During the past few years of Donald Trump’s deranged presidency, if there is one writer I turn to it is Masha Gessen, whose piercing clarity is gemlike and refusal to equivocate precious. Their ability – Gessen is non–binary/trans and uses they/them pronouns – is surely to do with their Russian American background. As a journalist, Gessen has covered Russia, Hungary and Israel, so is not experiencing illiberalism for the first time. Instead of a weariness however, what is present in the book is a stunning capacity to connect the dots in a way that few can.
Surviving Autocracy is about the Trump phenomenon and how it has transformed US society. It is about what he has learned from Vladimir Putin, among other autocrats he admires. It is also one of the few analytical books to suggest plausible ways he might be stopped. Anti-Trump polemics tend to rely on satire (which has proved useless) or putting the case for ignoring him (impossible), or relying on on some vague essence of American justice to suddenly come charging in. The cavalry never arrived and is not going to.
Wishy-washy Democrat opinion continues to believe that government institutions will somehow save the day, not understanding that the entire presidential apparatus has set out to destroy them. Early in the presidency, Gessen said: “Institutions will not save you.” How right this was. They had seen, after all, the way that Putin would use all catastrophes to his advantage, even atrocities such as the Beslan school siege, which was an excuse to cancel local elections and change federal structures. Putin also felt no need to be consistent, one day saying there were no troops in Crimea, the next month admitting there were. To trust one’s own perception in such a world is lonely. Russians are told their elections are free, but “when something cannot be described it does not become a fact of a shared reality”.
This is where Gessen is so brilliant, taking apart the way language works for Trump and how it is an essential element of autocracy. Using the work of the Hungarian writer Bálint Magyar on post-Soviet states, Gessen argues that the language of liberal democracy can no longer describe what we are seeing. Trump mangles words making them meaningless, a constant hazing. He has flipped the phrase “fake news” to mean whatever he says it means. His first big lie in power was about the weather, claiming it was sunny when it was raining at his inauguration. The likes of Kellyanne Conway or Sarah Sanders then operate not to hide the truth exactly but to make the media pay respect to power.
I have often wondered why much of the American media has been so supine for so long. Autocracy has taken the form of “kakistocracy” (government run by the worst, least qualified, and/or most unscrupulous citizens), as children are caged and the coronavirus is denied. The challenge that civil society might bring is, as Gessen outlines, limited, as the circle of who is “us” has shrunk: practically anyone who is not a straight white male does not count.
Hannah Arendt runs through this book. Part of Trump’s appeal was that some Americans could throw off the mask of hypocrisy of pretending to care about “the other”: black people, gay people, anyone who didn’t live inside traditional family values. Arendt said this was always part of the appeal of fascism and part of the way it destroys politics. When certain things become unspeakable, they become unthinkable – but Trump has been more than happy to instrumentalise instability.
What Gessen is asking for is no less than a moral reinvention, a media that does not let itself be ritually humiliated. Until the virus there had been no press briefings for a year. Trump has “assaulted the sense of the possible”. Gessen has observed that people living under totalitarian rule “stop paying attention, disengage”.
To survive this, then, we have to be ruthless about how we imagine the future. We need to embrace the aspiration to renew ourselves. We need words to mean things and to stop the degradation of a shared reality. There is no better guide than Gessen in thinking how we may begin.