Disrupt Despots: A Yale history professor’s guide to defending democracy against Trump


There is no condensing. Read and live every word.

1. Do not obey in advance.

Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution.

Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics.

When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words.

Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language.

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out.

Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate.

Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics.

Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk.

This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world.

Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state.

The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can.

Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life.

Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries.

Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries.

When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed.

If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can.

If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot.

The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

It Runs in the Family

Running…away that is. I’d apologize for the dad joke, but holy damn if the whole family tree isn’t reprehensible.

Evidently, our soon to be Orangutan-in-Chief comes from a proud lineage of duty-shirkers. In 1905, Frederich Trump née Drumpf was issued an explusion for failing to serve (as was mandatory in Bavaria at the time) his homeland and further for failing to explain his absence when he immigrated to the US.

Donald Trump’s grandfather fought expulsion from Germany, letter reveals

I’d never fault someone’s objection to fighting in a war, or indeed any war. It is a different matter entirely to shirk your duty entirely with a lie, as did Donald J Trump when he feigned bone spurs to forego Vietnam in favor of playing multiple collegiate sports. He was evidently answering a higher calling: duty to family tradition.

Where Ya Standin’ At?

Wanna hear me opine a bit on the choices on the Democratic side of the ticket? No? Then stop reading.

I’m a nerd in many respects. One of those has been, and pretty much still continues to be, in American politics. As much animosity as it generates, as much shit as it shovels, as much apathy as it engenders, I like to check into and out of politics like a fair-weather football fan, coming back from time to time to steep in the stats, only to leave again and go live my life in blissful oblivion.

In keeping with this particular facet of nerddom, I have dream candidates. Always have. Obama was my dream candidate back in 2005 when he became the junior senator for Illinois. I backed up hardcore up through his announcement and on to inauguration day. Then stuff got real and I backed our president as much as argued against him. I’m a firm proponent of being critical of that which you support, love, and participate in.

I’ve had lots of dream candidates. Back in 2005, on the state level, I was all behind Kinky Friedman. Five years later, I actually backed Kay Bailey, despite many reservations. A year, maybe a year and a half ago, my dream ticket was Warren/Sanders for the 2016 election. Imagine my surprise and joy when Sanders set out on the trail a long shot and then started gaining serious momentum despite being ignore by the press until after the first debate. I still really wanted Warren in there, but I’ve since come to appreciate that she is sorely needed where she is. Maybe one day. Maybe with Cory Booker of NJ.

(Aside: all of this obviously ignores the oft-ignored and endlessly important state and local elections, which in 2010 very likely paved the way for this Trump nonsense we’re seeing right now. Voters? Vote in every election, not just the big shiny ones.)

I’ve been a staunch proponent of Sanders’ campaign. He is firmly standing for many of my dire campaign issues and stands in the right on nearly everything I hold dear in American civics. He is human, so of course I have complaints as well, but much as with President Obama’s first campaign, I’d like to save many of these for inauguration day. He’s swaying the whole conversation on the left further from center, and I’m for it.

He’s also, now, pretty much lost the nomination. Hillary is far from a mandate, far from a clear win, but if my back of the envelop math is worth anything (hint: it isn’t), Sanders pretty much has clinch all the rest of the unclaimed delegates or else perform a feat of magic to gain the necessary numbers to take the nomination in July.

That’s a shame. It really and truly is. And I’ll feel it while I stand, firm and strong behind Hillary Clinton.

I’m hesitant to change camps just yet. Sanders has pulled the conversation towards the banks, with whom Clinton is entirely too friendly for my comfort. He’s been a solid leader in talking about–or rather, not talking and knowing when to listen–the Black Lives Matter movement. He’s spared nothing in calling our the excesses of student loan debt and the inequalities that make our economy an utterly unfair playing field. I want him to keep doing these things.

Trump looks like he might take the GOP ticket, and if that doesn’t scare you I’m not entirely sure I understand your long term vision for this country, planet earth, and sentient life. That may seem like a dig, but genuinely, I’d love to talk to someone who really believes Trump would be good for us.

If Trump takes it, and Clinton doesn’t shoot someone, they’re likely to face off. When that happens, Clinton can start trending back towards being a centrist. In many ways, she’ll need to. Trump was/is a life long Democrat and sways back and forth across the middle, often on the same topic and on the same day. To stand a chance of winning independents and undecideds, Clinton will have to court a lot of folks that look as unfavorably upon her as they do upon the Big Gold Guy. But as long as we can, I’d like the Democrats to act more like progressives and less like the party that hasn’t totally known what it’s been about the past two decades. That is to say, while the GOP doesn’t know what’s going on in it’s ranks, the Dems can trend to the left and act like the actual left wing of American politics as long as is possible.

And then when the time is right, I hope all my fellow Sanders’ supporters will step in line behind Hillary. I hope they can acknowledge her deficits and baggage and put it all away until after her inauguration day. The alternative is completely bonkers.