Words matter

Bianca is a freelance journalist and documentary critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
TRUMPISM: A guide to understanding, resisting, and recovering from the tumultuous Donald Trump presidency.

Surviving Autocracy
Author: Masha Gessen
Publisher: Riverhead Books,

A lot has been written about Donald Trump. Not only news articles, but also books. A recent article in GEN – Medium’s publication on politics, power, and culture – featured an interview with Carlos Lozada. He is is a book critic for the Washington Post and read a total of 150 books on Trump, Trumpism, and his time in office. All this was done for a book on the topic he was writing himself. More books will for sure be written in the future, but if you should now read one and only one, Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy, which came out this summer, should be it.

Surviving Autocracy-Masha Gessen-bio
Masha Gessen

Post-Soviet playbook

Drawing on their (Gessen is non-binary/trans and uses they/them pronouns) extensive knowledge and experience covering and living under Vladimir Putin’s regime, the Russian-American journalist dissects Trump’s times, his behaviour, words, and actions, to put on a comprehensive and sharp analysis of their true nature, mechanisms, and effect on American politics and life. Mapping Trump’s disregard for human life, his lies, and self-glorification, and his discount of elites and expertise – Gessen connects the dots to bring to light a fact that has been hidden in plain sight: Trump’s admiration for the world’s autocrats is more than admiration, it is a reflection of what he values. With each example, step by step, Gessen pins down the central themes defining autocracy, painfully showcasing how they are alive and kicking in the state the USA is currently found in.

«Trumpism builds on weaknesses and opportunities inherent in the logic of the system,» Gessen writes. They illustrate that with more than a few examples of Trump’s decisions that have severed the ropes keeping a democratic system into place, to drain the power from government institutions and place it in his own hands. The presidential apparatus he has created is made of a carefully curated group of individuals who match and serve him well.

In struggling to keep up with his actions, as Gessen shows, the language of liberal democracy cannot accurately describe what is going on. Using the work of Hungarian writer Balint Magyar and his example from post-Soviet states, Gessen illustrates how words fail in front of Trumpian reality. «Trumpian news has a way of being shocking without being surprising,» writes Gessen at the beginning. The term «fake news» is now an empty word and a Trumpian tool. Distrust in media is the very illustration of «divide and conquer». Trump’s way of using words renders them meaningless, and in an autocracy, the clarity of language and the reliability of the news is one of the first things that get arrested and disappear.

Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


In lack of a proper vocabulary and the ability to rely on information, focus shifts and everything becomes possible, while the ability to engage with a regime shrinks. Trying to make sense of things and searching for some understanding, one’s mind can give up quickly in a mess of words, like losing the ropes of a reality one feels they cannot overcome. As Gessen notes, people living in autocratic regimes «stop paying attention, disengage».

Mapping Trump’s disregard for human life, his lies, and self-glorification, and his discount of elites and expertise – Gessen connects the dots to bring to light a fact that has been hidden in plain sight

Gessen’s writing has a way of cutting a multi-layered reality into small chunks and tying them together, adding that coherence and spine that is missing in following each day of Trumpian news. In Gessen’s recognizable style, the book reads like a thriller. You might know pieces of the story but only now do they finally seem to come to life and make sense. If living in a world where Trump is the president of the United States seems like a reality made of pieces of bad news, reading Surviving Autocracy will put them in perspective.

The book gives the coherence and the understanding we all search for, and in a strange way, in reading it one finds not only clarity but also reassurance. Not only because Gessen also offers some possibly plausible solutions for coming out of this dark era and calls for claiming back that vital political language now lost. But also because the book has the moral voice of a mind that stays sharp and calm in the middle of the chaos, and shows that words do matter. Navigating these confusing times, we all need that.

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