Surviving Autocracy

Author
Masha Gessen
Year of publication
2020
When I read it
September 2020
What I thought

Excellent

Choice Highlights

The Obama story, which drew and built on the stories told by his predecessors, was that American society was on an inexorable march toward a better, freer, fairer world. It may stumble, the story goes, but it always rights itself. This was the meaning to which Obama adapted his favorite Martin Luther King, Jr., quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This is also the premise on which the belief in American exceptionalism, or what the legal scholar Sanford Levinson has called the “American civil religion,” is based: that the United States Constitution provides an all-but-perfect blueprint for politics, in perpetuity.

The Reichstag Fire was used to create a “state of exception,” as Carl Schmitt, Hitler’s favorite legal scholar, called it. In Schmitt’s terms, a state of exception arises when an emergency, a singular event, shakes up the accepted order of things. This is when the sovereign steps forward and institutes new, extralegal rules. The emergency enables a quantum leap: Having amassed enough power to declare a state of exception, the sovereign then, by that declaration, acquires far greater, unchecked power. That is what makes the change irreversible, and the state of exception permanent.

A future historian of the twenty-first century might point to September 11, 2001, as the Reichstag Fire of the United States.

Trump’s was commissioned from a decidedly more modest Washington bakery than Goldman’s, and the transition-team representative who put in the order explicitly asked for an exact copy of Goldman’s design—even when the baker suggested creating a variation on the theme. Only a small portion of Trump’s cake was edible; the rest was Styrofoam (Obama’s was cake all the way through). The cake may have been the best symbol yet of the incoming administration: much of what little it brought was plagiarized, and most of it was unusable for the purpose for which presidential administrations are usually intended. Not only did it not achieve excellence: it rejected the idea that excellence is desirable.

Putin was and remains a poorly educated, underinformed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world. To the extent that he has any interest in the business of governing, it is solely his own role—on the world stage or on Russian television—that concerns him. Whether he is attending a summit, piloting a plane, or hang gliding with Siberian cranes, it is the spectacle of power that interests him. In this, he and Trump are alike: to them, power is the beginning and the end of government, the presidency, politics—and public politics is only the performance of power.

Trump’s incompetence is militant. It is not a factor that might mitigate the threat he poses: it is the threat itself.

n an autocracy, the politician’s primary audience is the autocrat himself, because he is the patron who apportions power and influence. In Trump’s America, Republican politicians perform for Trump—he is their primary audience—but his audience is his base, the people who come to his rallies and absorb his tweets. He distributes power by mobilizing these voters. As long as the Democrats are performing for the audience of their voters rather than for Trump, there is hope of reversing the autocratic attempt—but even now half of the country in which we are living is functioning, in the public space, like an autocracy.

The Kavanaugh hearing was the first congressional hearing in which people inhabiting the two non-overlapping American realities—one an autocracy, the other a representative democracy—were addressing two different audiences while speaking in the same room. Blasey Ford was addressing the Senate Judiciary Committee and a broader public. Kavanaugh, who deployed Trump’s favorite tone—aggrieved and aggressive—and one of his favorite tropes—a Clintonian plot—was speaking to Trump.

… the first three years have shown that an autocratic attempt in the United States has a credible chance of succeeding.

Trump has an instinct, perhaps even a talent, for mangling language in both ways: using words to mean their opposite and stripping them of meaning. His knack is for inverting words and phrases that deal with power relationships.

His election victory entitled him—and, by extension, those whom he saw as his people—to adulation. Criticism, confrontation, and even the simple acknowledgment of political difference amount, in his view, to disrespect. Being disrespected makes him feel victimized—and he claims his imagined victimhood with glee. This claim turns the reality of power upside down, enabling Trump to come out on top by placing himself at the bottom.

Trump’s word piles fill public space with static, the way pollutants in an industrial city can saturate the air, making it toxic and creating a state of constant haze. The haze can be so dense that objects become visible only up close, but never in their entirety and never really in focus. In Trump’s America, every once in a while a journalist or a politician makes a statement clear enough to capture a fragment of shared reality—but it is only ever a fragment, and it is inevitably soon obscured by more language used to mean nothing or the opposite of itself.

Trump’s lies and his word piles both are exercises in arbitrariness, continued assertions of the power to say what he wants, when he wants, to usurp language itself, and with it, our ability to speak and act with others—in other words, our ability to engage in politics. The assault on language may be harder to define and describe than his attacks on institutions, but it is essential to his autocratic attempt, the ultimate objective of which is to obliterate politics.

The vocabulary of American political conversation is vague. “Authoritarian” is used to mean any regime or approach to governance that’s not democratic. The Trump era saw a surge in the use of such words as “fascism,” “coup,” and “treason,” often deployed less in reference to specific events or actions than to signal that American politicians were acting in ways American politicians ought not act. “Democracy” stands for everything we miss about the way politics used to be. But all of these words have clear, if sometimes multiple, definitions in political science, history, and law. If politicians, journalists, and even kitchen-table debaters adopted the habit of defining their terms, we would understand each other better—and begin the process of restoring language.

The Trumpian lie is different. It is the power lie, or the bully lie. It is the lie of the bigger kid who took your hat and is wearing it—while denying that he took it. There is no defense against this lie because the point of the lie is to assert power, to show “I can say what I want when I want to.” The power lie conjures a different reality and demands that you choose between your experience and the bully’s demands: Are you going to insist that you are wet from the rain or give in and say that the sun is shining?

Unmoored from lived reality, the autocrat has no need to be consistent. In fact, the ability to change his story at will is a demonstration of power. Putin, for example, claimed that there were no Russian troops in newly annexed Crimea, then a month later affirmed that Russians had been on the ground, then spent more than a year denying that Russian troops were in Eastern Ukraine, then breezily acknowledged that they were there. His shifts from lies to truthful statements were not admissions: they were proud, even boastful affirmatives delivered at his convenience. He communicated that his power enables him to say what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the facts. He is president of his country and king of reality.

Are you going to believe your own eyes or the headlines? This is the dilemma of people who live in totalitarian societies. Trusting one’s own perceptions is a lonely lot; believing one’s own eyes and being vocal about it is dangerous. Believing the propaganda—or, rather, accepting the propaganda as one’s reality—carries the promise of a less anxious existence, in harmony with the majority of one’s fellow citizens. The path to peace of mind lies in giving one’s mind over to the regime. Bizarrely, the experience of living in the United States during the Trump presidency reproduces this dilemma. Being an engaged citizen of Trump’s America means living in a constant state of cognitive tension. One cannot put the president and his lies out of one’s mind, because he is the president. Accepting that the president continuously tweets or says things that are not true, are known not to be true, are intended to be heard or read as power lies, and will continue to be broadcast—on Twitter and by the media—after they have been repeatedly disproven means accepting a constant challenge to fact-based reality. In effect, it means that the two realities—Trumpian and fact-based—come to exist side by side, on equal ground. The tension is draining. The need to pay constant attention to the lies is exhausting, and it is compounded by the feeling of helplessness in the face of the ridiculous and repeated lies. Most Americans in the age of Trump are not, like the subjects of a totalitarian regime, subjected to state terror. But even before the coronavirus, they were subjected to constant, sometimes debilitating anxiety. One way out of that anxiety is to relieve the mind of stress by accepting Trumpian reality. Another—and this too is an option often exercised by people living under totalitarianism—is to stop paying attention, disengage, and retreat to one’s private sphere. Both approaches are victories for Trump in his attack on politics.

The word “presidential” came to mean moments when Trump acted in a way that a journalist could imagine an American president—a normal American president—acting. In April 2017, after the bombing of Syria, another prominent CNN voice, Fareed Zakaria, lauded Trump for briefly not acting like a deranged clown. “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night,” Zakaria said. “I think this was actually a big moment . . . For the first time really as president, he talked about international norms, international rules, about America’s role in enforcing justice in the world.” Trump had acted and spoken the way a president might, and this was news. Less than three months into the presidency, his being unhinged and uninformed had become normalized because it was, in fact, now the norm, the everyday reality of American life.

If the word “unthinkable” had a literal meaning, this would be it: thinking about it makes the mind misfire; it makes one want to stop thinking. It brings to mind the psychiatrist Judith Herman’s definition of a related word: “Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud,” she once wrote. “This is the meaning of the word unspeakable.” The Trump era is unimaginable, unthinkable, unspeakable. It is waging a daily assault on the public’s sense of sanity, decency, and cohesion. It makes us feel crazy, and the restrained tone of the media compounds this feeling by failing to acknowledge it.

Bálint Magyar suggests that where totalitarian regimes of the past sought to control media, today’s autocracies seek to dominate it; and where a totalitarian regime sought to suppress media rights, the autocrat seeks to neutralize them. The end result is not a controlled communications sphere where reality is dictated from above, but a weak one, where nothing can be known, no reality is tangible.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, there had not been a briefing in one year.

By choosing to act as though in the war on reality it was possible not to choose sides, the Times—and with it, the American media mainstream—became, reluctantly though not unwittingly, the president’s accomplices.

Speaking from a place of moral authority—and moral aspiration—is the strategy historically adopted by dissidents in undemocratic regimes such as totalitarian Poland, apartheid South Africa, or contemporary autocratic Belarus. Trump, an attempting autocrat, intuits that moral authority poses a threat to his project.

Autocratic power requires the degradation of moral authority—not the capture of moral high ground, not the assertion of the right to judge good and evil, but the defeat of moral principles as such.

The media recognized the comments as racist. And still they fell into the rhetorical trap set by Trump. CNN pointed out that Trump was “falsely implying they weren’t natural-born American citizens” and other media stressed that only one of the four women was born outside the United States—as though this mattered. One doesn’t have to be a natural-born citizen to be a member of Congress, and, more important, one doesn’t have to be any kind of citizen to have an opinion about the United States government. Even commentators who recognized the racism of Trump’s comments unwittingly participated in policing the boundary of the narrowed circle of “us.”

Together, these studies paint a portrait of Trumpism: racist and sexist resentment given voice by Trump and affirmed by his election leads to greater violence against the growing number of people whom Trumpism defines out of American personhood. The hate crimes of the Trump era have included: Charlottesville in August 2017; the October 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where eleven people were killed on Refugee Shabbat, a nationwide event initiated by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, by a man who had posted online screeds such as “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people”; and the August 2019 shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where a white supremacist killed twenty-two people, most of them Latino. The hate crimes also include attacks on mosques or Islamic centers in almost every state in the Union; several thousand anti-Semitic incidents; and violent crimes against transgender people, especially transgender women of color, at least twenty-two of whom were murdered in 2019.

In Bálint Magyar’s terminology, we are at the stage of an autocratic attempt—an attempt that may still be rebuffed and reversed by institutional means. The impeachment process in Congress was an attempt at such a reversal. Its failure demonstrated that, just as Magyar has written, a monopoly on political power—having both the executive branch and the Senate in Republican hands—can enable autocracy. The next chance at reversing the autocratic attempt of Trumpism will probably come in November 2020, at the polls. To succeed at reversing the autocratic attempt—and to hold on to that victory in the face of what is certain to be massive and possibly violent backlash—we will have to do more than vote, and more than campaign. We will have to engage both formal and informal political institutions, and we will have to understand anew why these institutions exist.