Excerpt from Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Surviving Autocracy

by Masha Gessen

Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen X
Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen
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  • Published:
    Jun 2020, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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When some of the post-Soviet societies developed in unexpected ways, language impaired our ability to understand the process. We talked about whether they had a free press, for example, or free and fair elections. But noting that they did not, as Magyar has said, is akin to saying that the elephant cannot swim or fly: it doesn't tell us much about what the elephant is. Now the same thing was happening in the United States; we were using the language of political disagreement, judicial procedure, or partisan discussion to describe something that was crushing the system that such terminology was invented to describe.

Magyar spent about a decade devising a new model, and a new language, to describe what was happening in his country. He coined the term "mafia state," and described it as a specific, clan-like system in which one man distributes money and power to all other members. He then developed the concept of autocratic transformation, which proceeds in three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation. It occurred to me that these were words that American culture could now borrow, in an appropriate symbolic reversal of 1989: these terms appear to describe our reality better than any words in the standard American political lexicon. Magyar had analyzed the signs and circumstances of this process in post-Communist countries and proposed a detailed taxonomy. But how it might happen in the United States was uncharted territory.


2.
Waiting for the Reichstag Fire

Immediately following the November 2016 election, the defeated majority of Americans who had voted for Hillary Clinton seemed to split into two camps, distinguished by the degree to which they were panicked. One camp was exemplified by outgoing president Barack Obama, whose goal, in the days after the vote, seemed to be to reassure Americans that life would go on. On November 9, he gave a short, dignified talk in which he made three points—most memorably, that the sun had risen that morning.

Yesterday, before votes were tallied, I shot a video that some of you may have seen in which I said to the American people, regardless of which side you were on in the election, regardless of whether your candidate won or lost, the sun would come up in the morning.

And that is one bit of prognosticating that actually came true. The sun is up.

Obama acknowledged his "significant differences" with Trump but said that his phone conversation with the president-elect in the wee hours had reassured him that in the end, Democrats and Republicans, he and Trump, had shared goals.

We all want what's best for this country. That's what I heard in Mr. Trump's remarks last night. That's what I heard when I spoke to him directly. And I was heartened by that. That's what the country needs—a sense of unity, a sense of inclusion, a respect for our institutions, our way of life, rule of law, and respect for each other.

Obama finished on an optimistic note.

The point, though, is that we all go forward, with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens, because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy. That's how this country has moved forward for two hundred forty years. It's how we've pushed boundaries and promoted freedom around the world. That's how we've expanded the rights of our founding to reach all of our citizens. It's how we have come this far. And that's why I'm confident that this incredible journey that we're on, as Americans, will go on.

Every president is a storyteller-in-chief. 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. In 2016, as Trump emerged the frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination, many of us reassured ourselves and each other that American institutions were stronger than any one candidate or even any one president.

Excerpted from Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen. Copyright © 2020 by Masha Gessen. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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