survive it is necessary that certain rules and norms be observed, rules and norms that everyone accepts.  When one party is willing to forego the truth in pursuance of contrived conspiracies and outright lies; when one party through procedural manipulation ensures that no legislation will proceed or even receive debate, then that essential good faith has clearly been abandoned. As a result, the “institution” dies an ignominious death. The dissolution of our federal government under Trump has also been accelerated by the perversion of our federal agencies, now tasked with working not for the interests of the American people, but for a narrow corporate donor base.

The dismantling of institutions is not limited to our Constitutional structure; Gessen also predicted exactly what would happen to the press after Trump. At the risk of being repetitious, remember this was two days after the election itself, and well before Trump even entered the White House:

The national press is likely to be among the first institutional victims of Trumpism. There is no law that requires the presidential administration to hold daily briefings, none that guarantees media access to the White House. Many journalists may soon face a dilemma long familiar to those of us who have worked under autocracies: fall in line or forfeit access. There is no good solution (even if there is a right answer), for journalism is difficult and sometimes impossible without access to information.

The power of the investigative press—whose adherence to fact has already been severely challenged by the conspiracy-minded, lie-spinning Trump campaign—will grow weaker. The world will grow murkier. Even in the unlikely event that some mainstream media outlets decide to declare themselves in opposition to the current government, or even simply to report its abuses and failings, the president will get to frame many issues...[.]

Trump now has an army of voters numbering in the tens of millions who simply do not believe legitimate news sources, since they report negative news about Trump. Attacks on journalists and media outlets are a staple of his Nuremberg-like rallies. Seasoned reporters and news agencies, from CNN to NPR, are now routinely singled out and denied access to a White House that has all but abandoned press briefings.  Again, Gessen was spot on in her prediction: indeed, “institutions” will not save us. It only remains to be seen whether foreign influence in the form of Russian-generated propaganda will topple our last remaining institution—our elections themselves. Significantly, Gessen’s essay was written before the Mueller investigation was even conceived, let alone the degree of Russian influence on the 2016 electorate discovered.

So where does that leave us? There are only three rules left.

Of those, the first is  “Be outraged.”  Do not normalize anything this administration does. Never forget that this is not normal.  It can never be allowed to be normal. Most of us here have learned  through the bitter experience of the last three years to never stop fighting against this nightmare. We are not alone in our outrage, and we should never forget the fact that there are millions of us—in fact we are the majority.

The second, Don’t make compromises. This should go without saying, but somehow some Democrats need to be reminded. There can be no cooperation—ever--with this regime. As Gessen states, to do otherwise is not only corrupting, but soul-destroying. Willfully or even expediently ignoring the corruption of this fledgling autocracy will destroy any future this country may still possess.

Finally: Remember the future. Trump and Trumpism will come to an end one day. The man himself will no longer be around in a few years and his unique brand of insouciance and arrogance has already shown itself not to play well in the form of pale imitations. Trumpism and Trump’s personality are not as transferable or convertible as the Republican Party believes. 2018 showed that very, very clearly, and we all have the power to ensure that 2020 will demonstrate it to the Republicans again.

Most importantly, Gessen urges that the Democrats must offer up a powerful and compelling alternative vision to counterbalance Trump’s conjuring of an imaginary, lily-white past that appeals so much to his racist, xenophobic base. That is the challenge of not only of our nominee, but for all Democrats who want to wrest our country back from the brink of tyranny where it now rests. We failed to do that in 2016. We cannot and must not fail again.

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