Home Editorials Afterthoughts Afterthoughts: How to Survive an Authoritarian Regime (In 10 easy steps!)

Afterthoughts: How to Survive an Authoritarian Regime (In 10 easy steps!)

Photo by Takeo Kunishima, Creative Commons Licensing.
Photo by Takeo Kunishima, Creative Commons Licensing.

Good morning, America. Let’s talk.

So, this is really happening. Have a good cry.

Seriously. Go howl at the moon, whatever you need to do. And when you’re ready, come back and let’s have a grown up talk.

So, you’re in shock. I get that. You’re waking up and realizing it wasn’t just a bad dream. That the man Jon Stewart called Fuckface von Clownstick is about to become the 45th President of the United States.

Not that funny, anymore, is it? That’s one of dozens of things you’re going to mourn the loss of today. And it’s going to hit you in waves.

Pre-existing conditions? They’ll be back in January. Merrick Garland? He’ll never sit on the Supreme Court, and will forever be known as the guy waiting in the wings. Yes, Mitch McConnell’s petulance won him the Supreme Court. Take that in.

Gay Marriage? I don’t know. I honestly don’t. How do you undo a legal marriage?

And let’s remember, that went through on Scalia’s watch, so maybe that’s safe. But Pence’s religious freedom law? That party’s going national.

Consider abortion on the table. I’m not joking.

I’m not telling you all this to demoralize you. Quite the opposite. There’s work to be done.

It’s true: the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Panic is natural. It’s a lot. Take a breath.


Okay. Imagine we’re in a locker room, and our team just took a beating. Heads are hung low. I’m wearing a windbreaker with my last name on it. I have a clipboard. Here’s my pep talk:

1. You’re not moving to Canada. Just… enough with that already. This is America’s hour of need, and you’re not leaving. Wipe your tears, put your big kid pants on and get your mind organized. We need you in the game, now more than ever.

2. Learn what kind of lunatics you’re dealing with. Authoritarianism is Trump in a nutshell: mistrust of immigrants, propaganda loose on facts and strong on promises. Too-easy solutions and emotion over reason. Putin is authoritarian, with a well-honed propaganda machine. He invades sovereign nations, restricts freedoms, jails his enemies, and enjoys a comfortable majority support. It’s time now to stop dismissing the orange man and start understanding how authoritarian regimes happen, and how to survive them. Read up.

3. It’s hard, but take accountability for your part in this. Every conspiracy-theorist relative unfriended, every political talk avoided for fear of drama reinforced the bubble of a Trump voter. The media, in general, doesn’t challenge their thinking. They merely report on the spectacle. So if you don’t engage, the only voices they will hear will be inside the Trump propaganda machine. It’s time to become political. Cultivate a respectful but firm approach to a political conversation.

4. Reject snark and bitterness. It’s tempting, I know. But you’re an ambassador now. Go make a friend outside of your comfort zone. Find common ground, and slowly pierce the bubble. Make civil discourse sexy again. Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance. You, my friend, need to bring the nuance.

5. And when that doesn’t work, protest. Find your groups, talk with them regularly. Educate yourself on how to legally protest, then get out there and howl. You are not alone in your sorrow; your rage. Yelling at Facebook about it will never feel as liberating as a good old-fashioned protest. Let your voice — your actual voice, fill the air. Make a date out of it. Bring sandwiches and make new friends.

6. Document everything. You have, in your pocket, the best civil rights-defending machine in the history of mankind. Learn how to shoot great video with your smartphone. Practice whipping it out in a hurry. When your spider senses tingle, find a safe vantage point and start recording. You have the right to record anything in public, don’t let a policeman tell you otherwise.

7. Prepare your counter-argument. When Trump’s promises don’t come true (and, mathematically, they can’t) then the wheels are going to start coming off the bus. The good news here, if there is any, is that the Republicans have full control of the government. House, Senate, Executive. When they fail, there will be no one to blame but themselves. They haven’t actually had to govern since the Tea Party took over.

Repeal Obamacare, sure. And replace it with what? There is no actual policy plan, and it’s going to be very, very messy. Mexico will never build that wall, never. Trade wars are going to send the stock market into the garbage. Tyrants will be emboldened and instability will increase in the world. You need to prepare for this, so when his propaganda machine tries to spin it, you’ll be ready to win his voters back to sanity.

8. Make art. Whatever that thing you do is, do it. Art is our common ground, it transcends our political divisions. Whatever your thing is, it’s time to take it to the next level. Paint it, sing it, write it. Create joy, make us think, make us laugh. Remind us of our humanity, remind us what’s important. Do it with abandon, also with purpose: if you want to win at the ballot box, that starts with undermining the culture of division.

9. Take care of yourself. We need you. Get some exercise. Seriously consider salad. See a doctor now and then. Love someone. Be loved.

10. Remind yourself, as often as you need to, that America is bigger than Trump. Every gain in civil rights in the history of this nation has faced a backlash. Two steps forward, one step back. This is going to hurt, but there’s no time to disconnect.

Martin Luther King, Jr. showed us how to speak truth to power.

John Lennon taught us that our fundamental choices are love and fear.

Lincoln taught us that surrounding yourself with contrary opinions is prerequisite to real change.

And Hamilton taught us that history is watching.

This, right here, is the battle of your time. Don’t retreat, don’t despair. Have your cry, wipe your tears, and get back in the game.

Jay Burns is an actor, playwright, and lifelong Alaskan. He studied business and economics at Carnegie Mellon, and holds a theatre MFA from Michigan State. He's a former Hollywood development exec, a political junkie, a gamer, and father of three. What free time he has is often spent on the hiking trails around Anchorage with his wife and three kids or in the theatre.


  1. I think we’re screwed. Even if the shouting yam doesn’t start WW III, this is the end to any action on climate change. I’m too old and too realistic to think that the Supreme Court can ever get sorted out in my lifetime. I told my wife who is 8 years younger that it won’t get so in her lifetime as well. He’s going to champion for-profit prisons, and that corrupt sector (think Bill Allen and Bill Weimar) will experience a revival when it had been on its deathbed. I won’t stop doing what I’ve been up to for the last 50+ years, but I don’t expect that it will be anything but a rear guard action.

  2. This perception is pretty ridiculous when considering the office of the presidency has been on a trend of each administration being more authoritative than the last. Largely through the use of executive agencies and executive orders. Bush Jr issued more executive orders than any president before him & along comes Obama and shatters the record of authoritarianism that came before him. We have already experienced 8 years of an authoritative regime & Trump’s promise to drain the swamp will hopefully include measures to amend the Constitution to create term limits as well as bright the of of President back in line with the Constitution.
    People who could not see past the media hype and spin against Trump prior to the election should really clear their minds of the brainwashing

    • Perhaps executive orders wouldn’t be so prolific if congress was willing to compromise instead of blocking anything the other party put forward.

    • That’s actually false. Obama issued 256 EOs. That’s less than Bush’s 291 and pales in comparison to Clinton (364), Reagan (381), Carter (320), Nixon (346), LBJ (325), Eisenhower (484), Truman (907), FDR (3,721), Hoover (968), Coolidge (1,203), Harding (522), Wilson (1,803), Taft (724), and TR (1,081).

  3. This is the best and most comforting thing I’ve read. And I’ve been on FB almost non-stop since the election. Thank you so much <3

  4. What on earth will protesting accomplish? Do you really think “law and order,” anti-black/brown Trump voters will see people (many of them black and brown) blocking streets and think, ah, I am so misguided!?

    Also, why is it somehow shameful to move to a more sane country? Do we really all need to be heroes? Isn’t that kinda like sticking with an abusive spouse (“well, I married him. Now I see he’s nuts, but I can change him!”)?

What do you think?