Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media.
Three years ago, I sat in a crowded Texas office with a 24-year-old refugee. He had fled Uzbekistan, an authoritarian state, after forming a civic organization to teach young people about environmental problems. His organization violated no law and conveyed no political content, but in Uzbekistan – as another dissident once told me – "suspicious is the same as guilty." The young man had been deemed "suspicious" and was now targeted by state security services, so he fled to the United States for political asylum.
I served as his expert witness. My job was to tell the judge about Uzbekistan: a country ruled by a dictator who abuses executive power to obtain personal wealth, threatens independent media and protesters, spies on real and perceived enemies, packs his administration with lackeys and relatives, refuses to disclose his financial holdings, moulds public opinion through media domination, persecutes innocent Muslims under the pretext of fighting terrorism, and distracts the citizenry with pageants and spectacle, often proclaiming that he is making Uzbekistan great again.
That dictator, Islam Karimov, died this year after 25 years of rule. A few months later, dictatorship in my own country may be emerging. Our dictatorship has not fully taken form: that I can write this (albeit in a Canadian publication) is proof of that. But we are running out of time.
Should president-elect Donald Trump follow through with his oppressive policies – his most recent suggestion is stripping people of citizenship for expressing dissent – we may one day experience American authoritarianism.
American authoritarianism will not be a carbon copy of other states. Mr. Trump's authoritarianism will exploit pre-existing vulnerabilities – corporate corruption, institutional rot, systemic racism, a weakened economy, a struggling media, celebrity worship – and exacerbate them until our nation is no longer recognizable.
Should this occur, it may look like home, but it will not feel like home. What may be wrenched from us is a fundamental sense of security and sovereignty. When cable outlets are not promoting white supremacists or debating the humanity of Jews – yes, this is what our media airs now – they occasionally document Mr. Trump's kleptocratic behaviour.
Citizens keep waiting for representatives to act on long-promised investigations of malfeasance related to the Trump campaign. Throughout the summer and fall, for example, Senator Harry Reid repeatedly called for an FBI investigation of Russian attempts to "falsify official election results." Instead we find our institutions unresponsive and our leaders reticent.
As hate crimes soar, we, the people, are told to just shut up and unite. We are told this by politicians who have abdicated their responsibility to protect the most vulnerable, as they rally around a candidate who has long targeted them.
But we are still here, we the people, the inconvenient background players in Donald Trump's self-serving shakedown of the American dream. We the people have been calling our representatives, demanding to know what is going on. We the people never did form that more perfect union, but we are not about to trade in the red, white and blue for the gold-plated facade of a tyrant tycoon.
We the people look out for each other – even when no one looks out for us.
Last week, the Uzbek man whom I helped get asylum contacted me again. He was worried that he was going to be put on the Muslim registry and become, for the second time in his life, a target of a brutal state. As was the case in Uzbekistan, my friend has done nothing to deserve this. My heart aches for him and all who fled dictatorships for the U.S., only to find themselves reliving old horrors.
I told my friend that I had his back, as I did when he was fleeing Uzbekistan. And I know, from witnessing the resolve of my countrymen – folks of all parties, including some who voted for Mr. Trump – that millions of us will not abide authoritarianism quietly. We are Americans. Our institutions are more fragile than we thought, but we are not.
It would be shocking for the land of the free to lurch into dictatorship. But it would be far more shocking if we threw away our freedoms without a fight.