A new genre of writing has sprung up in the American publishing market over the past three years: dictatorship literature. These are books that explain the phenomenon of tyranny or autocracy and offer advice for how to cope with it. The pioneer of the genre was the historian Timothy Snyder: Shortly after Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States he published “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.” After him, former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s “Fascism: A Warning” appeared.
Then the dam burst. A deluge of similar books flooded bookstores in America – with many of them landing on The New York Times bestseller list. Among the titles: “Dictator’s Handbook,” “How to Be a Dictator,” “How to Be a Fascist.” The titles are of course ironic. Dictators rarely need to read treatises by political science professors in order to rule.
The need for such books and for articles and reports with similar titles is quite understandable. Who doesn’t want to understand where we’re headed in light of the political deterioration today of most Western democratic societies, and particularly of Trump’s America? Who’s not interested in learning from the blood-soaked experience of history so as to prepare for the dangers that lie ahead? There is seemingly nothing more urgent and more vital than to understand the mode of operation of dictators. For if we end up living under a fascist dictatorship, all other questions manifestly become secondary. Accordingly, we need to prepare, stay vigilant and deploy for resistance. Hold on tight, here it comes.
The turning point Snyder warns about in his book is what he dubs the “burning of the Reichstag.” This refers, according to his definition, to a momentous incident that serves as a pretext for the declaration of a state of emergency and the suspension of civil rights – like the Reichstag event did for Hitler in February 1933.
When the coronavirus crisis erupted, many warned that this was the moment Trump had been waiting for, that he was going to take advantage of the state of emergency to concentrate unlimited powers in his hands. One ruler had already introduced a model for this type of takeover: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who under the auspices of the pandemic assumed emergency powers indefinitely.
Oddly, though, the warnings of dictatorship doomsayers did not come to pass in the United States. Last month, commentator Ross Douthat published an article in The Times in which he noted the differences between Orban’s and Trump’s behavior. Orban, he argued, is thirsty for political clout, and to that end, he has concentrated power in his hands and in his party. Trump, in contrast, appears to be indifferent to the possibility of concentrating power. That lack of interest was palpable during the coronavirus crisis.
Unlike Orban, Trump did not seem to clutch at any opportunity offered by the crisis. He preferred to ignore the pandemic, to deny it and treat it as a nuisance that was just disrupting his golfing vacation. His response to the exceptional situation appears moderate in comparison to that of his predecessor George W. Bush, who in the wake of 9/11 pushed through the Patriot Act, which granted the administration freedom of action to ratchet up surveillance by accessing private emails and listening in on phone calls of terror suspects.
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Furthermore, Trump shied away from authority like it was a wildfire, passing on responsibility to state governors for fear that any failures would be laid at his doorstep. The main criticism his policy generated was not over imposition of a tough lockdown – but precisely for not implementing such a policy.
“Real political authority, the power to rule and not just to survive, is something that Donald Trump conspicuously does not seem to want,” Douthat wrote. In his view, the president has not been seeking attention as a means to achieve power, but “is interested in power only as a means of getting attention.” The boorishness and the ludicrousness are not a disguise: They are the essence of his administration.
In the U.S., at least, dictatorship is not at hand. Trump is indeed enchanted by despotic rulers like Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, but that enchantment remains a fantasy, in his mind. As the historian Samuel Moyn has argued (recently, for example, in the New York Review of Books) , whereas many have waited in trepidation for an extreme move by Trump, he is actually likely to be remembered in notoriety for his lack of action.
Flooding the debate
Snyder’s view is different. He is sure Trump intends to abuse the exceptional state, and that we must be complacent. Trump’s Reichstag moment will arrive, he observes. Well, political vigilance is never misplaced. But the problem with anticipating the transformation of Trump’s presidency into dictatorial rule is that it’s making us miss the true nature of his regime. Trumpism is not tyranny in the guise of a clown, it is clownishness in the guise of a tyrant. Trump has no interest in either conquering the world or in subjugating America’s citizens. He wants to hold onto power so that he can go on flooding them with bullshit.
Many of the president’s critics are waiting for the moment when he will clamp down on freedom of speech in the United States and shutter the liberal newspapers and television stations that are critical of him. But censorship and silencing belong to a different kind of regime. Since World War II, political hegemony in liberal democracies has found a more efficient way to neutralize criticism: by inundating the public debate with an unceasing racket of distractions and prattle, pushing the critics to the margins of public attention until they look deluded and helpless. Trump added another strategy. He does not silence his opponents, but echoes their critiques while insulting them and tarnishing their image in the eyes and ears of his supporters.
The Israeli right wing is operating in a similar manner. Every expression of protest from the left serves Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his people as a means to close ranks and garner popularity. Comments by former Meretz leader Zehava Galon or posters of left-wing organizations have become a tool in the hands of the right’s populist propaganda machine.
The situation of the liberal democracies is quite gloomy. But in characterizing the current crisis, it’s not useful to immediately draw a comparison with Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. The fear of 1930s-style political violence and of a dictatorship with cries of “Sieg Heil” issuing from the balconies is understandable but misleading. The social and political situation in the 21st century is different. Fascism arose in response to Communism, in nation-states with a young, despairing population. Trumpism has surfaced in a post-ideological society that is indifferent and aging. More than empowerment and concentration of power, the primary characteristic of this era is actually the disintegration and depletion of the centrist force.