BROOKE GLADSTONE: Shortly after Trump was elected, Masha Gessen, who cut her teeth reporting under autocratic regimes, most notably Putin’s Russia, penned a viral piece for The New York Review of Books called “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.”
Among her rules, believe the autocrat. He may lie but when it comes to fundamentals he means what he says. And don't expect institutions to save you. Don't compromise. Do be outraged. And, above all, she told us, resist the urge to normalize.
MASHA GESSEN: -- to say, oh, you know, all of that stuff that he said was just campaign rhetoric, it hyperbole, and now he’s going to become a normal politician, which is, you know, wishful thinking, simple and clear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now Trump’s first presidential year is behind us and we wanted to check back with Gessen, so Masha, welcome back to the show.
MASHA GESSEN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You warned then, and you warn now, not to be taken in by small signs of normality. Where do we see small signs of normality?
MASHA GESSEN: Whenever something really horrible, really unimaginable happens and it feels like the world has just ended,
you wake up the next morning and you realize the world hasn’t ended, and that happens over and over again. That’s a kind of habituation. You know, it’s not the same thing as normalization. It’s actually sort of looking at the Trump presidency, saying, it's not normal but I can sort of live with it. It’s not as awful as the things that I’ve read about in books.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So where do you see the biggest gaps between signs of normality and true abnormality? I would jump in with, my button is bigger than your button.
MASHA GESSEN: That’s where I was going but I would say a little bit bigger [LAUGHS] because my fear is bigger than his button. You know, we have been on the brink of a nuclear holocaust for about six months now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do we know that? We've been hearing incredible nuclear holocaust saber rattling rhetoric but have we really come closer to an exchange?
MASHA GESSEN: The Doomsday Clock looks as bad as it’s ever looked -- that’s the expert opinion on the nuclear threat -- and what we can see with the naked eye, which is that we have two unhinged men with their fingers on differently-sized or similarly-sized nuclear buttons, threatening each other with annihilation. And that’s unimaginable. That is so definitely not normal. That really makes us feel like the world has ended and then you wake up the next morning and the world hasn’t ended.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MASHA GESSEN: What we do to survive in that state, which is, on the face of it, unbearable, we focus on other stuff, smaller things like, you know, the decimation of the State Department, the total degradation of the presidency.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The packing of the Court.
MASHA GESSEN: Yeah, the small stuff, okay?
And, of course, what I’m calling the small stuff is actually also not capturing our imagination to an adequate extent because we’re constantly sucked into the latest thing that's happened. And we also have the nagging sense that the latest shiny object is probably distracting us from another shiny object that is a more important shiny object, if we can only tear ourselves away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a recent interview with Audie Cornish for The New York Times, you described concerns about outrage fatigue.
MASHA GESSEN: Well, I mean, I don’t think that humans are created or meant to exist in a state of outrage constantly. That is a state of extreme discomfort. And the Trump presidency basically calls on a very large number of Americans to maintain a constant sense of outrage because Trump is maintaining a constant attack.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But when it comes to outrage fatigue, even if you get excited about an issue, take the travel ban -- in fact, why don’t you take the travel ban? It’s a perfect example, right?
MASHA GESSEN: Well, what we saw in January of last year with the travel ban was a textbook example of how democracy should work. The president did something abhorrent and formal and informal institutions kicked into gear at the same time. So we saw civil society putting pressure on the judiciary and stopping the travel ban. And then Trump put forward Travel Ban 2.0, and the institutions were a little bit fatigued but were able to resist. And then Travel Ban 3.0, and the resistance was partial but it still worked. And by the time Travel Ban 4.0 rolled around, nobody noticed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it’s basically whack a mole.
MASHA GESSEN: Right. The judiciary isn't meant to respond to the same attack over and over again. If it stopped the travel ban once, that battle should be over. Trump, by proposing basically the same travel ban over and over again, is acting in bad faith and is stressing a democratic institution in a way that it can't withstand.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This gets to your warning last year that institutions will not save you.
MASHA GESSEN: But while I was making those warnings, I wasn't suggesting that there was really a way to come out unscathed. What I was basically saying is, this is stuff that I have observed that Americans haven’t had the experience to know about. If there is any advantage that Americans can have, its being able to know what has happened before. If we’re a little bit more intentional about the way that we live through this, then we have a better chance of coming out the other end.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, how do we achieve awareness?
MASHA GESSEN: We keep trying to talk about what's happening in a systemic way. We’re still falling short on being able to really take stock of big stories, the big story of deregulation, of institutional collapse, of attack on America in the world from inside.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Attack on our diplomatic corps.
MASHA GESSEN: And in the diplomatic corps, I mean, the State Department, but I also mean America's withdrawal from any number of international agreements.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. Another one of your rules for surviving an autocracy was to believe the autocrat. How have we been doing at taking Trump at his word?
MASHA GESSEN: Um, not [LAUGHS] that great on it. A good example is the transgender in the military ban --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MASHA GESSEN: -- which, when Trump tweeted that out in August, I believe, the first and second day analysis was all about how he can't make policy by tweet. As it turned out, that's not the case. He is the commander-in-chief and if he wants to tweet out his orders, he can do that. But our first reaction is still to disbelieve, right?
I think we’re still in denial about the fact that he is building the wall. Throughout the campaign, he was saying, build the wall, and all the intelligent and sane journalists were saying, well, of course, he’s not going to build the wall. And after he got elected, we kept saying, of course, he’s not going to build the wall. And it's about time that we really let it sink in that he is going to build the wall.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But let me ask you about your point about institutions will not save us. His transgender tweet got the ball rolling but the military establishment and perhaps civil society stopped it. His tweet about 3 million improper votes denying him the popular vote started a commission that ultimately disbanded. Can't we see institutions, both formal and informal, pushing back?
MASHA GESSEN: The fact that some things remain normal a year into this presidency is to be expected but it shouldn’t reassure us because I think that the rate of failure has been quite extraordinary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you’ve also said that the popularity of Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff is another symptom of this impulse to normalize. You said that it further degrades our sense of reality.
MASHA GESSEN: What we’re observing is unimaginable, even as we observe it. And so, we want to keep behind the curtain because there’s this nagging sense that there has to be more to it. It’s like the opposite of the Wizard of Oz. What we’re observing is not greatness and, you know, all powerful-ness, it’s sort of the opposite. It’s mediocrity. It’s being pathetic. It’s this illiterate president. And so, we want to know that there is more behind it. Maybe there is more intelligence, maybe there’s more something, and so, we have this drive to look at what's behind there. What’s behind there is actually the exact same thing that’s in front.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Masha, thank you so much.
MASHA GESSEN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Masha Gessen is a columnist for The New Yorker and the author of The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up -- wait, did we miss the point of the Pentagon Papers?