Masha Gessen, the Moscow-born activist and writer, immigrated to the United States with her family in the early 1980s. She returned to Russia the following decade, where she worked as a journalist and political activist. She eventually moved back to the United States because of anti-gay policies in Russia; by that time she had already become known as one of Vladimir Putin’s harshest critics. (Her biography of him was titled The Man Without a Face; her new book, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, comes out later this year.) Now a writer in residence at Oberlin College, Gessen has recently been on somewhat of a mission: Since Donald Trump’s election, she has been writing a series of articles on how to survive and combat autocracy.
I spoke with Gessen by phone last week. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed her biggest fear about the next four years, the similarities and differences between Trump and Putin, and why autocrats don’t need a well-thought-out plan to destroy democracy.
Isaac Chotiner: We are at the beginning of Trump’s term. When you look back to the beginning of Putin’s time in office, has he changed, or were the seeds always there?
Masha Gessen: The seeds of where we are now were definitely there from the beginning. He announced his intentions pretty clearly for anybody who was willing to listen. He’s a very different animal from Trump in terms of communication. When Trump shouts from the rooftop, Putin semi-whispers. In his first week in office he did two things. One was a raid on Media-MOST, a company that owns several independent media outlets. It was the largest independent media holding in the country. It owned the only national broadcast channel that was totally independent from the state. Within a year he had completed his state takeover of all broadcast television.
The other thing that he did is set in motion a proposal to the legislature, a package of federation reforms, which really started the process of dismantling the Russian electoral system. That process was completed in three years. Those two things happened in his first week in office. There weren’t a lot of surprises for me after that.
Even if the path was clear to you, have there been ways that you think he’s changed in office?
Sure. The biggest difference is that when he first came in, he was a bureaucrat and he hadn’t quite realized that he was becoming president. After a few years and certainly by now, he really can’t tell the difference between himself and the country.
There’s a French phrase for that. I don’t know if there’s a Russian one.
No, there isn’t a Russian one for that. You know, he’s got a savior complex in relationship to Russia. So much of what he does is both driven and justified in his mind by the fact that no one else can save Russia.
You have talked and written about the similarities between Trump and Putin. I don’t want to sound like the naïve person who says things like, “Oh, Trump’s a clown.” But it really is hard not to view him in some fundamental way as being unintelligent and having no plan. Even if we’re headed for the same scary place, does that seem like a useful distinction to make?
I don’t think that’s a useful distinction at all. I mean, there are many useful distinctions; that’s just not one of them. Putin is an uneducated, unintelligent, uncultured man who has no plan. That’s a basic fact about Putin. He’s not a clown. He’s not a buffoon in the way that Trump is. He’s not much of a performer at all, and he obviously has come into a completely different historical and political situation, with a completely different institutional memory. It’s a very, very different society with which he is dealing. Those are huge differences which are in fact useful, but that personality difference, it’s not there, actually. They’re birds of a feather.
How does saying Putin has no plan mesh with what you were saying earlier, about doing things from Day One that signaled where he and Russia were headed?
He had no idea where he was headed, and we can say the same thing about Trump. He’s very clear about his instincts. Trump’s instinct is to fight immigrants in any way possible. That doesn’t mean he has a plan for what happens after or even for what happens tomorrow … but he’s very clear about the fact that he needs to unleash a war on immigrants. Putin is very similar in that way. He was very clear about the fact that he needed to unleash a war on the media and he was very clear about the fact that he really didn’t like all that democratic shit, but what that meant for the kind of society that he was going to be building and the kind of regime that he was going to be building, he had no idea.
Trump is doing things like getting up and angrily tweeting about CNN at three in the morning, and the way he ran his campaign, at times it didn’t even seem like he really wanted to win. It’s hard for me to see him as that similar to Putin in some fundamental way.
I think there are huge differences between them, in terms of personality and in terms of the historical context. I can’t underestimate them, and I think that looking at what’s happened to Russia as a sort of blueprint for what happens in the States would be silly. What I do think is useful, though, is to look at their shared qualities, which I think also for the most part happen to be shared qualities among many autocrats, not just Putin and Trump. I just happen to know Putin much better than any other autocrat. … It sort of has trained my imagination.
What I think is helpful is that there were things that I never could have imagined would happen in Russia. Both in the long term but also in the sort of, this can’t possibly happen tomorrow. “I know he said he’s going to arrest people, but how could that possibly happen. They’re not going to do it”—and then they go ahead and do it, because they said they were going to do it. Because they passed a law that said they were going to and that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
You know, so here Trump was talking about deporting people on the campaign trail. It was very clear that the way he was talking, it was going to affect not just a large number of immigrants who don’t necessarily have permanent status but also green card holders and potential citizens, from the way he was talking. It’s impossible to imagine, right, but it was very clear that that’s where he was headed. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.
People often say that an autocrat’s words matter and they will do what they say, as you just did. But there are plenty of things that Trump said that he will do that he won’t do, like making sure everybody has great health care. We need some way of distinguishing.
Again, this was actually weirdly a way in which Putin and Trump are similar. They have interests … [but] they don’t have priorities. They don’t have policies that they proposed. They’re really basically bored with the business of governing.
I’ve learned over the years to hear what Putin is railing against in his own railing way. He is not passionate like Trump is, but he will rail against things and you know, oh, so that’s the enemy. It’s not clear how he’s going to go after that enemy, because it’s not like he lays out policy priorities when he speaks, but it’s clear: This is damning. Trump is the same dynamic. On the campaign trail he was railing against immigrants, and it was clear there was going to be all-out war.
What do you make of one difference, which is that Putin has adopted a more aggressive foreign posture for Russia, while Trump has talked about pulling back?
I don’t think it’s going to last, unfortunately.
On Trump’s part, I assume, not Putin’s.
[Laughs.] Right. Right. On Trump’s part. You know, and again, I don’t want to sort of overstate their similarities, but there are things we know, not just from Putin’s Russia but from autocracies in general. … There’s this weird dynamic that they delegitimize government, basically, and delegitimize democratic institutions. The only legitimacy becomes sort of domination and extremely high popularity. An autocrat actually needs, weirdly enough, much higher popularity numbers and much clearer expressions of popular support than a democratically elected leader, right? Because for a democratically elected leader, you know, there’s always the legitimate mechanisms that keep him or her in power, and also a legitimate mechanism of peaceful transition of power once that’s over. For an autocrat or an authoritarian autocrat, that’s delegitimized, so they need extreme popularity. Trump has expressed very clearly that that’s how he understands power. His expressions of support for Putin have centered around Putin’s extremely high popularity and Putin’s tight control of government.
And so you think Trump may want to wage war, to ensure popularity?
Yes. Absolutely. Yeah, and the war can be at home or it can be abroad. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he has planned a war, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that he will need a war abroad. The war on immigrants may keep him going for a while, but there’s a really high danger that there will be a war abroad, because that’s the way to get popularity.
“Fascism means war,” to mangle an old slogan.
In light of what you said about autocrats needing popularity, does it give you any hope that Trump is unpopular and looks to remain that way?
It gives me hope. That’s not the biggest thing that gives me hope. The biggest thing that gives me hope is actually two things that are really truly different between Putin and Trump. One is just how fast Trump has moved. This is true of most of the autocrats in the last couple of decades: They set in motion a sort of autocratic creep. They don’t come in and, like, smash everything to bits. Putin was very careful to gradually sort of rotate people in and out of power, to make sure that he had competent bureaucrats by his side at all times, to keep the machine running. The way that Trump has acted, like a bull in a china shop, is actually something I’ve never seen before, and I’m not sure that anyone has described this kind of process, of just smashing everything to bits, except for the Bolshevik revolution 100 years ago.
Yeah. I’ll get to the heartening part in a second. But it’s really significantly different, and that means it’s completely uncharted territory. The pushback has been proportional. I think that if he had been more careful and more gradual in introducing his agenda, I think it would have been much easier to say, “Oh come on, he’s just going to be a bad Republican president. Stop being so hysterical.” But we can’t stop being hysterical and he can’t stop being hysterical. Everybody is hysterical, and hysterical is the new normal.
He’s high-energy, Masha.
Right. That gets me to the second difference, which is just the strength of American civil society. That’s not just different from Russia. That’s different from any country in the world ever in history, right? America has the most independent, the most robust civil society ever—for some not such great reasons. European civil society is intertwined with the state because the NGOs get state funding, and they don’t see anything wrong with it. Americans have had such a deep distrust of the government throughout their history that they’ve had this church-state separation between civil society and the state, which is part of what explains not just the outpouring, but the high level of organization that we saw with the Muslim ban. The entire spectrum of civil society, from protesters to ACLU to professional civil society, just stepped out in a way that looked and felt almost orchestrated, like everybody was doing their thing. That’s the kind of pushback that no autocrat has ever seen. There’s a question about how sustainable that is, but I actually have a lot of hope.
You have written about your fear of American institutions giving way, but perhaps you have more faith in them now than you thought you would?
Well, the particular institution I’m talking about is civil society, which we don’t often think of as an institution of the state. It’s not an institution of the state, but it is an institution of democracy. We’ve seen other institutions fare not so well. Look at sort of the Washington system of checks and balances. That hasn’t been a sterling example the last month.
You wrote a piece that was somewhat skeptical of the possible intelligence connections between Trump and Russia. How do you see that issue now, and what do you think Russia makes of Trump?
It completely obscures the fact that from the Russian point of view, the romance is over. He hasn’t lifted the sanctions, which Russia was very much hoping he would. He’s rapidly becoming the enemy on Russian TV. No one noticed, because everyone’s so obsessed with the idea that he’s a Russian agent, but that’s sort of classic conspiracy theory behavior. I’m not saying that there’s no Russian connection. I’m just saying it’s much messier and it’s not the conspiracies that a lot of this stuff has conjured up, either consciously or unconsciously.
Russia or Putin did not get Trump elected. Americans elected Trump. Russians basically played their sort of classic disruptive role of trying to do something that will both delegitimize democratic mechanisms and throw wrenches into the process. They never expected to succeed. I’m not going to say anything about whether there was or there wasn’t collusion, but basically, it’s important to point out that we don’t know at this point if there was any collusion, if there was any coordination.
So when you say you think it’s something messier, what do you mean by that?
I think Russia wanted to cause disruption. I think there was certainly contact between the Trump campaign and Russians, which is perfectly normal. All campaigns in the modern age have contact with representatives of foreign governments. It doesn’t mean that they’re in a position to negotiate. It doesn’t mean that they collude to get themselves elected, but it is actually normal, first of all, for a campaign to engage experts in foreign policy, who have ongoing contacts with foreign countries. …
Moscow didn’t expect Trump to be elected. Trump didn’t expect himself to be elected. Then, through the weirdness of the American electoral system, he got elected, and Russians said, Oh, this is really cool. We’re going to be able to manipulate him, and we’re going to get sanctions lifted. And it hasn’t happened.
Trump was eerily consistent about Putin in a way that, other than the wall and a couple other issues, he was not consistent about. And his base didn’t care about Putin, and neither did his party. I know he likes autocrats, and I know that it fits in with his posture about NATO and European allies. But I still thought it was really bizarre and has never been totally explained.
I see your argument about it as being bizarre, but I don’t know that you need a vast conspiracy to explain this. I think it is possible that Trump has sincere admiration for Putin. It was mistranslated for him that Putin thought he was brilliant, and flattery will get you everywhere. … There are recordings of his saying, you know, all the regular stuff about Putin in 2014. Then he actually starts imagining himself as president and he imagines himself as a president like Putin, who’s superpopular and has a tight control on government. That image sticks with him. I think that’s the reasonable explanation. It’s some sort of obsession in Trump world, but I don’t think that you need bags of cash and secret tapes in order to explain that kind of fascination.
What did you make of the New York Times story earlier this month about Trump allies and a proposed “peace” plan for Ukraine?
That’s exactly the kind of thing that I mean when I say it’s much messier than that. In my time in Russia, I’ve certainly come across so many of these guys who think that they can buy their way to power. They can also blackmail their way to power. I remember this one time I was in a hotel bar in London. One of these guys said to me, “Let’s go to Kyrgyzstan next week.” I said, “What are we doing in Kyrgyzstan?” In Russian, doing and making are the same word. He said, “The president.” [Pauses.] They’re going to go and talk to people in back rooms and hand over money—that’s usually not [their] own—and think that [they’re] huge power players. Most of the time it doesn’t work. Most of the time it’s an illusion that just allows them to puff themselves up. Sometimes they happen to be in the right place at the right time and the person that they hand the money over to is actually the right person, by design or by sheer dumb luck. I’ve seen this stuff, and it doesn’t add up to conspiracy. It adds up to a mess of corruption that is spreading all over this world and is based in this idea that the world is rotten to the core. Someone brought an envelope to Trump. Is he dumb enough to take it seriously? Quite possibly, yes.
A smart foreign policy person said to me that his biggest fear about the next four years was actually that because of missed signals, America and Russia would end up at war in Europe. Do you agree?
Oh, absolutely. I’ve been asked that question about my biggest fear. My biggest fear is a nuclear holocaust, because what we have now is these two stupid men with short tempers with their fingers on the nuclear button, each of whom thinks that he has got a special understanding with the other one and each of whom, even more dangerously, thinks he is now the most powerful man in the world. That’s a recipe for disaster.