More articles Sunday 30 August 2020 2:24pm
“Up until that point policy had never been made by tweet.” Masha Gessen on Donald Trump
Russian-American author and journalist Masha Gessen discussed power, President Trump and their book Surviving Autocracy with human rights QC Philippe Sands at the Edinburgh International Book Festival Online this afternoon.
Gessen spoke of the moment following Trump’s election in 2016 when they wrote an essay entitled Autocracy: Rules for Survival which was subsequently published by the New York Review of Books. In a matter of hours following Trump’s victory, Gessen realised they had a once in a lifetime chance to write something that had been percolating in their brain for years. Having spent 25 years studying totalitarianism, in particular observing and writing about the rise of Putin in the new, supposedly democratic Russia, they had a different perspective.
They realised on the day that Hilary Clinton chose her running mate, that the democrats did not know what they were dealing with. This was no ordinary political election. Gessen recognised Donald Trump as “a type. A type of person and a type of Autocrat. The Democrats were not recognising this.” They went on to say that they were imagining the possibility of Trump winning whilst everyone else they knew did not think it could or would happen.
Gessen commented on the way Trump deals with language, calling it “his one talent”. Using words to mean their opposite, especially in relationship to power citing the example of ‘fake news’ – Trump took ownership of it and turned it against the mainstream news agencies. He uses words to mean nothing, and will say something, which has real consequences, then turns around and says ‘just kidding’. Thirdly he uses the power lie – lying about something that is empirically disprovable but essentially giving the message “’I can say whatever I want, whenever I want to – I have the biggest microphone.’ It’s a bullying tactic, autocratic.” They added that Trump admires every autocrat that he has come into contact with – from Putin to Kim Jong Un. “He is in thrall to that kind of power. It’s the kind of power he wants to emulate.”
The conversation turned to other forms of communication, and in particular Trump’s use of Twitter. Gessen commented that Trump’s tweet announcing a ban on transgender people in the military was an extraordinary moment. “Up until that point policy had never been made by tweet. The Defence Department gradually realised that he is the Commander in Chief. Whatever he says is a command. It may be issued on a tweet, even so it is an act of executive speech even if on the face of it it’s insane and absurd.”
Moving onto Trump’s relationship with the Institutions of State, including the US Supreme Court, Gessen said “Donald Trump has been really successful in dismantling the system of checks and balances in the US to an extraordinary extent.” However, he praised John Roberts, Chief Justice of the US, for the recent decision taken to force Trump to reveal his taxes to the Grand Jury. They also called the judgement in the cases of Bostock, Zarda and Stephens (that discrimination on the basis of sex also applies to sexual orientation and gender identity and contravened title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964), “by far the most consequential LGBTQ rights decision in American history.”
Asked by Sands what will happen next in relation to the Presidential elections in November, Gessen said that journalists should never make predictions but if the elections were held right now Trump would probably lose. Much can happen between now and November.