Masha Gessen: A Russian's Perspective on Trump's Autocratic Impulses

Journalist discusses failures of the U.S. media and the Democratic Party and how to survive the Trump era

Masha Gessen at an LGBTQ Pride march in Brooklyn earlier this year. Credit: Misha Friedman/Getty Images

One of the articles to cut through the noise just after Election Day was "Autocracy: Rules for Survival" in the New York Review of Books. Its author, Masha Gessen, knows her subject well. She's lived most of her life under autocratic rule – and a good portion of it in the risky role of opposition journalist – in Russia.

In the torrent of articles she's written and TV appearances she's made since, she's become an indispensable voice on the despotic tendencies of the current American president. Digging deeper than just pointing out the obvious anti-democratic hallmarks of Trump's presidency – his flagrant desire for a justice system loyal to him as opposed to the law, for instance – Gessen addresses the troubling changes to America's political norms using the hard-earned wisdom of someone who has survived and fought against political oppression with her integrity intact.

"I have this special pair of binoculars," she says. "Because I've experienced autocracy, I can recognize certain of its traits." While Trump's early Twitter attacks on his critics – from civil-rights icon Rep. John Lewis to the pope – flummoxed commentators, it was all too familiar to her. "Autocratic power requires the degradation of moral authority – not the capture of moral high ground," she wrote.

Gessen, 50, has twice immigrated to the U.S. – first leaving the Soviet Union with her family in 1981 because of anti-Semitism, spending a formative 13 years here. She returned to Russia in the early Nineties, and as a reporter and editor was a firsthand witness to the country's brief, hopeful dalliance with democracy and its gradual descent back into what she classifies as retro-totalitarianism under Putin. She fled to the U.S. again in 2013 – this time for good, she says – when Russian anti-gay legislation threatened the custody of her children.

The author of several books, including a 2012 look at the rise of Vladimir Putin and one, from 2014, on the Russian protest punk group Pussy Riot, Gessen has spent the past nine months diligently carving out the contours of the Trump-Putin courtship. She draws parallels between the two men's use of lying and their "stubborn mediocrity" – but she has been one of the few voices on the left to seriously question the Trump-Russia collusion theory. Her biggest problem with it is that it suggests to people, "This is how we got Trump, and this is how we're gonna get rid of Trump," she says. "And no, this is not how we got Trump. How we got Trump was that Americans voted for him."

Her forthcoming book, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, tells the story of "freedom that was not embraced and democracy that was not desired" – a critique that echoes her observations of American politics.

Rolling Stone recently spoke with Gessen about how the media is covering Trump, the failures of the Democratic Party and what lessons Americans can learn from Russia about surviving the Trump era.

You spent your formative years in journalism here in the U.S. How did that benefit you when you went back to Russia? Were you able to look at Russia with an outsider's point of view?
I think so. I mean, that's the advantage of being an émigré in the first place, right? If you survived the otherness as a teenager and young person, then it becomes a huge asset because you're always "othered." And you always have the ability to "other" the reality in which you live, which I think is an essential skill for a writer. There were things that I had learned as a journalist that were very useful to being a journalist in Russia.

"Surprised is not the word I would use. Fucked is the word I would use. And not in the good way."

Like what?
Like not using anonymous sources. Like fact-checking. Like the idea of objectivity; I'm not a fan of the objective style at all, and I am opposed to the "view from nowhere" school of journalism, but it's a good thing to know. Also, getting schooled in the gay press in the Eighties was an amazing experience. There were two things that were really important: One was that this was an activist press, so we had no problem conceiving of ourselves as political actors and having a political responsibility and a responsibility to a constituency, which is true of all community presses, but in particular in the Eighties for the gay press because of AIDS. It was also great experience in what people are now sort of exoticizing as "outside-in journalism." There's a media critic named Jay Rosen who's brilliant. He's written a lot about how not having access to the White House is going to force American journalists to practice outside-in journalism, which is a very valid point, although I think that losing access is a loss. Americans have asked people like me, "How do you do that when you don't have access?" I'm like, "Well, actually, this country has a proud history of doing that, because there are journalists who haven't had access. That includes the black press, that includes the Latino press and it includes the gay press."

How do you think the U.S. press is doing covering Trump?
I think there are two stories, and they're actually happening at the same time. One is that the U.S. press is doing great. I think that the level of discussion at The New York Times has been incredible, that the investigative stuff and the way that media outlets have competed and cooperated on investigations has been amazing. And in that sense, this situation is nothing like what I lived through in Russia because there's an immediate army of journalists who are critical and mobilized and skilled and sort of intellectually armed and all sorts of things that we didn't have in Russia. And there's a really, really healthy public conversation.

At the same time, where I think there's the biggest point of weakness is – and this was a weakness that was built in because of the relationship between the press corps and the White House over the course of the last many years – we've just become increasingly passive – basically, go to briefings, raise your hand, get recognized, feed it to your newspaper without any context. An example of that is The New York Times' report on Trump's speech in Warsaw. It's just bad reporting. They had no context. They didn't understand how highly symbolic it was where he chose to speak, that he went to the Warsaw Uprising Museum but didn't go to the ghetto monument. The Times report was all about, "He's talking about Western values. Hooray. It's a change of tone." It was not a change of tone. It could have been fed to him by the Polish government. And every gesture during that trip was a gesture that corresponded to what the Polish government wanted. The Polish government is a paranoid, nationalist, anti-democratic government.

In trying to understand Trump's positioning with Putin – why he likes him and he seems to want to buddy up despite Russia's hostile act during our election – do you think it's about him seeing the U.S. as being in a showdown with Islam, and it's more important to have Putin as an ally in that fight?
I would not attribute any strategic thinking to Trump. I think Trump is turned on by power. I think that he sees in Putin an embodiment of the kind of power that he wants to have. He equates power with control. He equates power with extreme popularity. And Putin has both. What Trump is not smart enough to even grasp is that the kind of popularity that Putin has can only be achieved in the context of retro-totalitarianism. I mean, when you're talking about 86 percent popularity ratings, you're just taking measure of the degree of totalitarianism in society. You're not actually taking measure of popularity.

What do you think Putin's actual popularity is?
That is his actual popularity. People are saying what they say because they've been robbed of the ability to form their own opinions. And they've been robbed of that ability by many things, including the history of their families, the history of their society. And also being robbed of free media, being robbed of access to information, being robbed of a viable alternative because there's not the public space in which that alternative can show itself. It's all of it together. Trump has inherited a completely different history. So we're not in danger of that, but we're in danger of something else. What that something else looks like, we don't know.

You've called Trump and Putin "kindred spirits." Can you talk a little bit about some of the personality traits they share?
The biggest is the way that they use language. The way they lie. They lie like bullies. They lie to assert their power over reality. Every time they lie, they say, "I'm asserting my right to say whatever I want whenever I want to. And what are you going to do about it?"

It's one thing for a candidate or another politician or a reality TV star to do that, but this is the man in the White House now.
He's got the biggest microphone, but also it corrodes our sense of reality, because Trump's lies become a part of our shared reality. He's fascinating because he's so intense. Putin is not. Putin is basically the man of the slow drip. It has taken him a very long time to create the situation of a political crackdown. Trump is moving so fast. And what that has created is this situation where we're constantly in crisis, we're constantly mobilized. The problem with mobilization is that it robs you of your own perspective and sense of what you want. What you want is to not be in this misery.

You want the freedom to focus on your own life and your own pursuits.
What I'm talking about is politically, what do you want? I think at this point, all that people who don't want Trump want is to not have Trump. That doesn't work politically. I think that was the biggest problem with Hillary's campaign, actually: It had no vision of the future. The Democratic Party still doesn't have a vision of the future, and in fact doesn't have any kind of agenda aside from trying to stave off the sort of onslaught of horribleness that's coming from the White House.

I feel like if she did have one, she could have been screaming it at the top of her lungs and I don't know if anybody would have heard it because people were just following the insanity of what Trump was doing and saying on a daily basis.

Possibly, but look, the Democratic convention was devoted to this idea that we're fine just the way we are. Which I think is a horribly tone-deaf idea. It's not just politically irresponsible to not have a sense of where you're going as a country, but it's this idea that you can have a spectacle of representation and that is enough. Basically, the way that I read the Democratic National Convention was that it was this huge stage where they kept calling up people who represented particular groups. And that was supposed to communicate that the Democratic Party represented everybody. So what that means is that anybody who doesn't see themselves represented is not part of the Democratic Party.

You didn't find it to be a good answer to the racism and xenophobia that was part of the messaging of the Republicans?
I did not find it to be a good answer to racism and xenophobia because representation is never finite. And I think that a lot of the people who run the Democratic Party really fail to understand that. They think that if they tick off all the groups, then they're done. And then if another group shows up, like transgender people, "Oh! Right! Brand new population. OK, you can come in too." That's not democracy.

"I don't think we have a full appreciation of how incompetence and mediocrity and a dismissal of all kinds of excellence is in itself evil."

How big of a threat do you believe Russia is to the United States?
Russia believes itself to be at war with the United States. It's been a proxy war through Ukraine and through Syria, but make no mistake, Russia thinks it's fighting a war against the United States in Ukraine and in Syria. And at this point, Russia has chosen the path of escalation, and there's no other way. You can't de-escalate this thing. So in terms of historical parallels, we have to go back to the Sixties and look at the Cuban Missile Crisis and the bigger and smaller conflicts that preceded it. That's sort of the kind of path that we're on. Nothing is ever repeated exactly the same way, but that's the closest analogy.

Do you think sanctions are an effective way of dealing with Russia's human rights abuses?
I don't think that's the right question, because I think that there's no way to measure the effectiveness when dealing with Putin. I think Americans are just starting to understand how this works. There's nothing effective against Trump. Trump is Trump. Trump is going to lie. Trump is going to act the way he's acting. No amount of reason, no amount of criticism, no amount of anything is going to work to change Trump's behavior. Putin is exactly the same way. But the question to ask about sanctions is not whether they're effective. The question is, are they the right thing to do? Yes, sanctions are the right thing to do because it is wrong to do business with a dictator.

What do you think is the number-one thing Americans misunderstand about Putin? That we see him as sort of this evil mastermind and you think he's more mediocre than that?
That's exactly right. Thanks to Hannah Arendt, we understand that evil can be banal. But I don't think we have a full appreciation of how incompetence and mediocrity and a dismissal of all kinds of excellence is in itself evil. And we're really starting to get it in this era because that's a lot of what the danger and the appeal of Trump and Putin and Marine Le Pen and all sorts of other evil people in the world is. The anti-political nature of their politics boils down to the message of "Things are not so complicated. Things can really be black and white. They can be solved very easily." Putin, and leaders like him, take away the ability to figure out how we want to live through the little things and the sort of every-person complexity. I think that democracy is about growing complexity. And anti-democratic movements are about decreasing that complexity.

It's hard to scream nuance through a bullhorn, unfortunately.
Exactly.

How surprised are you to find yourself making all these comparisons between Russia and America and that our politics feel this analogous right now?
Oh my god. Surprised is not the word I would use. Fucked is the word I would use. [Laughs] And not in the good way. I mean, it's awful. And in some ways, for me it was harder to take than the Russian story because I always had a home here. This was the refuge and this was the shining city on the hill. It had saved me once, it now saved me twice, and now this. And where do I go now?

So what is the antidote? You're saying there's nothing really effective to do against a Trump or a Putin? How do we get ourselves out of this mess?
We really have to commit ourselves to the future. The sort of technological and social and economic changes we're living through are as huge as the Industrial Revolution, right? And it's not that there are no people who are thinking about what this future looks like, but they're virtually absent in the public sphere. That's the kind of conversation we need to be having instead of "Did Trump collude with the Russians?"

Have you seen anything in the resistance to Trump so far that's given you hope?
I think the reaction to the travel ban was amazing, and I think that's actually the model for a sort of daily resistance. And this is something that makes America different than any other country in the world, which is its civil society. America's civil society is stronger and wealthier than any other civil society in the world because Americans basically distrust their government. And that's generally a bad thing, but it's an amazing thing right now because there's this huge sector of society that's independent of the state and that can be the resistance.

In America, we define ourselves so much by being a democracy. How do you wrap your brain around why people voted for Trump, when he's somebody that complimented the likes of Putin and Erdogan and Duterte, is hostile toward the press and hostile toward the rule of law?
I think that there are many ways to tell the story. I hope that writers, including me, will be doing this in the next couple of years. I would start with 9/11 and talk about the state of mobilization, the state of forever war that we've been in for the last 16 years. I think that goes a very long way toward explaining how national identity takes precedence over values such as democracy. And also, one of the results of this forever war and the 16 years of a state of emergency has been a concentration of power in the executive branch, which has gradually changed people's understanding of what the president does and what the presidency is. The office that Trump was running for is different than the office that George W. Bush ran for. So that's one main narrative. The other main narrative to me is the housing crisis of 2007-2008, which I think that this country, and particularly President Obama, never wrapped their heads around in a psychological, emotional way. I think that the Obama administration handled the crisis very well economically – it was probably the best sort of technical and economic solutions that were possible.

They were not in touch with the anger.
It's not just anger. It's a profound sense of betrayal – and it's not just a sense of betrayal, but it's a sense of loss of identity. American identity is tied intimately to the home. If you no longer have a home, if your home can be taken away from you or from your friends, then you don't know who you are. And the other thing that's hugely important psychologically is the vision of the future. When I came to this country, in 1981, it was very easy to understand how life was structured here. For the vast middle class, it was structured around the purchase of the home. You graduate from college, you got married, you bought your house, you had your kids, then the kids grew up, you paid off your mortgage, the kids finished college, and you downsized and lived off the value of your house, right? I mean that was the narrative for tens of millions of people, and that's what you were supposed to buy into as you assimilated into this country.

The housing crisis robbed them of that.
Of the future. People don't know how they're going to live. They have no concept of how it's all going to work. That's a precondition for fascism. The book on that is Erich Fromm's Escape From Freedom, which is an absolute brilliant, tiny book. He talks about that sense of lostness and how not knowing where you belong and who you are and what your future looks like is an unbearable burden for most people. For a few people, it's liberating, it's wonderful. What Fromm was describing was worse situations – huge social revolutions that had a liberating aspect to them. But that's not what happened with the housing crisis. It was all loss. It didn't have an aspect that said, "OK, now you can invent yourself." It was just, "OK, now you can no longer feel safe, ever." And I think that's a huge failure of the Obama administration to not address the profound existential crisis that was created.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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