How Autocratic Is He?

Masha Gessen on whether Trump has been just as scary as she thought he’d be.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump gestures as he departs a campaign rally in Clive, Iowa, on Sept. 13.

Mike Segar/Reuters

Masha Gessen was born in Moscow, immigrated to America in the 1980s, and then returned to the country of her birth. Because of the anti-gay policies there, though, she moved back to the United States, and she has written extensively about Putin and his Russia ever since. (Her book, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Claimed Russia, comes out in October.)

Gessen’s background has enabled her, in recent months, to become one of the most detailed critics of Donald Trump’s autocratic tendencies and his attempts to weaken America’s democratic institutions and norms. At the same time, she has become a critic of the media focus on the various Russia investigations swirling around Trump, believing that they distract from the actual threat he poses.

With Trump’s Russia scandals back in the news—not that they really ever left—I decided to call Gessen this week. (Part 1 of our conversation, about the latest anti-corruption protests in Russia and the threats to Putin’s rule, can be read here.) During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the scariest thing about Trump’s presidency, why the president’s incompetence won’t save us, and the mistake people make in continuing to see Putin as more of a mastermind than he really is.

Isaac Chotiner: We’re almost five months into this presidency. In terms of the weakening of norms, the weakening of institutions, and Trump’s autocratic tendencies, have things gone better or worse than you thought they would?

Masha Gessen: I think that in some ways, institutions have been more resilient than I would have thought. That’s the good news, and I’m talking especially about the travel ban, and really about the trouble that he’s had legislatively. He hasn’t passed any legislation. That seems to be working as predicted by the optimists. What I think has happened faster than I would have expected, and has gotten worse, is the shift in culture. Of course, [Monday’s] Cabinet meeting is just the most incredible example of that. It’s most like a Central Committee meeting. Everything about it, the dramaturgy, the stenography, the facial expressions, all of it.

I read somewhere that Putin goes around the table and asks people to say great things about him, or does something similar. Is that accurate?

Putin has this ritual of having the televised meetings with ministers. Cameras will be allowed in to film the first five minutes of a meeting that is conducted entirely for the cameras. We don’t even know whether the meeting then goes on. That’s what passes for political coverage on Russian television a lot of the time: “Putin met with the minister of transportation,” and then we see footage of the minister of transportation shaking Putin’s hand, and Putin saying, “You really have got to pay attention to trains running on time,” and the transportation minister saying, “Of course we do, we’re making great strides in that direction,” and then the cameras get shut off. It’s more that.

I was actually reminded more of the Communist era meetings, which were much duller and much, much longer affairs. They were convened solely for the purpose of expressing platitudes. There would be these endless party congresses when one man after another in a gray suit would go up on the stage and go, “Under the amazing leadership of our great comrade Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, whoever, we have made incredible progress and are now the greatest country in the world.” That speech would go on for like two hours, and then the next person would go up and say the exact same thing about his area of government.

There have been so many of these types of creepy things in the Trump era, but what is your specific theory about where they will lead America in the long run?

My specific theory is that there is more and more daylight between the spectacle of government and actual government. That’s the change in culture that I find really troublesome, because of those empty gestures and platitudes. By gestures I mean Trumpian gestures like his announcement that he’s kept Carrier jobs in the United States, which is a meaningless gesture in every way that you can think about it, and platitudes, like those meetings. Then the actual work of government is conducted in secret.

It’s not just in secret from the public, which has definitely become the case very, very rapidly. We now have a secretary of state who doesn’t have a press pool, so the instrument of accountability for foreign policy has simply disappeared, it’s gone. It was gone within a month of Trump taking office. It’s also been in secret from other Cabinet members and the president, because the president is not interested. The president is interested only in platitudes and in praise. Each Cabinet member, or each member of the administration, then begins to do his work in the privacy of his own department. It’s the actual tangible loss of accountability that we’re observing.

You wrote a piece for the Times called “Trump’s Incompetence Won’t Save Our Democracy.” I think the common answer from many Trump opponents is that his incompetence has been the real saving grace. Why do you disagree?

I think that incompetence is actually an integral part of autocracy taking hold. Basically, what we mean when we say that he is incompetent, in large part, is that he doesn’t understand the way American government functions. But because he’s wielding power, he’s reshaping government very quickly to fit his idea of how government should function, and that is autocracy. His incompetence is actually an integral part of the damage that he’s doing by turning something like a democracy into something like an autocracy.

That may be true, but wouldn’t autocracy function better if he was competent enough to actually staff his administration with cronies and pass laws that would entrench his power?

I guess it depends on what your ultimate fear is. If your ultimate fear is that he will pass legislation that will do terrible things, then you’re right. My ultimate fear is different. My ultimate fear is that he is destroying the structure and culture of American government.

That’s my fear too, aside from nuclear war.

But you don’t do this legislatively. The thing is, if you pass this terrible legislation, that’s reversible because the mechanism is transparent, the mechanism of damage, and then in the post-Trump era you reverse it by passing a different piece of legislation. That’s great. When he destroys things by eviscerating institutions, by changing the way that they actually function, that’s a much more difficult thing to reverse in a post-Trump era. The fact that they haven’t been able to fill positions is actually part of what I’m talking about in terms of the way that government is breaking up into discrete, opaque parts.

The State Department, which I happen to know more about than other agencies, which isn’t a whole lot, but the State Department is basically missing that entire layer of political appointees who would normally ensure that there’s communication between the top and the career staffers who do most of the on-the-ground work. With that layer gone, they are all sort of functioning in a kind of airless space. If they still have money that they’re supposed to spend on programs that are still sort of maybe valid, then they will, but they’re not sure that that’s what they’re supposed to be doing, and they have no one to talk to about it, which is not to say that they’re making terrible decisions. They’re possibly, in fact probably making the best possible decisions under the circumstances, but they’re making those decisions out of the public eye. Restoring that system of accountability, which wasn’t that great in the first place, is much more difficult than reversing legislation.

What’s your thought at this point about whether people who are sane should serve in his administration? And do you think about this in terms of Putin and people who decided or chose not to work with him?

Oh, absolutely. That’s sort of my favorite thing to think about.

That’s why I asked, Masha. Come on.

There’s the corrosive effect of serving somebody who’s an aspiring autocrat, and somebody who’s a liar. You end up sacrificing your principles and/or your reputation, at some point. I think what we have seen over the last few months is that it actually happens much faster than we thought. I’m thinking of H.R. McMaster basically lying for Trump. It’s an obvious example, but it really deserves to be focused on because here’s somebody whose biggest capital is his reputation. A lot of people, including me, breathed a sigh of relief when he was appointed national security adviser.

Right, but isn’t it still good he is the national security adviser and Flynn isn’t?

Absolutely, yeah. I’m glad he’s there. But observing him going to this press conference to try to issue a non-denial denial [about Trump leaking classified material to the Russians], and doing it because he’s one of the few people with a reputation left. I don’t think that means that H.R. McMaster is no longer thoughtful or trustworthy as a human being, but as a public person, he’s sacrificed some large part of the trust pie that he owned.

What about the Russia parallel?

There were a lot of people, both in government structures and in the media, who, after Putin came to power, said OK, I can do more good by staying in than by leaving in a huff. And who very quickly, but not actually as quickly in most cases as it happened in this country, but found themselves in the position of having to look the other way or do what H.R. McMaster did when he lied for Trump. I experienced this, and I think I experienced it in the lightest way possible, because I really tried to not let it happen to me. I was a journalist purist about it.

I was editor of the largest magazine in the country, which is a popular science magazine. I got a call from my publisher, who said, “Send a reporter with Putin when he goes hang gliding with Siberian cranes.” What I said to him was, “Look, you don’t want to put our magazine in this position. If I send a reporter, the reporter’s going to see something that, after we publish it, is going to get the magazine in trouble. We’re a popular science magazine, we don’t have to do this.” From the point of view of journalism, this was not exactly an ethical transgression, but pretty close. There I was being offered access to something that other people would never see, Putin up close, hang gliding with Siberian cranes, whatever damage was being done to the endangered birds in the process, however that process itself unfolded.

The heroic thing to do at that time would have been to send a reporter, and then insist on publishing the truth, and then leak it elsewhere or put it on the web when the publisher refused to let the magazine go to press. I didn’t want to lose my job, which I lost anyway, and I didn’t want the magazine to fold, so I looked for the non-compromise compromise where I would just look the other way. Considering what a sort of insane purist I’m considered to be by most people who know me, it’s kind of shocking even to me that that happened to me, that I finally found myself in that position. I kept thinking, I’m not going to do political journalism, because there’s no way to keep my principles and be a political journalist, so I’ll edit a popular science magazine. This will be my salvation, and I’ll emerge with my integrity intact. That didn’t even happen.

You wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books in March where you called a Trump a “xenophobic conspiracy theorist,” and then you talked about the Russia scandal swirling around Trump, and you warned the left that it had the ring of a “xenophobic conspiracy theory.” Do you still feel that way or do you think there is really something nefarious that went on?

I think that both things can be true at the same time. There can be a conspiracy, but the presence of a conspiracy is actually not an excuse for conspiracy thinking. I think that what’s happened to a lot of people on the left, and we’re seeing it now. We’re seeing this sort of re-emergence of Russia as the ultimate toxic paintbrush that you can scare anybody with, and hope that it ends their political career.

With all the things that have trickled out about Russia and the election and Trump, what do you make of it from the perspective of someone who covers Russian politics?

You know, I think that we’re giving in. Or not all of us, but a lot of people are giving in to this temptation to really view Putin and his government as these incredible masterminds. I think that that’s a basic misinterpretation. I think that Putin’s strategy has been throwing a lot of money, fairly haphazardly, at a lot of projects aimed at disrupting Western relations and undermining trust in democracies. They may have gotten farther in the States than anywhere else. It’s still extremely unlikely to explain the outcome of the American election. It’s even more unlikely to end the Trump presidency.

I think that, ultimately, what we’re going to see is a mess because most things in the world are a mess, and most things in Russia are a mess. The fact that there were two separate groups of hackers who attacked the Democratic National Committee apparently without knowing about each other is a perfect example, not of some brilliant plot, but of what a mess things are. And how there’s actually a lot of small movement competitions among various groups that may not have an official affiliation but are getting Kremlin money and are trying to work to get more Kremlin money, that sort of thing. Ultimately, it’s going to be very difficult, and it’s going to be very difficult for Mueller if he survives, to put this into a coherent narrative that will satisfy the dream that people have invested in the Russia investigation.

There also may be more than one narrative: Manafort and Flynn could have both been involved with shady Russia stuff without the two being connected.

Exactly. And Trump actually may not have known about them. Here’s the other thing: the idea of Trump being beholden. It just seems an unreasonable assumption to make about somebody who doesn’t pay his debts and has never paid his debts.

I agree, although his single-minded obsession with Russia, and being nice to Putin, is weird. I’m not saying there’s necessarily a conspiracy, I’m just saying it’s weird. Really weird.

Well, he’s a weird guy, right? I find it perfectly believable that that’s one of his great ambitions is to fix the American relationship with Russia.