Americans are suddenly consumed with multiple crises. Even before the outbreak of social unrest following yet another African American’s death in police custody, the ravages of COVID-19 and economic freefall had disrupted the national life.
All of which means conditions are ripe for President Trump to assume more power and move closer to the status of autocratic ruler, says New Yorker writer Masha Gessen in a new book Surviving Autocracy.
Gessen’s viewpoint may be head-spinning for many, especially those who believe today’s maelstrom of disease, unemployment and racial violence represent failures by the incumbent president. Yet Gessen argues that Trump may see it all as an opportunity, not just in his pursuit of re-election, but in what Gessen believes is his longer-term concept of his own career trajectory.
“He may inadvertently have created perfect conditions for autocratic consolidation,” Gessen writes, a climate of “more anxiety and fear of change.” Gessen quotes the 20th century scholar Hannah Arendt, author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, who observed how future dictators used instability “while at the same time dangling the promise of stability.”
In uncertain times, the aspiring autocrat promises a restoration, a return to greatness — all the while reaching for more power and permanence. Gessen suggests Trump will seek to use all that has happened in his tumultuous term to achieve a breakthrough to unlimited power on the model of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For many readers, comparing an elected American president to a Russian dictator is simply beyond the pale. But if the comparison seemed strained a week ago, it seems less so on the morning after Trump dressed down the governors of the affected states and brandished the threat of federal troops taking over their streets.
Gessen clearly regards Trump not only as a Putin apologist and sometime collaborator but as a Putin impersonator. The author argues that Trump models himself on Putin, not because he expects to replicate Russian political culture here but because he wants America to see him the way Russia sees Putin — as someone who can return his country to the glories of “an imaginary past.”
Gessen says Putin and Trump were elected president without really wanting the job. They ran “not for president but for autocrat,” and they did not expect to settle for anything less. Putin has been in office 16 years, is on track for four more and is maneuvering to secure another eight thereafter. Trump has retweeted pictures of prospective campaign signs that say TRUMP 2024 and TRUMP 2028 and so on into the future.
Born in Moscow in 1967, Gessen has won acclaim largely for writing on this native land, including winning a National Book Award for a 2017 examination of Putin’s rise and suppression of democracy. And while the Putin-Trump link has been made elsewhere, it is forged here in Gessen’s own personal history.
Brought to New York by immigrating parents in the early 1980s, Gessen returned to this birthplace on journalistic assignment a decade later. Gessen then spent most of the next 20 years as a writer, editor and activist in post-Soviet Russia, observing the rise of the former KGB officer who now holds that nation’s highest office.
Gessen wrote books on a wide array of subjects, including a grandmothers’ struggles to survive the Nazis and the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin. Another is about the female punk band Pussy Riot, sentenced to prison for their protest songs.
Gessen cites an array of scholars in this, Gessen’s 11th book. One is Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, who has described the present condition of his own country as a “mafia state,” ruled by a crime family in which “one man distributes money and power to all other members.” (Viewers of The Sopranos will understand how this model works.) Magyar also identifies three stages by which a ruler is transformed into an autocrat: the attempt; the breakthrough; and the consolidation.
Gessen sees Trump’s term so far as the autocratic attempt, his re-election as a prospective breakthrough, and a second term as the green light to consolidate his power.
“The first three years [of Trump’s term] have shown that an autocratic attempt in the U.S. has credible chance of succeeding,” Gessen writes. “Worse than that, they have shown that an autocratic attempt builds logically on the structures and norms of American government; on the concentration of power in the executive branch, and on the marriage of money and politics.”
Gessen says the institutions and traditions Americans thought would protect them have proven “weak” because they were not built to withstand a personality such as Trump. The author had little faith that Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election would be “the magic bullet” that would rid Washington of Trump. Instead, Gessen writes, it drew attention away from what Trump was doing “in plain view…ignoring and destroying all institutions of accountability…degrading political speech..using his office to enrich himself…courting dictator after dictator…promoting xenophobic conspiracy theories.”
Since 2013, Gessen has been back in the U.S., writing and also teaching at Amherst College. Although widely published, the writer’s main outlets have been in the Big Apple — The New York Times, the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, where Gessen has been a staff writer since 2017. Regular readers of that magazine will recognize some of Surviving Autocracy from columns in the magazine.
Gessen brings to all work a unique blend of intellect and manifold passions — for math and science, for language and politics, and for the cause of LGBTQ people in both homelands (Gessen also identifies as non-binary). The writer flashes the fierce attitude and language of the partisan activist one moment, returning to the cooler mien of a public intellectual the next.
Gessen is particularly sensitive to issues of linguistics and the subtle shifts of wording that can mean so much — noting how the words “immigrant” and “refugee” (both relatively sympathetic terms for most Americans) have been systematically replaced by such terms as “migrant” or “invasion.”
Gessen is also exercised about the change Trump has wrought in the perception of reality. In a chapter entitled “The Power Lie,” Gessen explains the difference between an ordinary lie that may “collapse in the face of facts” and “the Trumpian lie.”
The latter is “the power lie, or the bully lie…the lie of the bigger kid who took your hat and is wearing it — while denying that he took it. There is no defense against this lie because the point of the lie is to assert power, to show ‘I can say what I want when I want to.'”
The media generally assist in this, Gessen argues, even when serious news organizations “fact check” the president, by presenting two notions of reality side by side and inviting the audience decide. Right there, the president has won, Gessen says. The lie has been given equal standing with verifiable facts, and the concept of truth has been devalued.
Gessen objects repeatedly to the reluctance of legacy newspapers and broadcasters (including NPR) to call the president a liar (or for that matter, a racist). Even when pointing out the inaccuracies and falsehoods the president peddles, traditional journalists balk at terms such as lie and liar. In part, the idea is to keep the door as wide open as possible to attract and retain as wide an audience as possible. Gessen understands this reasoning but says it allows the liar or the racist to persist and normalizes such behavior until it appears less objectionable — or simply not objectionable at all.
But getting back to the word “surviving” and its implicit promise in the title, Gessen gives us this:
“Recovery from Trumpism — a process that will be necessary whenever Trumpism ends — will not be a process of returning to government as it used to be, a fictional state of pre-Trump normalcy. Recovery will be possible only as reinvention: of institutions, of what politics means to us, and of what it means to be a democracy, if that is indeed what we choose to be.”
At this point, of course, one must wonder who Gessen means by “we.” One impression easily taken from Surviving Autocracy is that Trump has been visited on Americans by some mysterious force or personal magic. There is a lack of focus on the manner by which Trump, as opposed to Putin, came to office.
Gessen’s perceptions about Russia’s people and politics are surely more valuable than those of Americans who have never been there (or only visited briefly). But by the same token, average Americans might well ask how much Gessen really knows about the interior states or the interior life of most Americans.
In a 2018 interview with The Atlantic editor Jeffery Goldberg, Gessen volunteered an empathetic reference to those Trump has called “the forgotten man and the forgotten woman,” the middle-aged and older members of the middle class who felt less at home in their own country in recent decades.
What if Gessen had spent more time in the country these people feel they have lost? It would not likely change Gessen’s mind about Trump. But it might alter the writer’s perspective on Trumpism. It might help translate a deep empathy for the plight of ordinary Russians and relate it to the fears and frustration of their American counterparts — the millions who voted for Trump and now accept his authoritarian tendencies as being in their own interest.