I would hazard a guess that when Masha Gessen began working on “Surviving Autocracy,” the title was meant more figuratively than literally. In the November 2016 essay that gave rise to this book, Gessen offered a set of numbered rules for “salvaging your sanity and self-respect” during a time of political upheaval. Physical survival didn’t look like it was going to be the hard part. As a country like Viktor Orban’s Hungary shows, autocracy can thrive on corruption and soft oppression: Don’t speak up; just eat the bread and watch the circuses, and chances are you’ll get by.
“Most Americans in the age of Trump are not, like the subjects of a totalitarian regime, subjected to state terror,” Gessen writes in the new book. But the last few months have shown what can happen when a president’s contempt for expert knowledge collides with a dire need for it: “We could have imagined, but we could not have predicted, that a pandemic would render his arrogant ignorance lethal.”
Gessen was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to the United States as a teenager, returning to Russia in 1991 to work as a journalist and document “the death of a Russian democracy that had never really come to be.” Gessen moved back to the United States in 2013 and eventually became a staff writer for The New Yorker — not to mention one of this country’s most exacting critics of Vladimir Putin and his ruthless consolidation of power. As a gay parent, Gessen had confronted a Russian regime that threatened to remove children from same-sex families. When Gessen speaks about autocracy, you listen.
In “Surviving Autocracy,” Gessen suggests that the United States has been terribly unprepared for a figure like Donald Trump. Not because he came out of nowhere; if anything, he took advantage of a political system that was ripe for a demagogue, swollen already by money and the powers concentrated in the executive branch. But too many Americans have maintained a stubborn hope that their vaunted institutions can save them. Establishment politicians like Barack Obama exhorted Americans to operate from “a presumption of good faith.” (Gessen quotes at length from a soaring speech that Obama gave the day after the 2016 election; reading it now might make you wince.) Even the most seasoned journalists, Gessen says, couldn’t bring themselves to assimilate the unthinkable.
“No powerful political actor had set out to destroy the American political system itself — until, that is, Trump won the Republican nomination,” Gessen writes. “He was probably the first major party nominee who ran not for president but for autocrat.”
Gessen isn’t part of the typical #Resist crowd, fixated on the Mueller report. If anything, Gessen says, “the excruciatingly slow, tantalizingly complicated, deliciously dirty story of Russian interference in the 2016 election” served as yet another distraction from the undeniable facts at hand. By the time the special counsel informed the public that the president had ordered a White House lawyer to lie, “the president had been lying to the public daily for two and a half years,” Gessen writes.
The words “lie” and “lying” and “liar” appear a lot in this book. So do “meaning” and “meaningless.” Gessen’s writing style is methodical and direct, relying on pointed observations instead of baroque hyperbole. The loose use of language, Gessen says, has been a problem on both sides of the American political divide — though it would take a fanatical attachment to both-sidesism not to point out that one party is the more flagrant and egregious offender. Trump’s critics may be inordinately fond of words like “coup” and “treason,” Gessen writes, but none of that compares to the president’s mangling of meaning and basic syntax — what Gessen calls his “word piles.”
To combat nonsense, Gessen counsels making sense, deliberately and with precision, including the reclamation of “politics” and “political” — words that have come to denote empty bombast and wily maneuvering when they should call to mind something more substantive: “the vital project of negotiating how we live together as a city, a state or a country; of working across difference; of acting collectively.” The common hypocritical politician infuriates people by preaching one thing and doing another; compare this to the uncommon, non-hypocritical Trump, who doesn’t bother even to preach anything lofty in the first place. At least the hypocritical ideal “serves the function of reiterating aspirational values,” Gessen writes.
Gessen excoriates the mainstream media for resorting to the “neutral tone” of “normalizing newspaper prose” that helps its audience “absorb the unabsorbable.” What journalists ought to do, Gessen says, is to cover “Trumpism not as news but as a system.”
“Surviving Autocracy” faces the problem that most anti-Trump books do: How to conclude in a way that strikes the right balance between realism and hope. Gessen ends with an excerpt from “Let America Be America Again,” by Langston Hughes — an appropriately rousing choice, though it also happens to be the same poem with which Amy Chua chose to end her book “Political Tribes,” published two years ago.
Still, to obsess over endings would be to miss the larger point of this trenchant book. We keep doing something analogous with politics, Gessen says — imagining “that Trump would do us the favor of announcing the point of no return with a sweeping, unequivocal gesture.” But it’s not as if aspiring autocrats declare when it’s time for autocracy; instead they resort to their crude repertoire, inciting bigotry, agitating for “law and order” and subjecting immigrants to gratuitous cruelty. There isn’t anything mysterious about this. We should stop searching for an enigma that doesn’t exist, Gessen says, and pay closer attention to the world as it is.