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Russian Journalist Masha Gessen on Trump & Putin’s Autocracy and Media’s Refusal to Call Out Lies

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As the Senate Intelligence Committee says Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, we discuss Russia and Trump with Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. Her new book, “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” has just been shortlisted for the National Book Award and offers a warning to the United States today as she points to the similarities between Trump and Putin, and warns of the threat of autocracy under a Trump presidency.

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Web ExclusiveJun 16, 2021Masha Gessen on “Surviving Autocracy”: Fight Politics of the Past with Potent Politics of the Future
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The head of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee announced Wednesday it’s reached the conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This comes as CNN reports a number of Russian-linked Facebook ads specifically targeted Michigan and Wisconsin, two states crucial to Trump’s victory in November. Republican Senator Richard Burr said his committee was still examining evidence to determine if there was any collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

SEN. RICHARD BURR: We have not come to any determination on collusion or Russia’s preferences. If we use solely the social media advertising that we have seen, there is no way that you can look at that and say that that was to help the right side of the ideological chart and not the left, or vice versa. They were indiscriminate.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Trump has called allegations of campaign collusion with Russia a hoax. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is pursuing a separate probe under special counsel Robert Mueller.

Well, for more on Russia and Trump, we recently spoke with award-winning Russian-American author and journalist Masha Gessen. Her new book is titled The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia and has just been shortlisted for the National Book Award. It looks at why democracy failed in Putin’s Russia and how the country descended into a more virulent and invincible strain of autocracy, all in the space of a generation.

AMY GOODMAN: Masha Gessen’s book is a warning to the United States today. In many of her articles, she points to the similarities between Trump and Putin, and has repeatedly warned of the threat of autocracy under a Trump presidency. Two days after Trump’s stunning electoral victory, she wrote an article for The New York Review of Books headlined “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” which was widely circulated on social media, received over a million views. Masha Gessen is a visiting professor at Amherst College, a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New York Times. Her previous books include the best-seller The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. We spoke with her last week and started by asking her about this viral story she wrote, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.”

MASHA GESSEN: So, the way that that piece came about, actually, was that on election night, like most people, I was at a horrible party, you know, a party that began well and ended horribly. And by the time I got home, I got several notes from people I knew, close friends and not so close friends, sort of saying, “What do we do now?” as though I were some sort of guru on looming disasters. And I thought there was a point to that, because even though I don’t think that Trump and Putin are that similar—right?—they have major points of similarity, because they perceive power in the same way and because they perceive politics in very much the same way. Even though they don’t have—you know, they’re very different men, there’s something that I have learned over 20 years of covering Putin and 20 years, even more importantly, of living in a disintegrating democracy, that I thought I could probably help convey to my friends and to other people. So that was sort of the genesis of that piece.

I think that things have gone pretty much as badly as I had expected. When I was asked what my greatest fear was, I said my greatest fear was a nuclear holocaust, which seemed ridiculous a little less than a year ago, and we are on the brink of that, actually, and we have been for weeks, which is something that we try not to talk about, because how do you talk about that?

I think that, certainly, one of the—one of the six rules for autocracy was institutions will not save you. And the reason that I considered it necessary to write that was because at the time, if you remember, a lot of people were saying, “Well, yes, Trump is the kind of politician who has never been president in this country, but institutions of our democracy are so strong that he is not going to be able to do that much damage.” And my sense was that a lot of what people thought of as institutions were actually norms and habits and customs. But even formal institutions are actually not designed to stand up to somebody who is dealing with them in bad faith. And that’s what we have observed. And we have observed institutions failing to keep a check on Trump in many ways.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what are some of the steps that you think—I mean, apart from the impact on institutions, or together with that, what are the steps that Trump has taken that bear the mark of autocratic rule?

MASHA GESSEN: Well, he governs by gesture. Right? And this is something that has been very difficult for us, I think, to assimilate, because people who are in the business of analyzing politics and understanding politics think about politics as policy and strategy and sort of a story that has a future. Right? And Trump doesn’t think of politics that way at all. He thinks of effective gestures. He thinks of demonstrating his power, right?

So, a good example is the tweet about banning transgender people in the military. Sort of the scramble to try to understand what had just happened was fascinating to me, because one of the first things that people reacted by saying was, “Well, it’s a tweet, right? It’s not an executive order.” Well, he is the commander-in-chief. He can tweet his policy if he wants to. Right? To him, that’s the most effective gesture. Then, the second order of interpretation was, “Well, what does it mean? You know, what is he trying to accomplish?” He is not trying to accomplish anything, except demonstrate his power, and, I think, also, instinctively, sort of keep us on our toes. Right? The less predictable his behavior, the less—the more sort of it’s oriented toward demonstrating raw power, the more he accomplishes what he intuitively wants to accomplish, which is establish power.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the things that you say, and you’ve said several times in your articles—I mean, you said just now that, obviously, Trump and Putin are not identical, but they do share much in common. And, in fact, in one of your pieces, you suggested that Trump, in certain ways, may actually be worse. You say—and let me quote you—”Where Putin’s unpredictable persona is a carefully cultivated one, Trump has given no evidence that his madman act is an act.” So, could you elaborate on that?

MASHA GESSEN: So, for many years, Putin established what he thinks of as power, which is basically being feared, by demonstrating to other world leaders that he will stop at nothing. Right? So, in that sense, for example, his invasion of Ukraine, which, again, a lot of people have tried to interpret in sort of conventional strategic terms—you know, Russia is interested in Ukraine for this, that or another reason. And that doesn’t hold up, because it’s a losing war, it’s an extremely expensive war, it’s an extraordinarily expensive and pointless occupation in Crimea. But it does something very important, and it continues to do it as long as Putin stays in Ukraine, which is that it shows that Putin will do the inconceivable. Right? He will do things that, even as he is doing them, continue to be absolutely shocking, so shocking that we can’t even—can’t really imagine it. And that is a message that he’s sending both to his people in Russia and to world leaders, right? And so, sort of the conventional wisdom on Russia has consistently, under Putin, in the West, moved toward the containment and just, you know, “Let’s not poke the Russian bear, because the Russian bear will stop at nothing.” And Putin does think that that’s power. As long as Russia is feared in the world, then he has established Russia as a great world—re-established Russia as a great world power.

So now we have Trump, who keeps doing shocking things on the world stage, like threatening to obliterate North Korea, which is just as much—it seems as much of a madman act as what Putin has done, and basically has one-upped Putin’s game, except that, for Putin, it’s at least partly strategic. Right? Not that I think he has any sort of moral limitations on his actions. But, to him, being—doing the unimaginable is always a power play. I think, for Trump, nothing is really unimaginable. I mean, he perceives the world in exactly the terms that he puts out in his tweets. He thinks that standing up to North Korea is probably equal to threatening it with obliteration. And, you know, we’re lucky if it continues to be just a threat.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to, then, the normalizing of Trump. You’ve got Trump himself and his statements, and something that you continually talk about is the very serious issue of normalization. Now, the media in the United States has become more oppositional than usual, to say the least, or maybe for the first time oppositional, when it comes to Trump, because he directly called them out. He talks about the failing New York Times, fake news CNN, and he calls reporters by name, so they are defending themselves. And they tend to sound a little like Democracy Now! You know, “Independent media is essential to the functioning of a democratic society,” they say. But that’s true on a number of issues, like they’re talking about him being a liar. They’re willing to say that.

MASHA GESSEN: Some of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, they weren’t quite willing to say that George Bush was a liar, when it came to weapons of mass destruction. But I wanted to go to the areas where there isn’t that kind of questioning. And that is, on the one hand, climate change. When it comes to the nonstop coverage of hurricanes, almost no mention of climate change—not just in Fox, but in MSNBC and CNN. And then the issue of war and bombing. The night that the United States bombed that Syrian airfield, when a number of reporters and commentators said, “Now Trump has become president,” or the day in Afghanistan he dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in the history of the world, the MOAB, the “mother of all bombs.” But let’s go back to Syria. Now, we’re not going to Fox. We’re going to MSNBC, when anchor Brian Williams referred to the Pentagon video of the U.S. missiles fired at Syria, referred to it as “beautiful” three times in 30 seconds.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.” And they are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them a brief flight over to this airfield. What did they hit?

AMY GOODMAN: Can you hear Leonard Cohen rolling over in his grave? Well, that was MSNBC’s Brian Williams. And this is CNN’s Fareed Zakaria speaking on New Day Friday morning of that week.

FAREED ZAKARIA: I think Donald Trump became president of the United States. I think this was actually a big moment, because candidate Trump had said that he would never get involved in the Syrian civil war. He told President Obama, “You cannot do this without the authorization of Congress.” He seemed unconcerned with global norms. President Trump recognized that the president of the United States does have to act to enforce international norms, does have to have this broader moral and political purpose.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and, before that, Brian Williams. Masha Gessen?

MASHA GESSEN: You know, the thing about normalization is that, in a way, it’s inevitable, because this is the reality that we’re living in, right? This is the president of the United States. And to entirely refuse to normalize him would be to deny that reality. And I think that’s the problem that faces a lot of journalists, which is: How do you continue to do your job, how do you continue to treat this—your job seriously, if—you know, if we have a deranged clown for a president? And so, the moment that he starts acting a little bit less like a deranged clown, the moment that he does something like lob 59 missiles at Syria, which is more normal in terms of the presidency than tweeting—right?—about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings on The Apprentice

AMY GOODMAN: Which doesn’t make it right.

MASHA GESSEN: It doesn’t make it right, but it is closer to what—

AMY GOODMAN: It’s what presidents do.

MASHA GESSEN: Yeah, to what we assume presidents do, or at least the president of this country. And, you know, the spectacle of this country going to war is more—we’re more accustomed to it. And journalists are more accustomed to covering that than they are to covering presidents acting like small children throwing a tantrum on Twitter. And so, that moment, you know, what Fareed Zakaria says, I think, or what Brian Williams is doing, is expressing his own relief at feeling, for at least for seven minutes, like he can comprehend the reality that he is called upon to interpret.

AMY GOODMAN: But isn’t there also an element here of the major problem for establishment journalists, especially when it comes to war—and it’s not only around Trump, it’s just that they didn’t respond to Trump any differently—that they circle the wagons around the White House when it comes to war?

MASHA GESSEN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it’s—but that, you know, that is normal. That is normal in American journalism. This is actually not new to us, right? What’s new is plugging Trump into that role. And the thing is, I think, you know, in his sort of television feedback loop, he is learning some important lessons: He looks his best when he goes to war.

You know, the way that the picture on television changed, from the day before missiles were fired at Syria to the day they were fired, was absolutely extraordinary. You know, the day before, there were—in fact, the day before, I was at Lincoln Center in New York during an interview with Nikki Haley, who was literally laughed off the stage. And then, the following day, there she was on television, you know, being interviewed one on one and suddenly sounding like a stateswoman. Right? And there was a lot of one on one with Trump officials that day, and especially with Nikki Haley, which there hadn’t been for weeks leading up to it. You know, there had been talking heads with usually one Trump supporter and three or four more intelligent people. And all of that was like gone from the picture the moment missiles were fired at Syria. And that, I think, is a very good lesson for him in what looks good.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, apart from that, you’ve also talked about the way in which the media has responded to his, by now, extremely well-documented litany of lies. You point, in particular—and it’s not the only example—of NPR not calling—calling his lies “misstatements.” So, could you talk about what the danger of that is, or what you think the danger of that is?

MASHA GESSEN: So this is—I think this is one of the ways in which we can really get a chance to sort of re-examine American journalistic practices and assumptions behind some American journalism, which is that it always exists sort of out of time and out of place, right? It’s the view from nowhere, which is a thing in journalism—right?—in American journalism, translates into pretending that we don’t know what came yesterday and we have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. How that relates to the idea of not calling his lies “lies” is that, you know, NPR explains that in order to call something—that a lie is an intentional fiction, right? And since NPR doesn’t have a direct line to Trump’s soul, they don’t know whether he actually intends to mislead us or whether he accidentally makes a misstatement.

AMY GOODMAN: So, for example, when he talks about his crowd size, that it was larger than President Obama’s, and you see the pictures—1.8 million, and his is a tenth of the size—and he says his was larger.

MASHA GESSEN: So, because NPR doesn’t have a direct line to his brain, they don’t know how he’s perceiving the picture. Maybe he is just seeing more people in that picture. You know, look, I mean, it’s absurd, right? But I think it communicates something very important, which is that basically NPR says, “We’re going to insist that every time it happens, it’s like it’s never happened before,” because the only way that you can claim that he has perhaps accidentally misstated facts is if you don’t remember that he did the exact same thing five minutes ago and 10 minutes ago and 10 days ago and 10 years ago, right? And that—I mean, that’s a real sort of abdication of responsibility to engage with the reality that they’re supposed to cover.

AMY GOODMAN: Award-winning author and journalist Masha Gessen. Her new book, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. It was just shortlisted for the National Book Award. Back with her in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Make America Great Again” by the Russian protest band Pussy Riot.

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