Masha Gessen

American Autocracy

Air Date: October 7, 2020

The New Yorker's Masha Gessen discusses the decline of American democracy and the rise of authoritarianism.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind and I’m honored to welcome Masha Gessen to our broadcast today, the author of “Surviving Autocracy.” Welcome Masha.


GESSEN: Thank you. Good to be here.


HEFFNER: Masha, if the United States became an autocracy in recent years, when precisely do you think it happened?


GESSEN: Well, I don’t think it did (laughs). I in my book I use I use a taxonomy proposed by a Hungarian political scientist named Bálint Magyar, who has worked a lot on what has happened in Eastern Central Europe and developed an entire sort of set of terms and signs for understanding these autocratic transformations. And he proposes that there are three stages of an autocratic transformation: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation. They’re pretty self-explanatory, but the defining characteristic of an autocratic attempt, what distinguishes it from the later stages is that it’s still possible to reverse it through electoral means. So according to that model, which I think is extremely useful for understanding what’s going on here, we’re in the autocratic attempt stage, right? At least until November, at least theoretically.


HEFFNER: And you do believe that should Trump be reelected it could be irreversibly in an autocratic condition.


GESSEN: Well irreversibly you know, it depends on the amount of time you’re talking about like, irreversibly in one time, but yes, I think it will it will do, it would do extreme damage to our system of governance and the fabric of our society. If you look at the amount of damage that he has been able to do in the first three and a half years, while having you know, the threat, at least the potential threat of not being reelected, hanging over him, you can imagine how much, how to what extent he would be emboldened by reelection. But even if he weren’t right, even if he kept going at the same pace, consider the amount of damage that has been done to both our institutions, you know, the packing of the courts, which is done perfectly legally, but in contrast with norms and culture of the courts and things that were not done legally, such as, you know, the blatant corruption, the blatant use of the office of the president for profiting and the destruction, the systematic destruction of the system of checks and balances, you know, starting from forbidding White House staff to speak during impeachment hearings to which they were subpoenaed, to the consecutive firings of a number of inspectors general, who are the congress’ representatives in the Executive Branch, who do the day to day work of oversight. So all of that has been coming crumbling down. And I haven’t even mentioned the amount of damage that is being done to the electoral mechanisms, to, you know, from the census to voter suppression, to just undermining the credibility of the vote. All of those things are already extremely difficult to repair. And just imagine if we had as much or more of the same


HEFFNER: And also Masha is it important that we do not further deescalate or devolve into that next stage because there are risks desensitization to the corruption. So we see it now, even though it’s some of it’s plain in sight, if we are in that next stage, there is the acceptance that we can’t go back. It is the way it is.


GESSEN: Well, yeah, we have already normalized an extraordinary amount of what has happened, you know part of it is that as you say, we’re desensitized and we’re desensitized by the way that Trump floods the information’s sphere with just nonsense and hateful nonsense, and ridiculous nonsense and lies and, just lots of shiny objects and lots of not terribly shiny objects. But part of it is that we do, we do get used to things, right. And I think, I think it’s kind of part of human nature. You wake up in the morning, you realize you were still around, the sun still came up. And so maybe this is not the apocalypse yet. Maybe the apocalypse isn’t coming until tomorrow, right. And I mean, I’ll give you, I’ll give you a quick example. During the impeachment hearings the Sanford Law professor Pam Karlan gave this example to explain why Ukraine was an example of abusive power. And she said, imagine if, I’m paraphrasing, imagine if the president threatened to withhold federal disaster funding from a state, if they didn’t do a political favor for him, she was using it as an obvious hypothetical to, because it was obvious to her in, I think it was November of last year, that we would all realize that that is untenable and grounds for impeachment. Fast forward half a year. And we see the president systematically withholding or threatening to withhold this federal disaster funding connected to the coronavirus pandemic from states that don’t do according to his liking.


HEFFNER: Well, that’s peak autocracy, peak criminality, peak immorality. You know, you almost wonder if that is at a level of malice that is even more than, I mean, even more than some of the Eastern European autocracies, the denial of services to the blue States or the blue cities.


GESSEN: Yeah. It’s actually not dissimilar from the way other autocrats work.


HEFFNER: It’s no worse?


GESSEN: I wouldn’t say, you know, it’s not worse. It’s not better. It’s, it’s, it falls right in line with the way they consolidate power.


HEFFNER: How have we been surviving autocracy compared to some of the Eastern European countries that have undergone those metamorphoses in recent decades?


GESSEN: Well you know, again, try to think back to four years ago, the 2016 campaign, when Trump was already the nominee and everybody was convinced that he couldn’t possibly win because of course it couldn’t possibly happen here. He was a buffoon and he was clearly an aspiring autocrat and that couldn’t be. And the United States believed itself to be exempt from the global wave of populism. And you know I think that there were lots of arguments for why we should be exempt, except, in addition to the almost religious belief in American exceptionalism. But there was the argument that American institutions are extremely strong, that we have this very strong democratic culture, right, and look how well that has held up under Trump. Yes, we have done better than perhaps some you know, perhaps Russia, which had extremely weak democratic institutions. But actually, if you look at the timeline, I’m not convinced, right? I’m not convinced. I mean there are certain things that that Putin did super fast. He took over the entire television universe of Russia in, within a year, he was controlling it, but I would argue that Trump is controlling the information sphere, right? This is also a term that’s proposed by Bálint Magyar. But you know, it’s more useful to look at Central Europe, which does have, on the European level, very strong and recently designed democratic institutions and democratic norms, which Viktor Orban has been able to use to his great benefit. He has had the European Union basically finance his autocracy. And I think in that comparison, the United States doesn’t fare very well, right? I think in some ways our institutions have crumbled faster. And while we can certainly see many, many examples of the judiciary and civil society standing up to Trump, I would argue that that’s not actually where should we, we should be shining the spotlight necessarily, right?


HEFFNER: What are your strategies?


GESSEN: …for institutions to stand up? It’s the failures that we have to notice.


HEFFNER: Well, can you expound on that from your book to the, this, any strategies you would implore fellow citizens to, you know, in the introspection of this moment, to see the crisis looming and the real autocracy and as citizens, how we may be empowered differently from our peers in other countries to battle the autocracy. Are there any strategies you want to impart?


GESSEN: That’s really not what the book is about. The book is really about systems.


HEFFNER: I know, but once we understand those systems you know, we always try to take corrective measures here on The Open Mind. So, you know, it’s an open question, but within the systems that you think are autocratic right now, as you document, how can we be armed perhaps more effectively than other countries and other citizenry’s to fight back?


GESSEN: I don’t know that we’re armed more effectively or you know, or better than other countries. I actually wouldn’t, you know, go down the road of imagining that we’re, in some way exceptional, we are staring into the abyss. And I think that’s the thing we have to understand is that at this point, we, as citizens still have a lot of power, we have the power to be out in the streets protesting. We have the power to go to the polls in November. We have the power to make sure right now that we’re registered to vote, because there are many states where people may have been purged from the rolls and they don’t know this, right. We have the power to be, to do what we can to make sure that we vote for the not Trump, right? That’s our only chance. And this, you know, I’m going to anticipate probably what was likely to be one of your next questions, which is, you know, he has made it perfectly clear that he wants to not recognize the results of the vote if he loses, he plans to not recognize the results of the vote. And that means only one thing, that he needs to lose by an absolute landslide, right. He needs to lose by the kind of margin that he’s trailing Biden by right now. But again,


HEFFNER: Of course, those surveys, those surveys don’t incorporate the, the notion, and it’s not just a notion, but the potential for manipulation of the post office, the postal service, that’s something that’s, that’s on a lot of folks’ minds right now, the potential for that to be a scene of autocratic crime.


GESSEN: Absolutely. He’s undermining the post office. He is undermining the credibility of the vote. He’s sewing a lot of disinformation. So, you know, for those of us that have access to the media or to social media, to any significant extent, we need to make sure that we’re helping accurate information to be getting out. Those of us who physically, and, you know, in terms of our employment situation and mentally can afford to, have to plan to go and vote in person. That you know, that, that, that at this point, I wish this weren’t the thing that I was saying, but we have to, we have to plan on that possibility, even if that means, you know, standing for three hours outside in, on a cold November morning, socially distancing from other people waiting to vote, it has to happen.


HEFFNER: I want to get your read on this Masha that the pandemic itself psychologically has plagued us. And it, it almost is doubling down on the effect of autocracy in the quarantining. And it’s like, you’re in a war, torn country in the midst of a genocide, in some cases for people who have preexisting conditions, they can’t go outside. And, so do you see these as the ideal conditions in which that autocracy is festering, if not culminating?


GESSEN: Yes. And that worries me terribly because there’s the sort of the optimistic take on this disaster is that, well, at least people see the extent to which is this presidency is terrible and he’s failing. I have very little faith in that, both because of the amount of static in the information sphere, the amount of disinformation in the information sphere and also the disintegration of our social fabric that actually doesn’t allow us to see, right? I mean, I have talked to people whose families have been affected by COVID, who still refuse to believe that the basic sort of science, but looked at from a different point of view in some ways the pandemic has created autocratic conditions. We’re isolated in our homes. Sort of the regular daily political interaction, which we don’t think of as political, but it’s political, the daily negotiation of whether, that happens, whether, you know, the city sidewalk or in the office or in the store, that has been greatly reduced. And for some people has disappeared completely, right? That negotiation of how we live together, local politics has been reduced even more, every zoning board school board, community board meeting that doesn’t happen is less politics that we have. The incredible blow, you know, the final nail in the coffin basically of local news media, which I think is one of the great reasons of why we’re in this predicament in the first place, the pandemic dealt that, right? So we’re almost in textbook conditions of authoritarians, right? Authoritarianism is when one person or group of people are running the country, accumulating money in power, and everyone else is tending to their private lives. And the public has disappeared. The political sphere has disappeared. We’re as close to living in that model right now, as I think any country has been.


HEFFNER: Frightening but true.


GESSEN: It is.


HEFFNER: When you were translating for The Americans Masha, did you anticipate then that this could happen here? Was that on your mind at all? Or no.


GESSEN: So The Americans wrapped up, The Americans wrapped up in 2017


HEFFNER Three years ago, right?


GESSEN: Yeah. Yeah. So, no, I’m going to, by that point, it was pretty ridiculous, right, because by that point, the country was completely engulfed by the conversation about Russian election meddling, right?




GESSEN: And so something that had been as, as a plot, right, almost marginal to, or exotic, a very special kind of story had become like these stories. It was a very strange time to be, I mean it was a strange time to be a Russia expert.


HEFFNER: Well, I asked you that …


GESSEN: a particularly strange time to be, to be working for The Americans.


HEFFNER: Right. Right. Well, and I don’t know when your tenure began, if it began at the launch of the series, but we hosted the creator, Joe Weisberg in 2016. And I actually literally asked him if he thought there could be an operation underway to manipulate the results in county boards of election. And I think his answer might have changed from when he was on the program earlier in ‘16 after witnessing results in the fall. But when you started, do you think you had the impression that things could go downhill this fast? You very articulately acknowledged the, you know, that we are not exceptional anymore, but I just wonder, as you were developing kind of the American and Russian personas of the, of these are the people, these are the countries, if your sense of what America is has changed since you, since you embarked on that translation project. And of course everyone should watch your amazing translations on Amazon Prime.


GESSEN: Yeah. I’ve been only, only native Russian speakers would appreciate my amazing translation. So that’s a, that’s like, it was really art for art’s sake. I mean, look, that’s what it was. It was a really fun project, but you know, that’s not what I do. And


HEFFNER: I know, I know.


GESSEN: And at the time, at the time I was and it was really, I mean, it was amazing to be a very, very very small part of that extraordinary television series. But you know, at the time I was writing a huge book called “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.” And I think maybe your question is a little bit more applicable to that, which is that you know, I spent a couple of years completely immersed in that book, thinking that it was a book about Russia, right. It was another place. I wanted to help Americans understand how it happened over there. And it was very much rooted in Russian history, but particularly to the last 25 years of Russian history. And then when I finished writing the book and it was a very immersive project because, it’s, it’s a large book. I finished in September 2016 and I kind of raised my head from the desk and I thought, oh, you know, I just did an incredible amount of relevant research.


HEFFNER: Right. Well, and that’s… That is what I’m getting at: this question of authoritarianism or autocracy in the way we, we did view it pre-Trump and the way we view it presently and in the post Trump. Can you give our listeners and viewers an understanding of where Russia is right now as it relates to that same trajectory? You know the question of whether it’s irreversible here; I’d like your take on it there too.


GESSEN: Well. Yeah. Russia has passed through autocratic breakthrough into autocratic consolidation. Putin has now made himself president for life. There’s no way for that regime to fall because of anything that is not internal to it, right. It’s a perfect black box. So I’m not saying that he is necessarily going to stay president until he dies. He very well may, right? Legally that right is now enshrined. But those kinds of regimes as we learned from the Soviet Union, they crumble, and they crumble unexpectedly because we can’t see inside, because, because whatever happens happens in the black box and it happens because of a mistake or structural flaw that could only be seen from the inside, from inside the black box. So whatever happens is going to happen suddenly, you know, and it could be a sudden death, or it could be sudden death of the regime. Once that happens, all bets are off and I would compare it to what happened in the aftermath of the death of Stalin, which is actually a historical event that has been very well documented in a great nonfiction book by Joshua Rubenstein called “Last Days of Stalin” but also the comic movie The Death of Stalin, which also captures that moment when anything could be possible. It was a complete free for all; there was no line of succession. There was no understanding of what the system actually was aside from that one person that everything was centered around. And that meant, you know, there’s, this amazing scene in The Death of Stalin where they’re sitting around the table, all these men who are vying for the right to succeed and saying, you know, maybe we should just let everybody out of the Gulag. Well, why would we, why wouldn’t we, right? And, and it captures the random ridiculous nature of terror, but also, but also the fact that anything is possible after the death of the tyrant. So that’s what will happen in Russia once the change comes and the change will come suddenly it could happen this year. It could happen 25 years from now.


HEFFNER: What could be that change, that sudden change that is not his death Putin’s death. I mean, again, it’s hard to see because we can’t, but what are there such circumstances?


GESSEN: Sure. There are lots of possible circumstances. But again, we won’t know what that thing was until it happens.




GESSEN: What I can tell you is that traditional ways of analyzing these kinds of situations, that, you know, the traditional into political science, which is looking at elites, looking at legitimacy, loyalty, that sort of thing. I think it’s all meaningless in a regime that is so personified and where there are no mechanisms of influencing the regime. So a lot of analysts will look at the mass protests in Khabarovsk right now in the Far East of Russia and say, Oh, he’s weak. You know because the people are against the Kremlin orchestrated arrests. And I think that’s a mistake, right? Because he can’t actually game it out. He can’t say how those protests are going to start a reaction that ultimately influences the Kremlin. They can’t. Anything that happens in Russia is encapsulated because there’s no, there’s no, there, there are no elections to speak of. There’s no way to hold any official accountable, except if the Kremlin wants to hold it accountable. And so those, whatever we can observe from the outside tells us almost nothing.


HEFFNER: But is there a potential for mutiny? Is there a potential for, I should say, a coup, is there a potential for an alliance within the Kremlin to ultimately, you know, people junior to Putin to overtake him, or is that a fantasy?


GESSEN: That’s a fantasy


HEFFNER: And do you think that’s a fantasy in some of the other authoritarian neighbors there, there had been the question and the pandemic with respect to China, if an event like that could be a cataclysm.


GESSEN: I’m not; I’m not a China expert. So I can’t, I can’t answer that.


HEFFNER: As we look to, you know, just as a final question, Masha, as we look to potential election interference, part two, the sequel, in 2020, is there anything that Putin did not do in ‘16 that you think he may do in that?


GESSEN: So I’m not, you know, I’m really not a fan of talking about election interference, because I think that the obsession with Russian meddling has been destructive to our political conversation. I think it has taken the focus off of what we really should be talking about, which is that Americans elected Trump. I think that it has fueled this conspiracy thinking, which is basically when people look for secrets that explain things,




GESSEN: …instead of looking at things that are in plain view. So I am completely uninterested in speculating about Russian interference. We have a president who has plainly stated that he is not going to accept the results of the vote. That’s all…


HEFFNER: Fair enough. I’m glad you said that, Masha, of course, we can read you in the New Yorker. We can read “Surviving Autocracy” and I really appreciate your time today on The Open Mind. Thanks for joining me.


GESSEN: Thank you for having me.

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