Russian-American writer and journalist Masha Gessen is one of today’s fiercest critics of governmental power and authoritarianism. For over 20 years, Gessen worked in Moscow as a journalist, but, in 2012, they were fired as chief editor of Russia’s oldest magazine, Vokrug sveta, for refusing to cover a sham environmental awareness event featuring Putin releasing endangered Siberian cranes into the wild. Soon after, Gessen fled with their family to the United States, fearing, as an openly gay figure, that their children might be taken away.
Gessen’s best known book, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, won the National Book Award in 2017. Their other books cover a range of topics about Russian politics and culture (The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, 2012) (Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, 2015), as well as science and genetics (Blood Matters: From Inherited Illness to Designer Babies, How the World and I Found Ourselves in the Future of the Gene, 2008). Gessen is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the distinguished writer in residence at Bard College.

On June 2, Riverhead Books will publish Gessen’s latest book, Surviving Autocracy. Gessen’s decades-long experience covering the resurgence of totalitarianism in Russia puts them in a unique position to help Americans understand what is happening to the United States under President Donald Trump. Cataloguing the corrosion of political language, legal institutions, and democratic ideals over three and half years, Gessen argues that Trump is making an “autocratic attempt” on America. While Trump threatens to destroy American norms and institutions, Gessen shows us that having the language to understand what is happening is the first step to surviving, and ultimately resisting, an autocratic future.

—Stephanie DeGooyer

Stephanie deGooyer: In Surviving Autocracy, you suggest that over the past three and a half years, Donald Trump has made an “autocratic attempt” on America. What does this mean?

Masha Gessen: Since the election, I have been thinking about how we lack the language to describe the Trump phenomenon. In the book, I turn to one of my favorite political thinkers, Bálint Magyar, a Hungarian sociologist who works on the post-Communist mafia state. Magyar argues that after the Eastern bloc collapsed, journalists and political scientists used the language of liberal democracy to describe what was happening. For Magyar, however, this is like asking, “Can the elephant fly? Can an elephant swim?” You can answer those questions, but they don’t get you very close to actually describing what is happening.

Magyar tries to develop a framework for understanding the conditions of the post-Communist state. He describes the transition in three stages: the autocratic attempt, the autocratic breakthrough, and the autocratic consolidation. That’s where the word “attempt” comes from. I am borrowing language from the post-Communist bloc and saying that it is actually better suited to analyze what is happening in America than the language of liberal democracy.

SdG: You are saying that the conditions of the post-Communist state can help explain Trump’s America?

MG: I try to be very careful with the idea, because obviously you can’t transpose the experience directly. There are a lot of political, cultural, and economic conditions that are very different, but I think it’s a start. That’s why I use the term “autocratic attempt.” The distinction between autocratic attempt and autocratic breakthrough is that during the autocratic attempt, it is still possible to get rid of the autocrat by electoral means. I think, at least up until through November we’re, at least formally, in the state of an autocratic attempt.

SdG: Some historians and political scientists, including myself, have argued that attempts to understand Trump through historical comparisons to fascism and totalitarianism are abnormalizing. They make Trump seem like he’s an anomaly, rather than part of a decades long and uniquely American project. How do you want readers of this book to understand Trump’s relationship to American history?

MG: Right. I agree with that critique. In the book I try to position Trump in a variety of contexts. Historical comparisons give us an intellectual advantage. Tim Snyder [Yale historian and author of The Road to Unfreedom] has said something like, “One thing that makes us better off than Germans of the 1930s is that fascism already happened, and we can learn from it.”

To the same end, I use the advantage of having covered Putin as a journalist for 20 years. Not because I think Trump is similar to Putin, but because I think there are certain skills that I learned in covering Putin that I can, with adjustments, apply to Trump.

The conditions for Trump were created over the course of several decades. To me, the most important was the transformation of power and identity after 9/11, both the concentration of power in the executive branch and the trade-off of rights and liberties for “security.” This was the creation of an identity of a nation under siege. Then there is the longer perspective of Americans’ rather unproblematic relationship to the marriage of politics and money and to technocratic de-ideologized politics. I think that especially the Democratic part of the American political universe has become deeply suspicious of the language of ideals, vision, and future.

SdG: How was Trump able to capitalize on American technocratic politics?

MG: One way is that he promised a more emotional alternative. He had the appeal of a kind of demagogue, to borrow terminology from Erich Fromm [a Jewish psychoanalyst who fled Nazi Germany], who appeals to the imaginary past. Trump comes along and taps into the deep anxieties of people who are truly anxious because they have been economically and socially unstable for more than a generation. He taps into that and says, “OK, I’ll take you back to an imaginary past.” There is very little on the other side to counterweigh this emotional appeal. You can’t counterweigh it by saying, “I have a good résumé, and I’ll fix things.”

SdG: While some people might see the coronavirus as the beginning of Trump’s undoing, you see it as a “perfect disaster” for him. Why is that?

MG: In standard political science, you would look at the facts and say, “OK, Trump has proven that he is incompetent. He has mishandled the pandemic. He has failed to lead. More people have died than should’ve. There will be extreme economic hardship by the time the November election comes around.” All of those things should mean that he will be undone.

The journalist Jim Fallows spoke to one of my classes a few weeks ago. He said he was hopeful about November, because he feels that the laws of physics still obtain. If we go by all the markers of standard political science, then we’re good. It was a beautiful way of putting it, but that’s where I think I disagree with Jim, although I hope he is right. If you look at other universes with other laws of physics, this is, again, where the experience of 20th century totalitarianism is really informative. Then we find out that people living in anxiety and terror is fertile ground for a leader like Trump.

SdG: So are we are living under something like terror in America right now?

MG: Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism talks about how totalitarianism is possible only in a country that can afford depopulation, that can sacrifice millions of its people, either because of its scale or because of the cultural and emotional conditions. She talks about the role of terror and the role of loneliness in creating the conditions of totalitarianism.

This virus comes along and creates conditions of terror without Trump having to do anything. It also creates the conditions of loneliness and political disconnection. We are physically and emotionally severely handicapped in being able to act together to act politically. We have entered this state of scarcity and instability.

And because of the coronavirus in the media, it’s all Trump, all the time. Joe Biden is holding town halls from his basement. You have to be highly motivated in order to know anything about that.

SdG: In a footnote, in which you explain your use of a passage from Arendt, you say that you’re “not arguing that Trump is building a totalitarian regime, but that he is an aspiring autocrat in a world that has seen a number of totalitarian regimes.” Could you explain that distinction a little more?

MG: That footnote was a way to head off some criticism that I think is almost instinctual, but a bit misguided. This is the criticism that the intellectual apparatus of analyzing totalitarianism should not be applied to Trump because he is not building a totalitarian regime. I agree. Trump is not building a totalitarian regime. A lot of other things would have to happen and fall into place. He would have to have a lot of tools at his disposal that I don’t think he’s likely to have. But his understanding and our understanding of what’s possible is informed by the 20th century, which had a lot of totalitarian regimes. The affect of a totalitarian leader is Trump’s to borrow.

SdG: A significant portion of the book is devoted to a critique of how journalists have covered Trump. Most legacy media journalists, in your opinion, have failed to call out Trump’s lies. They’ve tried to remain neutral and objective, as per their training. How do you suggest that journalism needs to change to cover what you call “the system” of Trump?

MG: The key word is “system,” because there are real problems with covering Trump. You can’t cover it in the sort of traditional American objective style, because that gives Trump’s lies too much legitimacy. We saw this again over and over with the coronavirus. My old acquaintance and someone I admire a lot, Grant Gonzalez, keeps calling out The New York Times on Twitter, when they have a headline like “Trump Says Testing No Longer a Problem, Governor Disagrees.” Grant writes, “Well, next they’re going to be ‘Trump Says Earth Flat, Scientists Disagree.’”

It’s really important to understand that covering Trump is an actual problem. There’s no good solution to it. There’s no way to think that if we just did journalism differently, we would totally slay this whole Trump situation. The Trump situation presents a number of traps for journalism no matter how you practice journalism. It’s almost journalism as harm reduction.

SdG: Reading the account of journalism in the book, I was struck that there was no mention about the rise of disinformation. How can journalists compete with the bot attacks and computerized false narratives we are seeing, for example, with Covid-19?

MG: Covering Trumpism is not exactly the same thing as battling disinformation and bots. I’m going on the assumption, or the well-documented fact, that most Americans still exist in a fairly healthy media universe. Most Americans are routinely exposed to opinions that they don’t share. Most Americans are in the New York Times, NPR, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post universe, which is broad and reality-based and basically doesn’t overlap with the other universe. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, we’re seeking leakage from the other universe into the reality-based universe, which is absolutely terrifying.

SdG: Should journalists even try to speak to this other universe made up of Trump supporters? Sometimes you see these kinds of gestures in The New York Times.

MG: I don’t have a great answer to that. I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve been obsessed, like a lot of people, with the question of Obama-Trump voters. People who obviously have been so badly failed by the system that they feel so profoundly distrustful and betrayed, that whatever grenade they can throw at the system, they’ll use it. It’s up to political leaders to try to reach them. I think that, on the one hand, someone like me who writes for The New Yorker, or someone who writes for The New York Times, are perhaps getting a little full of ourselves if we that we can reach people who are disaffected, disenfranchised, and disillusioned to such an extent. Who am I to imagine that I can pierce that bubble of distrust? That sort of reaching across the aisle is not exactly a fallacy, but it is perhaps not the thing that should be primary on our minds.

As much as I hate the standard journalistic “let’s just do our jobs” thing, which evades the question of what our jobs are, I probably lean in that direction. We have to do the best possible job of describing this reality as critically and with as much attention to using language intentionally as is possible.

SdG: Why is language so important for understanding and defeating Trump?

MG: We can’t have politics without language. If we can’t talk to each other, if we can’t say something and mean the same thing, or substantially the same thing, then we can’t come to any kind of agreement about how we’re going to live together.

For decades, I have thought about how language gets abused to the point that it can’t be used for politics anymore. For example, a leader or a regime, like the Soviet regime, will use words to mean their opposite. That’s a very totalitarian phenomenon. It’s “war is peace.” Trump uses words to mean their opposite, especially with language that denotes power relationships. For example, he will position himself as the victim of a “witch hunt.” The most powerful man in the world can’t be the victim of a witch hunt. He will seize a concept like fake news and turn it against actual news. He also uses language to mean nothing, which is what he does when he’s suggesting that people drink disinfectant to fight the coronavirus.

Trump’s statements have consequences. It means something when the president of the United States makes an absurd statement about injecting disinfectant. Yet, the next day he can say, “I was joking. It meant nothing.” This is a frontal attack on shared reality, because it catapults us into a place where nothing means anything. If nothing means anything, we can’t talk to one another. We can’t have politics.

SdG: We also need, you suggest, moral aspiration. What role do ideals play for you in democratic politics?

MG: I think they’re what’s missing from the mainstream of Democratic Party politics. It’s what’s missing from the technocratic view of politics, and it is absolutely terrifying to me the kind of pressure that that sort of language of politics exerts, even on politicians that I think of as highly idealistic. I went to New Hampshire to cover the New Hampshire primary, and I listened to both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who I think are the most future-oriented, ideal-driven politicians on the Democratic side. You could just tell how much they’re rhetorically accommodating the technocratic view of politics. I don’t see the soaring kind of visionary oratory that I think is so necessary. I think their ideas about the future are great, but there’s a kind of emotional restraint that I think is misguided.

Ideals are what we can unite around. Ideals are what we absolutely need to juxtapose against what Trump has been doing to this country.

SdG: You speak in the book about how Trump has profoundly changed the idea of American identity, especially through his rhetoric and policies about immigration.

MG: We obviously talk about Trump being a racist. We obviously talk about this being a sort of white male supremacist presidency, but I don’t think we talk enough about how the definition of “us” has changed under Trump. Again, the groundwork for that was laid much earlier, but we need a vision of “us” that is described in idealistic terms, that is aspirational, that is something to strive for, that makes people feel like not only can they be better off if they vote for this person, but they can be better. We can be better as we move into the future.

Trump appeals to our worst selves. He says, “Come with me. We’re going to throw off the mask of hypocrisy and take a crap in every place that used to be sacred. Let’s enjoy it together.” There really needs to be an equally emotionally charged message of “we can be better.”

SdG: Do you have any hope for a life after Trump?

MG: I have some hope. There are things that have happened both because of Trump and because of the coronavirus that prove something we’ve always known: A crisis is also an opportunity. Things speed up and ideas that have been lying around can be assimilated very, very quickly. I think that because of Trump, some ideas that we used to think of as very left became very quickly assimilated. The same thing with the pandemic—ideas about health care, ideas about universal basic income, ideas about climate change. There’s been an acceleration of a better understanding of just how violent our relationship to the planet is. Those openings may broaden and give us something, so I’m not completely hopeless. I just think we need to be super clear about what’s needed. What’s needed is not a technocratic solution to returning us to our own imaginary past, which is a kind of pre-Trump normal. What’s needed is a future-oriented re-imagination.