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Masha Gessen on the frightening fragility of America’s political institutions

Can American democracy survive Donald Trump?

President Donald Trump speaking from a podium June 1, 2020.
President Donald Trump’s constant attacks on the media are one instance of how his administration has undermined American institutions.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Masha Gessen grew up in the Soviet Union and spent two decades covering the resurgence of totalitarianism in Russia before being driven from the country by policies targeting LGBTQ people. Watching Donald Trump win in 2016, Gessen felt like they had seen this movie before. Within 48 hours of Trump’s victory, their essay “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” had gone viral, including lessons that in hindsight read as prophetic: Believe the autocrat. Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. Institutions will not save you.

Now, Gessen is back with a new book, Surviving Autocracy, a collection of ideas they have been building over the course of the Trump presidency. In this episode of The Ezra Klein Show, we discuss the inherent fragility of American political institutions, Donald Trump’s autocratic aesthetic, how the language of liberal democracy paradoxically undermines genuine liberal democracy, what lessons Gessen learned from covering the rise of Vladimir Putin, why Gessen believes the US is currently in the first stage of the three-part descent into autocracy, whether George W. Bush was a more damaging president than Donald Trump, the counterintuitive roots of Trumpian post-truthism, and much more.

An edited excerpt from our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on The Ezra Klein Show.

Ezra Klein

This is a book that is as much about language and its limits as it is about Donald Trump. You write that “the difficulty with absorbing the news lies in part in the words we use, which have a way of rendering the outrageous ordinary.” Tell me about that.

Masha Gessen

I’ve been thinking about language a lot since Trump was elected. A lot of that thinking had to do with the sense of living in a shared reality — the ability to understand and express and communicate with others about what we’re living through — and how that’s impaired in an autocracy.

I don’t give Trump a whole lot of credit for political talent or anything, really, except he has an instinctive talent for language. And there are a number of things that he does with language that I think are incredibly effective in undermining the sense of shared reality and thereby undermining the very possibility of politics.

Ezra Klein

Something that you write about is that we have a tendency to use the language of liberal democracy to apply to things that are either no longer or never were a liberal democracy. And that in applying the language of liberal democracy, we end up obscuring what they are or what they’re changing into.

Can you talk about that specific case, the way the term liberal democracy makes it hard to talk about something that is losing its shape as a liberal democracy?

Masha Gessen

This is an idea that actually is borrowed from a Hungarian political theorist, a sociologist named Balint Magyar. He writes that in 1989, when the Eastern Bloc collapsed, we started using the language of liberal democracy to describe what was going on there. There were two reasons why we were doing that: One was that we just assumed that everything was going to become a liberal democracy — it was the “end of history.” The other was that’s the language of political science — that’s what’s available to us.

In fact, what was happening there was not liberal democracy. And the language got in the way of understanding that. If you talk about free and fair elections in a place where that’s not even relevant, if you talk about freedom of the press in a place where that’s not even relevant, you are describing absences that are not even part of the same phenomenon that you’re trying to describe.

Or as Magyar puts it: You can say that the elephant doesn’t fly. You can say that the elephant doesn’t swim. But that doesn’t tell you anything about the elephant.

Ezra Klein

What are terms we use in liberal democracy that you feel describe something we think we have and keep us from seeing the thing that we actually are becoming?

Masha Gessen

I think American faith in institutions has a sort of religious quality to it. We imbue institutions in the way we talk about them with sort of magical qualities — the qualities of self-repair and independent functioning. American institutions, as we imagine them, are so perfect — they just work on their own and require nothing to make them work. Or conversely, nothing can stop them from working. They’re so perfectly designed that they’re independent of their context.

We don’t question the idea that institutions, if they function as they were designed, will always give the perfect result.

Ezra Klein

What the Trump era has revealed to me is that there is nothing automatic about our institutions. Our parties cross our institutions. The Republican Party exists in the House and in the Senate and in the White House and in the Supreme Court.

And the institutions don’t work if both parties don’t want them to work. So when I think about the institutional failure here, I think that it’s a mistake to think about them as automatic, as you were saying. It really seems to me that the core institutional failure was on the side of the Republican Party. Once Trump was the nominee, the party fell in line behind him in a deeply slavish and disturbing way.

The Republican Party’s rapid accommodation to what I would call an autocratic aesthetic — and sometimes autocratic behavior — has been really scary.

Masha Gessen

It’s been absolutely terrifying. I have spent most of my professional life writing about Russia, where I have constructed all sorts of theories or used other people’s theories about how this sort of behavior of state terror and autocratic rule is conditioned over decades — how it is entrenched in a culture.

And here we are in a country to which supposedly this is entirely alien, watching an entire political party that holds a majority at that point in both houses of Congress just falling in line like they are the subjects of a tyrant who rules by terror. That upends all of those theories.

What I write about in the book is that I think there is a difference of political audiences in autocracy and a democracy. In a democracy, a politician’s audience is their voters. They are accountable to their voters. Their voters decide whether they stay in office or lose their jobs. They address their voters whenever they’re speaking publicly, even if it’s ostensibly to someone else.

In an autocracy, a politician’s audience is always the autocrat because it is the autocrat who distributes power and often money. It is the autocrat who decides whether the politician keeps their job or not. And I think somehow, in a matter literally of months, an entire half of our political life changed to the audience of an autocracy. Because it’s Donald Trump who can commit murder by tweet and causes any elected representative probably to lose his or her job.

Ezra Klein

To me, the scariest line in your book is this one: “The first three years [of Trump’s presidency] have shown that an autocratic attempt in the United States has a credible chance of succeeding.”

The thing that has always been so striking to me about Trump is that he would make his own rejection so easy. He’s crude. He’s not strategic. He alienates potential allies. He’s never had an approval rating above 50 percent. He betrays some of the party’s core principles. He’s not somebody who’s been executing a strategic takeover of either the Republican Party or of American political institutions. So this is the easy case. And even in this case, we’ve proved unable to put strong boundaries on him. He’s taken over a major political party.

To me, the true nightmare scenario here has been not really Trump — I’m not even sure he truly wants a level of responsibility that would come along with being a successful autocrat, even if he were capable of becoming one. Our deep vulnerability is somebody who did want it and who was willing to be just mildly strategic.

Masha Gessen

That’s a great point. I think we’re in the midst of what Magyar calls the “autocratic attempt,” that’s the first stage when autocracy is still reversible by electoral means. So at least until November, we’re still in the autocratic attempt stage of this process.

Then, at some point, there comes the autocratic breakthrough when you can no longer use electoral means to reverse that autocracy. Then autocratic consolidation, where it’s just consolidating ever more power and money, making it ever less possible to change.

So if this attempt fails, if we vote him out of office in November and he leaves, I think that the lesson we need to draw is that democracy is always a process. It’s always a negotiation. It’s always a thing in the making. It’s never the thing you just build and inhabit, which I think is one of the fundamental misunderstandings of the concept of democracy that so many of us have had.

I think that’s the ultimate lesson to take if this autocratic attempt fails, which I hope it does.

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