In case you’ve already moved into a doomsday bunker in backwoods Maine and can only check the news when you’re not stockpiling water purification tablets, cleaning your handgun, or mucking out the composting toilet, the first month of Donald Trump’s presidency proved to be a frightening, cruel, incompetent, and heartbreaking trainwreck.
Each passing day — replete with its frenzy of twisted executive orders; abusive phone calls with long-time allies; obsessive lying about inauguration crowd size; reality-show parade of inept and fascistic underlings; and deranged late-night tweets — brought fresh horrors that made it all but impossible to recall the fresh horrors of yesterday. Remember when Trump ordered the EPA to remove the climate change pages from its website? Remember that time Trump threatened to impose martial law in Chicago? Remember when Trump coordinated his response to North Korea’s missile test in front of a crowd of diners at Mar-a-Lago? Remember that time Trump failed to condemn the national spike in hate crimes, but got really upset at Nordstrom for dropping Ivanka’s accessories and clothing line?
While keeping up with a fast-moving autocrat bent on dismantling the free press and gutting democratic institutions is something new for most Americans, it’s business as usual for Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen — a long-time critic of Vladimir Putin and author of The Man Without a Face, The Brothers, and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.
As our Commander-in-Chief was about midway through his now infamous Fine-Tuned-Machine Press Conference, Gessen spoke with The Millions by phone about conspiracy theories, trauma psychology, nuclear holocaust, and life during the Trump Years.
The Millions: Can you please tell me what the hell is going on between Donald Trump and Russia. I mean there’s Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, his creepy admiration for Putin, Rex Tillerson is Secretary of State — and then this week alone Mike Flynn resigned, we learned that Trump campaign aides were talking to Russian intelligence, there’s a Russian naval ship 30 miles off the coast of Connecticut. Given your experience of Russian politics and knowledge of Putin, what do you think all of this means?
Masha Gessen: [Laughs.] I’m fundamentally opposed to conspiracy theories and I’m a proponent of the stupidity and incompetency of the world. I think that what’s going on is, so far, consistent with the stupidity and incompetency of the world. It’s possible that there’s a vast conspiracy to rig the American election and get Mike Flynn into the administration to lift sanctions, et cetera, et cetera. It’s very hard to believe that someone as, frankly, dumb as Mike Flynn and someone as incompetent as Vladimir Putin, and someone as equally as incompetent as—well, actually, someone even more incompetent, like Donald Trump, could have pulled off such a brilliantly divined, long-term operation. And until we see definitive evidence of that, I’m going to hold fast to that view. For another reason as well, which is that there’s plenty in plain view to make the situation unacceptable, unimaginable, frightening as hell.
What I think happened is that — and using the available information — Russia has a long-standing pattern and policy of disrupting elections in the Western world. They tried to do it during the Soviet period, they weren’t very good at it. Then they started doing it in the post-Soviet period. They weren’t that great at it either. What’s interesting about this is they weren’t good at it during the Soviet period because they didn’t have the slightest idea of how the Western world worked. What’s disturbing is that their idea as to how the world works hasn’t changed very much. It appears that the world has gotten closer to the way Russia thinks it works. There is a confluence of circumstances that is magical, that feels magical for Putin, that someone like Donald Trump has been elected president. I don’t think he was elected president because of Putin’s interference. He was elected president because Americans voted for him and because Americans have an archaic system for electing presidents and because America is a polarized country and because America has a broken system of political parties. And for all those reasons, and because right-wing populists like Donald Trump are basically irresistible. For all those reasons, America elected Trump.
And I think that Putin was very much on top of the world. At his annual press conference — and yes, annual press conference — he actually had a question asked of him, because it’s a scripted affair, so he had a question asked: how does it feel to be the most powerful man in the world. That’s very much how he’s feeling, or was feeling after the election. He’s already had a few unpleasant surprises. Sanctions haven’t actually been lifted. And it’s been a month…That points to the fact that there was no deal. But there were hopes and understandings on both sides. That is the reason for Russian’s current increase in aggression. And what Russia’s doing is aggression. It’s not invasion, it’s not acts of war. But it’s sort of reminding Trump of what Putin thought was a wide understanding that they were now going to sit down and divvy up the world. And Putin has been very clear about the fact that that’s what he wants America to do. He wants a Yalta number two, and that’s what he was expecting from Trump. And one last point on that: why is the United States not responding? Because it’s incompetent. Because it has an incompetent administration
TM: What do you think Putin thinks of Donald Trump? Sanctions that might be lifted or might not be lifted aside, does having Trump instead of Hillary Clinton in the White House impact Putin’s culture war against the West?
MG: Yes. Absolutely. Hillary Clinton in the White House was unimaginable. [Putin] personally hates her. He blames her for the protests in Russia in 2011 and 2012. Also, she’s a woman. It’s bad enough he has to deal with Merkel…At least that’s just Germany. It’s not the most powerful country in the world. And he thinks Trump is a buffoon. He’s made that very clear. When Trump thought Putin was saying that he was brilliant, he was actually saying that he was colorful, which is not much of a compliment. Putin is not the kind of guy who appreciates pure beauty in the world — and if he says something is colorful, you can bet that he’s not taking it seriously.
TM: Do you think Russia has a Donald Trump golden shower sex tape?
MG: This is the sort of thing that I’m very familiar with in Russia. Not in the sense of golden showers sex tapes—but I’ve seen lots of other sex tapes that I wish I hadn’t seen—but the believability standard of reporting. And the answer is, we don’t know. I can’t think anything about it because I don’t know. Facts are not a thing that you debate. It exists or it doesn’t. One thing that I will say, though, is that I can’t imagine — with the description of that tape that has been made available — how that could possibly serve as a tool of blackmail. [Trump] owned up to the grabbing-them-by-the-pussy tape and lost no traction with his electorate during a campaign.
TM: Trump and Putin are such different kinds of men. But when reading The Man Without a Face, I was struck by the number of times I underlined something that Putin had done or said and wrote “Trump!” in the margin. What do you think their unifying characteristics are, and how do you see the relationship playing out over four years?
MG: As it happens, I have list of nine similarities between Putin and Trump. Let me just focus on the ones that I can reel off the top of my head without looking at my notes. You’re right, they’re very, very different. They’re very different in affect, they’re very different in background. They’re very different in the way that they address the public. One uses raw emotion and the other actually prides himself on never betraying an emotion. And they inherited vastly different political systems and historical legacies. That said, they have a number of traits that are actually typical of autocrats and bullies — and they’re both bullies and they’re both autocrats…One huge one is the way that they lie. It’s taken Americans a while to understand how Trump lies. That he doesn’t lie in order to make you believe what he is saying. He lies in order to assert power over reality. And it’s basically a bully in the playground kind of stance: ‘I’m going to say that it’s not your hat that I’m wearing. What are you going to do about it?’ It’s the ‘What are you going to do about it?’ that’s always the message. And it’s always about power.
Another is their disdain for government as it had been constituted. And again this isn’t unique to Putin and Trump — Hannah Arendt described this in The Origins of Totalitarianism. It was a basic feature of the fascists who rose to power in Europe in the ’20s and ’30s, and certainly it was a basic feature of the Leninist revolution. When Trump said that he wanted to drain the swamp, he didn’t mean, I want to clean up American institutions so that they work better. He meant, American institutions are rotten to the core and they need to be destroyed. And you know, viewed through that lens, it suddenly makes sense that almost all of his cabinet appointments are basically people who are fundamentally opposed to the mission of the agency that they are supposed to run. That’s not an accident. It’s a kind of nihilism that is typical of people like Putin and Trump…[When he said] drain the swamp, he meant just sweep the whole thing into the garbage and start over.
TM: In The Man Without a Face is you illustrate how quickly after coming to power Putin dismantled the independent media and democratic institutions in Russia. And we have Trump coming in, and he’s issuing all these executive orders that he may or may not have read, he’s talking about voter fraud, he’s making these awful appointments. How much damage do you think Trump can do to American democracy? And how quickly do you think he can do it?
MG: He can do an incredible amount of damage. I think, oddly, that the speed at which he has moved is actually a blessing because as fast as Putin was, his larger project actually took a long time. It took him a year to take over the media. It took him three years to dismantle the electoral mechanisms in a country that didn’t have a very strong media or very strong electoral mechanisms. So, he was methodical. But what I think is remarkable in terms of speed about Putin is that he started on day one and he wasted no time. But he moved methodically. Trump is not methodical, and this is one major difference between them…The fact that Trump hasn’t given us a second of normality is actually a blessing because it makes it easier to maintain a constant state of outrage. I keep waiting for the moment when people sit back and go, ‘Oh, okay. Well, this I can live with.’ It happens a little bit. I mean like Neil Gorsuch. Neal Gorsuch: this I can live with. As awful as he is politically, he’s not fundamentally opposed to the mission of the Supreme Court, which is what I was really afraid of. I was really afraid of a Peter Thiel or somebody on the Supreme Court. Except for those tiny, tiny specs of normality, we haven’t had a day when it’s like, ‘Phew, I can think about dinner.’
The psychological effect of that is devastating because it is a very good instrument of control. There’s a term that trauma psychologists use, and trauma psychology has its roots in studying totalitarian groups and totalitarian societies. They have a term: low-level dread…It’s a really important term because they view it as an instrument of control, because a person in a state of low-level dread can sort of function: can go to work, can get their children from daycare. But in that state, people lose their ability to plan for the future, which is an essential element of having human agency…It’s not all great that he’s moving so fast. Psychologically, it’s devastating. But I also think that it may be good for the future of our institutions because it’s so plain what’s happening. And it does maintain a state of mobilization among those who are resisting.
TM: You told Samantha Bee that your greatest fear about the Trump administration was nuclear holocaust. That actually seems pretty reasonable. How do you see that playing out, and why is that a possibility Americans should take seriously?
MG: You asked me how I see the relationship between Trump and Putin playing out. I don’t see it playing out very well. What we’re already seeing is Putin basically saying to Trump, ‘Look, I expected better.’ And these are two men with short tempers, with vengefulness as one of their main motivators, with masculinity issues, with their fingers on the nuclear button, and with no controls over when they push it. That’s what makes it a real possibility.
TM: You wrote in The New York Times recently about how much of the conversation about Trump has been focused on arguing over what is factual and what is not, at the expense of engaging in discussions that are essential to democracy. What should those discussions look like, and are they happening anywhere?
MG: We need to focus much more closely on the nominations. Some of that has happened. Not enough has happened. We sort of breezed past the fact that most of these nominees bypassed the ethics checks, because so much else is going on. And it’s this disorientating cacophony that keeps us from getting focused on one thing. I think we’re back down the rabbit hole of investigating the Russia connection. There’s nothing wrong with investigating the Russia connection. But the Russia connection, even in the extremely unlikely event that it produces conclusive evidence — and at most it can produce conclusive evidence of collusion, it can’t ever produce conclusive evidence of the results of that collusion — even in the unlikely event that it produces conclusive evidence of collusion, it’s extremely unlikely that it would depose Trump, which I think is everybody’s hope. I think the magical thinking here is, ‘Oh, let’s investigate Russia. We’ll find out that Trump really is a Russian puppet. And then he goes and then this national nightmare is over.’ The chances of that are almost zero.
I would turn attention to what he is doing to agencies, what else is going on with immigration and the ICE raids all over the country…What’s actually happening in this country. We were focused for about three seconds on what’s happening with the National Parks and environmental agencies, and that feels like ancient history, doesn’t it? But that’s the kind of reversal of the fundamental mission of the agency that we’re probably going to see all over the place.
TM: If you had to give the American people one piece of advice on how to survive the next four to eight years, what would that be?
MG: Remember the future. There will be a time after Trump, and we have to keep remembering that — not just because it gives us hope, but because it’s essential to not do anything to undermine that future. There’re some disturbing things that have happened over the last few months, like the calls for the electoral college to vote against Trump, which I thought was just absurdly shortsighted. You can’t establish precedent of breaking a system if you’re planning to have another presidential election sometime.
I’m really disturbed by psychiatrists who have now, on several occasions, stepped forward and said let’s get this guy out of office because that’s our professional opinion. I’m old enough to remember when being queer was a psychopathology. And I don’t want psychiatrists deciding who is normal enough to be leading this country. Even if this guy is patently insane, that can’t be the reason we get him out of office.
And finally, the current situation with Flynn, which is unfolding through leaks from intelligence agencies, which are by definition unsubstantiated. That’s the sort of thing that has gotten this country in trouble in the past. It’s gotten a lot of other countries in trouble. In the history of the 20th century, a few countries were probably done a favor by their uniformed services who carried out pro-democratic coups — but we have to be clear that that’s the fire that we’re playing with. Once you start following the lead of anonymous sources in intelligence agencies who release the information that is useful to them and that serves their cause and expect you to proceed on blind trust, we’re in potential military coup territory. That’s also not a great way to get rid of Trump.