One of my precepts is to hope for the best and plan for the worst. It’s served me well. Donald Trump’s policies are unclear because of his lies, rapid turnarounds, and obfuscations. The people he is appointing look like the worst is possible, but the American government has a number of ways to slow that down and perhaps stop it. The silence of senators and representatives, both Democrat and Republican, is a bad sign.
People who have studied how nations become dictatorships see many warning signals. Listening to them and taking their advice is part of preparing for the worst. I’ve hesitated to push their material because it is so alarming, but this piece by Masha Gessen and a talk by Timothy Snyder convinced me that I should write this post.
When I went to Estonia in 1998 to help with cleaning up a former Soviet yellowcake plant, I knew little about Estonia and less about the Second World War’s Eastern Front. I was acquainted with what Americans know of that war: Toughing out the Blitz in the UK, brave resistance fighters in France, all saved by the Americans. Good guys and bad guys, and the good guys win.
But what if neither side is the good guys?
Read Gessen slowly and think about the decisions the people she writes about had to make, how they felt they were helping their neighbors and slid into handing them to people who would kill them. Sofi Oksanen’s novel, When The Doves Disappeared, tells similar stories. Individual circumstances differed, but all too often the choice was between betraying one person or another, between worse and worse. As I got to know my Estonian colleagues, I heard similar stories.
At first, I couldn’t make sense of the stories. They conflicted with the story that I knew from so many American movies about World War II. I almost didn’t even hear them, the cognitive dissonance was so thick. But as I got to know my colleagues, there was no reason to believe they were misleading me. I began to be able to hear their stories, and to feel the pain. Nowhere to turn, no good or sometimes even decent alternatives.
It dovetailed with a recurrent fear I had felt as I was growing up in the 1950s, that my burgeoning individuality would be smothered in a dictatorship. I had nightmares about it. My Estonian colleagues and their relatives had lived through those nightmares. I can’t think about that without tears.
Those experiences were repeated across Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. They are a worst case that Donald Trump and the people he is empowering could bring us to.
But we have those histories to inform us and to give us the tools to avert or mitigate that worst case. We will have to work together and ally with people who share our goals; some may surprise us. We have to keep a strong sense of who we are and help each other to stay with that. We must be prepared to defend civil liberties when a terror attack occurs. Protect the vulnerable; Muslims and migrants have already been targeted in Trump’s rhetoric.
Our political class is letting us down. Few Democrats nor Republicans have come out against the direct challenges to Constitutional order by Trump and his entourage; the number can be counted on two hands. Their principled statements would help strengthen resolve and provide leadership. They still can act, but apparently we must call their offices to insist they do the jobs we’ve elected them to do. Calling is more effective than emails or letters.
Please read and think about one or more of these links. Think about what you will do in those situations. If we work together, we may be able to avoid them. There are structures in the government that will help us. There will not be one distinct moment when it becomes clear that the worst is about to happen. The slide into dictatorship can take place very quickly, so we must prepare now for the worst.
Masha Gessen, Trump: The choice we face (photo from here)
Sofi Oksanen, When The Doves Disappeared
Sarah Kendzior: This is how to be your own light in the Age of Trump
Maeril: What to do if you are witnessing Islamophobic harassment (and other kinds too)
Timothy Snyder: Twenty lessons of the twentieth century
Jeff Colgan: Risk of democratic erosion – reading list