scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Masha Gessen contends with the Trump era in ‘Surviving Autocracy’

David Wilson/David Wilson for the Boston Globe

Just after the 2016 election, the writer, journalist, and activist Masha Gessen published an essay in the New York Review of Books titled “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” For Gessen, who was born in Russia and came to the United States at 14, the danger of a Trump presidency was familiar and clear. A new book, “Surviving Autocracy,” expands on the essay and walks readers through what Gessen describes (quoting Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar) as “the autocratic attempt,” the stage in which America now finds itself, buffeted by lies and outrages that make us doubt our sense of reality.

To write this book required a massive Excel spreadsheet of examples, just to keep track of all the mistruths and violations of norms. “You totally forget how something was shocking last week,” Gessen said, “because now it’s deeply familiar.”


Cognitive dissonance is one of the chief dangers of living through autocracy. But in the book Gessen tries to help us see clearly what we are facing: “naming the problem, as therapists tell us, is the beginning of the process.”

Still, Gessen added, “the conventional political science wisdom is that a time of crisis is also always a time of opportunity.” We can see this in the consideration of previously radical ideas that have become more mainstream — for instance, calls to defund the police that have been amplified during the current protests. “I think that finding opportunities to act together with others, which is always essential for political animals, but particularly important in this situation, where our reality is constantly being screwed with,” Gessen said.

“If the Democratic Party is smart enough to be able to ride that energy, if that energy is indeed sustainable until November, then we may actually arrive at a point where we’re reinventing,” Gessen said. “I’m hopeful, I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic. But I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time.”


Gessen will speak at 7 p.m. July 16, in conversation with Joshua Rubenstein, at a virtual event hosted by Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at