“Surviving Autocracy” by Masha Gessen

Several years following their (Masha Gessen‘s chosen pronoun) viral essay regarding “the rules of survivalamid autocracy, immediately following the election of Donald J. Trump, Gessen’s newly released book, Surviving Autocracy, continues on the same theme.

Below are some selected Surviving Autocracy quotes, then Gessen’s rules of survival.

...(A) reading of contemporaneous accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education, and imagination—and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they were not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brought them to power. It was, rather, the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propelled their rise in a frighteningly complex world.

...In fact, Putin was and remains a poorly educated, underinformed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world. To the extent that he has any interest in the business of governing, it is solely his own role—on the world stage or on Russian television—that concerns him. Whether he is attending a summit, piloting a plane, or hang gliding with Siberian cranes, it is the spectacle of power that interests him. In this, he and Trump are alike: to them, power is the beginning and the end of government, the presidency, politics—and public politics is only the performance of power.

Are you going to believe your own eyes or the headlines? This is the dilemma of people who live in totalitarian societies. Trusting one’s own perceptions is a lonely lot; believing one’s own eyes and being vocal about it is dangerous. Believing the propaganda—or, rather, accepting the propaganda as one’s reality—carries the promise of a less anxious existence, in harmony with the majority of one’s fellow citizens. The path to peace of mind lies in giving one’s mind over to the regime.

The tension is draining. The need to pay constant attention to the lies is exhausting, and it is compounded by the feeling of helplessness in the face of the ridiculous and repeated lies.

One way out of that anxiety is to relieve the mind of stress by accepting Trumpian reality. Another—and this too is an option often exercised by people living under totalitarianism—is to stop paying attention, disengage, and retreat to one’s private sphere. Both approaches are victories for Trump in his attack on politics.

Directly from “Autocracy: Rules for Survival“, New York Review of Books (2016), Gessen’s six rules follow. Click the NYR link above for further elaboration.

  1. Rule #1Believe the autocrat. He means what he says….
  2. Rule #2Do not be taken in by small signs of normality… 
  3. Rule #3Institutions will not save you….
  4. Rule #4Be 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….
  5. Rule #5Don’t make compromises….
  6. Rule #6Remember 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…
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