Democracy’s Red Line

Masha Gessen
Masha Gessen; illustration by Joanna Neborsky

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…

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