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Surviving Autocracy

by Masha Gessen

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

    Jun 2021, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book



Journalist and Vladimir Putin biographer Masha Gessen places the presidency of Donald Trump in a global and historical context.

Growing up in the Soviet Union and living in Russia off and on until relocating to the United States permanently in 2013, Masha Gessen has seen autocracy in action. Working as a journalist and LGBTQ+ rights activist, Gessen has been an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, most notably in The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. In Surviving Autocracy, the author draws from a wealth of personal and professional experience to analyze the steps Donald Trump has thus far taken to undermine democracy and achieve as close an approximation of absolute power as the few institutions he has not yet managed to sabotage will allow.

There have been numerous narratives of the Trump presidency published in recent months that simply rehash the major events of the past four years and offer aggrieved commentary on various injustices but little else of substance. Gessen does recount some of these events (in a time frame spanning Trump's election up to the impeachment hearings), but also presents a compelling thesis, that the president is intentionally working to erode public faith in any facet of government that is not him, and then meticulously supports it with evidence.

What makes Trump an interesting case is that he makes no effort to hide his naked ambition toward absolute power. The author points out that his lawyers argued during the impeachment hearing that essentially he couldn't be charged with a crime because he was the president. Gessen contends that with this notion, "Washington split into two camps, one that inhabited the reality of a representative democracy and one that lived in an autocracy." This is one of Trump's most dangerous methods of control: he makes you question what is true or real and what isn't. And if you disagree with his version of the truth, you're simply wrong, because he is president. If the president and his various mouthpieces claim it was sunny on the day of his inauguration and that the crowd assembled was record-breaking in size, these are just "alternative facts."

Throughout, the author draws from the work of thinkers and dissidents who have direct experience with autocracy, such as former Hungarian Minister of Education Bálint Magyar, who once described his country's post-Communist government as a "mafia state." Gessen elaborates on this term's meaning, declaring it a "clan-like system in which one man distributes money and power to all other members." Shortly thereafter, the book draws a parallel between Magyar's comment and Trump's initial cabinet appointments, many of whom were wildly unsuited for their jobs and were clearly being repaid for their campaign support.

Gessen powerfully rebukes critics who have claimed at various points that Trump might mature into his role or that he might be too incompetent to do any lasting damage to the country, declaring, "Trump's incompetence is militant. It is not a factor that might mitigate the threat he poses: it is the threat itself."

So what can we do about it? Gessen has some astute and concrete ideas about that too. For starters, journalists should loosen the strictures of their deference to impartiality. In the interests of appearing unbiased, the media too often fails to call the president out on his lies, or gives him the benefit of the doubt when he is undeserving of it.

For people in leadership and public service roles, Gessen notes that Trump's Achilles heel is his complete lack of a moral code. This could be seen in Trump's bitter reaction to Rep. John Lewis' boycott of his inauguration. In lashing out at lifelong civil rights activist Lewis on Twitter for being "All talk," Gessen claims, the president demonstrated a total lack of moral understanding or authority. This moral code is what we have that he doesn't, and never will, and as long as we continue to insist, loudly, that Trump's actions are morally wrong and contrary to the spirit of America, we have a fighting chance at warding off autocracy.

Readers of Surviving Autocracy may be left somewhat dissatisfied because more questions are posed than answers given, but this is not necessarily an issue of authorial shortcomings. Throughout, Gessen struggles on the page to identify events, concepts and terms without the benefit of very much hindsight, and with the subject of the book being a notorious liar and gaslighter. The author does give us a legitimate framework—autocracy—with which to analyze the present situation, though, and perhaps most importantly, assures us that we don't have to live in Donald Trump's pseudo reality just because he lives there. For that reason, the book is as validating as it is informative.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in June 2020, and has been updated for the June 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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