We Survivors of Authoritarianism Have a Message America Needs to Hear: This is Exactly How it Happens, and It’s Happening Here.
Right about now, something terrible is happening in America. Society is one tiny step away from the final collapse of democracy, at the hands of a true authoritarian, and his fanatics. Meanwhile, America’s silent majority is still slumbering at the depth and gravity of the threat.
I know that strikes many of you as somehow wrong. So let me challenge you for a moment. How much experience do you really have with authoritarianism? Any? If you’re a “real” American, you have precisely none.
Take it from us survivors and scholars of authoritarianism. This is exactly how it happens. The situation could not — could not — be any worse. The odds are now very much against American democracy surviving.
If you don’t believe me, ask a friend. I invite everyone who’s lived under authoritarianism to comment. Those of us how have?
We survivors of authoritarianism have a terrible, terrible foreboding, because we are experiencing something we should never do: deja vu. Our parents fled from collapsing societies to America. And here, now, in a grim and eerie repeat of history, we see the scenes of our childhoods played out all over again. Only now, in the land that we came to. We see the stories our parents recounted to us happening before our eyes, only this time, in the place they brought us to, to escape from all those horrors, abuses, and depredations.
We survivors are experiencing this terrible feeling of deja vu right now as a group, as a class. We talk about it, how eerie and grim this sense of deja vu is. It’s happening all over again! Do you remember this part of your childhood? When the armed men roamed the streets? When the secret police disappeared opponents? When the fascist masses united — and that was enough to destroy democracy for good? We talk about it, believe me — but you don’t hear it because we have no real voice. America’s pundits are named Chris and Jake and Tucker. They are not named Eduardo and Ravi and Xiao and Umair. But Chris and Jake and Tucker can’t help you now. They don’t know what the hell they’re dealing with. They literally have no idea because they have no experience whatsoever.
The only people who do right now in America are us survivors. Let me remind you, by the way, what happens we speak out: we lose whatever credibility and status we have. The moment I began to warn of this, I lost my column in HBR, my cable news appearances, and so forth. Don’t cry for me. Understand me, my friend, know me. If we had a voice, we survivors, we would be warning you as loudly and strongly as we possibly could.
All of us. We would say:
This is not a joke. This is not a drill. When we survivors of authoritarianism experience, as a group, a class, a cohort, something that we never, ever should — the horrific deja vu that the horrors of our childhoods, that our parents knew, are happening, all over again, here, something is much, much more wrong than you know.
Now let me make all the above concrete. I am going to use the example of Kenosha to draw out things that perhaps only we survivors can see — or at least that we see first and easiest. Things that the “real” American is either still playing dumb about, or is still mum about, and both equate to the same thing: silence, which is complicity, in times like these.
When we look at Kenosha, we survivors, and you “real” Americans, do we see the same thing? Do we feel the same gravity, pain, urgency? You will have to tell me. Here is what I see, that I’m 100% sure every survivor sees — but I doubt “real” Americans fully see yet.
What happened there? A young man was radicalized by the movement that fascist President led. The fascist President spoke of hated minorities as animals and vermin. He led his faithful in chants of hate, moments that built the bond of the tribe between them. Soon enough, that President was speaking of peaceful protesters as anarchists and revolutionaries and seditionaries. And the question that the fascist raises was left hanging in the air. “My people, my flock — what do we do with traitors?”
The answer, to a young man like that, is what it was in Nazi Germany, in the Islamic World, in every fascist collapse since time began. We kill them.So off he went with his rifle — and killed innocent people. Perfectly innocent people.
There is a crucial lesson there. America already has an ISIS, a Taliban, an SS waiting to be born. A group of young men willing to do violence at the drop of a hat, because they’ve been brainwashed into hating. The demagogue has blamed hated minorities and advocates of democracy and peace for those young men’s stunted life chances, and they believe him. That’s exactly what an ISIS is, what a Taliban is, what an SS is. The only thing left to do by an authoritarian is to formalize it.
But when radicalized young men are killing people they have been taught to hate by demagogues right in the open, on the streets — a society has reached the beginnings of sectarian violence, the kind familiar in the Islamic world, and is at the end of democracy’s road.
How did the state’s law enforcement respond? In America, they’re simply called “the police.” They let him do it, and then they protected him. The killer was only brought to justice because there was a national outcry after the act was caught on video. If none of that had happened, he probably would never have been. The police were forced to act, in other words.
What do we survivors see in that tiny parable? Crucial institutions have already been captured by the extremist factions who stand against democracy. Do all those cops think of themselves as fascists? Of course they don’t. So what? Mullahs don’t think of themselves as hate preachers, either. What else do you call someone who gives a violent young man with a gun a free pass to kill people, though? Someone who tries to shield him after the murder? A good and decent person?
The police in America might not all think they are fascists. Certainly, not all of them are. But what is certain is that some significant number of them are captured. They are sympathetic to the forces which are now attacking democracy. They prioritize those forces over democracy, freedom, peace, justice.
Let me give you an example. My friend Ben is a London copper. He abhors the violence in America. His jaw is dropped by it. He rejects carrying a gun, or even a taser. Do you see how big the gap, the problem is?
If the police force is captured by the extremists — at least many police forces, it seems, then harder questions are raised. What about the armed forces?
They’re democracy’s last line of protection. What happens when a Trump, a Saddam, a Gaddafi, refuses to leave office? The military must remove them — or if it doesn’t, it becomes their plaything. That game of brinksmanship is exactly how Saddams and Gaddafis capture militaries. By daring them to, and when they don’t — bang! — their back is broken.
That’s another thing we survivors see very clearly right now, but “real” Americans might not. The capture of a police force is not just the capture of a police force. It threatens the whole fabric of a democracy. The monopoly on violence that the people’s agents should have is being transferred to the authoritarian. Why else would police forces beat people on the streets? Give hateful young men a free pass to kill people?
It all points to the beginnings of true violence, not just at the hands of the radicals — but aided and abetted by the state. That is the point at which a democracy finishes collapsing — and never comes back. Because once the state is free to do real violence — who is going to protest? Speak out? Even criticize?
Let me make that point crystal clear, by continuing my example. What happened next in Kenosha?
Trump threatened to send in “federal agents” — and then he did. Which “federal agents”? The ones he used just a few weeks ago, in Portland. The “Homeland Security” force which has become the precise equivalent of his Irani Republican Guard or SS: a paramilitary which isn’t accountable to the people, any democratic institution, wears no badges, can’t be identified, and is controlled only by the authoritarian, at his discretion and whim.
What did Trump’s stormtroopers do in Kenosha? They disappeared people, just like in Portland.They simply picked groups of people, roared up in unmarked cars, and…abducted them. To where? To jails. For what reason? For no reason — there were no warrants involved, no due process, no Constitutionality whatsoever. People were simply made to vanish. Like in the Soviet Union. Like in Saddam’s Iraq or Gaddafi’s Libya. Like in Nazi Germany.
Again, the “real” American will think I’m exaggerating at this point, so let me say it again. This is what more or less every survivor of authoritarianism thinks, not just me. The only people who don’t think, who still dismiss these comparisons as alarmist are the ones who have never experienced authoritarianism. Those of us who have? We know that abductions by paramilitaries in unmarked cars at the whim of a tyrant are really, really bad.
Why? They point to the complete breakdown of the rule of law. The rule of law only means something when an authoritarian can’t simply disappear people from the streets, ordering his paramilitary to do it, ignoring the constitution, discarding due process — with total impunity. But all that is exactly what Trump can do.
He now has the nascent powers of a Gaddafi or a Saddam. No, I’m not kidding. He doesn’t have the full powers, to be sure — but he certainly has the beginnings of them. Maybe he can’t have people tortured in jail yet — but he can have almost anyone he likes in America picked up and disappeared.
So how far away do you think even worse abuses of power are? When a tyrant can have almost anyone in a country they like disappeared, how far away do you really think torture is? Rape? Murder? I’m not being hyperbolic. I’m trying to speak to you like an adult. Will you listen?
Let me finish my story of Kenosha, then, before the reality of authoritarianism overwhelms us both.
What happened next?
There was a deafening silence. America’s intellectuals and pundits didn’t say authoritarianism, didn’t say fascism — again. America’s good cops didn’t exactly stand up for democracy. America’s generals didn’t assure the nation they’d intervene. America’s people didn’t wake up.
What happened after an authoritarian showed he had the power to have people disappeared — people who protested the killing of innocents which itself was inspired by the authoritarian, at the hands of a young radicalized man — was…
People didn’t pour into the streets of the capitol, by the millions. The nation’s intellectuals and columnists didn’t call for the head of state’s resignation. The opposition didn’t immediately start a global movement to observe these abuses of power.
And so the predictable is really what happened.
The authoritarian’s numbers rose in the polls.That is because there is always some significant number of people who respond to violence, brutality, hate. Unless they are reminded, sternly, forcefully, that there is something better. That this is not who we must be. That this is the wrong path.
In America, that is not happening. Not nearly enough to fight authoritarianism, and win. That’s not my opinion: it’s a factual reality. Trump is rising in the polls, and is now at the point where the slightest secret hate vote — all those polite soccer moms who say they’d never vote for him, and then do, in the heat of the voting booth — will give him an outright victory. He won’t even have to contest a loss, as he’s sure to do. He will just win.
And then American democracy will be over.
Because the last and final thing we survivors of democracy know is that truly terrible things are on the way then. Yes, really. Men who can put kids in cages and radicalize younger men to do real violence? They don’t want you to live in peace, freedom, harmony, and goodness. They want you to live in fear, despair, and terror. And they will begin using extreme violence to do it.
A second Trump term? It will involve all of the following. Shock troops on the streets. Disappearances becoming everyday events. Critics and dissidents being tortured in hidden jails. Expression and thought being monitored for any negative portrayal of the fascists. Hated minorities institutionally dehumanized and resegregated. It will involve levels of such horrific violence and brutality that Americans still cannot understand or grasp precisely because they have been lucky enough to have never yet personally experienced them.
So leave it to us. We survivors. We dispossessed ones. The exiles and orphans of modernity. The ones who have never felt like we belonged. The gift we always could have given you was to protect you from this. But even the good Americans never gave us room as true equals in their promised land. That is how America got here. By never letting us in, even though we were here. We could have told you how it happens, and what “it” means.
But it is not too late to listen to us.
This is your last chance to hear our warning.
It is happening here. Exactly — exactly — the way it happened there, to us. In our childhoods, to our parents, in all those distant, strange broken lands. This is how a democracy dies. This is how it all collapses. This is how the fanatics seize power for a generation or more. This is how the fascists win.
Kenosha. Portland. Washington, DC.
This is how it happens. We survivors feel a sense of deja vu right now terrible that most of us can’t sleep, can’t focus, can’t…breathe, sometimes. I want you to understand how powerful this feeling of deja vu is. It is one of the most frightening things we survivors have experienced. Where will we go now? What will we do now? America never really accepted us, and now, it’s collapsing. That leaves us in a worse place than anyone else, really. We feel the price of this implosion acutely. That is one reason we try to warn you — but the other one is that we can’t not warn you. Nobody — nobody — should live through the horrors we knew as children, as parents, as human beings.
Never again. It’s the vow every survivor makes. That’s why we are trying to warn you. It is happening all over again, here, exactly — exactly, precisely, absolutely — the way that we saw it happen before, and before, and before.
Hear our warning. None of us have the time left now for petty divisions, intellectualizations, the games pundits play, the way I lost my column when I began to warn of all this. I didn’t pay the bigger price — you did.
You don’t have another mistake left to make.
This is it, and you’re blowing it, sleepwalking into collapse, letting the fascists steal your futures.
Do not let it happen here.