“Crazy” and “idiotic” are some of the words often bandied about in polite conversation when describing Donald Trump. But what if these words are excusing a president who recently shared with his 83m Twitter followers a video featuring an elderly man shouting “white power”? This is the reality journalist Masha Gessen masterfully tackles in Surviving Autocracy.
Gessen’s 25 years reporting on authoritarian regimes has taught the journalist something: ignoring a tyrant will see you damned. The Russian-born writer has already lived through one autocratic regime where LGBT communities and dissenters are actively censored and purged—Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Gessen draws on the experience of being a reporter in Russia and Hungary to describe America under Trump. Terms such as “presidential” would not usually be used by those living outside of Russia to describe that country’s leader. So why use them when talking about Trump and his policies?
Gessen argues that the language of political disagreement and partisan discussion can no longer be applied to a president who has showered scorn on mainstream politics. According to Gessen, factions of the American media, desperate to return to a time before Trump, have fallen into a trap of normalising racism, lies and totalitarian tendencies. News commentators highlighted the brief moments when Trump was “presidential” such as his speech following missile strikes against Syria in April 2017.
The reluctance of the editors at National Public Radio to use “liar” and “racist” to describe the president saw them transform into accomplices. Journalists lost sight of moral clarity. Only through comedy and podcasts, where opinions and critical analysis are welcomed, is the president treated as a “phenomenon that is distinct from both our experience and our expectations of politics.” With the election months away, Gessen’s latest work couldn’t be more on point.
Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen (Granta, £12)