It used to be a given that to understand the People’s Republic of China, one had to be familiar with the workings of the Soviet Union, including Leninist organisational principles, Stalinist methods of terror and control, and the nature of propaganda. In Surviving Autocracy, Masha Gessen makes a similar case: to comprehend Trump’s presidency, we need to study the methods of Vladimir Putin and other autocrats – rulers with absolute power. Gessen also forcefully argues that until mainstream American media outlets fully apprehend this, and politicians from both sides stop letting Trump set the terms and tone of political debate, the American public will remain dangerously underprepared for the “autocratic transformation” of their country.
Gessen is one of the sharpest and most important public intellectuals in the United States today. A Russian American with significant lived experience of both countries, they are the author of 11 other books, including an acclaimed biography of Putin and The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Gessen is uniquely qualified, in other words, to make sense of the brakeless-clown-car, rule-shredding, norm-trampling, nonstop shitshow that is the Trump presidency and its spoliation of American political culture.
Gessen adopts the framework of the Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar’s theory of three-stage “autocratic transformation”: “autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough and autocratic consolidation”. Trump’s “utter disregard for human life” and his administration’s “monomaniacal focus on pleasing the leader, to make him appear unerring and all-powerful” qualify Trump’s America for at least the first stage, autocratic attempt.
The problem with mainstream media, according to Gessen, is that they haven’t properly reckoned with what they are dealing with. They write about Trump using the old vocabulary of “political disagreement, judicial procedure, or partisan discussion”, which is wildly inadequate to describe something that is “crushing the system that such terminology was invented to describe”. By adhering to conceits of neutrality, objectivity and fairness, by rushing to label as “presidential” anything Trump did that, as Gessen puts it, doesn’t “sound entirely deranged”, they have helped to normalise Trump’s increasingly brazen assaults on democratic institutions. By “choosing to act as though in the war on reality it was possible not to choose sides”, Gessen states, the “American media mainstream” has become “reluctantly, though not unwittingly, the president’s accomplices”. Democrats collude in normalisation as well when, for example, they argue against Trump’s wall on the basis of expense and effectiveness, leaving the right to claim asylum out of the picture and agreeing with the need for “border security”, thus implicitly endorsing his narrative about immigrants being rapists, thugs and thieves.
Gessen acknowledges the genuine conundrums in finding the language to accurately describe the actions and nature of the Trump administration. Even “corruption” doesn’t cut it. After all, as Gessen notes, corruption’s antonym is transparency, and Trump and his family of grifters have always been transparent, appearing “to act in accordance with the belief that political power should produce personal wealth”. American politics has form in this regard – the swamp monster that is the Trumpian “autocratic attempt” did not arise from dry ground.
In the US, well before Trump arrived on the scene, Gessen writes, there was a kind of oligarchy: “Power begat more money, and money begat more power.” Autocracy itself has roots in American soil. Trump’s actions, Gessen insists, are the “logical consequence” of a long history of political inroads on democratic institutions: Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus in order to detain rebels he believed presented a “danger to the Union” but who probably wouldn’t have been convicted by any court; the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Mexican Americans, including “birthright citizens”, during the Great Depression; the political witch-hunts of the McCarthy era; the Watergate scandal; and on and on. Trump is the natural heir to this alternative tradition. He has always been spectacularly indifferent, even hostile, to political norms and institutions. This was part of the appeal of his 2016 campaign. “Autocrats,” Gessen writes, “declare their intentions early on.< We disbelieve or ignore them at our peril.”
Gessen dissects the nature of that peril in page after page of incisive, informed analysis, presented in their characteristically pithy, aphoristic style. They warn that the temptation for Americans to stop paying attention – to either give in and accept “Trumpian reality” or tune out entirely – is strong. This, Gessen stresses, is what autocratic regimes count on – a disempowered, supine citizenry – which is why these regimes react so violently to popular movements such as Black Lives Matter, responding not by addressing the issues but by smearing their leaders and maliciously misrepresenting their nature and goals.
Gessen warns against efforts to return to what they describe as “a fictional state of pre-Trump normalcy”. Trump’s “autocratic attempt”, they demonstrate, “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”. Recovery thus “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”.
To have a crack at this recovery, American media need to call a lie a lie and name racism, to eliminate “the growing feeling that nothing is knowable”. They must help reinvigorate civil society so that citizens can imagine themselves participants in democracy and not just helpless “spectators to a disaster”. Recovery requires, Gessen argues, more politicians in the vein of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “the Squad”, who, by not mincing their words and rejecting the politics of pragmatism, pose a viable threat to autocracy: moral authority.
Granta, 272pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 15, 2020 as "Masha Gessen, Surviving Autocracy".
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