Summary and book reviews of Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen

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
    Paperback:
    Jun 2021, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Book Summary

A bestselling, National Book Award–winning journalist's bracing elucidation of our tumultuous times.

In the run-up to the 2016 election, Masha Gessen stood out from other journalists for the ability to convey the ominous significance of Donald Trump's speech and behavior, unprecedented in a national candidate. Within forty-eight hours of his victory, the essay "Autocracy: Rules for Survival" had gone viral, and Gessen's coverage of his norm-smashing presidency became essential reading for a citizenry struggling to wrap their heads around the unimaginable. Thanks to the special perspective that is the legacy of a Soviet childhood and two decades covering the resurgence of totalitarianism in Russia, Gessen has a sixth sense for signs of autocracy—and the unique cross-cultural fluency to delineate its emergence to Americans. Now, as the 2020 race takes shape, this incisive book provides an indispensable overview of the calamitous trajectory of the past few years. Gessen not only highlights the corrosion of the media, the judiciary, and the cultural norms we hoped would save us but also tells us the story of how a short few years have 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. Surviving Autocracy is an inventory of ravages but also a beacon to recovery—or to enduring, and resisting, an ongoing assault.

1.
What Do We Call It?

It could have been any week of the Trump presidency—a week when he kept contradicting the government's experts on the COVID-19 pandemic, or a week when he was railing against Supreme Court justices, or a week when he humiliated his own cabinet members in public. Take one week in October 2019. It was a month into the impeachment inquiry in Congress and just over a thousand days into Donald Trump's presidency. The acting ambassador to Ukraine, William B. Taylor, Jr., testified about waging a losing battle against Trump and his people to pursue a foreign agenda consistent with government policy and practice. House Republicans stormed a closed impeachment-inquiry hearing in a bizarre direct action of Congress members against congressional practice. Trump's personal attorney William Consovoy argued in court that his client was immune from any prosecution—including, hypothetically, for murdering someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue—as long as he ...

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Reviews

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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. 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."..continued

Full Review Members Only (765 words).

(Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Media Reviews

Washington Post
Surviving Autocracy is almost the Platonic ideal of the anti-Trump Trump book, as though manufactured in a lab to affirm every suspicion, stoke every fear and answer every question by those readers desperately seeking a 'recovery from Trumpism,' as Gessen writes. The book’s implied 'we,' though sometimes encompassing the nation in full, is usually limited to the horrified...It offers discomfort and reassurance at once.

O, the Oprah Magazine
The fearless Russian American journalist probes the black hole between fact and fantasy in [a] taut, incisive critique.

NPR
Gessen brings...a unique blend of intellect and manifold passions...[flashing] the fierce attitude and language of the partisan activist in one moment, returning to the cooler mien of a public intellectual the next.

Kirkus Reviews
Many writers have chronicled the Trump administration's missteps and crimes, but few as concisely as Gessen...Gessen is a Suetonius for our time, documenting the death of the old America while holding out slim hope for its restoration.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Gessen's meticulous research and familiarity with the political and cultural history of post-Soviet Russia lend her arguments an authority lacking in other takedowns of Trump. Liberals looking to make sense of what they're up against in the 2020 elections should consider this a must-read.

Booklist (starred review)
Gessen's is a clarion voice in the darkness, offering a sobering but sharp-witted analysis of how American society has changed under Trump...[her] rallying cry is a vital and pressing reminder of what's at stake.

Author Blurb Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny
An indispensable voice of and for this moment.

Reader Reviews

Victoria

Another winner by Masha Gessen
Masha Gessen really nailed it. I’m not much for politics and haven’t read too many Trump-focused books because I found that a frustrating and unappealing topic. I picked this up mainly due to author recognition. But it was great. Ms. Gessen’s ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Viktor Orbán and Hungary's "Illiberal Democracy"

Mike Pompeo and Viktor Orbán meeting in Hungary, 2019 In Surviving Autocracy, Masha Gessen places the presidency of Donald Trump in an international context, drawing comparisons with other world leaders who have demonstrated a penchant for authoritarianism and oligarchy. One of these leaders is Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who has been the subject of scrutiny and ire (but little action) from the European Union.

Viktor Orbán served his first term as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, after which control shifted to the Hungarian Socialist Party, led by Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy. The Socialist Party's administration was marred by scandal and economic mismanagement, and Orbán, running as the representative of the conservative Fidesz Party, was voted in for...

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