Masha Gessen on Trump, Putin and the attack on reality, meaning and democracy

Author of the new "Surviving Autocracy" on Trump, America's historical blindness and the desperate need for hope

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 12, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump delivers remarks in front of the media in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump delivers remarks in front of the media in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

There may be no one on the planet better situated to write about the spread of autocracy and its associated ideologies — in America, in Russia and elsewhere in the world — than Masha Gessen, who joined me recently by video for a Salon Talks conversation. Gessen is a Russian-born journalist and author who had parallel careers in both Russian and English before moving permanently to the United States in 2013 and becoming a New Yorker staff writer in 2017. If you don't know their work, you certainly should. (Gessen, who was long a prominent LGBT activist in Russia, identifies as non-binary, and prefers the third-person plural.) 

An avowed enemy and critic of Vladimir Putin over many years, Gessen is now an avowed enemy of Donald Trump as well. Among various other works of history, memoir and journalism, Gessen is the author of "The Man Without a Face," an important study of Putin's rise to power, and more recently "The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia," which won a National Book Award in 2017. 

Gessen's new book, "Surviving Autocracy" — which could be called a concise and masterful mini-history of the Trump era — is quite likely the most urgent and immediate work of Gessen's career. This is a book by a writer of nettlesome clarity, that will cause half-formed conceptions to cohere in your mind as full-fledged understanding. You can read it in a single afternoon, and most likely will have to. As Gessen makes clear, neither Trump nor Putin emerged from nowhere. A society must be ready for autocracy before an autocrat can conquer it, and Gessen has little patience for those who focus on toxic individual figureheads as if their existence was self-explanatory, and as if defeating them through normal political means would set everything to rights.

No individual reader of "Surviving Autocracy" is likely to agree with everything Gessen has to say, but that is not the standard for independent thought, or at least it shouldn't be. Personally, I am grateful for Gessen's skepticism toward unified-field #Resistance conspiracy theories about a Putin-Trump master plan for conquering the universe. As I read "Surviving Autocracy," Gessen perceives that the Russian and American presidents have aligned interests in several important ways — notably, they're opposed to democracy and would like to defeat or destroy it — but are different kinds of people produced by very different social contexts. To boil down what Gessen describes as an "autocratic attempt" that is moving forward at different speeds on different continents, and with varying degrees of success, to a villainous plot concocted by a few individuals is fatally reductive and anti-historical.

"Surviving Autocracy" is less a prescriptive manual than an imperative: It tells us what must be done, but not how. It surely informs us that the danger to what is left of American democracy is real, that complacent faith in Joe Biden or the Democratic Party is badly misplaced and that the solutions to America's dilemma will not be easy or immediate. My conversation with Gessen — conducted by Zoom between two neighborhoods in New York City — took place shortly before the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the resulting explosion of protest across the country. I do not think I am projecting to say that Gessen would describe these protests against racism and brutality as also an uprising against autocracy, which is a system that thrives on violence and injustice, and uses them as its organizing principles and central weapons. 

Video of our conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Masha, welcome. One of the big questions of the entire Trump experience in America has been whether Donald Trump is an anomaly. The word "aberration" has actually been used by Joe Biden, among others. Does Trump reflect an immense departure from the past, or was he the culmination of a process that took years or decades? Your answer to that question appears to be: Yes. Both things are true.

That's a great way of putting it. I'm both very fond and a little suspicious of historians because it is a historian's job to make everything sound predetermined. But then I end up sort of engaging that paradigm in the book and the one thing that I think is very important to understand is that nothing happens suddenly. There's no one event that is going to tell us that we have now passed to the other side of autocracy. There are many things that build over time, and Trumpism itself has built over time. There are many things that allowed Trump to happen. The concentration of power in the executive branch that has been ongoing for many years now.

The marriage of money and power that became de-problematized, the marriage of money and politics, the willing and even willful surrender of civil liberties, and the siege mentality that overtook the country after 9/11. All of those things allowed Trump to happen. 

That's just taking almost an arbitrary point, 9/11, which I think is super-important. We can take an earlier point and also trace the trajectory, but I don't want to make it sound like he was predetermined. So the way that I phrase it for myself was that he's a quantum leap, but taken from a running start.

You draw an analogy in the book to the Reichstag fire in 1933, which is often identified as the excuse Hitler used to seize full power in Germany. But as you say, even the Reichstag fire should not be understood as an isolated event, and if we have such an event, we might not notice it at the time. I strongly agree with your contention that 9/11 was that event, even though it occurred 15 years before Trump was elected. It changed the country so much, it changed the understanding of civil liberties so much. 

Once again, I think that many things are true at the same time. My personal obsession has been for years with trying to imagine the lived experience of these giant events of history. My first book was largely about the time in between the beginning of World War II and the death of 6 million Jews. We think of it as a collapsed event. I was obsessed with how time actually felt, how people lived through history, knowing that they were living through history and yet lacking any of the conceptual tools that would allow them to understand what exactly they were living through.

Now, I'm not making any direct comparisons. But after the Reichstag fire, did people say to each other, "Oh, now we're living in an entirely changed state"? I think some people did and then got used to it. And some people didn't and some people said — I was grading papers last night, and one of my best students submitted a paper in which he wrote that fascism in the United States is impossible. And we know this because Trump was elected three years ago and he hasn't been able to damage any American institutions. And since they're just as strong as they were three years ago, we know we're fine.

[Laughter.] Aside from just feeling like, "Well, that was a waste of 13 weeks," right? It is actually possible to be living in this country at this time being an extremely intelligent person, granted, quite young, and to think that. There's an entire spectrum of ways to understand the moment that we're living through. And again, going back to the Reichstag fire, one of the things that interested me about that is that it was five years before the Anschluss, and six years before the actual beginning of World War II. So to say that was the moment is to lessen the importance of all kinds of other moments, and to ignore the fact that any of this is always gradual. No one is going to arrive and say, "And now we have passed to the other side."

Right. Because all kinds of things could have happened between 1933 and, say, 1943. It was not a direct line from the Reichstag fire to, "Hey, let's build some death camps and kill as many Jews as possible." A lot of things had to happen in between.

Right. Exactly, exactly. And that's both horrifying to behold, but also should be hopeful because — and this is where I would insist on making comparisons — historical analogies are imperfect and in many ways useless, except the only thing that makes us better off than Germans and other Europeans in the 1930s and '40s is that that already happened. The only advantage we have is being able to learn from history.

One of the most interesting parts of your book, for me, is the discussion of language. A lot of people have tried to tangle with the way that language in the public sphere and in the political realm and civic discourse has been debased and stripped of meaning. I think you give a very lean account of that, which I appreciate. We don't often focus on what words mean and the way that they have been stripped of meaning. It drives me crazy for example, that we still use the words "liberal" and "conservative" in American political discourse. In what sense is Donald Trump a conservative? That's just one example.

Absolutely. Yeah. I'm like you. I have my pet peeves about the use of language. My pet peeve is "political." Right? Here we are whining and ranting about the destruction of politics, which is real. And then we use the word "political" and "politics" to mean emptiness. We say, "That's just politics." Or "It's just political." Or "They're politicizing the pandemic." Which is the biggest political event of our lifetimes, perhaps?

If there's one thing that I can convince people to do, I would like to convince people to use the word "politics" with the respect and reverence that it deserves because it is essential for our survival as a republic. But I think that what has happened to language under Trump is really extraordinary because if there's one talent that he has, it's the talent for attacking meaning, attacking the use of language.

He does two different things. In my amateur study of history and study of autocrats, there's one thing that's prevalent. I grew up in the Soviet Union, where words, political words especially, were used to mean their opposites. So "free" was used to mean unfree, ignorance is power, etc. If only we had the prescriptive qualities of Orwell's "1984." But you figured out that big words meant their opposite.

In Putin's Russia, words mean nothing. He just creates this fog of words and they mean nothing. Trump does both and I think it's very disorienting. Either one of those would actually be quite disorienting. But the fact that he deploys both weapons just makes us, I think, feel both extremely anxious and extremely unfocused, fogged up all the time. Because part of the time, what he is saying is gibberish, but part of the time, he's really using words to mean their opposite. 

One of my favorites, of course, is "witch hunt." Which is just so obvious. You can't be the most powerful man in the universe and be the object of a witch hunt. It's actually a term that describes a power relationship. You have to be hunted, not the hunter. You have less power than the people who are persecuting you. And he's got an entire repertoire of those sorts of victimhood words, reverse-power relationships. Another, of course, is "fake news." 

And then there's a third thing that he has done in which he has been extraordinarily successful, which is just shifting our frame. It's partly, I think, by overwhelming our senses, but one of the most important examples is the way that he has shifted our frame on immigration and shifted the language on immigration. Where within a year we went from thinking that the wall was insane and probably just so much campaign hot air to discussing what it should be made of. And that's also a matter of language because, in a broader sense, in the sense of rhetoric, there's no rhetoric that actually runs counter to the rhetoric of fear, isolation, defense, security and building the wall ultimately.

Yeah, Trump has all these different ways of using language to not be true or to obfuscate the truth. It's as if we have to figure out, with every utterance he makes, what kind of obfuscation this is before we can respond to it. Is it a bald-faced lie in the usual sense of that term? Is it something that he just pulled out of his butt and may temporarily believe? Is he just free-associating? When he talked about injecting household cleaners into the human body, to me he was just up there spitballing, but we have to have a whole debate about whether it was serious, whether it was sarcastic, whether it was a lie. Was there some way you could twist it around to be a little bit true? All of that to my mind is serving his interests, when we get trapped in these kinds of debates about pettifoggery or meta-pettifoggery.

Yes. But we don't actually have a choice about being trapped. We can try to step outside the trap, but the trap still exists because we don't have the option of saying, "OK, what he says is meaningless." Because by definition, because he's president of the United States, his statements have a meaning, in the sense that they have consequences, they have impact. When he talks about injecting disinfectant, they have immediate impact because people started drinking disinfectants and they have a larger impact because we have the spectacle of the president of the United States saying something certifiably insane from his bully pulpit. And they have another layer of meaning because he then says, "Well, I didn't mean it. I was kidding."

And so we have that problem to contend with, the problem of the president saying, "Nothing I say actually should be taken at face value." And all those things have meaning. So we can't just watch it, like Rachel Maddow once said, like a silent movie. It's not a silent movie. It has consequences. So there's no good solution there. I think there are harm reduction options. You can try to step outside the frame and say, "OK, let's view this as a system. Let's try to describe what just happened." But there's still not great options.

I want to talk about the essential tension or essential thrust of your book, that there are these two competing realms of rhetoric, realms of reality or realms of political narrative in the United States right now, between those who believe in democracy and the rule of law and the norms and standards that the republic theoretically has run by, and those who appear to reject that and are celebrating autocracy or embracing it. And one of your arguments — it's difficult to synopsize, but you can do a better job than me — is that the people who still believe in democracy are ceding too much terrain or perhaps not understanding the nature of the conflict. They keep assuming that the institutions will triumph over people who don't believe in the institutions.

I think that's a great way to describe it, actually. Again, it's a real trap, right? It's a real trap, which is that we have to have faith in the institutions in order to be able to use those institutions to resist this autocratic attempt. And I should probably say that I use the term "autocratic attempt," and I use some of the framework created by one of my favorite contemporary thinkers, a Hungarian sociologist named Bálint Magyar, whose work I used before in my last book, "The Future Is History." He is somebody who tackled the problem of a lack of language describing what is  happening in Hungary, and then broadened the issue and the solution to all the post communist countries. His basic argument — and this is related to what you asked me about — is that when the Eastern bloc collapsed, we automatically started using the language of liberal democracy to describe what was happening there. And there were two reasons for that. One was this manifest destiny idea of what was going to happen there, because of course they were going to become liberal democracies.

But the other is that that's the language of political science. That's the matrix that we apply to the study of all political regimes. Do they have free elections? Do they have free media? Do they have an independent judiciary? And his point is, well, if this is not a liberal democracy framework, then using that language is actually misleading. You may be able to say, and this is a quote, "that the elephant can't fly and the elephant can't swim, but you still haven't described the elephant." So he proposed an entire taxonomy of what he called an "autocratic attempt," and he frames what happened in Hungary as, first, an autocratic attempt, then an autocratic breakthrough and then autocratic consolidation. And he gives a lot of ways to recognize them, a lot of elements of each of these stages of the process.

So I was thinking, well, isn't it symbolically rich to borrow that language to try to describe what is happening here? I think it's super useful. It can't be just transposed automatically, because obviously we have very different starting points and very different political cultures, but it's more useful than you might suspect. And one of the concepts in Magyar's work is that it begins with an autocratic attempt, and up until the moment of an autocratic breakthrough, you can actually use electoral mechanisms to resist the autocratic attempt. And then after the autocratic breakthrough, the institutions have been weakened sufficiently that you can no longer use them to resist.

So that gets me back to the issue you raised, which is that in order to be able to use the institutions that we have to resist the autocratic attempt, we have to assume that they're working and we have to assume that we're using them in good faith. But the problem is that we might be using them in good faith — but he is not. So in a way we have a clash of realities. And we're at a huge disadvantage because the institutions were not designed to resist somebody who's approaching them in bad faith. I think that one of the simplest examples to observe, although the examples are everywhere, is actually Trump's relationship to the Supreme court and the trajectory of the travel bans.

We begin with the travel ban on Jan. 27, 2017. There's a huge public outcry and we have civil society kick into action, and we have the courts kick into action. And before the ban, the travel ban and all the injunctions, wind their way through the courts to the Supreme Court, the White House reformats the travel ban. This to me is a super important moment, because if you think about it, this is not a conversation between two good-faith partners. 

This is not the White House saying, "Well, this is what we believe is the right thing to do. We also believe it's constitutional. This is our argument." What you have is a New York real estate developer whose application for an easement has been rejected by City Hall, which always happens on the first try. So he fudges it a little here, he fudges it a little there. He puts a little pressure on the relevant bureaucrats. And he tries again. And if that fails, as it did, then again, before waiting to go through the process, he tries again. And bingo, if you just draw another window on the plan and call the alley a roadway, then it will go through.

That's a very different way of relating to the cornerstone institution of American democracy. It's viewing it as an obstacle, as a hindrance. And we're seeing that all over the place, and this is a clash of perceptions and realities. What I'm really scared of at this point, is that these realities are in a sort of equilibrium and the equilibrium favors the status quo.

So in this scheme from Magyar's work that you've laid out, are we in between the autocratic attempt and the autocratic breakthrough? 

I think we have to assume that at least up until November we're in between. I think that impeachment was, at least formally, a huge test of the institutions, and the institutions failed in exactly that model. The model of the clash of realities. If you watched the impeachment — and I think we haven't really talked about it enough, which of course is another hallmark of the Trump era. 

I drafted the book in August, then I rewrote it substantially in the fall during the impeachment hearings. And then I got the galleys at the very beginning of the coronavirus crisis. By that point, impeachment seemed like ancient history. The whole thing read like it was very dated. So I revised it again. But we haven't talked enough about the very peculiar place of the impeachment hearings, even in the Trump era — that there was no debate about facts. 

A lot of the time Trump entraps us into a debate about facts, as though facts were debatable. During the impeachment hearings, facts were not under debate. Everybody basically was working with the same set of facts. Except the Trump side was saying that was a perfect phone call and the Democrats are out to get us. And the Democrats were saying that was a blatant example of abuse of executive power. So it was entirely a battle of interpretations. What was really scary to me as I watched the impeachment hearings live, was that you could only watch them through one of those lenses. You couldn't otherwise put them together. You couldn't try to use both of those at the same time. If they were a Venn diagram, they would be changing, there would be no overlap.

That does strike me as very dangerous. And then we had the classic journalistic paradigm of trying to say, well, one side says this, and the other side says that. One of the reasons that appears so ridiculous is because it does not recognize what you're talking about — it does not recognize that the prisms are completely different, the worldviews are completely different. The epistemological frame through which both sides are looking at the world is completely different. And if we don't say that, we aren't actually telling the truth.

Exactly. That brings us to the next problem, which is that in American journalism, we do not have the tools to portray that kind of picture. Everything that we have is geared toward giving both sides equal weight, equal presumed validity, which is how we end up with headlines in the New York Times during the early coronavirus era of, "Trump says Earth flat, scientists disagree."

I should let you go in a minute, but I want to ask a question that doesn't have a clear answer. As someone who came to America as an adult, your perspective on this may be different. But when I hear people saying — whether it's Trump people, or sometimes people on the far left — that democracy as it is practiced here is a sham, completely corrupt, completely broken, I mean, one can certainly debate the validity of that, but it's not a completely preposterous thing to say. That's a problem.

Yeah. So you saved the best for last. No, it is a problem. And I think one of the weaknesses that Trumpism taps into is American exceptionalism and is what some scholars have called the American civil religion, this religious belief in the Constitution, in the perfection of the structure and this republic. And this structure is deeply imperfect, and I would also argue that it hasn't been very well tended to in the last few decades. It has become more imperfect, more rickety. And we all know this. And addressing this directly in the Democratic Party has been relegated to a marginal position on the "left," which is just as meaningful as "conservative" and "liberal" in this setup. And so the public doesn't see Democrats addressing the lived experience of the system failing them. The political system and the economic system.

Then along comes Trump and says, "It's broken." And for a minute, he gets to be the boy who said that the emperor is naked. It doesn't matter that he's also not wearing any clothes.

I was so grateful that you brought up Robert Mueller's career at the FBI and the fact that he was one of the architects of the surveillance state that was created after 9/11. And then he becomes this golden-boy hero, subject of all these fawning profiles. I wouldn't expect you to be sympathetic to this personal history, given your background, but my mother was a member of the Communist Party in the United States, in the 1940s and '50s. So I know from personal experience what those police agencies in American life did to people. I'm not saying it was like what happened in the Soviet Union. But it was bad enough in its own special way. So when people want to make somebody like Robert Mueller into the hero, my response is: You haven't been paying attention to history.

Absolutely. And again, people are not stupid, but not everyone may be so articulate as to bring up Mueller's extraordinary career at the helm of the FBI. He basically turned what was a domestic police agency into a domestic spy agency over the course of his 13 years at the helm of the FBI. Mueller sanctioned torture. And then to print fawning profiles full of — I think it was Eric Holder whom the Washington Post quoted saying nothing about Mueller, and Eric Holder saying nothing was somehow evidence of Mueller being something.

Not every reader may have the tools and the information to poke a specifically-shaped hole in that narrative like I can, but every reader is capable of perceiving the falsehood, the false notes of that narrative. And that is so incredibly damaging. It also contributes to one of the dangerous aspects of the Trump era, which is its profound ahistoricism. 

Your book is called "Surviving Autocracy." So how do we do that? I suppose one answer is to elect somebody else in November. That does seem important, but there's got to be more to it than that.

This is where I would prefer to say that I'm a journalist. I don't give prescriptions, but I have a hypothesis. And my hypothesis is that there's only one way that you can fight the appeal of a demagogue like Trump, and this is something that I've been writing about for many years. My last book was about the resurgence of totalitarianism in Russia. The book was called "The Future Is History," and that's in part a reference to the appeal to what social psychologists call the "imaginary past."

I think the only way to fight the appeal of the imaginary past, the appeal of "Make America Great Again," is to propose that there's another glorious future. I think it would be more useful to think of our politicians and our political activists not in terms of left and right, but in terms of past and future. I don't just mean young people, though I think that may be an advantage. It's obviously not on the menu, but I think Bernie Sanders is a future-oriented politician and Joe Biden is not. And Hillary Clinton certainly was not. 

To talk about the future and substance, to create hope, to actually set ourselves the goal of creating a vision, we have to address real problems and stop saying, as Hillary Clinton's campaign basically did, that the present is just fine. There has to be an idea of the world that we're going to wake up in five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now. What is that world going to be like? What is the air going to be like? What is student debt going to be like? What is public health going to be like?

I think that people can be swept up in hope. But people can't really be swept up in rational arguments and technocratic promises. Not because people are irrational, but because the so-called rational arguments run counter to their lived experience.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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