His has been one of the most enlightening voices in the analysis of the Trump Administration and its effects on the public sphere, from the pages The New Yorker in these four years. But Masha Gessen (Moscow, 1967) may have started with some advantage, since her years as a journalist in Putin’s Russia brought her gaze closer to dynamics that her American colleagues find difficult to identify.
Gessen’s career and life have passed between Russia and the United States, where he arrived in his early teens and where he trained, before returning to Moscow in the 1990s. His brother is the novelist Keith Gessen and since 2013 he has lived in New York with his wife and three children. A few years ago she declared herself trans non-binary. Has written the biography of Vladimir Putin The faceless man, and the essay The future is history, Russia and the return of totalitarianism —For which he received the National Book Award— and now the bookstores return with the succinct and relentless Survive the autocracy (Turner), who finished writing last April.
Gessen argues in his new book that, in the face of the now classic idea that to change things you have to be inside, what Trump has shown is that to destroy the system you also have to be in there. It explains clearly and rigorously, drawing on, for example, the work of the Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, why institutions are not strong enough to protect democracy from Trump’s abuses, nor has the press turned out to be an iron bulwark of defense and opposition. The perversion of the language and the failures of the system have been widening and Gessen remembers that the villains are usually mediocre and rude people, not evil geniuses. He says he has run out of patience with those who defend that Trump is a Russian puppet – “he is his own silly puppet, he is not an alien from space or a Russian agent,” he says.
Gessen answers by videoconference from his apartment in New York. He explains that these last few months of confinement he is enjoying after the almost 30 years he has spent traveling a lot, almost half of his time. He talks about the discussions he has with his sons about politics, how they fight him intelligently. And he says that he has been trying to get inside the president’s head for a few days to participate in a role-playing game they have mounted podcast in which he participates and has to play Trump. “It has been very unsettling,” he says.
Question. How has the pandemic affected Trump’s chances of victory?
Answer. What has been shown is how damaging an aggressively incompetent Administration can be. In political science it is assumed that bad economic figures always hurt the president who is running for re-election. I do not know how much of it is true in the case of leaders with a democratic spirit, but this idea is 100% wrong in the case of an autocrat. Crisis, scarcity and instability are things that help a leader of this type, anxiety favors him. Really, the question we face is to what extent has Trump been able to transform this country. The part of the United States that is living in an autocracy is going to support him even more because of anxiety and harsh economic conditions, because of unemployment. The part that lives in democracy will support you less.
Q. You have pointed out that issues that already affected democracy in the US crystallize in Trump, he did not come out of nowhere.
R. The dominant school of thought in America holds that Trump is a total anomaly. A much smaller number of people consider that he is simply another Republican president and that there is continuity, because he is in line with Reagan and sows on a field already fertilized since the eighties. I believe both are true. Trump is unlike any other president, but the conditions for his victory go back decades.
Q. How long ago?
R. Today I was discussing it with my 19-year-old daughter, who disagreed. I would start with the deep twist that 9/11 represented. The country began to think of itself as a besieged nation, surrounded by enemies and in permanent danger, something that aroused an anxiety that was not there. My daughter refuted him by talking about the Cold War and schoolchildren hiding under desks in anticipation of a nuclear war, and I don’t have much to say to her except that I wasn’t there. With 9/11, there was also an extreme concentration of power in the executive branch, the surveillance state was established and unlimited powers were given to the president to give a military response. He started the war on terror in which there is no clearly defined enemy and, therefore, no one with whom to sign the truce. My daughter was talking about the war on drugs that was waged here on a national scale and yes, there are points in common.
P. How do you get from there to have Trump in the White House?
R. Well, two more things add up. On the one hand, the marriage between money and power has reached its most extreme version. Campaigns are infinitely long, cost astronomical amounts of money, and require any politician to constantly keep an eye on their financial strength because that can cost them their job. And to this is added the trauma of the 2008 crisis, which the Obama Administration approached with a technocratic style, what we consider good government, stimulating the economy and approving measures, but without talking about failure and what had happened. Meanwhile, Trump appeals to that anxiety that the crisis generated. All of this led him to the White House, but his victory may not have happened.
Q. You take up the ideas of Hannah Arendt in your new book and also write that we tend to mythologize evil. Is Trump an example of the banality of villains?
R. We imagine that villains are bigger, smarter, and more misrepresenting than they really were, because somehow that comforts us. Clearly, the clowns of today can’t be as bad as the villains of the past, can they? Well, if you read testimonies from his contemporaries, you will see that Hitler was seen as a clown – he was ridiculous and had bizarre ideas – until he stopped being one. Dismissing autocrats because they are ignorant is a big mistake. We also see this, millions of people who prefer not to think. They are the bases of Trump, his army.
P. It is possible to think that autocracies are built with a strong government, and a lot of obedient officials. But Trump, months after being elected, still had many empty positions, no decisions could be made, and the very idea of government stopped working and made sense.
R. The words authoritarianism or totalitarianism refer to specific models, I use autocracy because it is a broader term that implies that the ruler wants to be in charge of everything without any limit and without supervision. But the term does not have a very large state structure associated with it, although many autocracies, for example Russia, have a very bloated and dysfunctional bureaucracy. In America today the Administration is a destructive force that represents a grotesque exaggeration of the idea that the Government is a bad thing.
Q. You write that with Trump the possibility of a substantive political debate has been erased. There has been no lack of voices that have been raised in defense of freedom of expression. Are these struggles part of the autocratic dynamic?
R. The political conversation in America has been on the wane for a long time. Maybe at one point it stopped being a conversation. Obama is an extraordinary speaker, but did he really have a conversation with anyone in public? I don’t recall seeing a politician thinking aloud for at least 30 years. And this is inseparable from polarization. Polarization means, for example, not arguing about the policies adopted to control the pandemic. We know what the lines are: those of Trump without a mask, the Democrats with. But what about politics? How do we organize the schools? How to protect our life in public space? Can we discuss this as a society and not as atomized individuals? This seems out of reach.
P. With Trump the protest movement has taken different forms. What happened this summer?
R. Uprising, it seems to me a more exact word to talk about what happened. In the Trump universe, protest has become illegitimate, and this is a huge autocratic turn. This is unusual because if you see how Americans learn their history in school studying everything from the Boston Tea Party to the Civil Rights movement, the protests are presented as glorious. Trump has totally abandoned this story. On the other hand, on the democratic front there has been an extraordinary amount of change in a very short period of time. Ideas that were very marginal in May, moved to mainstream in June. Topics like radically cutting police funding are part of the conversation.
P. You have criticized the media. Now, in campaign, do you appreciate that they have learned something?
R. No. The coverage of the only electoral debate has been infested with the so-called false equivalence, which comes to say that the two candidates are shouting and interrupting each other. And this is not the case, because one candidate was there to blow up the format and another wanted to say something. But my criticisms of the media already The New York Times, who is the one who sets the tone, they are compassionate. I understand that breaking the conventions has enormous costs, and that way of doing things makes the newspaper what it is; to detach from that institutional culture and renounce his position as supposedly neutral arbiter would be to discard his identity. In addition, they have done some impressive research work.
Q. From the press do you preach to converts?
R. I don’t think the failure was failing to reach the Trump ranks or the white supremacists, because no one is going to make them change. The problem is the lack of visibility of anyone who is not upper middle class, white and rich. The majority of American voters – that is, those who do not live in an apartment like mine in NY and for whom the NYT It’s not their local newspaper — they don’t see their problems reflected in any media outlet. Not so long ago there were local newspapers that talked about the traffic accident or the problem with garbage, issues about your community, but that has disappeared. And it’s with local media that you reach out to those on the other side, not by sending someone to Montana to write about a militia. You reach people by doing your job as a journalist and helping them create a political community. This is something that we all have to tackle and begin to think of the media as a public good, without trusting that things will go well if we deposit one of the most important parts of our democracy in a few corporations.
Q. Trump threatens to reject the results if he loses. What is going to happen?
R. You will not accept the results if you lose. He’s going to try to get Republicans to contest and sue at the state level, and he’s going to try to bring in the Justice Department. He is also going to try to control the conversation by saying that he has won and that Biden refuses to accept it. It is in the hands of the media not to repeat this and frame the issue like this, because it will be very easy to fall: Trump will send 450 tweets on November 3 saying that he has won, pointing out traitors and denouncing fraud because there are States that give good votes with him postmarked November 3.
R. It all depends on how much you lose. If he loses by much he will not be able to resist, but if the results are not clear for a while, then we will find a scary scenario, with a lot of political violence and God knows what else.