Early last month in “Sorry Donald, You Can’t Build An Autocracy Here,” I explained that the best way to pacify the masses and built a de facto dictatorship isn’t to go “full-Third-Reich” (as it were), but rather to do things Erdogan-style.
Although Erdogan has now abandoned all pretenses of subtlety in his power grab, the lesson from Turkey (and countless other historical examples of the same or similar dynamics) is that if you’re shrewd, you can build an autocratic regime right under the public’s nose and by the time everyone realizes what’s happened, it’s too late.
Here’s what I said on the way to excerpting an article that ran in the Atlantic earlier this year:
Last week, a great piece in The Atlantic outlined the path to autocracy in the United States. The reason the article is so jarring isn’t because it imagines a tyrannical Trump who seizes power and then proceeds to plunge the world into chaos Hitler-style. Rather, the author describes how the populace can be pacified without intrusion or disruption. Indeed, that’s often the most effective way to exercise control.
With that in mind, consider the following out today from WaPo:
Even by the surreal standards set during his early weeks in office, President Trump’s tweets over the weekend marked a potentially dangerous turn in the course of American democracy. On Saturday morning, Trump took to his favorite social media platform and fired off a series of angry tweets aimed at former president Barack Obama, accusing him of tapping Trump Tower phones during last year’s election campaign.
The charges are not supported by any evidence. On Sunday, former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said there was no order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (also known as the “FISA court” after the law that created it) to monitor the Trump campaign’s communications. That categorical denial contradicted the sketchily sourced claims made by a number of right-wing outlets – some stories also ran in British media – that a White House aide forwarded to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker when asked to account for Trump’s explosive claims.
The Fact Checker noted that even if we accepted the right-wing reports cited by the White House as fact, there still is no evidence for the claim that Obama ordered the tapping of Trump’s phone calls or for White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s subsequent statement citing “reports” of “potentially politically motivated investigations.”
Seemingly prompted by Trump’s Twitter outburst – where, to be clear, the current president accused the former president of committing a crime – the White House has now called for a full investigation into whether its own unsubstantiated allegations are true.
Trump’s megaphone on Twitter, along with the right-wing media bubble that seems to envelop the White House, enables that narrative of victimization. “In its first weeks, the Trump administration has found its own propaganda outlets, and has tried to undermine independent news outlets,” wrote Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan.
America’s deep political polarization means that millions of people will believe Trump’s tweets over the efforts of scrupulous fact-checkers.
“Conspiracy thinking has been normalized in American politics in a way that almost nobody could have expected a year ago,” wrote American political scientist Paul Musgrave. “Today, it is plausible to think that U.S. politics could soon resemble cultures that most Americans once regarded as conspiratorial or paranoid.”
Mahir Zeynalov, a Turkish journalist and critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wrote last yearabout the way both Erdogan and Trump successfully bludgeon the press to spin their own message.
“The reason why the fact-checking mechanism in these societies does not work is because polarization is so high that no one believes what the other camp is saying,” wrote Zeynalov. “If CNN or the New York Times claims that Trump is lying, they’re immediately branded as dishonest liberal media.”
That has indeed become the default response of the Trump administration in its short time in power. An editorial this past week in German newsweekly Der Spiegel delved into how such tactics eventually lead to a divided and befuddled public: “The effect of all of this is that truth and lies are being blurred, the public is growing disoriented and, exhausted, it is tuning out.”
The editorial also raised the connection to Erdogan’s Turkey: “Erdogan and Trump are positioning themselves as the only ones capable of truly understanding the people and speaking for them. It’s their view that freedom of the press does not protect democracy and that the press isn’t reverent enough to them and is therefore useless,” wrote Der Spiegel. “They believe that the words that come from their mouths as powerful leaders are the truth and that the media, when it strays from them, is telling lies. That’s autocratic thinking – and it is how you sustain a dictatorship.“
And do you know what the most disturbing part about all of that is? Tons of people will read it and dismiss it as “fake news”, completely oblivious to the fact that in doing so, they are proving the point and falling victim to the very same dynamic that the article is trying to save them from.