March 27, 2024

A Second Trump Term Will Bring the US Closer to Autocracy

Oppression feels closer than ever in America today.

Andrea Mazzarino
Helsinki Summit: Handshake between Putin and Trump

President Trump and President Putin shake hands during a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland.

(Reuters / Kevin Lamarque)

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We should already be talking about what it would be like, if Donald Trump were to win the 2024 election, to live under a developing autocracy. Beyond the publicized plans of those around him to gut the federal civil service system and consolidate power in the hands of You Know Who, under Trump 2.0 so much else would change for the worse.

All too many of us who now argue about the Ukraine and Gaza wars and their ensuing humanitarian crises, about police violence and extremism in the military here at home, about all sorts of things, would no longer share a common language. Basics that once might have meant the same thing to you and me, like claiming that someone won an election, might become unsafe to mention. In a Trump 2.0 world, more of our journalists would undoubtedly face repercussions and need to find roundabout ways to allude to all-too-many topics. A moving opinion column by The New York Times’ David French, who faced threats for his writing about Donald Trump, highlighted how some who voiced their views on him already need round-the-clock police protection to ensure their safety and that of their family.

I often think about the slippery slope we Americans could soon find ourselves on. After all, from the time Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president in 1999, I spent 20 years traveling to his country and back, working there first as an anthropology doctoral student and later as a human rights researcher. I’ve followed Russian politics closely, including as a therapist specializing in war-affected populations, asylum seekers, and refugees. Friends and colleagues of mine there have faced threats to their safety and their careers amid a Kremlin crackdown on public discussion after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and several fled the country with their families in search of safety and a better life.

To be sure, there are many differences between the United States, with its robust democratic tradition, and Russia, which only briefly had competitive elections and a free press. Nonetheless, my experiences there offer a warning about how a Trumpian version of top-down rule could someday stifle any possibility of calling out state-sponsored violence for what it is, and what it might feel like if that’s our situation here someday.

Tucker Carlson’s Moscow

On first look, far-right journalist Tucker Carlson’s recent visit to Moscow, covered exuberantly by Russia’s state media, might seem like an example of an American tourist’s naïve glorification of another country’s luxuries. Carlson marveled at the fancy tile work of the city’s subway system, visited the national ballet, and noted that you can buy caviar cheaply at the local grocery store. He also pointed out that Moscow’s pristine streets had no homeless people and no apparent poverty.

In the gilded halls of the Kremlin palace, he interviewed President Putin for more than two hours. Despite his guileless expression, Carlson occasionally appeared flummoxed as Putin lectured him endlessly on Russian history and the centuries-old claim he insisted Moscow has on Kyiv as its protector from aggressors near and far. Of course, he never challenged Putin on his rationale for invading that country (nor did he refer to it as an invasion) or any of the Russian leader’s other outrageous claims.

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I’m of the school of thought that considers Putin’s Russia exactly the sort of anti-woke paradise the MAGA crowd craves. Anyone of Carlson’s age who grew up during the Cold War and turned on his or her television in that pivotal period when the Berlin Wall fell should certainly know that all of Russia doesn’t look anything like what he was shown. He should also have known about the recent history of economic “shock therapy” that drained Russian public services of funding and human resources, not to speak of the decades of corruption and unfair economic policies that enriched a choice few in Putin’s circle at the expense of so many.

Of course, something had to happen to turn the Moscow that Carlson saw into a sanitized moonscape. If you haven’t been following developments in Russia under Putin, let me summarize what I’ve noticed.

Protesters—even many going to opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s recent memorial service—have been arrested or at least intimidated when appearing to sympathize with anything that’s not part of the Kremlin’s official pro-Putin ideology. Many groups, from Asian migrants to the homeless, have either been rounded up by the police or at least relocated far out of the view of tourists of any sort. In fact, the imprisoned American journalist whom Carlson briefly gestured toward emancipating, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, had written on the practice of zachistki, or mop-up operations by the Russian authorities that, for instance, relocated homeless services to the outskirts of Moscow, far from public view. Of course, Gershkovich is now imprisoned indefinitely in Russia on charges of espionage for simply reporting on the war in Ukraine, proving the very point Carlson so studiously avoided, that an endless string of lies underscore Putin’s latest war.

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What’s more, amid sub-subsistence wages, housing shortages, and the thin walls of so many city apartments, ordinary Russians are not always able to engage in the “hard conversations” that conservatives like Alabama Senator Katie Britt boast of having in their well-furbished kitchens. After all, neighbors are now encouraged to denounce each other for decrying Russia’s war. (You could, it seems, even end up in prison if your child writes “no to war” on a drawing she did for school.)

There are very personal ramifications to living in an autocracy with which Tucker Carlson and, of course, the Orange Jesus himself are signaling their agreement when they entertain the views of leaders like Vladimir Putin or call Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán “fantastic.” They’re signaling what their end goal is to Americans and, sadly enough, it’s not particularly far-fetched anymore to suggest that, someday, we won’t even have the freedom to talk about all of this with each other.

The Thing That Cannot Be Named

Tucker Carlson at least did his homework. He clearly knew that you couldn’t describe the war in Ukraine as an unprovoked Russian invasion, given that country’s carefully crafted censorship laws.

Since his February 2022 invasion, Putin has referred to it as a “special military operation” focused on the defense of Russia from NATO and the “denazification” of Ukraine. During that first spring, the Russian president signed a law forbidding journalists from even calling the invasion a “war,” choosing instead to frame the killing, displacement, abduction, torture, and rape of Ukrainian citizens as a surgical rescue operation provoked by the victims themselves. Broader, vaguer censorship laws were then passed, further limiting what Russians of all stripes could say, including one against “discrediting the army,” which imposed stiff fines and prison sentences, and more recently, property confiscations on anyone deemed to have said anything negative about Russia’s armed forces. While the thousands of arrests made may seem modest, given Russia’s 146 million people, it’s still, in my opinion, thousands too many.

The Russian leader’s perverse framing of his unprovoked war is undoubtedly what also allows him to admit that hundreds of thousands of Russians have been killed or wounded so far, something he couldn’t otherwise say. In a country suffused with right-wing Christian nationalism, it also certainly helps his cause that most of Russia’s war dead come from remote, poor, and predominantly minority regions.

This is the sort of muddling of meaning and motives that autocratic leaders engage in to justify deaths of all kinds. American equivalents might be what the MAGA crowds do when they blame the January 6 far-right assault at the Capitol, aimed at police and lawmakers, on “Antifa,” or extreme leftists, without disputing that people were hurt. Or consider then-President Trump’s comment that far-right white supremacist Charlottesville rioters and counter-protesters included “very fine people on both sides”—no matter that one such fine person plowed down a counterprotester in his car, murdering her, or that certain of those “fine” white supremacists espoused anti-Semitic conspiracy theories considered by some an incitement to violence.

For their part, Russians of various political stripes enjoy an ancient tradition of using dark humor and irony to engage in the kinds of conversations they really want to have. Take as an example the way progressive journalists like those at the news stations TV Rain and Novaya Gazeta (since banned from operating) began discussing the war in Ukraine as “the thing that cannot be named.” Eventually, however, sweeping censorship laws prevented even workarounds like those.

It’s not a small thing to live in a place where you can’t say what you want to for fear of political persecution, especially when you’ve grown up in other circumstances. A good friend of mine who came of age after the fall of the Berlin Wall and led a prosperous, happy life in St. Petersburg, fled the country on the last train out of that city to Helsinki, Finland, her young child in tow. Her goal: to start life over from scratch and avoid having to raise her child in a place where he would be brainwashed into thinking Russia’s armed forces and police were infallible and beyond critique. I suspect that many of the hundreds of thousands of Russians who joined her in fleeing the country weren’t that different.

Imagine raising a child whose unquestioning mind you can’t recognize. (That goes for you, too, Trump supporters, because—count on it!—once in office again, he would undoubtedly move toward ending elections as we know them, not to speak of shutting down whatever institutions protect our speech!)

America and the Lie That Begot Other Lies

Events in recent years indicate that Americans—particularly those in the MAGA camp—have grown inured to the public mention of armed violence. Who could forget the moment in 2016 when candidate Trump boasted at a campaign rally before winning the presidency that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters”? As racially and politically motivated violence and threats have proliferated, so many of us seemed to grow ever less bothered by both the incidents themselves and the rationales of those who seek to encourage and justify them.

My own adult life began as Vladimir Putin consolidated power in Russia, while former President George W. Bush launched his—really, our—disastrous Global War on Terror, based on lies like that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, we’ve spilled all too little ink here on the nearly 1 million people who died across our Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African war zones since 2001 (and the many millions more who lost their lives, even if less directly, or were turned into refugees thanks to those wars of ours). And don’t forget the more than 7,000 American troops (and more than 8,000 contractors!) who died in the process, essentially baptizing our national lies in pools of blood. And how could that not have helped normalize other lies to come like Trump’s giant one about the 2020 election?

Thankfully, in this country we can still say what we want (more or less). We can still, for instance, call out the Pentagon for underreporting the deaths its forces have caused. In other words, something like the Costs of War Project that I helped to found to put our lies in context can still exist. But how long before such things could become punishable, if not by law, then through vigilantism?

Yes, President Biden is arming Israel in its gruesome fight against Hamas while providing only the most modest aid to Gaza’s war-devastated population, but we can still hold him to account for that. If the 2024 election goes to Trump, how long will that be true? If we don’t get to the point right now where all of us are calling out lies all the time, then every Trumpian lie about violence—from Republican members of Congress calling the January 6 rioters “peaceful patriots” to The Donald’s claim that he would only be a dictator on “day one” of his next presidency (a desire supported by a significant majority of Republicans)—will amount to lies as consequential as the 1933 burning of the Reichstag in Germany, which Hitler’s ascendant Nazi party attributed to communists, setting the stage for him to claim sweeping powers.

We are entering a new and perilous American world and it’s important to grasp that fact. In that context, let me mention a Russian moment when I did no such thing. I still feel guilty about a dinner I had with human rights colleagues in 2014, including a Russian activist who had dedicated his career to documenting political violence and war crimes committed under successive Russian leaders from Joseph Stalin to Vladimir Putin. I was sitting at the far end of the table where I couldn’t catch much of the conversation and I joked that I was “out in Siberia.” Yes, my dinner companions graciously laughed, but with an undercurrent of discomfort and tension—and for good reason. They knew the dangerous world they were in and, in fact, that very activist has since been sent to a penal colony for his work discrediting the actions of the Russian armed forces. My joke is anything but a joke now, and consider that a reminder of how quickly things can change—and not just in Russia, either.

In fact, oppression feels closer than ever in America today and verbal massaging, joking, or willful ignorance can only mask what another Trump presidency could mean for us all.

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Andrea Mazzarino

Andrea Mazzarino cofounded Brown University’s Costs of War Project. She is an activist and social worker interested in the health impacts of war, and coeditor, with Catherine Lutz, of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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