By Masha Gessen
Riverhead Books, New York, 2020
Most people in the US today have never lived under a dictatorship. Maybe we’ve heard stories from our parents or grandparents who immigrated from such places, but we don’t have personal experience with autocratic rulers. This is truly one of the blessings of liberty.
It also means we don’t always recognize autocratic behavior when it happens around us.
Russian-born author and activist Masha Gessen (they/them) does recognize autocratic behavior. They worked for over twenty years as a journalist and editor in Moscow, writing about the rise and reign of Vladimir Putin. They have been a vocal critic of both Putin and Donald Trump. Gessen has published eleven books. They’ve been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2017.
Surviving Autocracy is their latest book. It’s a stark warning about Trump’s autocratic actions and ambitions. Published in April 2020, it couldn’t be timelier.
An Autocratic Transformation
The central idea of the book is that Donald Trump is attempting to transform American democracy into an autocracy. He has come closer to achieving autocratic rule in his first three years in office than many people would have thought possible. Gessen examines how Trump has done this, and how we might still escape.
Gessen cites the work of Hungarian sociologist and politician Bálint Magyar who coined the term “mafia state” to describe Hungary’s post-communist government. Magyar says that an autocratic transformation occurs in three stages: attempt, breakthrough and then consolidation.
It is difficult to know exactly when a country moves from one stage to the next, and there might not be one decisive event that signals a transition. The point is to resist such movement, and to reverse it whenever possible.
This idea of autocratic transformation forms the foundation of Surviving Autocracy. Right now, Gessen says, Trump is in the attempt stage. The book traces how frighteningly far Trump has progressed, and how resistance has proved largely ineffective so far.
Contempt and Disdain
Trump shares many characteristics with autocrats like Putin, starting with contempt for government.
It’s very common for political candidates to campaign as outsiders, railing against the corruption or the incompetence of those in power, and vowing change. Trump was different, Gessen says. He campaigned on contempt for government itself, and that contempt continued even after he took office.
“Contempt for the government and its work is a component of the disdain for elites, and a rhetorical trope shared by the current crop of the world’s antipolitical leaders, from Vladimir Putin to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. They campaign on voters’ resentment of elites for ruining their lives, and they continue to traffic in this resentment even after they take office—as though someone else, someone sinister and apparently all powerful, were still in charge, as though they were still insurgents. The very institutions of government—their own government now—are the enemy.” [pp. 17-18]
Casting government as the enemy enables the aspiring autocrat to justify ruling without the constraints and inconveniences of rules, procedures, traditions, and eventually laws.
Along with contempt for government comes disdain for excellence. If you are opposed to properly functioning government, why would you staff it with skilled and knowledgeable people? Just look at the Cabinet Trump appointed, Gessen points out. Many of them are completely unqualified for the positions they hold, and quite a few are opposed to the function and even the very existence of their departments.
But there’s a price to pay for Trump’s anti-intellectual disdain and his glorification of ignorance. There are times when we need people in government who are competent experts — such as during a pandemic.
“Trump had campaigned on insulting the government, and he himself was an insult to the presidency. But could someone so absurd, so evidently incompetent, be a true danger? … We could have imagined, but we could not have predicted, that a pandemic would render his arrogant ignorance lethal.” [pp. 30-31]
Assault on Truth
It’s not news to anyone that Trump lies continuously, comprehensively and shamelessly. He even lies about the weather. Why?
Americans were given the answer just a few days after Trump’s inauguration when his counsellor, Kellyanne Conway, was interviewed by Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press. It was during that fateful interview that Conway introduced us to the term “alternative facts”.
“’Alternative facts’ was not a phrase concocted to justify or whitewash a lie—it was a declaration that the new administration reserved the right to lie.” [p. 103]
Conway, as a surrogate for Trump, was asserting that holding power gave them the right to lie.
“Conway was defending a liar’s right to lie. There were no facts in her universe, and no issue of trust. There was power. Power demanded respect. Power conferred the right to speak and not be challenged. Being right was a question of power, not evidence. Conway was outraged that Todd would violate this compact by calling the president’s statements ridiculous.” [p. 105]
Gessen points out that Trump’s lies are different than ordinary lies that you and I might tell on occasion and which can easily be refuted with evidence, with truth.
“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 want to.’” [p. 106]
We might not have recognized it at the time, but this interview marked the emergence of two realities; a fact-based reality where truth and trust matter, and an alternate reality where alternative facts hold sway and only power matters.
“[NBC’s] Todd was arguing that the president had a responsibility to the public to tell the truth; she was asserting that the president can say whatever he wants because he is president.“ [p. 108]
These two competing realities create tension and anxiety. Who should we believe and why? Whose facts do we check and how? How long can we keep this up? Gessen says,
“In effect, it means that the two realities—Trumpian and fact-based—come to exist side by side, on equal ground. The tension is draining. The need to pay constant attention to the lies is exhausting, and it is compounded by the feeling of helplessness in the face of the ridiculous and repeated lies. … One way out of that anxiety is to relieve the mind of stress by accepting Trumpian reality. Another—and this too is an option often exercised by people living under totalitarianism—is to stop paying attention, disengage, and retreat to one’s private sphere. Both approaches are victories for Trump in his attack on politics.” [pp. 110-111]
I think this is another reason Trump and autocrats like him despise experts. Their credibility and their truth help to sustain fact-based reality and to refute the alternate reality created by Trump and his enablers. This explains recent attacks by Trump aids against Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases. It’s no coincidence that these attacks started soon after polls showed that Fauci was the most trusted person in America on Covid-19, far more trusted than Trump.
In general the importance of language and the terms we use to describe politics and political actors is an important theme of the book.
Unfortunately, traditional media have not helped much, Gessen complains. Mainstream media outlets continue to insist on adhering to journalistic precepts like neutrality and objectivity, both of which are completely unsuitable for the Trump era. They single out The New York Times for particular criticism:
“By choosing to act as though in the war on reality it was possible not to choose sides, the Times—and with it, the American media mainstream—became, reluctantly though not unwittingly, the president’s accomplices.” [p. 151]
Trump is a white supremacist president and he has been remarkably consistent in pursuing policies that seek to redefine “American” to include only people like him, Gessen says. It started with the Muslim travel ban – though it took him three tries and a little help from the Supreme Court in Trump v. Hawaii. Then followed the ban on transgender people serving in the military, the cruel and inhumane treatment of refugees on the southern border, and ever-tightening restrictions on legal immigration and asylum seekers.
As Gessen puts it:
‘Trump, who in other areas had a way of lashing out, flailing, and withdrawing, was pursuing a sustained and consistent strategy on immigration. It had probably been articulated by someone else—someone actually capable of articulating a policy agenda—but it fit Trump’s spontaneously expressed desires and his instincts. It fit his concept of America. In it, a part of the population – native-born straight men of white European descent, like Trump himself—were the nation. Everyone else was an interloper.” [p. 174]
The result: we don’t even pretend to be a “nation of immigrants” anymore.
“In less than three years, the crudeness of the tweets, the speed of the news cycle, the blatant quality of the lies, and the brutality of official rhetoric had dulled American senses so much that Trump has successfully reframed America, stripping it of its ideals, dumbing it down, and reducing it to a nation at war against people who want to join it.” [p. 161]
The Need for Moral Politics
Gessen notes that Trump has made some of his harshest attacks against people who hold some amount of moral authority or who criticize him on moral grounds. This includes veterans of the civil rights movement like representatives John Lewis and Elijah Cummings, and newly elected representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayana Presley who called for Trump’s impeachment months before Nancy Pelosi agreed to it.
“Autocratic power requires the degradation of moral authority—not the capture of moral high ground, not the assertion of the right to judge good and evil, but the defeat of moral principles as such.“ [pp. 201-202].
Moral principles are anathema to an autocrat like Trump because they represent a standard by which they can be judged and potentially found wanting. No autocrat would willingly allow themselves to be judged or held to account or expected to meet any standard. Like expertise, principles and the people who embody them represent a competing reality, and in fact a competing source of power.
I think this helps explain why Trump recently commuted the jail sentence of his longtime friend and political operative Roger Stone, and helped defeat Jeff Sessions, his first Attorney General, in the Republican senate primary in Alabama. Stone has been consistently loyal to Trump while Sessions placed legal principle above loyalty and recused himself from the Russia investigation.
People like Representative John Lewis who talk about morality in politics are aiming for “a higher note”, says Gessen.
“That higher note is a necessary condition of vision. [Czechoslovak dissident Václav] Havel, who conceptualized the “power of the powerless” as an entirely novel form of resistance, lived to lead his country. So did Mandela. Raw power can overtake moral authority, and perhaps today it is easier than ever before, but a determined effort to preserve ideals when they are under attack can serve as a bridge to the future.” [p. 204]
We’re in the middle of an autocratic attempt by Trump. The impeachment trial failed to reverse it. Our next opportunity will be the November 2020 election. But even if Trump is defeated, we can’t just go back to a pre-Trump normal.
“Still, there will come a day when the Trump era is over. In the best-case scenario, it is ended by the voters at the ballot box. In the worst-case scenario, it lasts more than four years. In either case, the first three years have shown that an autocratic attempt in the United States has a credible chance of succeeding. 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. 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.” [pp. 81-82]
Gessen ends the book by asking whether we will choose to re-elect Trump in November, forfeiting more of our freedoms to an autocrat and accepting greater inequality, or will we choose reinvention?
Without a doubt, Surviving Autocracy is the most important book I’ve read this year.
The book is a clarifying lens through which we can make some sense of the last three and a half years. We should not expect a single book to explain everything. Yet even so, Surviving Autocracy provides compelling insights and a clear warning.
Gessen is not the first person to call attention to Donald Trump’s autocratic tendencies. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Trump “the first anti-democratic President in modern US history” in her 2018 book Fascism: A Warning which I reviewed here. But Gessen’s twenty years of experience covering Vladimir Putin from Moscow uniquely qualifies them to call out the disturbing parallels between Trump and Putin and to understand the autocratic trajectory of the Trump Administration.
Plus, anyone who quotes Václav Havel gets an almost automatic thumbs up from me.
I admit at first, I was a little disappointed by the book. It seemed to be just another rehash of Trump’s cruel, stupid and corrupt actions. But then every so often, Gessen summed up a section or a chapter with a comment that shifted my perception and clarified the world. It’s like looking at a photograph that doesn’t makes sense, and then someone tells you you’re holding it upside-down.
For example, like many people, I’ve tried to make sense of Trump’s pervasive lying. I’d come to the conclusion that he just doesn’t care about truth or accuracy or facts. I still think that’s true. But Gessen’s chapter titled The Power Lie brought this into focus. Trump lies are power lies. He tells them because he thinks being president gives him the right to lie.
The cumulative impact of these insights – and I’ve only touched on a few of them in this review – left me frightened at that degree to which Trump has succeeded in his autocratic attempt.
There is one question Gessen does not fully answer: Given his arrogance, narcissism and incompetence, how has Trump succeeded in getting this far? Is it because his gut instincts lead him to bulldoze his way towards autocracy? Is he taking advantage of the weaknesses in our political system? Is he just a “useful idiot” for people around him who do possess clear policy agendas? Gessen touches on some of these factors but does not completely resolve the paradox.
America has strong institutions, diverse media and a vibrant civil society. The country is also a federal system where States hold a lot of power. Yet none of these have succeeded in turning back much of Trump’s autocratic agenda. Impeachment failed. The Muslim travel ban stands. Transgender people still cannot serve in the military. Yes, Trump has suffered some setbacks, but overall his autocratic attempt is making dangerous progress. How far will he get?
Please read this book. Before November.
* * *
Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary
By Bálint Magyar