Nearly a year ago, intuitively recognizing the Trump administration’s authoritarian aspirations, Polish journalist and activist Martin Mycielski wrote “Year 1 Under Authoritarianism.” In those early, nerve-racking days following Trump’s inauguration, the piece was shared across social media, an ominous portent of what was to come. The document — helpfully subtitled, “What To Expect?” — offered a list of predictions and warnings about Trump’s first year in office, and exhortations to fight back at every turn. In his introduction, published just days after Trump’s inauguration, Mycielski noted the article was based on his own experience in Poland, where extreme-right nationalists have taken over the government, and in a recent ugly demonstration, the streets. The piece should be read as an instructive manual of sorts, culled from firsthand observation of the “populists, authoritarians and tinpot dictators” leading right-wing movements across Europe.
“With each passing day, the [Polish] government is moving the country further away from the liberal West and toward the authoritarian models of the East,” Mycielski wrote. “Hundreds of thousands have protested against every illiberal, unlawful step. Every time we believed it couldn’t get any worse. We were wrong. This is why we want you, our American friends, to be spared the shock, the awe, the disbelief of this happening to you. Let’s hope history proves us wrong and the US wakes up in time…[H]ope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”
Mycielski’s “survival guide” has only become more disturbingly relevant with time, its predictions proved frighteningly accurate. Like Umberto Eco’s guide to fascism, it presciently notes the actions and attitudes that now unquestionably define this presidency; the lies and obfuscation of truth, racist fear-mongering, historical revisionism, purposeful chaos and anti-First Amendment agenda. Manipulation and malice are the Trump regime’s forte. (To see how quickly a country can be remade by a charlatan and his abettors, go back and review some of the earliest entries from Amy Siskind’s weekly list tracking changes under Trump. It’s all pretty scary, especially seeing it unfold in real time.)
But if there’s any hope, it will only come from recognizing the reality of what’s happening here, how much damage is being done, how much earth already scorched. The year has somehow flown by, yet seemed interminable. It’s good to remember the very big, very frightening picture before us, how far we’ve already come, and to consider what recourse we have with complicit and corrupt forces standing in the way. — Kali Holloway
Here is Mycielski’s 15-point guide to surviving authoritarianism.
1. They will come to power with a campaign based on fear, scaremongering and distorting the truth. Nevertheless, their victory will be achieved through a democratic electoral process. But beware, as this will be their argument every time you question the legitimacy of their actions. They will claim a mandate from the People to change the system.
Remember — gaining power through a democratic system does not give them permission to cross legal boundaries and undermine said democracy.
2. They will divide and rule. Their strength lies in unity, in one voice and one ideology, and so should yours. They will call their supporters patriots, the only “true Americans.” You will be labelled as traitors, enemies of the state, unpatriotic, the corrupt elite, the old regime trying to regain power. Their supporters will be the “people,” the “sovereign” who chose their leaders.
Don’t let them divide you — remember you’re one people, one nation, with one common good.
3. Through convoluted laws and threats they will try to control mainstream media and limit press freedom. They will ban critical press from their briefings, calling them “liars,” “fake news.” They will brand those media as “unpatriotic,” acting against the People (see point 2).
Fight for every media outlet, every journalist that is being banned, censored, sacked or labelled an “enemy of the state” — there’s no hope for freedom where there is no free press.
4. They will create chaos, maintain a constant sense of conflict and danger. It will be their argument to enact new authoritarian laws, each one further limiting your freedoms and civil liberties. They will disguise them as being for your protection, for the good of the people.
See through the chaos, the fake danger; expose it before you wake up in a totalitarian, fascist state.
5. They will distort the truth, deny facts and blatantly lie. They will try to make you forget what facts are, sedate your need to find the truth. They will feed “post-truths” and “alternative facts,” replace knowledge and logic with emotions and fiction.
Always think critically, fact-check and point out the truth, fight ignorance with facts.
6. They will incite and then leak fake, superficial “scandals.” They will smear opposition with trivial accusations, blowing them out of proportion and then feeding the flame. This is just smokescreen for the legal steps they will be taking toward totalitarianism.
See through superficial topics in mainstream media (see point 3) and focus on what they are actually doing.
7. They will propose shocking laws to provoke your outrage. You will focus your efforts on fighting them, so they will seemingly back off, giving you a false sense of victory. In the meantime they will push through less “flashy” legislation, slowly dismantling democracy (see points 4 and 6).
Focus your fight on what really matters.
8. When invading your liberal sensibilities they will focus on what hurts the most — women and minorities. They will act as if democracy was majority rule without respect for the minority. They will paint foreigners and immigrants as potential threats. Racial, religious, sexual and other minorities will become enemies to the order and security they are supposedly providing. They will challenge women’s social status, undermine gender equality and interfere with reproductive rights (see point 7). But it means they are aware of the threat women and minorities pose to their rule, so make it your strength.
Women and minorities should fight the hardest, reminding the majority what true democracy is about.
[Editor’s note: This is a rare moment where I believe Mycielski gets it wrong. People of color and women of all races are doing all they can; existence is itself political, but many have already gone above and beyond, taking key roles in resisting. They cannot be expected to “fight the hardest.” We need the people with the most privilege to step up and use their powers for good.]
9. They will try to take control of the judiciary. They will assault your highest court. They need to remove the checks and balances to be able to push through unconstitutional legislation. Controlling the judiciary they can also threat anyone that defies them with prosecution, including the press (see point 3).
Preserve the independence of your courts at all cost; they are your safety valve, the safeguard of the rule of law and the democratic system.
10. They will try to limit freedom of assembly, calling it a necessity for your security. They will enact laws prioritizing state events and rallies, or those of a certain type or ideology. If they can choose who can demonstrate legally, they have a legal basis to forcefully disperse or prosecute the rest.
Oppose any legislation attempting to interfere with freedom of assembly, for whatever reason.
11. They will distort the language, coin new terms and labels, repeat shocking phrases until you accept them as normal and subconsciously associate them with whom they like. A “thief,” “liar” or “traitor” will automatically mean the opposition, while a “patriot” or a “true American” will mean their follower (see point 2). Their slogans will have double meaning, giving strength to their supporters and instilling angst in their opponents.
Fight changes in language in the public sphere; remind and preserve the true meaning of words.
12. They will take over your national symbols, associate them with their regime, remake them into attributes of their power. They want you to forget that your flag, your anthem and your symbols belong to you, the people, to everyone equally. Don’t let them be hijacked. Use and expose them in your fight as much as they do.
Show your national symbols with pride; let them give you strength, not associate you with the tyranny they brought onto your country.
13. They will try to rewrite history to suit their needs and use the education system to support their agenda. They will smear any historical or living figure who wouldn’t approve of their actions, or distort their image to make you think they would. They will place emphasis on historical education in schools, feeding young minds with the “only correct” version of history and philosophy. They will raise a new generation of voters on their ideology, backing it with a distorted interpretation of history and view of the world.
Guard the education of your children; teach them critical thinking; ensure their open-mindedness and protect your real history and heritage.
14. They will alienate foreign allies and partners, convincing you that you don’t need them. They won’t care for the rest of the world, with their focus on “making your country great again.” While ruining your economy to fulfill their populist promises, they will omit the fact that you’re part of a bigger world whose development depends on cooperation, on sharing and on trade.
Don’t let them build walls promising you security instead of bridges giving you prosperity.
15. They will eventually manipulate the electoral system. They might say it’s to correct flaws, to make it more fair, more similar to the rest of the world, or just to make it better. Don’t believe it. They wouldn’t be messing with it at all if it wasn’t to benefit them in some way.
Oppose any changes to electoral law that an authoritarian regime wants to enact — rest assured it’s only to help them remain in power longer.
And above all, be strong, fight, endure and remember you’re on the good side of history.
EVERY authoritarian, totalitarian and fascist regime in history eventually failed, thanks to the PEOPLE.
— With love, your Eastern European friends