Book Review Number 44

Surviving Autocracy – Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen, is a Russian-American journalist, author, and activist who is an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin as well as President Donald Trump. He holds dual citizenship and has lived the political reality in both countries under both presidents. He currently lives in New York.

After Trump was elected in 2016, Gessen wrote that it was folly to regard him as a regular politician and predicted that he would attempt to transform America into a Putin-style autocracy. In this book he demonstrates how Trump has so far come closer to achieving autocratic rule than most people would have thought possible.

The author says that most Americans believe that our democratic institutions of governance and oversight – the electoral system, the judiciary, the free press, and others – will prevent autocracy. But most of those institutions are enshrined in political culture, tradition, and democratic norms rather than in law. Virtually all depend on the good faith of the politicians in-charge to fulfill their official responsibility and uphold the constitution.

He says Trump ignores virtually all historical convention and violates nearly every established precedent. And sadly there is no clear legal framework to prevent him from doing pretty much as he pleases. He has the biggest megaphone in the world and he uses it to bully and abuse anyone who dares not to immediately bend to his will. Worse, the Republican Party either endorses Trump’s autocratic tendencies or is paralyzed with fear of challenging him.

Gessen says Trump is showing that an autocratic attempt in the US has a credible chance of success, especially when his own political party refuses to hold him accountable. It shows such an attempt builds logically on the structures and norms of the American government: more and more concentration of power in the executive branch over the decades as well as the marriage of money and politics. Whether by fear or ideological agreement Republican politicians’ seem willing to endorse Trump’s every whim. He seems to be their only audience.

In order to actually survive Trump’s attempt at autocracy Gessen says we have to give up the idea that just getting rid of Trump will solve the problem. We can’t return to government as it used to be. Recovery from the damage of Trumpism will only be possible by reinventing our institutions; we have to more clearly define and memorialize what it means to be a democracy. He says we have to deal with some fatal flaws at the root of our system of governance. He suggests the protests we are experiencing are calling for an American reinvention – equal treatment before the law, equal opportunity, and less economic inequality. In short, protestors are demanding a more perfect union.

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