Surviving authoritarianism: Polish advice for the US
Slightly over a year ago, Poland, the “Eastern European success story”, stood where the US is standing now.
Twenty-five years since rejoining the West, 10 years after joining the EU, no-one would have believed the sharp turn Poland would take towards nationalism and extreme-right ideology.
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With each passing day, the government is moving the country further away from the liberal West and towards the authoritarian models of the East.
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.
But isn’t that what we hoped for in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and now we’re still hoping for in France? So, as always, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
To help you with that task, we have prepared a survival guide, based on the first year of resistance in Poland.
Year one under an authoritarian regime
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. 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 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 labeled 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” and “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 maintain a constant sense of conflict and danger to enact new authoritarian laws. 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, 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. This is just smokescreen for the legal steps they will be taking towards 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. They will focus on what hurts the most - women and minorities. They will act as if democracy was majority rule. Racial, religious, sexual and other minorities will become enemies to the order and security. They will challenge women’s social status, undermine gender equality and interfere with reproductive rights (see point 7).
Women and minorities should fight the hardest, reminding the majority what true democracy is about.
9. They will try to take control of the judiciary, to be able to push through unconstitutional legislation and threaten 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. 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, 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).
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 and power. They want you to forget that your flag, your anthem and your symbols belong to you, the People, to everyone equally.
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.
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 don't need them. While ruining your economy to fulfil their populist promises, they will omit the fact that you're part of a bigger world that 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.
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 always remember you're on the good side of history.
Every authoritarian, totalitarian and fascist regime in history has eventually failed, thanks to the people.
With love, your Eastern European friends.
Martin Mycielski is founder of KOD International, the international branch of the Polish Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) civic movement.