The Threat of Moral Authority: Autocratic power requires the degradation of moral authority—the defeat of moral principles as such

 

Masha Gessen, 2020

“politics” and “political” — “the vital project of negotiating how we live together as a city, a state or a country; of working across difference; of acting collectively.” 

when something cannot be described, it does not become a fact of shared reality.” And the kind of willful blindness you’re describing is only possible when language has been corrupted or shrunken down so much that the things we have to say simply aren’t sayable or thinkable — or at least not sayable or thinkable for enough people…We can’t do politics if we can’t talk to one another. We can’t talk politics if we don’t inhabit a shared reality. We can’t have politics if we can’t agree on what we’re living through, because then we can’t discuss how we’re going to be living together tomorrow, which is what politics is.”

Now, that doesn’t necessarily create the preconditions for totalitarianism, but I actually think that the complete elimination of politics is what authoritarianism is. Under authoritarianism, everybody goes home, has their private lives, cooks dinner, bakes bread, and the authoritarian individual or group accumulates money and power out of sight. So politics disappears entirely, public space disappears entirely. It’s like lockdown forever.

But totalitarianism is the opposite. The private space disappears and everything becomes political, but everything becomes political on the terms of the ruling ideology. So the authoritarian leader wants people to go home and tend to their lives. The totalitarian leader wants them out in the public square, demonstrating their support for him. That’s Trump – he’d like a rally 24/7

NYTimes: “What journalists ought to do, Gessen says, is to cover “Trumpism not as news but as a system.” We keep doing something analogous with politics, Gessen says — imagining “that Trump would do us the favor of announcing the point of no return with a sweeping, unequivocal gesture.” But it’s not as if aspiring autocrats declare when it’s time for autocracy; instead they resort to their crude repertoire, inciting bigotry, agitating for “law and order” and subjecting immigrants to gratuitous cruelty. There isn’t anything mysterious about this. We should stop searching for an enigma that doesn’t exist, Gessen says, and pay closer attention to the world as it is.

From vox.com, 2020, by Sean Illing, interview with Masha Gessen

In Surviving Autocracy, New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen argues that the collapse of a common language, or a common experience of the world, is essentially the death of democratic politics as such. Politics, in Gessen’s words, is an ongoing discussion about how we’re going to live together tomorrow: “We can’t do politics if we can’t talk to one another … if we don’t inhabit a shared reality.”

Gessen writes about “the corruption of language” and the subsequent loss of a collective space for what we typically think of as politics.

I spoke with Gessen by phone about the relationship between language and power, and why our inability to exist in the same reality is paving the way for authoritarian government.

Sean Illing

Hannah Arendt, the great 20th-century political theorist, had this notion of “thoughtlessness,” referring to the inability of people in totalitarian societies to think beyond clichés and slogans. How do you see the problem of thoughtlessness today?

Masha Gessen

When [Arendt] writes about totalitarian societies in particular, there’s something really important that is so hard to grasp. In the last chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism,she talks about the difference between tyranny and totalitarianism. She says that under tyranny, a certain set of behaviors, a certain set of statements, is expected. A certain kind of performance from citizens is traded for some security that still leaves the person intact.

Whereas under totalitarianism, because of terror and because terror depends on being unpredictable, you never know what is expected of you. So you can’t perform totalitarianism in the same way. And this not knowing what you’re supposed to give the regime in order for it to leave you alone robs the individual of the very ability to form opinions, and I think that’s also at the root of this idea of thoughtlessness, because the goal of the totalitarian regime is to make it impossible to think.

Sean Illing

Robbing someone of their ability to form opinions is an interesting way to put it. Something similar happens in non-totalitarian societies, though it’s even harder to detect. This is why I wanted to ask you about language. For Arendt, at least, if all we know about politics comes to us via slogans and talking points and soundbites, then that doesn’t just determine how we talk about politics, it determines what’s actually thinkable in the first place.

Masha Gessen

Language determines what’s thinkable, right? I mean, it’s very hard to think a thought that you don’t have a word for — it’s impossible, in fact.

But there’s a huge difference between that limitation, which is just part of the human condition, and being in an encapsulated, ideological world that is divorced from the reality you can experience. And when Arendt writes about totalitarian ideology, she makes a very important point that any ideology can be totalitarian. And she writes that its key characteristic is that it’s entirely encapsulated; it’s impervious to any input from outside reality. So I think the problem with Fox News, or living inside the Fox News bubble, is not just the language and the framing, but it’s that the language and the framing actually do not apply to your daily reality.

I was talking to somebody the other day whose entire family has had Covid, and yet they don’t believe in Covid. And that is, like, a perfect example of totalitarian ideology. Even if they had said that it wasn’t that bad and not a lot of people are getting it, or something that acknowledged their personal experience — that would be one thing. But they literally do not think that the thing exists. They think that it’s a conspiracy.

Sean Illing

That’s wild. Is that sort of reality-denying ideology the precondition for actual totalitarianism?

Masha Gessen

Well, you had all these great German thinkers who survived fascism in the 1930s and ’40s, and they came to the US in the ’50s and ’60s and basically said the preconditions for fascism or totalitarianism were already in place here. But even suggesting that seemed outlandish at the time. You can’t use words like “fascism” without getting dismissed.

But look, there are really important distinctions between the country that I spent most of my life writing about and this one. And the distinctions may not be what’s important right now. Maybe what’s important right now are the similarities, and I don’t know that Donald Trump has the intellectual or organizational capacity to create state terror. I do believe he has a totalitarian ideology and he has been able to pull a huge number of people into his encapsulated world.

I guess the question is, how much state terror is necessary to create a totalitarian society?

Sean Illing

Not nearly as much as people might think.

Masha Gessen

Well, that’s the thing. We imagine terror as something that applies pressure directly, to every person in society at every living moment. Terror actually works by creating a sense of a credible threat to every person in society. And as if Trump weren’t enough, Covid came along and created the sense of a credible threat to every person in society, even if Trump doesn’t quite believe in Covid.

I mean, the Soviet Union in the 1970s did not have the gulag, did not even have particularly high rates of incarceration, did not jail everybody who was differently minded, just a few people. And that was enough. That was enough to maintain the stability and uniformity of thought, and just this sort of intellectual and moral desert.

Sean Illing

You’ve written about how Russia experienced this wave of truth and openness in those early years after the Soviet empire collapsed, and how it’s been rolled back so thoroughly by Putin and the strange nihilistic climate he’s helped engineer.

Masha Gessen

It turns out people can unsee and unthink true thoughts pretty easily. A few years ago, I went back to Russia, where some of the worst labor camps were, and visited someone I had interviewed there 20 years ago. She was an activist back then, and now she’s a Putinist. At first I thought she was joking when she said she was for Putin, then she said, “I just got sick of being a minority. I wanted to vote for someone who was going to win for once.”

And then we’re sitting there by this fire, in the old camps, and she said something about how killing all these people had been necessary to prepare for the war, that the gulag had been necessary. And I said, “Wait a second, what are you talking about?” I recounted all the crimes and all the numbers and what I read in the archives, and she just said, “Oh, they can write anything. They can write anything. They can say anything.”

This was the ultimate post-truth moment. She had seen the evidence. She spent most of her life working with these documents, and yet she could just dismiss them when they were inconvenient for the story that she had decided to buy in to.

Sean Illing

Connecting that back to the language, you write in the book that “when something cannot be described, it does not become a fact of shared reality.” And the kind of willful blindness you’re describing is only possible when language has been corrupted or shrunken down so much that the things we have to say simply aren’t sayable or thinkable — or at least not sayable or thinkable for enough people.

Masha Gessen

Right. Like I was saying earlier, you can’t speak something that you don’t have a word for, and you can’t describe what’s happening when the words you have [have] been emptied of meaning. I was writing about the experience of voting in the Soviet Union, which was called something else. It was called the free expression of citizen will, but in fact it was this experience of coercion and participation in an empty ritual.

It’s like if you and I went swimming together, but the whole time we were in denial about swimming, and we’re talking about it as though we had gone mountain climbing. And then five years later, I say to you, “Remember that time we went swimming.” But we never called it swimming. We always called it mountain climbing. And we can’t talk about it as swimming, because it’s still mountain climbing in the way we described it, in the way that we agreed to talk about it. But we didn’t experience any mountain climbing. We were wet and cold, and our shoes were full of sand, but none of that was part of an experience that we had agreed to share.

That’s kind of what it was like to live in the Soviet Union, and it’s a lot of what it’s like to live in Trump’s America.

Sean Illing

And what’s the straight line from the loss of a shared reality to a totalitarian society?

Masha Gessen

We can’t do politics if we can’t talk to one another. We can’t talk politics if we don’t inhabit a shared reality. We can’t have politics if we can’t agree on what we’re living through, because then we can’t discuss how we’re going to be living together tomorrow, which is what politics is.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily create the preconditions for totalitarianism, but I actually think that the complete elimination of politics is what authoritarianism is. Under authoritarianism, everybody goes home, has their private lives, cooks dinner, bakes bread, and the authoritarian individual or group accumulates money and power out of sight. So politics disappears entirely, public space disappears entirely. It’s like lockdown forever.

But totalitarianism is the opposite. The private space disappears and everything becomes political, but everything becomes political on the terms of the ruling ideology. So the authoritarian leader wants people to go home and tend to their lives. The totalitarian leader wants them out in the public square, demonstrating their support for him.

This is why there’s no doubt in my mind that Trump is a totalitarian-style leader. If he could, he would have the whole country at a Trump rally 24/7.

Sean Illing

You write in the book that the longer Trumpism lasts, the harder it will be to undo the damage he’s done to our political language. Is the real damage already done? What would it even mean to recover or reinvent political language?

Masha Gessen

I don’t think that it’s impossible, at this point, to recover. I spent most of my life writing about and living in a country where language had really been damaged to what I think might be the point of total disrepair. We’re not nearly that far along. A lot of people are thinking through how to write and talk about this era in ways that are better than we have talked about politics in the pre-Trump era. And there’s some incredible writing and talking that the Trump era has produced, so I think we still have a lot of potential if we get to reverse this in November.

Sean Illing

In the ’90s, Soviet journalists had to basically reinvent journalism in their country. Will the American press have to do the same? Can they do the same?

Masha Gessen

That’s a great question. Maybe I’m too optimistic, because I see a huge difference between the current conditions of American journalism and what it was like for Russian journalists in the ’90s. There are real conversations happening now about what “objectivity” means and what “moral clarity” looks like, and that’s all part of a reinvention process. Right now it’s hard because things move so fast, and there’s no attention span, and finding space for actual conversations is difficult. But a lot of good work is being done, and I think we can come to some kind of renewed understanding of journalistic practices — if not an entirely new understanding — on the other side of this.

Sean Illing

You say pretty clearly that our institutions won’t save us, and that means our next opportunity to reverse this autocratic drift is the November election. If that goes the other way, if Trump’s autocratic style is affirmed and rewarded with four more years, what then?

Masha Gessen

I don’t think we should be in the business of making predictions, but that’s a really dark scenario. That may mean that we miss our only chance to reverse the autocratic attempt, and then we would move into what the Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar calls “autocratic consolidation,” which essentially means that moving beyond Trump would require not the change of president, but the change of regime.

We already have such damage done to institutions, from the corruption of the Justice Department to the destruction of regulatory agencies to the dismantling of all oversight systems in the government itself. But we also have some incredible damage done to political culture and political language, as we discussed earlier. There will have to [be] real institutional repair and a total reinvention of how we think American democracy is represented institutionally.

Sean Illing

I take all of that to mean that if we move into this next stage of autocratic consolidation, we’re talking about a level of challenge that, almost by definition, would require something like a revolution to fix or to overcome.

Masha Gessen

Exactly.

Sean Illing

That’s scary.

Masha Gessen

I know.

**

In ‘Surviving Autocracy,’ Masha Gessen Tells Us to Face the Facts

By Jennifer Szalai June 3, 2020, NYTimes

I would hazard a guess that when Masha Gessen began working on “Surviving Autocracy,” the title was meant more figuratively than literally. In the November 2016 essay that gave rise to this book, Gessen offered a set of numbered rules for “salvaging your sanity and self-respect” during a time of political upheaval. Physical survival didn’t look like it was going to be the hard part. As a country like Viktor Orban’s Hungary shows, autocracy can thrive on corruption and soft oppression: Don’t speak up; just eat the bread and watch the circuses, and chances are you’ll get by.

“Most Americans in the age of Trump are not, like the subjects of a totalitarian regime, subjected to state terror,” Gessen writes in the new book. But the last few months have shown what can happen when a president’s contempt for expert knowledge collides with a dire need for it: “We could have imagined, but we could not have predicted, that a pandemic would render his arrogant ignorance lethal.”

Gessen was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to the United States as a teenager, returning to Russia in 1991 to work as a journalist and document “the death of a Russian democracy that had never really come to be.” Gessen moved back to the United States in 2013 and eventually became a staff writer for The New Yorker — not to mention one of this country’s most exacting critics of Vladimir Putin and his ruthless consolidation of power. As a gay parent, Gessen had confronted a Russian regime that threatened to remove children from same-sex families. When Gessen speaks about autocracy, you listen.

In “Surviving Autocracy,” Gessen suggests that the United States has been terribly unprepared for a figure like Donald Trump. Not because he came out of nowhere; if anything, he took advantage of a political system that was ripe for a demagogue, swollen already by money and the powers concentrated in the executive branch. But too many Americans have maintained a stubborn hope that their vaunted institutions can save them. Establishment politicians like Barack Obama exhorted Americans to operate from “a presumption of good faith.” (Gessen quotes at length from a soaring speech that Obama gave the day after the 2016 election; reading it now might make you wince.) Even the most seasoned journalists, Gessen says, couldn’t bring themselves to assimilate the unthinkable.

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of June. See the full list. ]

“No powerful political actor had set out to destroy the American political system itself — until, that is, Trump won the Republican nomination,” Gessen writes. “He was probably the first major party nominee who ran not for president but for autocrat.”

Masha Gessen, whose new book is “Surviving Autocracy.”
Masha Gessen, whose new book is “Surviving Autocracy.”Credit…Lena Di

Gessen isn’t part of the typical #Resist crowd, fixated on the Mueller report. If anything, Gessen says, “the excruciatingly slow, tantalizingly complicated, deliciously dirty story of Russian interference in the 2016 election” served as yet another distraction from the undeniable facts at hand. By the time the special counsel informed the public that the president had ordered a White House lawyer to lie, “the president had been lying to the public daily for two and a half years,” Gessen writes.

How can we help you lead a better, more fulfilling life at home during the pandemic?Ask us a question or tell us what’s on your mind.

The words “lie” and “lying” and “liar” appear a lot in this book. So do “meaning” and “meaningless.” Gessen’s writing style is methodical and direct, relying on pointed observations instead of baroque hyperbole. The loose use of language, Gessen says, has been a problem on both sides of the American political divide — though it would take a fanatical attachment to both-sidesism not to point out that one party is the more flagrant and egregious offender. Trump’s critics may be inordinately fond of words like “coup” and “treason,” Gessen writes, but none of that compares to the president’s mangling of meaning and basic syntax — what Gessen calls his “word piles.”

To combat nonsense, Gessen counsels making sense, deliberately and with precision, including the reclamation of “politics” and “political” — words that have come to denote empty bombast and wily maneuvering when they should call to mind something more substantive: “the vital project of negotiating how we live together as a city, a state or a country; of working across difference; of acting collectively.” The common hypocritical politician infuriates people by preaching one thing and doing another; compare this to the uncommon, non-hypocritical Trump, who doesn’t bother even to preach anything lofty in the first place. At least the hypocritical ideal “serves the function of reiterating aspirational values,” Gessen writes.

Gessen excoriates the mainstream media for resorting to the “neutral tone” of “normalizing newspaper prose” that helps its audience “absorb the unabsorbable.” What journalists ought to do, Gessen says, is to cover “Trumpism not as news but as a system.”

“Surviving Autocracy” faces the problem that most anti-Trump books do: How to conclude in a way that strikes the right balance between realism and hope. Gessen ends with an excerpt from “Let America Be America Again,” by Langston Hughes — an appropriately rousing choice, though it also happens to be the same poem with which Amy Chua chose to end her book “Political Tribes,” published two years ago.

Still, to obsess over endings would be to miss the larger point of this trenchant book. We keep doing something analogous with politics, Gessen says — imagining “that Trump would do us the favor of announcing the point of no return with a sweeping, unequivocal gesture.” But it’s not as if aspiring autocrats declare when it’s time for autocracy; instead they resort to their crude repertoire, inciting bigotry, agitating for “law and order” and subjecting immigrants to gratuitous cruelty. There isn’t anything mysterious about this. We should stop searching for an enigma that doesn’t exist, Gessen says, and pay closer attention to the world as it is.

Follow Jennifer Szalai on Twitter: @jenszalai.

Surviving Autocracy
By Masha Gessen
270 pages. Riverhead Books. $26.A version of this article appears in print on June 4, 2020, Section C, Page 5 of the New York edition with the headline: Confronting the Facts Directly in Front of Us. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

**

The New Yorker columnist and author of Surviving Autocracy believes there can be no return to the pre-Trump normal.

By SOPHIE MCBAIN in The New Statesman

LORENZO DALBERTO / ALAMY

The New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen has written 12 non-fiction books, none of which made them (Gessen prefers the gender-neutral pronoun) as “miserable” as writing Surviving Autocracy. It builds on an essay published on the eve of Donald Trump’s presidency that advised: “believe the autocrat”; “do not be taken in by small signs of normality” and “institutions will not save you”.

Trump “ran not for president but for autocrat. And he won,” Gessen writes in Surviving Autocracy. He is a man of “militant” incompetence, with a moral void, and the US’s institutions have proven ill-equipped to resist a president who flouts all democratic norms. The media, attempting to cover the Trump presidency as they would any other, normalises this by translating outrageous behaviour into familiar newspeak and adhering to a notion of objectivity that creates a false equivalence between Trump’s demonstrable lies and the truth.

Gessen, whose writing is unfailingly polemical, precise and analytic, argues that the Trump administration is best understood with reference to the model of authoritarianism developed by the Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar. Magyar describes three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough and autocratic consolidation. Gessen suggests the US remains in the first stage – for now. There can be no return to the pre-Trump normal, however. Resisting authoritarianism will require the reinvention of American democracy, and a new politics of moral aspiration.

The book was updated just before it went to press to account for the coronavirus pandemic, which by late June had killed more than 120,000 people across the US. It continues to spread rapdily throughout much of the US. “The pandemic acts as an amplifier,” Gessen told me, when we spoke via Zoom. “If there is [an autocratic] breakthrough it will be more disastrous, but I also think there’s a better chance of a more dramatic reversal.”

Since the book’s publication in June, mass protests against police brutality have spread across the US. Gessen saw them as embodying a new kind of politics that the US so urgently needs. “It truly is a revolutionary moment. One of the reasons is that we have felt a deep need for solidarity during this pandemic, and part of what has made us feel this need for solidarity, is the small taste some of us have had, the bigger taste others have had, of what it’s like to feel as though your life is disposable.”

In May, Gessen’s 18-year-old daughter Yolka was arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest in the city. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to her,” Gessen said, adding after a moment’s reflection: “She’s going to kill me for saying this.”

For young people, who have been devastated by months of isolation, the protests have provided a renewed sense of purpose and connection.

Yolka was also following in something of a family tradition. Gessen, who is 53, was arrested around the same spot 30 years earlier at an Aids protest. “For me it was a huge day.” Although Gessen had been campaigning for years with the advocacy group Act Up, the author could not afford to be photographed or arrested at protests. She and her family had arrived in the US as a refugee from Russia in 1981 and did not have political rights in the US at that time.

Just before being arrested in 1990, Gessen had received a US passport, and the arrest itself was like a rite of citizenship.

In 1991 Gessen went back to Russia to work as a journalist and then returned to New York in 2013 after the Russian government, which had for years been escalating attacks on the LGBT community, began threatening to remove children from same-sex couples. Having lived under authoritarian rule, Gessen was quick to see the similarities between Trump and the Russian president. Americans, who consider Vladimir Putin some kind of political mastermind, may be surprised to know that, according to the author, he is not only megalomanic and vain, but also intellectually dull and incurious. As they write in the book, Putin’s ambition “is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world”.

An important theme in Surviving Autocracy is the power of language to shape political reality and possibilities. For Gessen, this is a reason to write. “I think possibly the greatest stress of living day-to-day in Trump’s America is the sense that reality is mushy, that nothing is knowable, that sense has seeped out. And if you can just name things and describe things in a way that makes you feel like someone has shined a flashlight and things have become clear, that’s an incredible achievement.”

Gessen has already begun work on another book, which picks up where Surviving Autocracy ends, and will chart what the reinvention of US democracy could look like. Gessen had expected to be introducing readers to ideas such as police abolition and restorative justice, and yet in recent weeks the civil uprisings had moved such ideas from activist fringes into the mainstream. “But there are worse things than having your research rendered irrelevant because your wildest hopes have come true, so that will be fun.”

Is Masha Gessen optimistic about change? Optimism wasn’t the right word, Gessen replied, because it implies a degree of certainty over the future. “But I do feel more hopeful than I have done in years.” 

Sophie McBain is a special correspondent at the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor. 

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