Masha Gessen stood before a backdrop depicting a silhouetted White House superimposed on the Russian St. Basil’s Cathedral.
On Tuesday, the author and contributing writer to The New Yorker, New York Times and Slate discussed the political and behavioral similarities between the president of the United States, Donald Trump, and the autocratic President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. Gessen suggested how alarmed citizens in the U.S. should proceed in mitigating the effect of such an authoritarian political outlier.
Gessen said that the similar demagogic attributes shared by the leaders should be cause for serious concern. As a Russian native whose heritage and progressive ideologies have twice resulted in her emigration to the U.S., Gessen said she feels uniquely qualified to address autocracy and is convinced that President Trump’s behavior and governance displays clear signs of autocratic leanings.
Specifically, Gessen explained that Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric promising to imprison his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, reflects his desire to significantly alter the relationship between the executive branch of government and the judicial system, undermining the system of checks and balances guaranteed by the independent operation of governmental organization. Additionally, Gessen said such rhetoric indicates Trump’s dystopian practice of seeking to repress political opposition. Gessen added that Trump’s federal judge appointments will result in long-term damage to the integrity of U.S. governing, as his selections are generally of political outsiders unfamiliar with the nature of judicial work. Many such appointments continue to occur, but Gessen assumes they are overshadowed by more popular narratives such as the Russian investigation.
Also discussed were the dangers of normalizing the objectively abnormal behaviors of the president. Gessen provides that the damage of Trump’s presidency will manifest over a large period of time, and that small signs of normality in the short term are not indicators of Trump’s maturation, especially as he continues to lie and manipulate truth in order to become the “king of reality.” Occurrences such as provoking an audience to clap for a fallen soldier, or giving a calm, scripted speech are not indicators that Trump has “finally become presidential,” but rather momentary lapses in the chaotic and destructive narrative he perpetuates.
Gessen also warned that American governmental institutions of democracy are not strong enough to limit the president’s anti-political behavior, as the presidential seat has accumulated a considerable amount of concentrated power, particularly in the years following the September 11 attacks. The deconstruction of the State Department illustrates the frailty of such institutions of democracy, as experienced and knowledgeable individuals are removed from work with none hired in replacement. However, Gessen points to the federal court blockages of unconstitutional legislation such as the travel ban as successes of democratic institutions under “great pressure [from] civil society,” and suggests that extensive protests and public outcry helped to facilitate such rulings and should be embraced as a means of voicing public opinion.
Following Gessen’s thirty minute presentation of rules for mitigating autocracy, which she further elaborates in her article “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” she sat down for an interview with Professor Dean Franco, the head of Wake Forest’s Humanities Institute. Discussed was the nature of contemporary journalism in Gessen’s own experience, and her practices in writing for The New Yorker and for her own publications.
Likewise, the two discussed Trump’s degradation of the English language, as Gessen remarked that his rhetoric is often contrary to the meaning he intends, or often completely meaningless altogether. Gessen likens this practice to linguistic tendencies of Putin, and explained that writing in Russian has been made difficult in recent years because many political terms have been appropriated by Putin and other Russian officials to convey meanings contrary to the term’s original definition. Franco added that Trump’s abuse of linguistics, both in his elementary vocabulary and meaningless rhetoric, could greatly affect the language development and use of American youth.
The speaking event concluded a month-long series of symposiums sponsored by the Humanities Institute, entitled “How We Know/What We Know: Humanities Common Knowledge.” Other seminars included gatherings to discuss journalistic integrity and the epistemic crises facing the humanities. Following the event, Gessen stayed to engage with the audience and sign copies of her books.