One Year After Trump’s Election, Revisiting “Autocracy: Rules for Survival”

A year ago, panicked friends were writing to ask me what to do now that the United States had elected Donald Trump. Like I’d know: I had spent years writing and organizing in opposition to Vladimir Putin, only to have to leave Russia. But a decade and a half in Putin’s Russia taught me something about living in an autocracy. I am familiar with the ways in which it numbs the mind and drains the spirit. I wrote a piece called “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” which was published by The New York Review of Books and read by millions of people. Today seems a good day to look at how well my proposed rules have held up.

Rule No. 1: Believe the autocrat. I argued against the expectation that Trump would change in the months following the election, becoming somehow “Presidential” and abandoning his more extreme positions. This belief, it seemed to me, stemmed from the inability to absorb the fact of a Trump Presidency, and not from any historical precedents of similar transformations. The best predictors of autocrats’ and aspiring autocrats’ behavior are their own public statements, because these statements brought them to power in the first place.

Trump had repeatedly made several promises that many people hoped or expected he would drop post-election: to build a wall on the border with Mexico, to repeal Obamacare, to ban Muslims from entering the United States, and, of course, to “lock her up!” I wrote, “If Trump does not go after Hillary Clinton on his first day in office, if he instead focuses, as his acceptance speech indicated he might, on the unifying project of investing in infrastructure (which, not coincidentally, would provide an instant opportunity to reward his cronies and himself), it will be foolish to breathe a sigh of relief. Trump has made his plans clear, and he has made a compact with his voters to carry them out. These plans include not only dismantling legislation such as Obamacare but also doing away with judicial restraint—and, yes, punishing opponents.”

It would be an exaggeration to say that Trump has focussed on infrastructure. He has not let go of the Obamacare repeal or the wall, he has pushed various versions of a travel ban to keep Muslims from entering this country, and “Crooked Hillary” is a recurrent target of his Twitter storms. What makes the attacks on Clinton particularly disturbing is that, in order to go after his political opponent, Trump would have to turn the judiciary into an instrument of the executive branch. His renewed emphasis on “locking her up” has coincided with his tantrums about the Justice Department, which, he has discovered, does not report to him.

A year ago, much of our attention was focussed on the vacancy on the Supreme Court. I feared that Trump would appoint “someone who will wreak havoc with the very culture of the high court.” This did not happen: his pick, Neil Gorsuch, could have been chosen by a conventional Republican President. But Trump has nominated more than fifty judges to federal courts—this seems to be an extraordinary pocket of efficiency in his Administration—and many of these nominees personify an attack on the judicial system. The judges are very young, very conservative, and very much outside the existing culture of the judiciary. The American Bar Association has characterized four of the candidates as unqualified (in two cases by a unanimous vote, and in two more by the vote of a majority of the panel). In the case of Leonard Steven Grasz, nominated for an appeals court, the A.B.A.’s standing committee concluded that the candidate lacked respect for precedent and judicial procedure.

A year ago, Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie were believed to be potential candidates to head the Justice Department. Imagine, I wrote, one of them going after Hillary Clinton, “quite aside from their approach to issues such as the Geneva Conventions, the use of police powers, criminal justice reforms, and other urgent concerns.” That sounds almost quaint now. Trump chose Jeff Sessions, who has spent the last ten months undoing federal civil-rights protections. His Justice Department stepped back from pending cases on the Texas voter-I.D. laws and on the North Carolina anti-trans bathroom bill; Sessions has moved to reduce the Justice Department’s oversight of policing; and he has issued homophobic and transphobic “religious freedom” guidelines. The legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, David Cole, hascalled Sessions “more dangerous than Trump.”

Rule No. 2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. Most catastrophes unfold over time. Following the shock of a disastrous election—or a Presidential tweet—the sun rises again in the morning, and life appears to proceed as before. One adjusts, until the next shocking event.

Trump has moved faster, assaulting our senses in more ways and more often than I (and, I think, most other people) expected. The sun still rises every morning, but an early-morning barrage of Trump’s tweets might obscure it. The word “Presidential” has gradually faded from the conversation: no one expects the President to live up to the standards of speech and behavior that his office would seem to demand. Instead, we have settled into constant low-level dread: a state in which a person can function, but can hardly be creative or look into the future. A Russian writer who blogs under the name Alexander Ivanov-Petrov.