Journalist and author Masha Gessen lived through the changes of the Soviet Union, including Putin’s ascendancy and increasing control over the state media. Gessen’s reported and written extensively about totalitarianism and the relationship of Putin’s Russia with the west. In Surviving Autocracy, Gessen turns this deft analysis towards the Trump administration and draws striking, absolutely chilling parallels between autocrats and the stages of autocratic progression and Trump, and the changing of our democracy into an autocracy.
Its release couldn’t come at a more pivotal moment, as we watch our wannabe-strongman president tear gas peaceful protesters and stage photo-ops while missing the message of what people are demonstrating against entirely. None of this is surprising, sadly, and as fatigued as we can become at reading analysis of the Trump administration’s behaviors while his supporters continue to ignore such analysis in favor of propaganda and rejections of critical thinking, Gessen’s analysis is wholly worth reading.
Grown from the ominous, guideline-establishing essay “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” written shortly after Trump’s election, Gessen manages to look at events that have already been discussed ad nauseum and examine them with a fresh perspective, especially using the lens of their experience in the Soviet Union and familiarity and understanding of Putin’s tactics. It’s well written and clearly defined without dumbing down key concepts. It’s also bluntly horrifying and of immediate consequence.
And it’s hopeful, but in a very clear-eyed, realistic way. Starry optimism in the face of historic precedent and grim reality is one thing Gessen fights against strongly. They put paid to the idea that there’s any kind of “before” time we can return to once “Trumpism” ends. Gessen identifies a “fictional state of pre-Trump normalcy,” and notes that “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.”
This is one of the biggest messages we need to take from this book, especially at this crucial moment, as we’re reminded that Black Americans can be murdered with impunity by law enforcement, health care remains inaccessible to millions, and an ocean-wide gap of disparity exists, all of which contributed to the inequality, unrest, anger, and frustration that opened the door for Trump.
American political conversation had become a space free from imagination and aspiration. Rather than talk about the future, we talked about policy; rather than talk about what’s right and just, we talked about what’s realistic and lawful; rather than discuss values, we discussed strategies. It was this dull, neutral, largely hollow space that Trump so easily filled with his crudeness, cruelty, and lies.
This even includes blisteringly critical commentary on the administration’s response to coronavirus, impressively analyzed and placed in Gessen’s contextual framework of autocratic definitions in this fairly short time span.
The television networks would broadcast these sessions live; the newspapers would report on them, and Trump’s other coronavirus-related pronouncements, as though they were the stuff of an intelligible presidency, with positions, principles, and a strategy. As a result, even as hospitals across the country buckled, people died, and the economy tanked, more than half of all Americans claimed to approve of Trump’s response to the pandemic.
A major theme is language, and how to even begin to talk about the “exceptional, barely imaginable nature of Trumpian stories”. Gessen finds a reference point in Hungarian socialist Baking Magyar, who found that in the post-Soviet countries the language used to describe democracy didn’t apply. This argument around the importance of language, and the way Trump has bent it for his purposes is exceptional, and raises important points that we must keep in mind going forward. Most importantly, Gessen helps give us the right language for discussion, and identifies how necessary this will be in shaping the future.
They also break down the transformation into autocracy, “which proceeds in three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation. It occurred to me that these were words that American culture could now borrow, in an appropriate symbolic reversal of 1989: these terms appear to describe our reality better than any words in the standard American political lexicon.” Let that sink in for a moment. Or this: “American government grew more corrupted, in the sense of the word that denotes a transformation beyond recognition.”
I especially found the section addressing the media’s relationship to the Trump administration, in particular legacy journalism and in particular particular the New York Times, eye-opening. Gessen has sharp words for US journalism that bends to the benefit of the doubt and hesitates to label lies as such, leaving room for doubts or unknowns in politician’s minds that a journalist can’t account for and thus avoiding hard statements. This is why I’ve preferred to read foreign reporting on US events latelay. Gessen elucidates so much that I’d felt but struggled to put a finger on. They show how the Trump administration “makes us feel crazy, and the restrained tone of the media compounds this feeling by failing to acknowledge it.”
When the time for recovery comes, as it inevitably will, we will need to do the work of rebuilding a sense of shared reality. For journalists, the task is much bigger than returning to an imagined state of normalcy before Trump, or even than deciding to retire some words and rehabilitate others.
The parallels between Trump and Putin and Trump’s hero worship of him are powerful. Gessen is uniquely positioned to make these connections, and uses their cross-cultural experience and understanding to powerful effect. “In his small-mindedness and lack of aspiration, Trump curiously resembled Putin, though the origins of the two men’s stubborn mediocrity could not be more different.” They differentiate between aspiration and ambition, noting that both want the money and the power but couldn’t care less about being better themselves: “Putin was and remains a poorly educated, underinformed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world.”
A few final quotes that struck me, but really, every word of this is meaningful:
“The tweets summed up Trump’s understanding of power. His election victory entitled him—and, by extension, those whom he saw as his people—to adulation. Criticism, confrontation, and even the simple acknowledgment of political difference amount, in his view, to disrespect. Being disrespected makes him feel victimized—and he claims his imagined victimhood with glee. This claim turns the reality of power upside down, enabling Trump to come out on top by placing himself at the bottom.”
“The Trumpian lie is different. It is the power lie, or the bully lie. It is 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 power lie conjures a different reality and demands that you choose between your experience and the bully’s demands: Are you going to insist that you are wet from the rain or give in and say that the sun is shining?”
“Time itself is complicit. Anything that happens here and now is normalized, not solely through the moral failure of contemporaries but simply by virtue of actually existing.”
I can’t stress enough how incisive, intelligent, and essential this book is right now. We’re not halfway through but I’m confident this will be one of the most important books of the year. The implications Gessen highlights in every facet of this administration’s actions and the hard reality of what it will take to overcome them — and how even liberals and left-leaning media can be complicit unless we adapt our language and responses as well — are imperative to understand. Knowledge is power, now more than ever. Please read this book.
Surviving Autocracy: A Status Report
by Masha Gessen
published June 2, 2020 by Riverhead Books
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.