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1 July 2020updated 03 Jul 2020 6:26pm

Masha Gessen: Why this is a revolutionary moment for American democracy

The New Yorker columnist and author of Surviving Autocracy believes there can be no return to the pre-Trump normal.

By Sophie McBain

The New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen has written 12 non-fiction books, none of which made them (Gessen prefers the gender-neutral pronoun) as “miserable” as writing Surviving Autocracy. It builds on an essay published on the eve of Donald Trump’s presidency that advised: “believe the autocrat”; “do not be taken in by small signs of normality” and “institutions will not save you”.

Trump “ran not for president but for autocrat. And he won,” Gessen writes in Surviving Autocracy. He is a man of “militant” incompetence, with a moral void, and the US’s institutions have proven ill-equipped to resist a president who flouts all democratic norms. The media, attempting to cover the Trump presidency as they would any other, normalises this by translating outrageous behaviour into familiar newspeak and adhering to a notion of objectivity that creates a false equivalence between Trump’s demonstrable lies and the truth.

Gessen, whose writing is unfailingly polemical, precise and analytic, argues that the Trump administration is best understood with reference to the model of authoritarianism developed by the Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar. Magyar describes three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough and autocratic consolidation. Gessen suggests the US remains in the first stage – for now. There can be no return to the pre-Trump normal, however. Resisting authoritarianism will require the reinvention of American democracy, and a new politics of moral aspiration.

The book was updated just before it went to press to account for the coronavirus pandemic, which by late June had killed more than 120,000 people across the US. It continues to spread rapdily throughout much of the US. “The pandemic acts as an amplifier,” Gessen told me, when we spoke via Zoom. “If there is [an autocratic] breakthrough it will be more disastrous, but I also think there’s a better chance of a more dramatic reversal.”

Since the book’s publication in June, mass protests against police brutality have spread across the US. Gessen saw them as embodying a new kind of politics that the US so urgently needs. “It truly is a revolutionary moment. One of the reasons is that we have felt a deep need for solidarity during this pandemic, and part of what has made us feel this need for solidarity, is the small taste some of us have had, the bigger taste others have had, of what it’s like to feel as though your life is disposable.”

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In May, Gessen’s 18-year-old daughter Yolka was arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest in the city. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to her,” Gessen said, adding after a moment’s reflection: “She’s going to kill me for saying this.”

For young people, who have been devastated by months of isolation, the protests have provided a renewed sense of purpose and connection.

Yolka was also following in something of a family tradition. Gessen, who is 53, was arrested around the same spot 30 years earlier at an Aids protest. “For me it was a huge day.” Although Gessen had been campaigning for years with the advocacy group Act Up, the author could not afford to be photographed or arrested at protests. She and her family had arrived in the US as a refugee from Russia in 1981 and did not have political rights in the US at that time.

Just before being arrested in 1990, Gessen had received a US passport, and the arrest itself was like a rite of citizenship.

In 1991 Gessen went back to Russia to work as a journalist and then returned to New York in 2013 after the Russian government, which had for years been escalating attacks on the LGBT community, began threatening to remove children from same-sex couples. Having lived under authoritarian rule, Gessen was quick to see the similarities between Trump and the Russian president. Americans, who consider Vladimir Putin some kind of political mastermind, may be surprised to know that, according to the author, he is not only megalomanic and vain, but also intellectually dull and incurious. As they write in the book, Putin’s ambition “is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world”.

An important theme in Surviving Autocracy is the power of language to shape political reality and possibilities. For Gessen, this is a reason to write. “I think possibly the greatest stress of living day-to-day in Trump’s America is the sense that reality is mushy, that nothing is knowable, that sense has seeped out. And if you can just name things and describe things in a way that makes you feel like someone has shined a flashlight and things have become clear, that’s an incredible achievement.”

Gessen has already begun work on another book, which picks up where Surviving Autocracy ends, and will chart what the reinvention of US democracy could look like. Gessen had expected to be introducing readers to ideas such as police abolition and restorative justice, and yet in recent weeks the civil uprisings had moved such ideas from activist fringes into the mainstream. “But there are worse things than having your research rendered irrelevant because your wildest hopes have come true, so that will be fun.”

Is Masha Gessen optimistic about change? Optimism wasn’t the right word, Gessen replied, because it implies a degree of certainty over the future. “But I do feel more hopeful than I have done in years.” 

This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis