Right now, as East Texas grapples with wind damage and catastrophic flooding from an unpredictable storm that may last for days, there is something we know for sure: When it’s over, the people of the Gulf Coast will pick up the pieces amid the destruction. Lives may be devastated and some things will be lost forever, but rebuilding is what they will do.
It brought me back, once again, to Masha Gessen’s “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” as Donald Trump rampaged on democracy further on Friday night under cover of intense media coverage of the hurricane. Gessen, a Russian immigrant who lived and worked as a journalist in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, had written the rules in The New York Review of Books shortly after the 2016 election. I’ve re-read them many times. This time her last rule stuck out first as I re-read:
Rule #6: Remember the future. Nothing lasts forever. Donald Trump certainly will not, and Trumpism, to the extent that it is centered on Trump’s persona, will not either. Failure to imagine the future may have lost the Democrats this election.
It’s in moments such as Friday night, when Trump showed his complete contempt for civil society and safeguarding rights in his pardoning notorious former sheriff Joe Arpaio and signing an order banning new transgender military members, that we must imagine that future ― and stay focused on beating him and Trumpism no matter how daunting it seems right now. Friday night showed us, however, that before that future happens, the present is only going to get much worse.
Trump’s Arpaio pardon, coming after Trump has only been in office for little over seven months, without a Department of Justice review and of someone who violated constitutional protections, is unprecedented. It’s the action of a much more angry, much more fearful Trump trying to get us used to the idea of pardons ― many, many pardons ― which almost always come in the last weeks of a president’s term and certainly not in the first year.
Trump has been becoming more unhinged as the weeks go on, and more accurately, as the Russia collusion investigation continues to close in. Almost all of his conflicts with prominent Republicans have been about his perception that they’re not loyal and not protecting him from truths about him and Russia ― from former FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senators Bob Corker and Thom Tillis.
Trump is so impulsive and reckless that it’s hard to ever pinpoint one reason for an action and its timing. The reportedly forced exit Friday night of the Nazi group-affiliated White House aide Sebastian Gorka was overshadowed by the pardon, as well as by the hurricane, and it’s hard not to believe this wasn’t all a coincidence. Gorka, who wrote a strong resignation letter (which made it seem as if he left on his own rather than that he was fired), basically called Trump a sellout to the nationalistic base, something the White House would want to eclipse with news the base would applaud. But the pardon also appears to be Trump’s attempt to normalize pardons of people for offensive criminal activity because he likely envisions himself engaging in a lot of them.
And yet, all we’ve heard from some quarters of the media in recent days is how much John Kelly, a retired Marine general, is bringing some sort of “discipline” to the Trump presidency as the new White House chief of staff. But discipline in the service of fascism is not a good thing. It’s actually the last thing we need.
And the truth is, the White House ― and Trump ― are as chaotic as ever. This particular media narrative brings me back to Gessen’s Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. We actually saw a Washington Post reporter, Philip Rucker, breathlessly chirp on Twitter after Trump’s speech on Afghanistan last Monday that, “Tonight is a new President Trump” ― simply because Trump read from a teleprompter and sounded like a vaguely normal politician. How many times has this happened? The next night Trump gave perhaps the ugliest, angriest, most reckless speech of his presidency in Phoenix.
Gessen’s Rule #3 comes into play here: Institutions will not save you. We’ve watched much of the fourth estate go from enabling Trump during the primaries and the general election campaign with a lot of free, uncritical and sensational coverage, to taking him on in fits and starts throughout his presidency, only to fall victim time and again to those false signs of normality just when you think they’re finally on the right track.
I think back to much of the media ― and in particular Maggie Haberman’s New York Times piece which pegged Trump as having “more accepting views on gay issues” than other Republicans ― making Trump out to be a supporter of the LGBTQ community during the campaign simply because he claimed it in vague terms (with no mention of actual rights he’d secure) and verbalized the initialism, “LGBTQ.”
But Trump was very clear, and certainly not vague, when he spoke to evangelicals and promised them he’d turn back marriage equality via the Supreme Court ― and Neil Gorsuch, his pick, is doing just that ― and would push their agenda to take America back to a time before queer equality.
Trump’s callous banning of transgender Americans from the military ― signing the order during the hurricane as he scampered off to Camp David ― and his Justice Department’s attempt to keep gay, lesbian and bisexual people from being protected under federal civil rights statutes, showed that LGBTQ activists were right about Trump. But too many journalists ― which included that same Phillip Rucker of the Washington Post ― just didn’t want to believe what he was actually saying to evangelicals because he was, as Haberman had couched it, from New York and knew many gay people, either socially or in business.
That brings us to Gessen’s Rule #1:
Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.
We’re over seven months into this presidency and there’s still this idea out there that Trump doesn’t really believe what he says, won’t really do the most destructive things he’s threatened and is going to be contained by those around him ― whether they be generals or New Yorkers, either in his family or among former Goldman Sachs executives. Even after Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord and after he equated white supremacists and neo-Nazis to those fighting against hate ― “fine people” on both sides ― there’s an idea among some in the media that Trump’s economic advisor Gary Cohn “almost” resigning, but thinking it better to stay close to Trump, is a good thing.
But the former Goldman Sachs executive, who more so seems to be staying only because he has his sights on becoming Federal Reserve chairman (and may have screwed himself by speaking out against Trump, including being overheard at a restaurant), is not going to temper or contain Trump, just as no one else, including his own daughter, can. Kelly, if anything, is only enabling Trump to engage in his brutality in a more efficient way.
Similarly, the dismissal of people who aligned with Trump on his racist, nationalistic views, like Stephen Bannon and Gorka, means nothing. They didn’t make Trump temporarily racist because they were there. He was a racist long before he knew them, and they were brought into his fold because of like-minded views.
And that takes us to Gessen’s Rule #4:
Be outraged. If you follow Rule #1 and believe what the autocrat-elect is saying, you will not be surprised. But in the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock. This will lead people to call you unreasonable and hysterical, and to accuse you of overreacting. It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room. Prepare yourself.
That’s why we must keep boldly and loudly speaking up, and why we can’t fall victim to either burning out or accepting any of this as remotely normal, as promoted by those who delude themselves into thinking things could “stabilize” or by the GOP and Trump supporters who ludicrously try to get us to acquiesce.
Trump’s response to Charlottesville, the Phoenix speech, the transgender ban, the Arpaio pardon and the other more extreme actions by Trump in the past two weeks must be a wake-up call that things are going to get really, really bad, and that Trump will never be restrained.
What will save us is doubling down on organizing, protesting in the streets and fighting at the ballot box, and remaining fiercely outraged.
Follow Michelangelo Signorile on Twitter: www.twitter.com/msignorile