As we hurtle towards one of the most divisive, ugly and consequential elections in American history, the flow of books about what’s happening in the United States right now is on a similar upward trajectory.
Masha Gessen brings a very particular perspective to the task. The author, activist and New Yorker magazine journalist first came to the US as a teenager, in the 1980s, from what was then the USSR, before returning to Russia a decade later as an investigative reporter, getting a ringside view of the country's transition from post-Soviet chaos to a new model of undemocratic, autocratic government. It was the Putin regime's assault on LGBT+ rights that finally forced Gessen and their family to leave again for the US, seven years ago. (Gessen, who identifies as nonbinary, has said they were "probably the only publicly out gay person in the whole country".)
Gessen was one of the foremost chroniclers of Russia's descent under Vladimir Putin into a kleptocratic "mafia state", and that perspective informs their new book, Surviving Autocracy. The title has its origin in a piece they wrote for the New York Review of Books in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump's 2016 election victory, laying out a set of rules for maintaining sanity in a bewildering time.
Donald Trump would like to be a totalitarian leader if he could. He really wants the whole country to be one giant Trump rally
Gessen is not the only expert on eastern and central Europe to have applied their knowledge to the present moment in the US – the historians Timothy Snyder and Anne Applebaum have drawn similar comparisons. "There is never going to be an exact parallel," Gessen says via Zoom from their home in New York, when I ask about the many differences in history, culture and circumstances between postcommunist countries and the United States. "But there are understandings that we can have about what we're capable of as humans and how the worst moments in the history of humanity have come about. People who have studied those times are not coincidentally the people who were sounding the alarm the loudest about what's happening in the world now."
In person as in print, Gessen’s words are forensically chosen. So I wonder what kind of “survival” the book is about and who’s doing the surviving. That original article, they say, wasn’t about physical survival or political survival. “It was about sort of psychic survival under conditions of autocracy, and I think the book is also largely about that.”
And why autocracy rather than authoritarianism or other words that have been used of Trumpian politics, such as authoritarianism, totalitarianism or even fascism? “Authoritarianism in some ways is the opposite of totalitarianism,” explains Gessen. “Authoritarianism is a society in which one person or a group of people are running things while everyone else tends to their private lives. The authoritarian leader wants people to stay home and think about their private lives. So nothing is political, but authoritarianism aims to destroy old politics. Totalitarianism is the opposite in the sense that everything is political. The private sphere disappears entirely. There is no privacy. Everyone is out in the public square shouting their support for the leader at all times.
"I actually don't think that Donald Trump is an authoritarian leader. Donald Trump would like to be a totalitarian leader if he could. He really wants the whole country to be one giant Trump rally. I think that the word fascist is perfectly accurate when applied to Donald Trump. I also think it's incendiary and pulls you down into an argument that I'm not always up for having. I have used the word fascist to describe Donald Trump both during his campaign and, much more recently, when he used helicopters and tear gas to to create a photo op holding the Bible. That was a performance of fascism. But autocrat is, like fascist, accurate. As a writer I want to use words that will make people think. So, basically, I use the word autocrat in part so that you would ask me the question, 'Why are you using the word autocrat?'"
One peculiar characteristic of the Trump administration that seems particularly apparent right now is its extraordinary capacity for blundering and missteps. But in the book Gessen writes that Trump’s incompetence “is militant. It is not a factor that might mitigate the threat he poses. It is the threat itself.” I wonder if this is entirely true, particularly if it leads to defeat in November’s election, as now seems possible.
"Well, it depends on how we measure success," Gessen says. "I think that if you view his project as I do, as a project of destruction, the incompetence really works. By demonstrating this constant disdain for competence and contempt for government, he has managed to destroy probably more government than somebody who is more explicitly an opponent of the government, like Ronald Reagan. Because Trump's project is explicitly destructive and explicitly anti-expertise."
I have a lot of concerns about November, not least of which is that I'm not 100% certain that the election is going to happen on time
The White House’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is an example of just how profound that destruction is, says Gessen. “This is what militant incompetence looks like. So, in that sense, I think that this project is very successful. If you’re asking more traditionally, is his incompetence going to trip him up on in his bid for re-election? Well, we don’t know. I really, really hope so, but I have a lot of concerns about November, not least of which is that I’m not 100 per cent certain that the election is going to happen on time. And Trump has laid the groundwork for refusing to recognise the results of the election.
"This is where the lessons of history, including recent history, fall short. This has never happened in the United States before. We know the dangers by looking at other countries and looking at the 20th century. We know that humanity is capable of really, really awful things and stumbling into them casually. How it will play out in this country we still don't know. So I have great fear and I have some hope."