“Surviving Autocracy” by Masha Gessen combines some elements of all these approaches, perhaps because its author spans all these disciplines. It echoes analyses and arguments from other Trump books that probe more deeply into particular arenas, yet it is not redundant; this book does not repeat as much as it distills. The result 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.
And those who are horrified by Trump will find that “Surviving Autocracy” is a time capsule packed with all their anxieties, and all their certainties, too. It offers discomfort and reassurance at once.
The book explores and connects themes Gessen has long considered. Two days after the 2016 election, Gessen published an essay in the New York Review of Books titled “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” which drew on the author’s experience growing up in the Soviet Union, reporting on Vladimir Putin and observing the Trump campaign. The rules were memorable and to the point: Believe the autocrat. Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. Institutions will not save you. Be outraged. Don’t make compromises. And remember the future, Gessen wrote, urging readers to develop a vision for a post-Trump America.
In “Surviving Autocracy,” Gessen finds, no surprise, that such warnings were warranted. Trump was “the first major party nominee who ran not for president but for autocrat," Gessen argues. Rather than attempt to claim such power through one dramatic gesture, he has done so through a series of steps that, put together, “change the nature of American government and politics.” These include undermining any mechanisms of accountability, downgrading the daily political discourse, abusing his office for the enrichment of his family, embracing xenophobia and praising foreign dictators while picking fights with democratic allies. This is the gradual erosion of democracy, not by coup but by cooptation. “All of this, though plainly visible, was unfathomable,” Gessen explains, perfectly capturing the cognitive dissonance of life in Trump’s America.
For all those who hoped that U.S. institutions and norms of behavior would curb Trump’s impulses, this book offers no comfort. Institutions are helpless “against a president acting in bad faith,” Gessen writes. The author is conflicted over the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller — and ultimately disappointed by it. Mueller, who became FBI director just days before the 9/11 attacks, is “the author of the contemporary American surveillance state,” Gessen contends, and therefore an odd vehicle of deliverance from a president with authoritarian pretensions. Although Gessen concedes that Mueller’s report constitutes “the most comprehensive portrait of Trumpism to date,” the document’s “institutional restraint” left it vulnerable to a battery of interpretations.
Gessen here seems to join an ongoing critical reappraisal of the special counsel — not from conspiracists who brand Mueller an agent of the “deep state,” but from journalists and analysts concluding that he blew it. In “A Very Stable Genius,” Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig write that Mueller “fumbled the moment,” that he had only himself to blame for his report’s subsequent misrepresentation, that the lawman was “too invested in the norms of an institution of yore.” And in “Trumpocalypse,” Atlantic writer David Frum blasts Mueller for looking only for prosecutable crimes, for focusing solely on the 2016 election and for deferring to the presidency by not reaching a judgment on Trump’s potential criminality. Mueller’s choices, Frum argues, “guaranteed that his work would deliver no useful result.”
Perhaps norms and institutional restraint become less appealing, and an essential historical document less impressive, when they fail to deliver an expected or desired outcome? Once the Mueller report landed in Congress, it did so with a “dull thud,” Gessen concludes. “It was not, discernibly, the end or the beginning of anything.”
“Surviving Autocracy” raises a classic Trump-era dilemma: Did democratic institutions work because without them things would have been much worse, or did they fail because Trump was able to abuse or ignore them to the extent that he did? Is American democracy half full, or half full of it?
Gessen worries that the coronavirus pandemic has created just the conditions that could allow Trump to further accumulate power and further erode democratic guardrails. “Trump did not deploy the virus, but he was positioned to reap its reward,” Gessen writes — and that reward came in the form of an anxious, hesitant electorate. “The inability to plan, to have the certainty of being able to feed one’s family today and tomorrow, produces more anxiety and fear of change.”
Yet change is precisely what the country requires now, Gessen argues, and that doesn’t mean simply a new choice in November (though the author certainly wants that, too). “We will have to do more than vote, and more than campaign,” Gessen writes. “We will have to abandon the idea of returning to an imaginary pre-Trump normalcy when American institutions functioned as they should.” Instead, the author emphasizes that our democratic institutions — our legislatures and courts and civil society — are not, at their foundation, about rules and norms but about imagining and devising the kind of nation we want to be, about “moral aspiration.”
Like so many works in the anti-Trump canon, “Surviving Autocracy” warns against normalizing this presidency. One of Gessen’s strengths is the ability to capture what daily life feels and sounds like in the Trump era, and how abnormality remains so even when it is pervasive. This presidency “remains unimaginable — even if it is observable,” Gessen writes. Trump always shocks, even if he no longer surprises.
“Surviving Autocracy” grasps what it is like when the president distorts language beyond any logic. “Trump’s word piles fill public space with static,” Gessen writes, “the way pollutants in an industrial city can saturate the air, making it toxic and creating a state of constant haze.” The author describes the eerie timelessness of the Trump years, when days and weeks and months blur together, a condition aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic. “In the Trump era, there is no past and no future, no history and no vision — only the anxious present,” Gessen writes. (Readers of Gessen’s National Book Award-winning “The Future Is History” will remember similar descriptions of life in the U.S.S.R. and in Putin’s Russia.)
And Gessen cautions against finding solace in the president’s reliable incompetence, as some did early in Trump’s tenure, assuming that he was too inept to undermine democracy. “Trump’s incompetence is militant,” Gessen writes. “It is not a factor that might mitigate the threat he poses: it is the threat itself.” The administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis makes that threat especially clear.
Gessen believes that the pandemic allows Trump to govern as he likes: “unilaterally, decisively, with few checks on his power — and with the eyes of the nation riveted to him.” And there are parallels between them. “We relate to the virus, in some ways, as we relate to Trump,” Gessen writes. “We yearn desperately to return to a time of imagined normalcy, before Trump and before the coronavirus.”
Perhaps. But the irony of the health and economic crisis this pandemic has unleashed is that it can make the pre-covid Trump presidency itself seem like a more normal time. That is the reelection pitch, after all, with Trump pledging to recover the greatness he claims to have delivered. But recovery, Gessen writes, means committing to reinvention — “of institutions, of what politics means to us, and of what it means to be a democracy, if that is indeed what we choose to be.” If this book offers no other imperative, it is to remember that the choice always remains.
(Editor’s note: This review has been updated to reflect the author’s preferred pronouns.)