Melik Kaylan, writing in Forbes magazine, has spent the past two decades reporting on foreign affairs, with much time spent in authoritarian (“populist”) regimes. [Please do not ask me to explain why an authoritarian regime is called a “populist” regime; I don’t know.]


Kaylan begins like this:


This column is about what life will be like under Trump, based on discernible patterns in other countries where populists gained power, especially those with possible murky Russian ties. I write this not as the kind of airy opiner now ubiquitous via the internet – just one more shrill partisan voice in the noise – but as a professional with specific two-decades-long experience in the subject. Experience on the ground that is, as a reporter and commentator. I have now covered upwards of a dozen countries that have buckled under the emergent wave of populist leaders, from the Far East to the Mideast to Europe and the Americas. Many of the countries have done so quite democratically, at first. That emergent wave has crashed onto US shores in a fashion thoroughly precedented abroad.


Recently, I wrote about how I’d seen all the tricks in the Trump campaign before, actually in Tbilisi, Georgia, during the 2012 national elections when the pro-US candidate lost to a pro-Russian populist. At that time, no one was ready to believe the Russians capable of influencing Western style elections. Many still don’t, even after Trump. We now have enough experience of populists in power in the West and elsewhere to guess intelligently at what’s to come in the US; what life will feel like under Trump. Here is a checklist to compare against in the coming months and years. We will all be happier if none of this comes to pass but the weight of evidence suggests the worst. Equally, none of this implies that supporters of Trump don’t have legitimate issues on their side which, sadly, other politicians won’t address. Which is how populists come to power.


Constitutional Chaos


Already the intelligence services and Mr.Trump have squared off. Think about that for a long moment. Then think about what Trump will do. He will appoint new chiefs. They will fight with their rank and file. He will try to downsize and defund. There will be pushback. Imagine what that will look like in the media. Then there’s the ‘Emoluments Clause’ that, according to various experts, requires Trump resign from his businesses. He won’t fully. His kids certainly wont. His kids will also occupy indefinable White House positions with disproportionate power, raising all manner of nepotism questions. For a long while, Trump will ignore his more-or-less respectable cabinet chiefs and get things done via non-accredited unofficial advisors. Picking through the legal minefield, the courts and ultimately the Supreme Court will be very busy. So, think about vacancies on the Supreme Court. Watch Republicans in Congress divide endlessly over the issues. There will be incessant all-against-all confusion in America’s institutions – as there was in the very process of the election. All this chaos – cui bono? Confusion and uncertainty creates a yearning for strongman rule….


At first it was Trump forecasting doubts on electoral fairness. After the election, it was Hillary’s side. First the FBI seemed to take Trump’s side. Then the CIA took the opposite side. Rightwingers went with Putin over their own national security agencies. Prog types unprecedentedly sided with national security. Suddenly Up is down, down is up. Everything can become its reverse, moral equivalency will reign. Trump’s conflicts of interest? Answer: What about the Clinton Foundation. Trump’s (and Kissinger’s) connections to Russia? Answer: What about the Clinton Foundation. Kremlinologists of recent years call this ‘whataboutism’ because the Kremlin’s various mouthpieces deployed the technique so exhaustively against the US. So Putin commits Georgia, Crimea, Donbass, MH17, Olympic doping, poisoning and killing of opponents, Assad, Allepo etc.? Answer: What about Iraq and Libya.


The suspicious similarity between Kremlin propaganda and Trump propaganda surely cannot mean, that the Kremlin, influences the Trump campaign? Surely not. Preposterous notion. But just in case the patterns don’t go away, remember: the Kremlin’s goal is not merely to create national bifurcation. The goal is to create confusion of allegiance, of trust, of truth, loss of faith in the open society, in the very epistemology of empirical fact. You’d think such a quasi-metaphysical inversion of all certainty couldn’t be deliberately achieved. You’d have to be paranoid to believe that….


Already, the newsmedia serves separated groups of true believers while the thinning center bloc of citizens drift to either side. Few CNN watchers follow Breitbart – and vice-versa. In short, the country cannot agree on what actually happened at any given time. The fight is over reality itself. If people treat every fact as partisan, facts cease to be facts. In the confusion, the populist attacks opposition media for causing the confusion. Chavez and Maduro blamed ‘saboteurs’ for shortfalls in foodstuffs at supermarkets. In a more extreme case, Turkey for example, the ruling party provoked terror then used each incident to curb press freedom as a way of curbing terror. From Cairo to Moscow we’ve seen this same scenario: Government quickly accuses the press of abetting terrorists by revealing too much. Let us hope that Trump’s tenure doesn’t coincide with a sustained wave of terrorist acts. Let us hope that the Kremlin keeps this method of interference and provocation undeployed.


You might argue that the US Constitution explicitly protects independent newsmedia. The US is not Turkey or Russia. You can’t fine or close down top newspapers or their reporters. No, but you can jail journalists for holding out on info crucial to national security. Already, we see the Trump administration asking NBC to reveal its sources of high-level leaks from the intel community. Such legal disputes over media freedoms can rumble on endlessly causing clouds of distraction. But the real war between Trump and the media will unfold elsewhere, along other stealthier vectors. Assume that Moscow has our digital communication records – and I mean most of us – going back many years. Emails, health details, banking details, even telephone calls. Now you know why those mysterious hacks of large databanks happened repeatedly for so long.


Expect specific anti-Trump or anti-Putin figures to find themselves swathed in personal scandals, from journalists to politicians to entertainers. See what was done to such staunch anti-Kremlin investigative journalists such as Anne Applebaum and the Finnish journalist who probed Russian trolls Jessikka Aro In Poland it took the form of audiotapes of politicians chatting unguardedly at a restaurant they favored, taped throughout many months and then released on the web. All resigned. The government fell. Populist government took over. In Turkey, it was emails and celphone chats by any and all possible independent thinkers to consolidate power before elections.


New Distractions


The newsmedia’s compulsion to swarm all over certain news events – shootings, bombs, personal scandals, leaks – poses a genuine risk to the media itself. Its clout weakened by fragmented niche audiences, the media only unites in covering such topics en masse. Which offers opportunities for genuinely effective and damaging manipulation from abroad, some of it highly convoluted. Watch out for ultra-salacious leaks about Donald Trump or his personal entourage that prove partly or wholly false. Such fake news will precede or render ineffectual real revelations….


For the best guide to the garish sensory wall-paper of the Trump era’s assault on our senses we must look to RT and other Russian news media. They pioneered post-fact reality as mainstream culture. Peter Pomeranzev’s book “Nothing Is True, Everything Is Possible” studies the phenomenon, lays it out plainly. In essence, the kind of supermarket gossip-tabloid material that once infested our peripheral vision now moves front and center. Total fantasy – for the masses. Every so often containing a tiny germ of truth. Total fantasy and not even simple lies like Kellyann Conway’s recent assertion that the intelligence services clearly concluded Russia hadn’t successfully influenced the election. (They concluded no such thing.) Or Trump’s notorious assertion months ago that Mexico’s President, after their meeting, had agreed to pay for the wall. It will feel more like a wholly fabricated unending theater of bizarrerie and Orwellian inversions. As Michael Hirschorn says in the MSNBC interview, we look for the wrong things in Trump’s world, such as content and argument. “In reality tv it really isn’t about content, it’s about show, about performance,,, it’s about endless chaos….”