Jun 22

Sarah Kendzior Continues to Warn of a Gaslit Nation

We have a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government. Sarah Kendzior

Expert in authoritarianism Sarah Kendzior, author of The View from Flyover Country (2018) and Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America (2020) will have a new book coming out in September. It’s called They Knew: How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent.

Also co-host of the popular podcast “Gaslit Nation,” Sarah Kendzior is an important voice regarding not only the sociopolitical causes and effects of Trumpism but also the related psychology. Below are quotes from each book that I find particularly pertinent for Minding Therapy readers.

I. Flyover Country

It is easy, when people feel frightened and abandoned, for a demagogue to exploit those feelings of despair for political gain. It is easy for that demagogue to translate fear into fanaticism, to shift extremism into the mainstream and market it under the guise of populism. By the time buyer’s remorse hits, a new and more brutal political culture has arisen. A gaslit nation becomes engulfed in flames.

When survival is touted as an aspiration, sacrifice becomes a virtue. But a hero is not a person who suffers. A suffering person is a person who suffers.

Paranoia is aggression masked as defense. It was paranoia (and hubris, and greed) that caused the run-up to the Iraq War; it is paranoia that leads to thousands of innocent Muslims being profiled in New York; it is paranoia that led to Trayvon Martin being shot to death on the street. In Congress, paranoia is less a style than a sickness, employed less with flourish than with fear. Paranoia is the refusal to recognize others except as filtered through ourselves—and how do Americans see themselves? Afraid, afraid, afraid.

II. Hiding in Plain Sight

“Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear,” scholar of fascism Hannah Arendt wrote after the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

The nightmares I had been fending off had come home in the form of the Trump administration: a white supremacist kleptocracy linked to a transnational crime syndicate, using digital media to manipulate reality and destroy privacy, led by a sociopathic nuke-fetishist, backed by apocalyptic fanatics preying on the weakest and most vulnerable as feckless and complicit officials fail to protect them.

Authoritarianism is not merely a matter of state control, it is something that eats away at who you are. It makes you afraid, and fear can make you cruel. It compels you to conform and to comply and accept things that you would never accept, to do things you never thought you would do.

Once an autocrat gets into office, it is very hard to get them out. They will disregard term limits, they will purge the agencies that enforce accountability, they will rewrite the law so that they are no longer breaking it. They will take your money, they will steal your freedom, and if they are clever, they will eliminate any structural protections you had before the majority realizes the extent of the damage.

“No one saw it coming,” but what they mean is that they consider the people who saw it coming to be no one. The category of “no one” includes the people smeared by Trump in his propaganda: immigrants, black Americans, Muslim Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, LGBT Americans, disabled Americans, and others long maligned and marginalized—groups for whom legally sanctioned American autocracy was not an unfathomable horror, but a personal backstory.

Aug 05

“Surviving Autocracy” by Masha Gessen: Insight, Rules

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 book quotes, following which are 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…