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'Surviving Autocracy': Masha Gessen's New Book Tells A Story Of Trump's Presidency


Protesters wanted the president to hear their cries for justice. President Trump wanted his photo taken in front of a vandalized church across from the White House.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Mounted police have been coming down the street using flash-bangs to clear what has been an entirely peaceful protest - not 98%, not 99%...

MARTIN: And so the protesters in Lafayette Square were doused with tear gas to make a path to the church.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The president setting up this photo op for himself, dispersing peaceful protesters to do so in front of a boarded-up church.

MARTIN: Militarized police, disregard for civil liberties, cracking down in times of turmoil - these are the hallmarks of an autocracy, says writer and journalist Masha Gessen. Masha Gessen has written a new book called "Surviving Autocracy" about the Trump presidency. And while my co-host Ari Shapiro spoke to Gessen before the incident last night, they started by talking about Trump's reaction to this moment so far.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: You had to do some last-minute rewrites in this book to include President Trump's response to COVID-19. If you were to go back again and add a chapter on his response to the protests that we're seeing across the country right now, what would you write about it?

MASHA GESSEN: With the response the coronavirus crisis - right? - we actually saw what a lack of political leadership, which is a lack of accountability, lack of responsibility and this incredible belief in control and raw power as the only political entities - right? - what that leads to. And we're seeing it again now with the response to the protests over the most recent deaths of African Americans in this country and his Monday phone call with governors in which he told them that you have to dominate, you have to put people in prison for 10 years. That is the extent of his political thinking, and that is as distilled an autocratic message as we could have actually heard from this president.

SHAPIRO: The things that President Trump has done that you criticize him for are by and large things that he promised to do during the campaign, that won him votes. And so is what you're calling an autocratic attempt in a sense a reflection of a democratic process?

GESSEN: I agree, Ari. Trump ran for autocrat, and he won. Just because somebody is elected doesn't mean that that's a democratic act or that it's democratic leadership. Democracy is the government of the governed. We are not seeing that in the United States. We did see a man who said I will not create a government of the government. I will, in fact, endeavor to govern, to rule with an iron fist. I will eliminate government as it is currently constituted.

SHAPIRO: Are you talking about experts within the bureaucracy? I mean, what specifically do you mean?

GESSEN: I am talking about experts within the bureaucracy. I'm talking about regulations. I'm talking about the fact that when Trump formed his cabinet a key qualification seemed to be that every person had to be opposed to the very mission of the agency that they were selected to lead.

SHAPIRO: Such as Scott Pruitt leading the EPA or Betsy DeVos running the Department of Education.

GESSEN: Absolutely. And we haven't quite taken in the scope of destruction in government. We sort of occasionally have a spotlight shine it, as we have seen the spotlight shined on the CDC and the health care bureaucracy over the last few months. And we have seen what decimation does, you know, what - basically what a naked bureaucracy without expertise and without political leadership looks like.

SHAPIRO: You say at one point that the alleged conflicts of interest in this cabinet are more than an army of journalists could track or that, crucially, any media audience could absorb. So when one important accountability mechanism in a democracy is journalism and the reaction of news consumers, what is the consequence of flooding the zone with so many potential stories about conflicts of interest that nobody could possibly track or absorb them all?

GESSEN: A whole section of the book is devoted to the problem of covering Trump and how it's not that there is a way to do this job and we're failing. It's that the job is almost impossible. I'll give you a simple example. He - the Trumpian (ph) tweet. You can't ignore it because it actually has consequences. You can't cover it because in a way it is meaningless speech. It is also speech that incites violence. It is hateful speech.

SHAPIRO: So over the weekend, for example, when the president said he was going to declare Antifa a terrorist organization, which is basically a meaningless statement because terror groups cannot be declared about American domestic organizations, and yet this is the president's response to the violent protests.

GESSEN: That's precisely it. You can't cover it because everything in the tweet is nonsensical on the face of it. And you can't not cover it because it is the president's statement, and it does have consequences.

SHAPIRO: You talk a lot about things that are unimaginable that have nevertheless happened, like the separation of parents from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border. And you write, it is the choice between thinking that whatever is happening in reality is by definition acceptable and thinking that some actual events in our current reality are fundamentally incompatible with our concept of ourselves, not just as Americans but as human beings, and therefore unimaginable. You say it makes one's brain implode. So what are we supposed to do with that implosion?

GESSEN: Well, the Trumpian presidency is, among other things, incredibly, I think, cognitively strenuous. We are constantly in this state of intellectual anxiety. How do you grasp this? Things happened that are mind-blowing, and yet in the course of the Trump presidency, they're also normal. There are the kind of things that happen every week. And we have to take stock of how impossible that is to live with, how impossible that is actually to process.

SHAPIRO: And yet it doesn't answer the question, how do we process it? What do we do with it? How do we go week after week after week?

GESSEN: First, we take stock of it. And then we make the superhuman effort to imagine something different. I think that's - the way that autocrats really gain control is that we are robbed of our imagination. We're robbed of the ability to think about the future because we are so anxious, because all of it is too much all the time. And our only chance is in imagining that we can indeed be better. And that means imagining more than just going back to some pre-Trumpian past. It's actually post-Trump America that is better than anything we've known.

SHAPIRO: Do you think - and I guess I'm asking in your personal experience - there is a cost to leaning into the unimaginability day after day, week after week of the things happening all around us, that, you know, instead of just deciding to turn off the news and tune out, you write a book and you lean into the last three and a half years of each successive thing that has happened? I mean, is there a cost to that personally that you experience?

GESSEN: This is the most miserable book-writing experience I have ever had in my life.


SHAPIRO: And you've written a lot of books about some tough topics.

GESSEN: I take some satisfaction in being able to do my job, but it does come at a cost. And this is - you know, it's a cost for political activists. It's a cost for journalists. And most of all, of course, right now, it's a cost for people who are in the streets of our cities.

SHAPIRO: Masha Gessen is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and their new book is "Surviving Autocracy."

Thank you very much.

GESSEN: Thank you for having me.