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Masha Gessen on “Surviving Autocracy”: Fight Politics of the Past with Potent Politics of the Future

Web ExclusiveJune 16, 2021
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In Part 2 of our conversation with Masha Gessen, staff writer at The New Yorker and award-winning Russian American journalist, we discuss their latest book, “Surviving Autocracy,” about understanding and recovering from the corrosion of American democracy. In it, they write that when nations survive trauma, they “have had to choose between: the path of reckoning and the path of forgetting.” During the interview, Gessen notes, “The only way you can fight the politics of the past is to offer an equally potent, equally articulated politics of the future.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we bring you Part 2 of our conversation with Masha Gessen, staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, award-winning Russian American journalist, author of numerous books, including, most recently, Surviving Autocracy. The book has just come out in paperback. It’s described as an “essential guide to understanding and recovering from the calamitous corrosion of American democracy over the past few years. Thanks to the special perspective that is the legacy of a Soviet childhood and two decades covering the resurgence of totalitarianism in Russia, Masha Gessen has a sixth sense for the manifestations of autocracy — and the unique cross-cultural fluency to delineate their emergence to Americans.”

Masha, you not only anatomize the corrosion of the institutions and cultural norms we hope would save us, but you also tell us the story of how, a few short years ago, well, it changed us from a people who saw ourselves as a nation of immigrants to a populace haggling over a border wall, heirs to a degraded sense of truth, meaning and possibility, as you inventory the ravages and a call to account, but also bring us hope about what is possible, what is next. Can you lay out for us, first of all, your excellent new preface to the book, and what you see here, here in the United States, where you live and you teach, at Bard College, to where you grew up, in the Soviet Union at the time?

MASHA GESSEN: Yeah. You know, actually, what I’ve been thinking about for the last few months is not even so much the Soviet Union or Russia, but the other Soviet autocracies, namely Hungary and Poland. And the reason I’ve been thinking about them specifically is because they had an aspiring autocrat come to be elected to office, then they voted the aspiring autocrat out of office. They had what in the taxonomy invented by the Hungarian scholar Bálint Magyar is, they had an autocratic attempt, they reversed the autocratic attempt through electoral means, and then they reelected the aspiring autocrats and have been descending into autocracy since.

And so, I actually called Magyar and said, “OK, talk me through that interim period, the period when the aspiring autocrat is out of office. Like, how does that work?” And he said it’s — he described Hungary, in particular, where Viktor Orbán, when his party was originally voted out of office, went the route of saying that not the policies or decisions of the party that replaced him were illegitimate, but its very election and its very place in power was illegitimate, and the only legitimate representative of the Hungarian people was Viktor Orbán and his party. And that message proved to be so strong and so kind of foolproof. It is, in essence, a totalitarian ideology, because it explains everything and it explains everything away. “Everything they do is illegitimate. We’re the only legitimate rulers. Why did we get voted out of office? Well, because they are illegitimate, right? So it must have been rigged.”

It’s the thing that we’re seeing here. And Magyar was somewhat hopeful about the possibility that the United States would actually be able to prevent the fate of Hungary. He said, “You know, you have to give everybody good health insurance. You have to make sure that people’s lives actually materially get better.” But I think that’s not enough. I think that’s a necessary condition, but it’s not a sufficient condition for preventing a second and more effective, more competent and better grounded autocratic attempt.

I think what we need is some kind of national conversation. And I don’t mean that we need to bring everybody who’s subscribing to the conspiracy theories around to fact-based reality. What I mean is that the fact-based reality has to somehow take in the existence of those conspiracy theories, the existence of people who believe that Trump will be reinstated in office by August of this year, whatever it is, the latest thing that they believe in. But also, the trauma, the moral injury of the last four years, like all of this that has happened to us, somehow has to become a part of our politics.

And on top of that, and more than anything else, we have to have an act of sort of reenvisioning, reinvention of democracy. And I think that the Biden administration does have a sense of that. I think that certainly the inauguration, and the inaugural poem, in particular, had some really new ways of speaking about democracy — right? — not just sort of let’s go back to normal, but really a kind of democracy as a vision for the future. But while there is a sense of that, there isn’t a commitment to it, right? We’re not having the national conversation that we absolutely need to be having.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Masha, what is that conversation that you think needs to be happening?

MASHA GESSEN: It’s really basic. What is democracy? What happened to us? Who are we? Where are we going? How do we imagine our lives in five years, 10 years, 20 years?

The politics of autocracy, in general, almost always — certainly Trumpian politics — are the politics of the past. And the only way that you can fight the politics of the past is to offer an equally potent, equally articulated politics of the future. Build Back Better is maybe a beginning of that, but it’s — you know, it’s kind of not a terribly inspiring beginning. People do have a need, and, I think, in sort of disorienting times, dislocating times, people have a particularly strong need, to belong to something great, to be a part of something that makes them feel secure with others, at one with others, and sort of going somewhere together. And Trump was saying, “OK, let’s all get together and go to the imaginary past.” And the way to counter that is to say, you know, there’s a glorious future that we can go to together.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Masha, you mentioned the support — Orbán’s supporters and what that led to. And in the preface to your book, you cite Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt says that the characteristics that audiences — supporters of totalitarian leaders have is, paradoxically, both gullibility and cynicism. Can you explain how you’ve seen that in evidence with Trump and also his supporters?

MASHA GESSEN: So, yeah. So, elsewhere also, Arendt talks a lot about how the very sort of idea of truth has to be destroyed for totalitarianism. So, to be able to engage in this constant dynamic of gullibility and cynicism, you have to have kind of a lacking baseline, right? “Nothing is true. Everything is possible. And so I’m constantly juggling these two positions. This, I’m cynical about; this, I choose to believe.” Usually, the people who have more power are more cynical and less gullible; the people who have less power are more gullible and less cynical. It’s almost like an 80-20 proportion for both.

And so, that’s how you get these kind of encapsulated pictures of reality, like with the insurgency — right? —  where I think a lot of these people, possibly all of these people, actually believed that Trump was going to be somehow reinstated if they — first of all, that he was legitimate, and also that he was going to be somehow reinstated if they stormed the Capitol and seized power in his name.

And then there were people, like, including Trump himself, who called on them to do that, without believing it, but with the totally cynical view of: “These people are worthless and can be manipulated in any way, and also the end always justifies the means, and so this is how I’m going to instrumentalize these people who believe in me.”

But this ability to sort of switch between gullibility and cynicism is the thing that allows people to then walk away from that, from that defeated — and barely defeated — insurgency, and latch on to a new conspiracy theory about how Trump is going to be reinstated in office in August, because that wasn’t true, that was silly. We never believed that in the first place, or Trump never believed that in the first place. He believes this other thing, and we’re going to be cynical about the first belief and gullible about the second belief. And, you know, that sort of crazy act of juggling becomes kind of second nature when nothing is true.

AMY GOODMAN: I like your rules for surviving an autocrat, Masha. Rule one: “Believe the Autocrat. He means what he says.” Rule two: “Do Not Be Taken in by Small Signs of Normality.” Rule three: “Institutions Will Not Save You.” Rule four: “Be outraged.” Rule five: “Don’t make compromises.” Rule six: “Remember the Future.”

So, if you can talk more about this? And, I mean, we can’t talk in the past tense about what happened over the last four years, because we’re seeing an extension of it today — for example, around voting rights. And I was wondering if you can talk about the significance of this.

MASHA GESSEN: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point, about sort of the talking in the past tense and about the difference, about the rush to relegate to memory something that is still happening, right? We’re still seeing an anti-democratic party under — effectively, under Trump’s leadership, actively fight democracy. We’re still there, right? So, I think, you know, that’s a really great point, that you can’t draw a line, you know, as I think the Biden administration would really love to do it, right? Like, that was then, this is now. But it’s not. The nightmare is continuing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what specific issues now do you think are like continuities between what happened under Trump or the Republican Party then, and continuities — you’ve warned against the risk of inheriting and continuing a Trumpist Republican Party. What other issues do you see as continuous?

MASHA GESSEN: Right. Well, I think the biggest thing — and I think everything else sort of grows out of it — the biggest thing is that there was this, I think, fantasy, not unlike the fantasy that Trump was suddenly going to become presidential after being elected, but this fantasy that the Republican Party was going to go back to its saner self once Trump was out of office, based on, I think, this premise — well, based on two premises. One is that there were enough Republicans who would want to do that, and, two, on the premise that Trump would no longer have his hold in the Republican Party. But he can — as we see, he still wields the power of political assassination by — you know, if not by tweet, but now by other means, by public speaking. And so, he can threaten to encourage a primary candidate against any Republican whom he sees as crossing him. And so, we’re seeing that the Republican Party is solidifying as an autocratic party, a party that has an audience of one. And that one person is Donald Trump.

The Democratic Party, for all its flaws, is a party that has an audience of many. Some of — a lot of the people in that audience are donors, but they’re also voters, right? And that’s a very different kind of party. But we only have one of those.

And I think everything else, including the really — the terrifying voter suppression bills, such as the one that we were just watching in Texas, the other ways in which Republicans are sort of pursuing an agenda — and I think of it this way — right? — as sort of a holistic agenda of disenfranchisement, whether it’s through banning — you know, through fighting critical race theory or girls in — or trans girls in sports. These are all sort of ways of saying, “You are not us.” The picture of who we are has to keep getting smaller and smaller, and other people have to be excluded from public space, from political space, from community, from opportunity. And all of that grows out of that sort of autocratic impulse of this Republican Party.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned, Masha, Hungary before, and I want to talk about Hungary and the United States. In our headlines today, we reported on human rights advocates denouncing new anti-LGBTQ legislation passed by lawmakers yesterday that bans media, advertisers and other outlets from showing children any content that portrays gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people, and prohibits teaching about LGBTQ issues at schools. It’s the far-right party of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán introducing the legislation, attached to a bill that more strictly penalizes child abuse. And then I want to ask you about a piece you wrote in The New Yorker. So, to talk about what’s happening in Hungary and in Russia around the issue of LGBTQ rights, and then the piece you wrote in the United States, “The Movement to Exclude Trans Girls from Sports.”

MASHA GESSEN: Yeah, I think that these — you’re right to ask about these two things in the same breath, because they’re certainly related. Anti-LGBT legislation, in general, is rooted in these kind of manufactured moral panics, also sometimes rooted in this idea of common sense, which is not common sense. It’s just, you know, prejudice and panic. But, you know, by “common sense,” I mean this — in Russia and in Hungary, these ideas that are in the air — right? — that the gays are after your children, that you have to protect your children, that somehow there’s a connection between queer people and danger, particularly to children, the thing that you have to protect most, right?

And the common sense that, of course, you know, trans girls are probably stronger than cis girls and shouldn’t be allowed to play sports, that passes for common sense, actually doesn’t have anything to do with reality, but does have a kind of unifying appeal, right? Because everybody knows this, we can agree on this. But the unifying appeal is also the sort of definition of community, right?

The reason that so many countries that are sliding into autocracy are passing anti-gay legislation is because advances in LGBT rights has been the most rapid and the most significant social change in a lot of countries in the last two decades. And so, this past-oriented politics, where the autocrat says, “If you want to be transported magically to a time when you felt comfortable, when you were not constantly being upset and irritated by things you don’t understand, we have to reverse social change, and specifically the most recent social change” — and that seems to make a kind of sense.

And I think that’s why we’re seeing these bills all over the place. It’s almost tempting to say, “Oh, you know, the Russians are exporting their lawmaking, or the American homophobes you know, exported theirs to Russia.” There’s a little bit of truth to that, but it’s not really that. It’s the kind of — it’s the underlying logic of social change, of extreme anxiety and of this desire to go to an imaginary past.

AMY GOODMAN: Masha Gessen, thanks so much for being with us. Also, congratulations on the release of the paperback of Surviving Autocracy. Masha Gessen, staff writer at The New Yorker. We will link to all your pieces in The New Yorker, your recent pieces, award-winning journalist. Again, that book, Surviving Autocracy.

To see Part 1 of our discussion on this day of the Putin-Biden summit, you can go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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