'Surviving Autocracy' author Masha Gessen on Trump's casual racism, how his incompetence prevents accountability, and the institutions that failed us

Ernesto Distefano/Getty ImagesMasha Gessen speaks onstage at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival – Truth To Power Panel at Filmmaker Lodge on January 25, 2020 in Park City, Utah.
  • Masha Gessen, staff writer for New Yorker and the author of the new book, “Surviving Autocracy” spoke with Business Insider this week.
  • Gessen talked about the distinctions between Trump and Putin’s styles of autocratic leadership, how Trump’s incompetence helps him avoid accountability, and why institutions can’t save us.
  • “The Trump project is taking American identity to an imaginary past. In that imaginary past … we’re not confronted and irritated by people who demanded to be recognised in their differences,” Gessen said.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Masha Gessen is a staff writer for New Yorker and the author of 11 books, including the National Book Award-winner “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” and the newly-published tome about the Trump presidency, “Surviving Autocracy.”

Born in the Soviet Union, Gessen’s family emigrated to the US in 1981. As an adult, Gessen returned to Russia in the early 1990s, where they made their name as a science journalist and a groundbreaking activist for LGBTQ rights.

In 2013, Russian authorities made the rollback of LGBTQ rights part of their nationalistic agenda, banning what they called “homosexual propaganda” and even threatening to take their children away. It was around that time that Gessen moved with their family back to the US.

One of the world’s foremost chroniclers of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s slide into autocracy, Gessen has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, a Nieman Fellowship, and the Hitchens Prize for demonstrating “a commitment to free expression and inquiry,‭ ‬a range and depth of intellect,‭ ‬and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence.”

Gessen spoke with Business Insider’s Columnist Anthony L. Fisher via Skype for a wide-ranging conversation about Trump’s similarities and dissimilarities to Putin, how he’s inured the American public to his crass racism, why Russiagate conspiracy theories were unhelpful, and why the myth of American institutions will not save us.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jorge Silva/Reuters

Fisher: You’ve written books about Vladimir Putin, how would you compare his form of autocracy to Trump’s?

Gessen: It’s hard to compare because they come in very different political contexts, very different cultural contexts, very different historical contexts.

The differences are perhaps the most unexpected and striking. Putin’s consolidation of power has been more of an autocratic creep than Trump’s, I think partly because Trump has a less systematic way of thinking. He emotionally assumed that once he was elected president, he had the right to be an autocrat.

Perhaps the most important distinction is that, fundamentally, Putin is an authoritarian leader.

In “The Future is History,” I wrote a lot about the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Authoritarianism is a regime where one person or a group of people want everybody to go home. They just want everybody to leave them alone, to accumulate money and power, and tend to their own private lives. So public space disappears under authoritarianism, politics disappears, nothing is political. Everything is private.

Totalitarianism is, in that sense, the exact opposite. Everything is political, private space disappears. The totalitarian leader wants the public out in the public square, demonstrating their support. Temperamentally, Trump is much more of a totalitarian leader. He wants it to be one big rally. That’s his conception of power. Whereas Putin’s conception of power is very much being left alone and nobody noticing.

Fisher: You wrote that Trumpian news has a way of being shocking without being surprising, and described it as “an assault on the senses and the mental faculties.” Do you think that this is by design?

Gessen: I don’t think anything in the Trump universe is by design. This was part of what I was talking about earlier, that he seems to think that once he was elected, he could just be the autocrat he wanted to be.

A lot of his statements and actions seem to be completely separated from what we assumed was our political reality. There’s also just the sheer volume of stuff, outrageous stuff that happens so we get acculturated very quickly. But I think it’s by instinct.

“His incompetence is militant”

Fisher: Do you think Trump’s incompetence and ignorance might mitigate some of his autocratic tendencies?

Gessen: I don’t. For two important reasons. One is that I think that his incompetence is militant. It is very much part of his political self. It’s not that he would like to be smarter and better at this, but is falling short. It’s that he’s hellbent on destruction.

His campaign message was very much in line with other populists: things don’t have to be so complicated. I can do this. Anybody can do this. It’s all real simple. But his way of being president has been to create destruction, to dismantle agencies, to defund agencies, to deregulate. Part of it is the politics of deregulation, but mostly he doesn’t think anybody should be good at this, because this is worthless. That’s his contempt for government and his disdain for expertise.

And of course we’ve seen both the display and the consequences of that with COVID. That’s one important reason why I think his incompetence is not a mitigating factor, it’s very much the nature of the beast.

The other reason I don’t think it’s a mitigating factor is that, to the extent that our institutions and our culture are designed to resist an autocratic attempt, the tools we have assume a measure of good faith and competence. It’s very difficult for those tools – for the legal tools, for the institutional tools, for the tools of oversight checks and balances, legal constraint – to be applied to somebody or to an entire administration that’s incompetent.

Let me give you just a quick example so it’s not so general. Look at Portland right now.

Some of it is a sort of a kind of strategic opportunism. But we’re going to find out soon that it’s going to be very difficult to hold anybody involved to account, because it’s not even clear that the heads of the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and the CBP [Border Patrol] legally occupy their posts. They’re both acting heads, and for both of them, the maximum term allowed has expired, which may or may not be a big deal. Nobody quite understands the law. But the line of succession as written in law has been violated.

That’s a great example of how incompetence actually creates the impossibility of holding these people to account. They weren’t confirmed by the Senate, and the only person who can fire them is Trump. So they’re just as oblivious to any oversight agency as they are to the procedure of actually getting appointed to office. What are you going to do about it?

Dave Killen/The Oregonian via Associated Press

Fisher: With regards to Portland, an argument that Trump and his supporters are using is that they’re protecting federal buildings, that the Border Patrol has authority within the 100-mile border zone, which includes the ocean, and that local authorities have failed to prevent violence. What do you make of that argument?

Gessen: I’m still researching the violence in Portland, so I don’t feel qualified to give you a full answer on that argument.

Some of what they’re saying is true. These agencies which were created in their current form after 9/11 and are doing exactly what they were designed to do. That’s where we get into something that I discussed in the book, which is that I think it’s wrong to view Trump as an anomaly. He is unlike any president we’ve ever had, but the groundwork for Trump, the possibility of Trump, was created long before he became president.

The most important strain of that story I would trace back to 9/11, to the creation of the internal police state, to the creation of the domestic surveillance state, to the concentration of power in the executive branch, and to this creation of an American identity as a nation under siege.

“So many features of a criminal state that are absolutely in plain view”

Fisher: In the book you wrote: “Conspiracy thinking focuses attention on the hidden, the implied and the imagined, and it draws away from reality in plain view.” It seemed to me that you were saying that there was so much corruption, particularly even corruption related to Trump and Russia, that to focus on the idea that he was a literal Russian puppet was a waste of energy and damaging to actually holding Trump accountable.

Gessen: That’s exactly what I’m saying. I don’t even know that I would necessarily call it corruption because I think when we use the word corruption we generally mean something that is irregular or deviant to the state. We’re kind of assuming that the state as currently constituted is acting in public interest and then there are some ways in which it was corrupted. So if you root out corruption, the thing will work as it’s designed to.

Under Trump, that’s not the case. The whole thing is acting in his private interests, the whole thing as its goal is the accumulation of power. So you can’t root out corruption and leave a good Trump presidency.

There are so many features of a criminal state that are absolutely in plain view.

As a society and as individuals, we don’t have boundless energy, boundless attention spans, and boundless column inches or word counts in our media, focusing on what we can’t see, focusing on needing to discover something else – it draws attention from what is in plain view of what should be addressed right now.

But it also oddly normalizes what is in plain view. It is as though this weren’t bad enough, what we’re watching. But once we find out that he is an actual agent of the Kremlin, that’s when things will actually become clear and resistible and prosecutable. I think that’s really destructive.

Fisher: As you wrote in the book, a lot of big media people pointed to that moment in 2017 when Trump bombed Syria and said “he became presidential” on that day. Do you think that’s a dangerous normalization?

Gessen: Look, normalization is inevitable. Partly because it’s accurate, this has become our normal. Four years ago, President Trump was unthinkable. Now he has been president for three and a half years. So that’s the norm. But of course, it’s dangerous. This is not something that we want to get used to and we should be mindful when our standards are lowered.

Fisher: How you would compare Trump to other American presidents – who may not have been as obnoxious to the news media – but have done things like use the Espionage Act to prosecute journalists? Do you think that Trump’s exceptionally worse than other presidents to the media?

Gessen: I think both, and it’s a very good question. Trump wouldn’t be able to do what he does in any way, including his interactions with the media, if previous presidents and society hadn’t created the conditions for it.

The Obama administration was not a great administration for journalists to work with. It was opaque, it was sort of peacefully hostile to inquiry. And of course, it was not so peacefully hostile to confrontations with the media. By that I would include the treatment of Chelsea Manning, who was pardoned at the 11th hour, but the prosecutions of journalists and whistleblowers in the Obama administration and [its] predecessors created the conditions for Trump.

But Trump has really broken with tradition by abandoning the performance of accountability. Under Obama press briefings may have been empty rituals for the most part, but they created the performance, the image of accountability. And that’s what Trump has really broken with from the very beginning.

So the very early confrontations over the inaugural crowd and weather were really exercises in putting the media in their place. You are here to take dictation. You’re not here to question us, if you start questioning us, we’re going to kick you out of the room and you’re not going to able to take dictation.

Reuters

Fisher: You’ve got a chapter on “white male supremacy,” you touch on Trump’s racism against the members of “the Squad” [four progressive members of Congress who are women of colour], and you write that countries which have grown less democratic in recent years have rolled back LGBT rights. Are all of these part of the Trump project?

Gessen: Yes, it is the Trump project. The Trump project is taking American identity to an imaginary past. In that imaginary past, the imaginary Trump voter or Trump itself, we’re not confronted and irritated by people who demanded to be recognised in their differences. You didn’t have to share power or access to public space with people who were different from you.

There’s been a concerted effort on the part of the Justice Department to reverse the gains of the LGBT rights movement starting, I believe, on the day after Jeff Sessions became attorney general. And of course, his war on immigrants. It’s all of a piece, it’s all about the narrowing of American identity and the disenfranchisement of people who have progressively been enfranchised in the American project.

Fisher: When Trump said the Squad should “go back” where they came from, that seemed to be a moment when even the most cautious of editors were willing to say that’s racist. Period. Full stop. Do you think that that was the right time to do it?

Gessen: I think there’s something very peculiar about setting such high standards for calling something racist. It’s similar with using the word “lie.” Editors both at The New York Times and National Public Radio have taken a kind of hard line on applying those words. NPR has said, we can’t tell if he’s lying because we know we can’t look into his heart and see his intentions, which I think is just absolutely abdicating journalistic responsibility.

The Times has a more interesting policy, they just use it as an exception. So most of the time they prefer to use that euphemism, or what they might think of as a synonym, but [which] I think of as a euphemism. Which is “Trump again makes an unsubstantiated claim” or “Trump misleadingly says.” Sometimes when it’s really, really outrageous, they will use the word lie. The problem with that is that it creates a situation where something that Trump does routinely, which is lie, it’s called out only on exceptional occasions. So it almost creates a situation where he is allowed to lie within an ever-shifting concept of reason. And that can’t but continue to lower the standard for what we expect from the chief executive.

We have a president who is racist as a matter of course, who makes racist comments all the time. It’s not like we suspected that he was racist and suddenly he exposed his true beliefs by telling the Squad to go back where they came from. I mean, he exposes us his true beliefs about, about race constantly. And yet we wait for a really big bombshell to use the word racist. So that means that a certain amount of racism – like an extremely high amount of racism – is tolerable and it doesn’t get slapped down with this label. But of course we’re expecting a certain amount of crass across racism from him on a daily basis.

“Democracy is an aspiration”

Fisher: If Trump were to lose this November, what do you think should be done to undo some of the damage to American institutions?

Gessen: Americans have a religious faith in institutions. And by that I mean that we imbue institutions with two magical qualities. One is the quality of self-repair. And the other is the quality of independent functioning.

It’s like, they’re so perfect that they just function in a vacuum, like institutions are there and they’re perfectly designed to do their thing. One thing we really need to understand is that’s not true of any institutions, and it’s certainly not true of American institutions. Institutions function in society. They are enabled and emboldened by society.

Sometimes we see that expressed beautifully, as in the initial reaction to the travel ban. It was a rare moment of seeing very clearly how societal reaction enables the courts to do their job quickly and effectively and decisively.

But the bigger thing is that we have to give up that idea of the perfect design. We have to understand that democracy is an aspiration. It’s not a thing that you can build and then move in and live there. It’s a constant negotiation. Democracy is the conversation about how we want to live together today and tomorrow, and then we have the conversation again, and then we have it again.

And so if there’s one thing that we need to do is to give up this idea that the founding fathers gave us the perfect house to live in. And we just have to make sure that nobody tears down the walls. The founding fathers gave us some ideas for how to build the thing that we keep inhabiting.

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