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In Defense of Doomsaying

Airing the worst-case scenarios of a Trump presidency is the only way we can avoid them.

Ben Stansall/Getty Images

A decade ago, at the independent bookstore where I worked as a teenager, an edgy poster hung on the wall. “EARLY WARNING SIGNS OF FASCISM,” it read, that last word big and black and bold for maximum dramatic effect. A long list of these warning signs followed, from “Powerful and Continuing Nationalism” to “Rampant Cronyism & Corruption” and “Identification of Enemies as a Unifying Cause.” Then fine print at the bottom revealed the point of the thing—a call to action, premised on fears that seem alarmist compared to the horrors of today. “These signs resonate with the political and economic direction of the United States under Bush/Cheney,” the poster declared. “Get involved in reversing this anti-democratic direction while you still can!”

There’s no doubt George W. Bush was a terrible president. One of the worst. But Bill Maher was right earlier this month to say liberals wrongly cast the last White House occupantand the last two Republican presidential nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney—as “the end of the world”—especially since President-elect Donald Trump has much greater potential to be the real deal.

“They were honorable men who we disagreed with and we should have kept it that way,” the comedian said. “So we cried wolf, and that was wrong. But this is real. This is going to be way different.”

We’ve hit a political moment where it’s hard to know the difference between alarmism and vigilance. After I wrote a piece for The New Republic arguing that Trump’s first post-election interview on 60 Minutes epitomized how authoritarians are normalized, a friend I deeply respect wrote to me, urging against stoking fear when the president-elect seemed to be backing off some of his more draconian campaign promises. There were genuine reasons to be concerned about Trump, this friend argued, but Trump was moderating. Not reflecting that in the press would be willfully misleading.

My friend’s not alone in this thinking. But I have a big sticking point: The president-elect isn’t actually moderating all that much. He said on 60 Minutes that marriage equality was “settled,” for instance, but he’s pledged to appoint a Supreme Court justice in the mold of Antonin Scalia, who voted against it. (Trump definitely wants a judge who’ll overturn Roe v. Wade.) The president-elect allowed that his proposed border wall with Mexico could partially be a fence, but he’s still committed to building a border-long barrier. He’s not planning to immediately deport 11 million undocumented immigrants—though he may ultimately do so—but he intends to expel or jail 3 million who “have criminal records” right off the bat. Is he talking exclusively about violent criminals or people who committed petty crimes as well? He didn’t say.

After Trump’s hour-long sit-down last Tuesday with The New York Times, even the paper of record was looking for evidence of moderation, reporting that “Trump suggested he had changed his mind about the value of waterboarding after talking with Gen. James N. Mattis,” his likely pick for secretary of defense. Yet as Slate noted, the Times’s own transcript of the president-elect’s remarks showed he also said of the Mattis conversation, “I’m not saying it changed my mind.” That means Trump may still try to bring back the torture technique.

The Times interview elicited multiple non-reversal reversals like that. Trump pledged to have “an open mind” about fighting climate change, in another example, but as Greg Sargent wrote at The Washington Post, he’s still an absolute disaster on the subject.

We can acknowledge that Trump is moderating a bit—but need to add that he’s dodging any real discussion of issues where his extremism endures and where it might lead. We can admit that none of the aforementioned issues in particular suggests authoritarian tendencies. What we shouldn’t do—what we cannot afford to do—is downplay all the evidence that does.

Just Sunday, the president-elect claimed falsely on Twitter that he’d “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” It was the latest in a long line of public statements undermining the most fundamental trust that democracy depends on, and it could lay the groundwork for massive voter suppression efforts. This is not a drill.

That’s why, since Trump’s election, the greatest heroes in American public discourse have been the journalists and academics shouting that America appears to be slipping away from liberal democracy—voices unafraid of appearing alarmist or conspiratorial, clinging stubbornly to the lessons of history. They’re putting the worst-case scenarios right where they belong, front and center in our political conversation, believing that public outrage over the erosion of national norms is the key to preserving them.

The first name on this roll call of heroic doomsayers should be the Russian and American journalist Masha Gessen. As she wrote in the The New York Review of Books two days after the election, Gessen has lived in autocracies most of her life and spent much of her career covering Russian President Vladimir Putin—the world leader Trump seems to admire the most.

In a piece titled “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” Gessen’s main rule is clear: “In the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock.” Such a defiant stance won’t be easy, as she acknowledges. “This will lead people to call you unreasonable and hysterical, and to accuse you of overreacting. It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room. Prepare yourself.”

It takes precious little time to erode liberal institutions, Gessen reminds us:

It took Putin a year to take over the Russian media and four years to dismantle its electoral system; the judiciary collapsed unnoticed. The capture of institutions in Turkey has been carried out even faster, by a man once celebrated as the democrat to lead Turkey into the EU. Poland has in less than a year undone half of a quarter century’s accomplishments in building a constitutional democracy.

For Trump, Gessen writes, the ultimate “ideal is the totalitarian-level popularity numbers of Vladimir Putin.” And she’s convinced that one of his first steps toward achieving it will be to gut to free press: “Many journalists,” she predicts, “may soon face a dilemma long familiar to those of us who have worked under autocracies: fall in line or forfeit access.” As a result of the clampdown on press freedoms, she prophecies, “The world will grow murkier,” as “Coverage, and thinking, will drift in a Trumpian direction.”

Another must-read doomsayer is the St. Louis-based journalist Sarah Kendzior. She’s researched and written about authoritarianism abroad as well as economic hardship here at home—an intersection of expertise perfectly matched to this moment.

With the help of her must-follow Twitter feed, Kendzior has been covering Trump all year. She wrote a chillingly honest “My fellow Americans” letter for the Dutch outlet The Correspondent, coming right out and saying we now have “an American authoritarian kleptocracy, backed by millionaire white nationalists both in the United States and abroad, meant to strip our country down for parts, often using ethnic violence to do so.” Over the weekend, MSNBC gave Kendzior a platform to make her case on cable news:

These arguments are also appearing in academia. N. Turkuler Isiksel, a Columbia University political-science professor, wrote in Dissent that what the United States must prepare to resist “is not policy change; it is regime change. Above all, we must shake off the ‘it can’t happen here’ mentality and seriously contemplate the unprecedented danger Trump represents: that of the United States sliding into a form of fascism.”

Thankfully, Gessen, Kendzior and Isikel aren’t alone in arguing that a healthy fear of Trump is anything but irrational:

Nyhan, a Dartmouth political science professor, went on to call the days since the election “the most alarming of my professional life.” What’s worse, Nyhan notes, the incentive to normalize Trump is strong. “People have an instinctive deference to power,” he told The Atlantic. “Elected officials have a political incentive to make nice with an incoming administration. Media organizations have an economic incentive to avoid antagonizing half of their audience and to cultivate sources within the administration. And many Americans are just exhausted by this election and want to move on.”

It’s tricky business, these kinds of warnings. Writing about Trump’s potential dangers in The Washington Post, Tufts University politics professor Daniel W. Drezner wrote, “Warn Americans about Trump too early, and most Americans will believe that you are overreacting. Warn Americans about Trump too late, and it’s too late.”

But given the choice, early warnings certainly seem like the only option. Maybe it’s too soon, but it won’t be too late.

That means the press should resist calls to avoid the worst-case Trump scenarios because playing them up might “backfire.” At Vox last Monday, Dara Lind addressed fears “that the Trump administration will crack down on a free press; that it will only serve to enrich itself; that it will try to keep itself in power indefinitely.” She acknowledged the possibility of these outcomes—“The people most alarmist have, generally, been the most correct”—but worried that too much talk of them could actually help Trump if his presidency turns out to be “simply very bad in less unprecedented ways”:

Donald Trump probably won’t cancel elections, but he could—and is relatively likely to—oversee a sweeping rollback of voting rights. His administration may not throw journalists in jail, but it could easily step up surveillance of domestic protesters. His appointees may not entrench a permanent oligarchy, but it could still—for millions of people in America—reduce the willingness and ability to participate in public life to zero.

These wouldn’t flout the law; they’d be under color of it and even in concert with it. But they would, nonetheless, be a tragedy for democracy.

Lind argues that talk of literal autocracy under Trump could “normalize” this type of tragedy, making it look less awful compared to our worst fears. She has a point.

The problem, however, is we don’t know how far-fetched the worst case scenarios are with Trump. He’s such a cipher—so unpredictable in how he’ll actually govern—that we simply can’t be sure what he is or isn’t capable of. We’re living in a historical moment that’s terrifying, among many other reasons, for its uncertainty. All we have is history as our guide, and anyone who reads Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s account of Hitler’s rise at Slate should come away convinced that contemporary comparisons are cause for alarm. Alarm is what we need.

In a recent Times of Israel piece, “Alarmism saved my family from Hitler,” Los Angeles writer Hugo Schwyzer reminds us why. His Austrian grandfather, he writes, thought Hitler was all talk in 1938. Meanwhile, his grandmother was appropriately frightened, and she forced her husband and their children out of the country. Schwyzer writes:

My grandmother’s fear saved the family. My grandfather’s sweet confidence and optimism would have killed them. So when you tell me, a noted soother and calmer of others, that I should tell Muslims and women and people of color that they have nothing to fear from Trump, I think that perhaps you want me to be like my grandfather.

Schwyzer’s family history isn’t directly applicable to America, at least not yet. Nobody’s recommending that worried citizens flee the country to save themselves, though some (Muslims, for one) are understandably tempted. But this story nicely illustrates the perils of assuming the best, and the reality that authoritarianism often unfolds in surprising, hard-to-notice ways It’s only if we’re ready for it that we can stand a chance of fighting it.

“Perhaps Trump will be a better leader than we thought,” Schwyzer writes. “The burden is entirely on him to prove that his campaign was an act, and that he and his followers pose no threat to women and minorities. Until then, suspicion. Until then, fear. Until then, anger.”

It’s similar to the approach advocated by activist and CNN commentator Van Jones: “Hope for the best but expect and prepare for the worst.”

Personally, I’m still an optimist. I want badly to believe America will emerge from the Trump era. But there’s peril in positivity as there is in panic, and preparing for the worst is warranted. To begin with, I’m thinking of updating those warning signs of fascism, making up a few posters of my own. Conveying their contemporary relevance won’t even require fine print.