6 Rules for Dealing With an Autocrat

by Devon Preston

For millions of Americans, the impending reality of a Trump presidency triggers enormous amounts of fear—for themselves, their loved ones and for the country at large. However, in an article for The New York Review of Books, journalist, author, and activist Masha Gessen explains how Americans can learn from her (as one of Russia’s leading LGBT experts). Gessen explains that Americans cannot view a Trump presidency as an isolated incident; on the contrary, we must educate ourselves on how citizens have responded to autocracies in nations around the world. In the piece, she pulls from her experience as a strong opposer of Vladimir Putin and gives meaningful advice for how to survive an autocracy.

Masha Gessen

Gessen begins by stating that in order for the American people to stay level-headed throughout the upcoming presidency, they need to believe the autocrat. One of the most frustrating aspects of this election is that many people in this country, regardless of who they voted for, are not taking Trump’s words seriously. Yet Gessen says that “Trump has made his plans clear, and he has made a compact with his voters to carry them out.” Therefore, we cannot ignore what he has promised to accomplish; whether it be tossing Obamacare, jailing Hillary, or targeting Muslim citizens. Gessen explains that we have already seen a nation dismiss a leader’s ideals—for instance, in the 1930s, The New York Times told readers that Hitler’s anti-semitic views would not affect the citizens of the world. We cannot let Trump’s prior statements go from our minds and we cannot think lightly of the ideals he holds toward women, minorities, immigrants, and LGBT individuals.


Second, Gessen recommends that the American people not be taken by small signs of normality. Although the world did not combust as a result of Trump being elected, Gessen explains that we cannot sit back and think that everything will be okay. She writes that, while “history has seen many catastrophes… most of them unfolded over time. That time included periods of relative calm.” We have already seen a rise of hate crimes, just within the past 48 hours of the election and it is likely that these actions will continue to play out across the country as time goes on. Gessen narrates that we cannot sit by and think that what has already begun to happen is normal and that it cannot be stopped.

day one trumps america

Gessen then explains that despite the current American media’s overall disapproval of a Trump presidency, we cannot assume that such institutions will protect us. She details how it only took a year for Putin to take control of the Russian media, and then another four to dominate the electoral system, and that Poland and Turkey experienced similar fates when captured by autocrats. She says that although the United States has stronger institutions than Germany did in the 1930s and Russia does today. She goes on to say that “these institutions are enshrined in political culture rather than in law, and all of them—including the ones enshrined in law—depend on the good faith of all actors to fulfill their purpose and uphold the Constitution.” Trump has already shown his disapproval for the “liberal media” and both him and his supporters are in favor of limiting media access within his political circle. We often take for granted the fourth branch of government, the media, and we cannot let it be taken over by the Trump administration.

trump on the media

Her fourth piece of advice is to do what many Americans have already done: be outraged. Although there are some temptations to accept the normality of Trump’s presidency and what comes along with an autocracy, Gessen explains that we cannot let those who feel angered by what Trump plans to do feel that they are overreacting or being unreasonable. Because the presidency, the house and senate, and in all likelihood the supreme court are in control of the Republican party, we need to assume that Trump will have more control in making changes to this country. We cannot be ignorant to Trump’s thoughts on war and “bombing the shit out of ISIS”, therefore we need to hold onto our passion because we have the potential for more wars and more attacks—both abroad and on American soil.

anti-trump protests

Gessen illustrates that we cannot make the compromises that many Republicans have, in electing Trump. And those are the Republicans, who by-in-large have stood by their convictions in past elections. The Democrats, on the other hand (in particular Democrats in congress) have been notorious for complying with their opposers and American citizens cannot let the corrupt nature of Trump’s politics influence their values. Gessen notes that “Those who argue for cooperation will make the case, much as President Obama did in his speech, that cooperation is essential for the future,” she, however, goes on to explain that we are not elected officials who must put on an impartial good face for a nation. In desperate times, we must mobilize and fight for what we believe is right, regardless of whether it stands in contrast to our government and it’s laws.

Ted Cruz endorses Trump

Lastly, Gessen reminds Americans to remember the future. Admittedly, many of us did not think ahead to “Trump’s all-too-familiar white-populist vision of an imaginary past,” and how the electoral college could have influenced this election like it did during 2000. Gessen reiterates that Trump is not our future and that we are not put under the same political constraints as the Russian government. Going forward, we cannot let this election, nor the past elections, slip from our memory and we need to organize our ideas in order to make a difference for both present and future citizens. There are many things that we can learn, both from the election of Trump, as well as the impact that autocrats had on Russia, Germany, and other nations around the world, but if you take away one thing from Gessen— it is that we have the right to resist, be outraged, and to push back against the oppressor.

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Photos via CNN, Instagram, Fox News, The Weekly, Twitter

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