One Year of Lucid: Tracking Authoritarianism, Democratic Decline, and Resistance
Highlights from the Lucid Archive
Like many historians, I love archives. I have spent many happy hours in half a dozen countries going through dusty paper files, photograph albums, and much more. Next month, I will write about my experiences in the Vatican Secret Archive in Rome and other such sites. Gaining access to an archive, which can be an experience in itself, is the just the start. Knowing where to look once you’re in, and figuring out the logic of the archive, is key.
In thinking about Lucid’s one-year anniversary, I realized that the list of posts and interviews is itself a digital archive of over 100 documents. So, in lieu of a traditional essay this week, I will give some highlights from the Lucid archive, featuring themes I address frequently because they help us understand how authoritarianism works.
Many of my writings point out the links between what’s happening and the authoritarian past. Around the world, illiberal politicians and their allies are working hard to reshape the historical record, removing evidence of past persecutions to make it easier for people to engage in new discriminations and violence. Lucid took shape as a counter-move. Connecting the past and the present is a civic and political necessity.
Historians aren’t typically futurists, but I also forecast where things are going and what to watch for. My knowledge of how autocrats think and what they do has translated into Lucid bringing vital stories to your attention months before they appear in the national press.
This May 2021 essay about authoritarian targeting of exiles anticipated a June 2021 Max Fisher column and an August 2021 editorial, both in the New York Times. (Here are two more essays of mine about exiles, one about the difficulty of leaving one's country and the other about the challenges of making a new life abroad).
In June 2021, after the Biden-Putin summit (which Biden augured would bring about a more "stable and predictable" relationship with Russia) I predicted that Putin might instead start to behave recklessly. I really wish I had been wrong about that.
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In the meantime, here are some of my past writings, organized by topic.
Corruption is the glue of authoritarianism. It convinces people to put their ethics and principles aside and collaborate with lawless institutions and individuals, as I argue here. That's why my first Lucid essay, Drain the Swamp, looked at myths of authoritarian efficiency, and how such propaganda hides evidence of state thievery.
Authoritarians use public office in the service of private agendas, as when they pardon criminals to increase their personal power. This was one of my most popular essays of the year, featuring Trump, Maduro, Erdogan, and more. I thank the artist Eric Yahnker for giving me permission to publish his 2018 work featuring Ivanka Trump pondering her possible fate.
How propaganda works and how to reach those under its sway are regular themes of my writing. Most recently, I looked at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s video message to Russians still influenced by Kremlin propaganda. In telling them the truth about Putin’s war, he opted for care rather than condescension.
Other essays address indoctrination (spoiler: love-bombs and buzzwords work), how and when people disengage from disinformation, why people believe liars, and how personality cults can retain meaning for followers even after the leader leaves office.
My goal is always to unmask what propaganda conceals. That's the point of these pieces about Russian propaganda points regarding the war on Ukraine, the anti-democratic agendas behind the convoy movement, and this essay about Tucker Carlson as an enforcer of the GOP party line.
The GOP's Turn to Authoritarianism
Writing for CNN and other outlets, I have tracked the GOP's evolution into a far-right party for years. Yet its adoption of an authoritarian political culture, one that tolerates or actively promotes violence and corruption, has accelerated over the last year.
Trump has left a legacy in the form of imitators who adopt his authoritarian and bullying style of leadership. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis fits the bill. Here is my March 2022 essay on him turning Florida into his own mini-autocracy.
Finally, Lucid addresses how authoritarians can be resisted, and how democratic decline can be slowed, including by pushing back against propaganda. My April 2021 Lucid essay on the history of resistance from Fascist times to today paid homage to those who have opposed illiberal rulers, often paying a heavy price.
"I would say my personal hero is Sisyphus," says Badiucao, the Chinese artist in exile who regularly receives death threats for his anti-regime activism, in our February 2022 interview. "t seems like what I'm doing is always censored and taken down...But the very action of an individual who keeps trying in the right direction has its own value, regardless of the result. I'm making art not just to potentially trigger a change, but to have a record of formal protest or resistance."
Badiucao's view of his art as a record of events and experiences that the Chinese government seeks to erase through censorship is very much in the Lucid spirit. I thank you for reading me over this past year, and look forward to our continued dialogue.