FEATURE: Newsmaker 2016

By on December 28, 2016

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“If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest, this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’? There [in the Weimar Republic] it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation … And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany.”

– MIT linguist and political philosopher Noam Chomsky, from a 2010 TruthOut interview

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Had more people focused on the impossible as possible, perhaps Donald Trump’s successful bid for POTUS would not be a surprise. What is clear is that from this point forward people must conjure the seemingly impossible in preparation for a Trump presidency.

Trump is the embodiment of the unimaginable outsider, the face of a resurrected populism that surfaced, persisted, and succeeded repeatedly this year. Like a punching clown, Trump rebounded through myriad self-placed landmines all the way to the White House. However, Trump’s ascendancy should not simply be credited to his political outsider status. It is only one piece. And rather than focus on the nitty-gritty or the bizarreness of his tactics, folks need to turn their attention to Trump’s rejection of the political game in general.

The rules are being rewritten daily. Bracing for the future requires everyone to imagine the unimaginable. So pull out your copies of Orwell and Huxley, because reality—on the local, national and global stage—has become stranger than fiction.

The Unimaginable in Jackson?

Globally, a rising trend of political outsiders amassing power and public support can be seen from Europe to Asia. Nationally, an outsider with seemingly little chance prevailed. Locally, two political outsiders—Pete Muldoon and Greg Epstein—were victorious, for mayor of Jackson and Teton County commissioner respectively. It is worth noting, however, that these local outsiders are a sharp contrast to many of the national and global figures rising to power discussed in this story.

Incumbent Mayor Sara Flitner had the establishment on lockdown, or so many thought. She knew everyone, played by the rules, did everything right. She outraised her opponent by a long shot. Flitner had advised and served on numerous boards and commissions locally and statewide. Flitner Strategies, her communications and consulting firm, advised clients in the same arenas.

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Local writer and economist Jonathan Schechter noted that Flitner had several things in her favor—many years in the valley, the name recognition, and incumbency. Her bid, like Hillary Clinton’s for president, appeared a shoe-in.

However, others viewed Flitner as a leader who would steer the valley further down a path that wasn’t working. Some felt she was too cozy with the business community to really hear the will of the people. Others didn’t feel a connection, an authenticity, or a fire with Flitner’s bid for reelection. Interestingly, these were some of the same complaints people filed against Clinton.

Her opponent, Mayor-elect Pete Muldoon, is a political outsider—a musician, a DJ, and a luggage slinger at the airport. He threw his name into the mayoral race having traveled zero distance on the established path. He had not served on a single commission or board. Instead Muldoon’s political experience came as an activist looking in—he had been involved in efforts like Occupy Wall Street, political blogging, and he wrote an opinion column for this newspaper that dissected local issues and politics.

Like the presidential race, the mayoral race got a little ugly, though to a much lesser degree. Muldoon’s run elicited fears from some of Jackson’s politically established and the business crowd, and vice versa for Flitner from working class people. An “anonymous tip” to a local newspaper brought questions over whether a crime Muldoon committed more than 20 years ago writing bad checks as a college student qualified as a felony. (This would have disqualified him from holding office in Wyoming.) It was a goose chase with no goose at the end. Salacious details from a 2009 drug arrest involving Muldoon at Grand Targhee Resort were included in local newspaper coverage. Meanwhile, Flitner’s relationships with her previous clients, like commercial developer SR Mills, who stands to profit in the millions from a regulation Flitner voted in favor of before the town council, were called into question as potential conflicts of interest. Then a letter circulated around the valley that accused her of tampering with the investigation of 16-year-old Kayden Quinn Tapia’s death. It was dismissed as bogus by the Teton County Sheriff’s office.

Flitner’s camp responded with calls for civility.

Comparisons to national politicians were lobbed at Muldoon. Planning commissioner and Flitner supporter, John Stennis, called Muldoon, “Our own Donald Trump running for mayor of our town … a demagogue who does not understand public policy or the basic functions of government.”

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Muldoon, however, aligned himself with former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the progressive populist. Indeed, the outsider effect was in full swing. Muldoon and two other vehement Sanders supporters won their races. Jackson native and Teton Gravity Research’s head of physical production Greg Epstein amassed the most votes for county commissioner. Epstein came out of the political blue and won both the primary and the general election by a long shot. In the general he came in 431 votes ahead of incumbent Commissioner Natalia Macker (who won back her seat), and 1,172 more votes than the third place vote recipient, Trey Davis. And, former journalist and river guide Councilman Jim Stanford, often the council’s lone voice of dissent, defended his seat.

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It has yet to be seen how outsiders like Muldoon and Epstein will shift local policy, especially with the valley’s seemingly constant opposition to change. Regardless, they bring a progressive air to the local political climate and a people focused approach.

A World of Outsiders

The Democrats were the first group to witness the power of populism and outsiders. True party outsider, Sen. Bernie Sanders, 75, was relegated to the realm of the unimaginable. However, nine months after the Independent Vermont senator announced his candidacy for president he was in a dead heat with Clinton at the Iowa Caucuses. The Washington Post reported Sanders’ progress as “absolutely stunning. And a testament to how politics can—still—surprise and amaze.”

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Despite his unconventional policy-heavy speeches, Sanders’ message resonated with more than 13 million voters, especially young people. By July he had “finished in a strong second place,” according to FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, a statistician and political analyst. Silver noted Sanders was the fifth place primary vote earner in history.

Much to the dismay of his centrist naysayers, Sanders seemed to have his finger on the populist pulse surging through the world. Shortly after Brexit, Sanders issued a warning in an Op-Ed in The New York Times. “The notion that Donald Trump could benefit from the same forces that gave the Leave proponents a majority in Britain should sound an alarm for the Democratic Party in the United States,”  he wrote. 

Sanders’ gaze had rightfully been fixed on Europe, where the rise of populism was weathered and worn. European countries have seen a rise in xenophobic, nationalistic parties for two decades, due to a number of factors like globalization, open borders, refugees, and post-colonial immigration. Some far-right candidates and their nationalist parties have amassed notable momentum. The Front National Party, which, a decade ago had no chance to win, has become a formidable player in France’s presidential election. Meanwhile, Germany’s nationalist party, Alternative for Deutschland, doubled its number of parliamentary seats from five to 10 this year.

But perhaps due to lessons learned from Brexit and Trump, some far-right figures such as Austria’s presidential candidate Norbert Hofer and Italy’s former prime minister Matteo Renzi have been defeated. Still, it’s hard to quell anti-immigrant, nationalistic, or exclusionary rhetoric post-election when far-right candidates are resonating with large chunks of the population. Even though Hofer lost his bid for president in early December, BBC reported he and his Austrian Freedom Party carried 46.7 percent of the vote.

France’s presidential elections, slated for April 2017, will also reveal more about the trajectory of Western nations. The country’s far-right, pro-Russia presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, is running under FNP. Her father and former FNP presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, the original xenophobe, paved the way for her ascent and anti-other policies. Monsieur Le Pen, an Algerian War paratrooper, introduced outright xenophobic rhetoric to the national stage more than a decade ago when he lost to conservative former president Nicolas Sarkozy. But in the last decade, the FNP has gained traction.

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Critics believe–or hope–France will go a different direction from its British neighbors to the north and its cultureless democratic sibling from across the pond. However, a win for Le Pen would simply be par for the course. In a press conference the day after the US elections, Madame Le Pen congratulated Trump calling his victory a win for France as well. She too nodded to the Brexit and Trump results as an indication of a new world order, in a different way from Sanders and others. “What happened last night was not the end of the world, but the end of a world,” she said.

Maybe Le Pen is right, rejection of the status quo is blossoming and populism is growing. In South Korea an unknown is quickly becoming a player in the race for its highest office.

The self-proclaimed “Donald Trump of South Korea” is rocketing in popularity. Mayor of a small suburb of Seoul and leftist presidential candidate Lee Jae-Myung was a vociferous critic of the recently impeached president Park Geun Hye, railing against her predominantly via social media.

Vice News reported an election must occur within 60 days of Park’s ousting and Lee is now in third place. He’s just behind former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon who is tied with the progressive front-runner Moon Jae-In. Ban is running under the former president’s conservative party, Saenuri, in power since 2007. But the discontent with status quo politics in South Korea is evident. Progressive candidates are neck and neck with the conservative candidate.

Running on a platform more akin to Sanders than Trump, Lee advocates policies to reduce the income gap between rich and poor as well as plans to break up chaebols, the family-run conglomerates that dominate South Korea’s economy and have been riddled with corruption.

When Vice asked about the success of populist movements Lee remarked, “Populism is upholding the will of the people.” He chalked Trump’s win up to fighting against the establishment and without their support. Regarding his label as the Donald Trump of South Korea, Lee rebuffed, “I don’t say irrational things or use coarse language.”

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Even though Lee is one of the top three contenders and rising, he must first beat his other progressive front-runner, Moon, in the Minjoo Party Primary. This year of any, he likely has a chance.

Trump’s Hungarian Twin

Trump seems to have come out of political right field. But looking around the world, success of infallible candidates has been on the rise. Reactionary populism has been taking hold and these candidates are unaffected by what would derail the average politician. Hungary has seen the rise of a Trump-like politician whose tasteless language or life marred by scandal is readily normalized. He offers like-minded solutions such as building walls or excluding religious minorities. Some warn these leaders are sowing the “seeds of fascism,” and yet they succeed.

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In 2015, Hungarian President Viktor Orbán was one of the first world leaders to endorse Trump. Trump’s resemblance to him is striking. According to Foreign Policy, Orbán “openly champions the idea of ‘illiberal democracy’” and is anti-refugee in policy and rhetoric. Like Trump, Orbán’s use of contemptuous language has made him wildly popular among supporters. A melange of Trump-like solutions, Orbán ordered the construction of a razor-wire-topped fence to prevent refugees from entering the country, adding that non-Christians would not be permitted to enter.

Often the state’s intrusion into the lives of citizens is slow and unnoticeable. The free press is typically one of the first targets.

In 2010, one of the first measures taken by the legislature–controlled by Orbán’s Fidesz party–was to regulate the media by forbidding “imbalanced news coverage” or anything deemed insulting to a group, the majority, or public morality. While media outlets have yet to be closed, a more indirect control of information has resulted. For example, a journalist who alleged corruption within Orbán’s administration was fired from an outlet owned by corporate media giant Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile). The firing resulted in many more journalists quitting. Some have deemed this an example of Orbán’s indirect control of the media. The result is journalistic self-censorship in exchange for access to Orbán’s administration–a dangerous and cumbersome trade-off.

Another reach into the lives of citizens, Hungary’s government officials have been rewriting history curriculum and bringing relatively outdated and unknown right-wing authors into the classroom. They’ve also started appointing teachers. But education, teachers, and the press aren’t the only enemies. Orbán has demonized others explicitly or implicitly.

He has called into question the legitimacy of religious minority groups and non-governmental organizations using underhanded tactics and legislation. FP reported Orbán’s parliament passed a law requiring religions to receive official approval by parliament in order to receive tax breaks and other benefits bestowed upon religious groups. Its Constitutional Court overturned the law but the message was clear: Christians welcome, everyone else is not.

Hungary’s Jobbik Party could be to Orbán what advisor Steve Bannon and the “alt-right” white-nationalist movement is to Trump. FP reports Jobbik is anti-Israel and Pro-Russia and constantly pushes the envelope, acting as a “scout” to explore “dangerous territory on migrants or relations with Russia in order to accustom Hungarians to extremist ideas–and thus make it safe for Orbán to express them.” Jobbik even submitted a bill requiring, like in Russia, that any NGOs receiving money from outside of Hungary’s borders be classified as “foreign agents.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact nature of the rise of these characters or their end goals, but some speculate disenchantment with democracy and capitalism over the last decade has made Hungarians more receptive to ideas and language they would have de facto rejected before.

Similar contempt for the status quo is sprouting in Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. In Poland, The New York Times reports, the far-right Law and Justice Party has recently set its sights on the Constitutional Courts and institutions have been drastically weakened all in the name of populism. “Disdain for the rule of law and basic civil rights has drawn anguished criticism.”

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Making Sense of the Rise

These rising populist stars are instigating discord, chaos, confusion, and discrimination. So why are people so keen to get on board?

Dr. Arie Kruglanski, a social psychologist, grew up in a Jewish ghetto in Poland during World War II. His career has been centered on understanding how people form judgments, beliefs, impressions, and attitudes, and how these affect interpersonal relations, interactions in groups, and how they feel about “out groups” or people different from themselves. In 1989, he coined the term “cognitive closure,” the moment a person makes up his mind for certainty. In a New York Times interview, he said the need for certainty is different for everyone but it is essential to functioning. However, it can also be incredibly dangerous. “During times of great uncertainty, everybody’s need for closure increases,” Kruglanski said.

According to Kruglanski, a person’s worldview has almost nothing to do with information or facts. Instead peoples’ politics are driven by their psychological needs. He said people who are anxious because of uncertainty are attracted to messages that offer certainty. Donald Trump and leaders like him offer these messages in frightening times. Trump calls for a total shutdown of Muslims entering the US and the message is two-fold: Muslims are dangerous and Trump has the solution to protect people.

Kruglanski said the need for closure applies equally to conservatives and liberals. Both can be extremely intolerant, often about each other. “The polarization, the divisions it’s all part of the same psychological syndrome. There’s no ambiguity, no complexity.”

He recalled Nazi Germany arising in the aftermath of great uncertainty suffered by the German people. Speaking with a strong Polish accent, he warned, “We all have the potential to become extreme. All of us have the potential to see things in black and white. That potential is hardwired in us.” However, Kruglanski also says people need to have principles and beliefs worth fighting for and taking action requires certainty, as with Nazi Germany. “You need to fight fire with fire. You can’t fight fire with ambiguity and indecision.”

But deciphering the difference between extremism and a just fight is not easy, which is what makes certainty so dangerous. To complicate matters, the need for closure tricks the mind into establishing certainty without examining evidence carefully. Kruglanski said dismissing other points of view or ignoring information that is critically relevant to making a good judgment is problematic. “That’s why we should be suspicious of our own sense of righteousness. The alternative is the abyss.”

The Post-truth Era

Post-truth politics have taken hold all over the world, fitting tidily into a need for certainty and answers. Truth is inconsequential in such a world.

Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year is “post-truth”—an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In September, The Economist argued, “Consider how far Donald Trump is estranged from fact. He inhabits a fantastical realm…” They called Trump the “leading exponent of ‘post-truth’ politics,” a reliance on assertions that “feel true” but have no basis in fact. In addition, Trump has gone completely unpunished and instead has been rewarded as a hero who stands up to establishment. The Economist highlighted the similar practices taking hold in Poland, Turkey, and Britain, to name a few.

The Washington Post reported on the situation in Poland where the nationalistic and anti-intellectualism Law and Justice Party promised to “drain the swamp” of Polish politics. “In merely a year, critics say, the nationalists have transformed Poland into a surreal and insular place—one where state-sponsored conspiracy theories and de facto propaganda distract the public as democracy erodes.”

President of the Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs Jacek Kucharczyk was quoted in the same article. “We are living in this post-truth environment where you can say and do anything and people don’t seem to care.”

In a November Al Jazeera Up Front interview Noam Chomsky observed, “The most predictable aspect of Trump is unpredictability. I think it’s dangerous, very dangerous.”

Trump too has normalized untruths to a point that fact checking him is irrelevant, especially to him and his supporters. His interest lies not in facts but messaging, duplicitousness and emotional appeal. Like a seasoned businessman, Trump is well versed in marketing techniques.

A new element of this post-truth election—especially as it was indiscriminately propagated by Trump’s re-tweeting—was the proliferation of fake news.

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Chomsky, when asked if he was worried about the influx of viral fake news, said it must be combated by education, organization, and by bringing people “to understand that they should use their critical intelligence to evaluate what they read whether it is in the mainstream media or some site that they’re looking up—there’s no other way.”

Chillingly, the truth of matters has become secondary and instead of lies being used to gloss over politically questionable decisions, they are being used to sow seeds of prejudice and fear and doubt in institutions. This is not to say questioning institutions or the press is not of value. However, the public can no longer trust their own eyes or ears; everything and everyone is suspect in the post-truth world and evidence no longer matters.

Post-Truth and the Press

A complicating facet of “post-truth politics” and its rampant infiltration into politics is the role of the press and its commitment towards “fairness.” In an attempt to present all sides of a story, the press inadvertently legitimizes lies and those who tell them.

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At the 2016 Committee to Protect Journalists awards ceremony, renowned journalist and correspondent Christiane Amanpour lamented the role of the press in the post-truth world: “We must stop banalizing truth,” she said.  In an attempt to present balanced, objective, neutral, and truthful news, journalists have given stage to undeserving actors and their lines. Covering genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Amanpour learned never to equate victims with persecutors because doing so creates a false moral or factual equivalence. She said when reporters commit such an act they, “are party and accomplice to the most unspeakable crimes and consequences.” Which is why she believes “in being truthful and not neutral.”

Amanpour’s suggestion that media fairness is creating false factual equivalences is supported by media analyses. Airtime was disproportionately skewed in the direction of untruth.

According to a study by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, the way major news outlets covered Trump in the early months, in spite of his low polling numbers, actually bolstered his support. “The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls,” the study stated.

The study also revealed the Republicans media coverage outpaced the Democrats two to one.  And during the general election, both Clinton and Trump received equal negative coverage. The study found “on topics relating to the candidates’ fitness for office, Clinton and Trump’s coverage was virtually identical in terms of its negative tone.” Had the press compared the magnitude of the allegations between candidates, its coverage could have taken a more accurate direction.

Valley Politicos Offer Their Take

Local electeds had their own opinions on why Trump, his bad behaviors, and his media coverage led him to the White House.

Similar to Kruglanski’s argument about people’s need for cognitive closure, Jackson Town Councilman Don Frank suggested that people in general were so forgiving of bad behavior due to desperation, a lack of understanding of policy, emotional manipulation and the idea that one person could save them. Frank says news has become entertainment and that misinformation was normalized and weaponized. “Folks are too time stressed to discover spin from facts.”

Councilwoman Hailey Morton Levinson agreed with Frank’s assertions about the public’s propensity for forgiveness. She thinks “people are willing to overlook transgressions if they are promised what they want.” Levinson also said people do not dedicate enough time to reading and the result is the media has responded with “clickbait” and short reports.

Media critics would agree. A recent ProPublica article called upon reporters to convey the overarching trends of Trump’s actions instead of reporting on individual events. His actions indicate dangerously shifting norms of how a president behaves.

Muldoon theorized it’s easier for journalists to use horse race reporting when news is on demand and the public is clamoring to consume the latest information, especially in an election season. “What many of them do instead is resort to ‘balanced reporting,’ which often just means leaving falsehoods unchallenged … That isn’t journalism—it’s stenography,” he said.

On an optimistic note Muldoon added, “There are great journalists out there doing great work—locally and nationally. But most of what we refer to as journalism is little more than corporate media, and it’s failed us miserably.”

However, some local elected officials do not see a problem with Trump or the media. Wyoming State Rep. Marti Halverson (R-HD 22) challenged negative assertions made about Trump, his behavior, his campaign, and coverage by the media. “Politics and politicians have always been susceptible to engaging in actions and verbiage designed to rally voters to their side, and, always, things are done or said which are not liked by their opponents,” she said.

With regard to the language and comportment of Trump and Clinton throughout the election, Halverson encouraged people to review their history books, saying there was nothing new about this campaign, or any other in history. “There’s a maxim in the world of politics—don’t engage if you can’t stand the sight of your own blood,” she said.

Halverson is at least correct on one thing: history holds the key. The Conversation, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, delved into media coverage of two fascist leaders of the past in the piece, “Normalizing fascists.” The similarities between the past and present are alarming. Journalists in the 1920s and 1930s faced similar problems.

When Italian fascist Benito Mussolini came to power the media adored him–from 1925 to 1932, journalists wrote at least 150 articles about him that were mostly “neutral, bemused, or positive in tone,” the article noted. There was hope that Mussolini’s fascist experiment would return volatile Italy to “normalcy.” Some writers, however, such as Ernest Hemingway, rejected the normalization of the anti-democratic leader; another wrote a book on how the leaders were manipulating the press.

More of a problem, The Conversation reported, was that the media’s coverage of Mussolini normalized the more extreme rhetoric of Adolf Hitler. Like with Trump, the media dismissed Hitler as a clown, a “mere drummer boy.” As he gained power and was appointed chancellor, they said he would be checked by parliament, become more moderate, or be limited by his lack of intelligence or “futility.” A year and a half later he seized dictatorial power.

Toward the end of the 1930s, most US journalists had realized they had grossly underestimated Hitler and failed to imagine just how atrocious it could get. American History Magazine details that journalist Dorothy Thompson recounted in 1931 within about 50 seconds of meeting Hitler, she recognized, “the startling insignificance of this man who has set the world agog.” But by 1935 she had an important revelation. “No people ever recognize their dictator in advance,” she wrote. “He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. … When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American.”

Autocracy and the Multinational Corporate State

While some people write off the need to be concerned about Trump, most people suggest the opposite. Articles surface daily warning why the world needs to fear a Trump presidency or those of his presidential buddies, ranging from autocracy to nuclear war. When the various warnings are considered collectively, there’s no cohesive way forward, but one thing is clear: vigilance is essential.

Following the election of Trump, ProPublica published an article verbally lashing journalists for failing to effectively report on Trump’s ascendancy. They chalked it up to the inability of reporters to imagine the unimaginable and instead cover the abnormal as though it was political business as usual. What has been demonstrated over and over throughout the last year is that the unimaginable can be reality, and that means people need to get creative when thinking about the future.

Local author and survivor of Rhodesian autocracy and war, Alexandra Fuller said she wrote her bestselling books about growing up in Ian Smith’s “Whiter brighter Rhodesia” because she wrongfully assumed her children would never know such an existence. Today she is no longer so sure. Since news of Trump’s win, Fuller says she has been out of sorts and alarmed that others are not panic-stricken.

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Reflecting on her experiences in Rhodesia, Fuller said the three main indicators of dictatorship and civil unrest are the censorship of the media, the dehumanization of women and people of color, and the pockets of resistance sprouting up, all things she sees happening in the US.

For Fuller, another major concern is that Ian Smith, Rhodesia’s white supremacist president, normalized hateful and violent rhetoric, laying the groundwork for the more extreme and violent president of present day-Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. She fears Trump and his hateful rhetoric will make the next horrible leader that much more palatable to the American people.

If this seems far off, Fuller says it’s not. “It’s language that gets us into war—and the problem is everyone here is armed to the teeth.” Remembering her childhood plagued by racism and civil war, Fuller said it is imperative people “distinguish comforts from security.” Some things are necessary for survival and other things merely insulate certain groups with privilege. People can sacrifice comforts, and that should never be confused with security. “By the time the Rhodesians had figured that out they had fought to the bitter end, arming their little white precious children, telling them to ‘die bravely.’”

Fuller warned, people—like frogs slowly boiling to death in an ever-warming pot—don’t notice they’re being seized until it’s too late. “Like in Kafka’s Metamorphosis,” she said, “at all costs you must stay conscious.”

Journalist Masha Gessen would agree. He wrote an article in the New York Review of Books based on his experience living and reporting under Vladimir Putin’s Russia entitled, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” He lists six rules:

Rule 1: Believe the autocrat. When Trump was queried by CNN whether his antagonistic and aggressive relationship towards the press would continue while in the White House he replied, “Yeah, it is going to be like this. You think I’m gonna change? I’m not gonna change.”

Believe them when they say they will do something. They will.

Rule 2: Do not buy small signs of normalcy. There aren’t any. Racial coding, dehumanizing people, threats and inciting violence cannot be neutralized. Apologies do not make regular beatings okay.

Rule 3: Institutions will not save you. The Washington Post reports, “Trump is assembling the richest administration in modern American history,” out doing the presidential administrations of the Gilded Age, whose policies led to the Great Depression. Their positions serving as (multinational) corporate bigwigs weave an endless web of conflicts of interest that will inevitably corrupt the institutions they oversee.

Rule 4: Maintain your capacity for outrage and shock in the autocrat’s actions. Trump attacks individual citizens via Twitter, inciting hundreds and thousands of angry insults and threats from his foolhardy supporters against whomever he targets. That should never happen in a democracy. It is not normal, nor is it acceptable. Remain shocked and appalled and engaged.

Rule 5: Do not make compromises. They will never end. Values are values; they may not be compromised. People are people, and you too could become an enemy. Rights are rights, regardless of who possesses them. Remain suspicious of your own sense of righteousness and need for certainty, but fight fire with fire and not ambiguity.

Rule 6: Keep an eye to the future, nothing lasts forever and people should have “dogged resistance.” Do not give up. Do not disengage. Plug in. Turn on. Stay conscious. A dark future can become longer and darker without resistance.

No, Trump is not Mussolini, Hitler, Smith, Mugabe, Orbán, or Putin. But lessons can be learned from their echoes in the world and throughout history. As Gessen reminded, these men are not the same but “all of them are fascist demagogues who emerged from their own cultures and catered to them.”

Mid-century thinkers who were intimately acquainted with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany warned that modern capitalist societies create the preconditions for the rise of fascism. In order for Americans to imagine the future, they must first let go of the past and must accept that the US is not exceptional. They must imagine they have all played a role in delivering America to this moment in time. Only then will they be able to imagine the unimaginable and either work to create it or to fight against it. The alternative is the abyss. PJH

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