The book is a slow medium. A writer never knows what kind of world a book will land in, what will change around the words on the page as the publishing industry grinds through its cycle. For the unlucky, a sudden shift can invalidate a work or render it incomprehensible. The title of Masha Gessen’s polemic about the Trump presidency is Surviving Autocracy. What was a metaphor when Gessen wrote it—at least for those not directly targeted by Republican policies—has now become literal. The corruption and incompetence that Gessen condemns in this urgent book have killed tens of thousands of Americans, many of whom may have felt themselves immune to the violent chaos that Trumpian politics has unleashed since 2016.
Gessen’s credentials as an observer of autocracy are impeccable. Aged fifty-three, they (Gessen identifies as nonbinary) spent their childhood in the Soviet Union and the US, then moved back to Russia in 1991 to work as a reporter. In 2012 they were fired as the editor of a popular science magazine for refusing to send a journalist to cover one of Vladimir Putin’s more ludicrous publicity stunts, flying a wobbly motorized hang glider to “lead” a flight of Siberian cranes on their westward migration. One of the few out gay people in Russian public life, they became a target for homophobic politicians. In 2013 they left Russia after the passage of legislation against “homosexual propaganda” opened the possibility that the state would take away their children.
Surviving Autocracy contains much that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the news over the last few years, but there is something about seeing all this in the aggregate that sharpens an edge of disgust lately blunted by relentless use. The book is a snapshot of how far American public life has been degraded, how the vaunted democratic system of checks and balances has collapsed, and how the conventions of journalism and policy debate have hampered the task of holding power to account. To frame their analysis, Gessen uses a schema credited to the Hungarian sociologist (and former minister of education) Bálint Magyar, coiner of the term “mafia state,” described by Gessen as “a specific, clan-like system in which one man distributes money and power to all other members.”
The Trumps are nothing if not clannish. It’s now apparently unremarkable that in the Trump White House, the president’s demands for personal loyalty should supersede outmoded notions of service or patriotism. His family identifies its own interests with the national interest, and appears to see the presidency as a monetizable asset, or at least as a kind of force multiplier, a way to extract maximum profit from its existing portfolio. Judging by figures produced in a report about the security costs of their travel, the president’s adult children appear to be busy people, flying the world to further the interests of the Trump Organization before the clock runs down.
This is a family that was banned from running its own charitable foundation for illegally appropriating funds, but nevertheless has found it surprisingly easy to change established norms around using public office for private gain, not to mention using the White House as a platform for political campaigning. It seems almost quaint to remember that there was a time when people believed that pointing out obvious breaches of the so-called emoluments clause in the US Constitution would demonstrate the president’s unfitness for office and expedite his swift removal. Unless the Supreme Court rules against the president in a suit relating to the acceptance of foreign government money through his Washington, D.C., hotel, that clause is now surely a dead letter.
The issue is not overcharging for golf carts or using presidential briefings to sell snake oil. The wholesale blurring of public and private roles, the rejection of expertise, and the suspension of norms of oversight such as the confirmation process for appointees all clear the ground for what Gessen identifies as a fundamental shift in American politics—a shift in audiences:
In a representative democracy, a politician’s primary audience is their voters…. In an autocracy, the politician’s primary audience is the autocrat himself, because he is the patron who apportions power and influence.
In the first stage of this process, Trump turned the Republican Party from an organization whose leader was (at least formally) first among equals into a gaggle of fawning courtiers, not so much ancien as nouveau régime. Gessen describes the excruciating event held in December 2017 to celebrate the passage of Trump’s tax legislation, an enormous upward transfer of wealth that was one of the primary objectives of his backers. One by one, Republican politicians lined up “to offer praise to their leader…. Representative Diane Black, of Tennessee, thanked Trump ‘for allowing us to have you as our President.’” Orrin Hatch, who has represented Utah in the Senate for forty years, predicted that the Trump presidency will be “the greatest presidency we have seen not only in generations but maybe ever.” As Gessen writes, “in less than a year, the performance, on demand, of loyalty and adulation for the leader had become normalized, at least among Republicans.”
The congressional Republican party turned their adoring faces toward the Dear Leader because he had delivered tax cuts and judges, but also because he had demonstrated his ability to deliver “the base.” This is the other prong of Gessen’s argument about the shift in audience. Through Twitter, and more recently through his rambling televised press conferences, Trump prefers to communicate with his supporters directly rather than through the Republican Party machine. His surrogates outside Congress mobilize them, in events such as the anti-lockdown protests orchestrated behind the scenes by far-right funders this past April, as an extra-legislative force, a movement rather than a party, a band of outsiders putting pressure on officials, including disobedient Republicans.
This is an amazing sleight of hand—the executive branch furthering its agenda by disguising itself as an insurgency. It is also a tactic that has a proven record of success, starting with what was essentially a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, whose former establishment has either put on the red hat or joined the rump of “Never Trumpers.” So instead of Republican barons delivering voters to Trump, they have become his clients, their political survival highly dependent on their ability to flatter the jaded viewer-in-chief into deploying the base against their opponents.
This at least is the Steve Bannon theory. The reality is of course messier and less absolute. Gessen cautions us not to see Trump as a grand strategist:
We imagine the villains of history as masterminds of horror…. If a historical event caused shocking destruction, then the person behind this event must have been a correspondingly giant monster.
Comparing Trump to Putin, Gessen notes that both are limited and incurious men: “To them, power is the beginning and the end of government, the presidency, politics—and public politics is only the performance of power.” Gessen also warns against conspiratorial thinking, including an overreliance on the narrative of a corrupting Russian influence on an otherwise untainted American political scene: “Conspiracy thinking focuses attention on the hidden, the implied, and the imagined, and draws it away from reality in plain view.”
Bálint Magyar divides an autocracy’s capture of power into three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation. In this schema, Trump is still an attempting autocrat. Opposition still exists, and it’s still expected that he would cooperate with a democratic transfer of power should he lose the election in November. But as Gessen remarks:
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.
The fourth year, the year of Covid and the election, may prove to be the year of autocratic breakthrough. If it is possible for a president to preside over tens, even hundreds of thousands of avoidable American deaths and the collapse of the entire economy and still claim, as he did in an interview with the New York Post on May 4, that “the one thing that the pandemic has taught us is that I was right,” then there is reason to be skeptical of his willingness to submit to consensus reality in other ways.
An early chapter of Surviving Autocracy is titled “Waiting for the Reichstag Fire,” and Gessen points out that “even the original Reichstag Fire was not the Reichstag Fire of our imagination—a singular event that changed the course of history.” We have not had the experience of a break, but a gradual intensification—the frog in the proverbial pot of boiling water. Throughout history, pretexts have been found to initiate “states of exception,” in the terminology of Carl Schmitt, in which an emergency is used to change the terms of the accepted order. That kind of change is not just an artifact of twentieth-century totalitarianism and has happened fairly frequently in the US—Gessen cites Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, the Sedition Act of 1918, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
The American Reichstag Fire took place, Gessen suggests, on September 11, 2001, which inaugurated the “Forever War,” the state of exception that we have been living under for almost twenty years. It is sentimental to see Trump as some kind of unprecedented break with previously robust democratic norms. All these
intermittent states of exception [rest] on the fundamental structural state of exception that asserts the power of white men over all others. Trump emerged not as an exception to this history but as its logical consequence.
As a journalist, Gessen is inevitably preoccupied with the corruption of public discourse and particularly the rapid deterioration of the media’s ability to hold American power to account. Of course, “holding to account” also requires a legislature and a judiciary that are willing and able to act on information uncovered by news organizations, but it is true that existing problems in the media—the tendency to treat politics as a horse race, and above all the “view from nowhere,” the foundational belief in reporting the news “neutrally”—have hampered the public understanding of Trumpism. Gessen glosses “neutral” as “without assigning value or providing more than the immediate context.”
To function, both of these conventions require all parties to operate with a degree of good faith that does not currently exist. In an information environment saturated with bad actors, the convention against context makes it hard to flag deliberate misinformation. The convention against value judgment means, for example, that it took NPR until July 2019 to apply the word “racist” to one of the president’s statements. The view from nowhere is all very well if your civil rights aren’t being assaulted by the head of state. If they are, then your view is unavoidably located in your nonwhite body.
NPR’s commitment to avoiding an “angry tone”—a phrase used by an executive in an open letter about the network’s refusal to use the word “lie” to describe Trump’s many lies—is shared by other organizations and reveals a politics hidden in the supposed absence of politics. For a news organization, a commitment to unthreatening civility should surely be secondary to a commitment to civil rights and to truth, the foundational journalistic value. If reporting the truth clearly is replaced by some notion of “balance,” then it’s possible that your primary political commitments are not to that lofty objectivity mentioned in your mission statement but reside somewhere offstage, in a shared hinterland of class and culture that deserves interrogation. Your media organization may be susceptible to capture, perhaps doubly so if its source of funding rests in the hands of Trumpist politicians, or Trumpist shareholders and advertisers.
Gessen asserts that “it will be the job of journalists to embody and enforce the expectation of meaning.” The strategy Gessen puts forward is one adopted by Russian journalists in the last twenty years, faced with the blizzard of lies and threats emanating from the circle of Vladimir Putin. “When something cannot be described, it does not become a fact of shared reality.” This was a problem under Stalinism, and it is again under the oligarchy:
Russian journalists opted for language that was descriptive in the most immediate way: they tried to stick to verbs and nouns, and only to things that could be directly observed. In a bid to regain trust, they resorted to a drastically reduced vocabulary.
American political commentators have struggled to operate in a world of “alternative facts,” the blandly sinister phrase of Kellyanne Conway. The supine notion of a “post-truth” world and the attendant melancholy posturing of sectors of the commentariat should be retired in favor of what Gessen frames as a rediscovered commitment to meaningful political speech,
speech intended to find common ground across difference, to negotiate the rules of living together in society…speech that, on the one hand, brings reality into focus and, on the other, activates the imagination.
This will require that journalists acknowledge where they stand. “To cover Trumpism as a system, journalists have to position themselves clearly—and critically—outside that system.”
It’s possible that many American commentators believe that they have never abandoned their commitment to meaningful political speech because they speak about the high ideals of the republic and use the vocabulary of democracy and freedom. Gessen suggests that this is insufficient without an assessment of the extent to which this vocabulary has been hollowed out, particularly through its abuse in the post–September 11 era. Again, the comparison is with Russia:
In the Russian language today, the entire vocabulary of principles and ideals has, after decades of abuse, been relegated to disuse. Even in private conversation, Russians will frequently apologize for using words or concepts that they feel are marked with “pathos,” a word that has come to connote not so much suffering as earnestness and loftiness of concept…. A word like “democracy” can be pronounced only with a smirk.
American political culture, saturated as it is with pathos, has failed to notice (or perhaps merely to acknowledge) the shameful way it has cheapened its own professed ideals, opening the way for cynicism and disaffection.
The Trumpist ideal is a black box world, a world in which power does not have to account for itself, and oligarchic rulers can conduct negotiations in secret, without the irritation of a public they must consult or represent. It is the world of the deal, and it means the end of politics as a public practice. For writers and everyone else who believe that public speech should be meaningful, Trump’s abuses of language are a form of epistemological warfare. It’s not a question of sniggering over the man’s solecisms but of recognizing an assault on our shared ability to make sense of the world.
Trump’s surrogates say we should take him “seriously but not literally.” We are expected to “know what he means,” to infer meaning from tone, but such inferences are always debatable, which renders criticism impotent. How could we possibly think the president is a white supremacist, a misogynist, an authoritarian who lacks basic human empathy? He said those words, but he didn’t mean them in that way. This withdrawal from the most basic pledge of the democratic politician, to stand by what you say, makes the public sphere arbitrary and capricious. The Trumpist attack on language is an attack on the basis of civil society.
Perhaps you find these claims strident or excessive. Perhaps their tone makes you feel uncomfortable, even embarrassed for the foolish writer. Gessen quotes from an open letter written by Václav Havel to the general secretary of the Czech Communist Party in 1975:
Once cynicism triumphs…everyone who still tries to resist by, for instance, refusing to adopt the principle of dissimulation as the key to survival, doubting the value of any self-fulfillment purchased at the cost of self-alienation—such a person appears to his ever more indifferent neighbors as an eccentric, a fool, a Don Quixote, and in the end is regarded inevitably with some aversion, like everyone who behaves differently from the rest and in a way which, moreover, threatens to hold up a critical mirror before their eyes.
We are at a dangerous tipping point. Trump is still an aspiring autocrat, and cynicism has not yet triumphed altogether. But Covid is a disruption of unprecedented severity, whose full consequences are only beginning to be felt. For disaster capitalists, it is a stun grenade thrown into a crowded room, a chance to rush in and grab as much as possible during the chaos. For Trumpist corporate backers, it is a chance to roll back environmental regulations and workers’ rights, and to secure yet another tax break, further reducing their contribution to sustaining the infrastructure and the people on which they rely. For Jared Kushner, it is an opportunity to insert himself into the operations of government, and to supply his father-in-law with a new source of patronage, in the form of medical supplies and resources that can be directed toward the loyal and away from the disloyal.
For the ideological white supremacist faction within the White House, led by Stephen Miller, it is an opportunity to reduce still further the circle of belonging, to assert white racial ownership over the idea of America. Fear of infection is playing to nativist sentiment in the same ugly way it always has. For Miller’s circle, the rampage of Covid through prisons, the ICE gulag, and low-income neighborhoods, disproportionately affecting people of color, is not a bug but a feature. As Gessen wrote in a New Yorker column on April 16, “It has…created all the conditions for Trump to continue his autocratic attempt.”
Yet the pandemic has also revealed, in the most profound way possible, the interconnectedness of a society that has always been intoxicated by libertarian fantasies of absolute autonomy and self-reliance. A public health crisis demands precisely the kind of collective action that American political culture demonizes as “socialism.” Americans do not like being forced to contemplate the possibility that one of our most profoundly personal qualities or experiences—our physical health—is dependent on that of our neighbors. Our health care system is organized around the privatization of risk and the legitimacy of profiting from the sick individual. A public health crisis demands the recognition that health is a public good—even a commons. It cannot be addressed without some form of social solidarity.
Although that is inarguably true (even “herd immunity,” for example, is unavoidably a collective state), it seems the White House has more or less given up on trying to formulate an effective government response. As the journalist Jay Rosen wrote on the PressThink blog on May 4:
The plan is to have no plan, to let daily deaths between one and three thousand become a normal thing, and then to create massive confusion about who is responsible—by telling the governors they’re in charge without doing what only the federal government can do, by fighting with the press when it shows up to be briefed, by fixing blame for the virus on China or some other foreign element, and by “flooding the zone with shit,” Steve Bannon’s phrase for overwhelming the system with disinformation, distraction, and denial, which boosts what economists call “search costs” for reliable intelligence.
It is possible that we have come to the moment of autocratic breakthrough. The uprising that has erupted across America in the days since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has created a new layer of chaos on top of the pandemic, reminding America that black citizens, disproportionately affected by Covid and the economic consequences of the lockdown, face the same institutional violence that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013. On the afternoon of June 1, Trump made a speech in the Rose Garden at the White House, with the sound of explosions audible in the background. Police were firing gas, rubber bullets, and flash-bang rounds at a peaceful protest a few blocks away, creating a scene of mayhem that was played on split screen by cable news channels as the president threatened to send troops into American cities. It became apparent that the protest had been dispersed to allow Trump to finish his speech and walk over “recaptured ground” to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he waved a Bible for the cameras. The cynical use of violence, to allow the president to stage a photo op, constitutes a new moral low in a presidency that has not exactly been short of them. The deployment of the US military against Americans exercising their First Amendment right to protest is a red line. If it is crossed with impunity, the transition to autocracy will be complete.
—June 4, 2020