On Beyond Mueller. Step 2: Listen to Masha Gessen.

Coming Thursday: the Mueller Report in some form!

While we wait, I’m going through the Gessen Report – the findings of the émigré Russian journalist Masha Gessen as laid out in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Slate and The Atlantic, among other places.

Since the first hints of a Trump-Russia plot to upend the 2016 election, Gessen has been skeptical. She knows as well as anybody what Vladimir Putin and his gang are capable of. Gessen’s 2013 book Man Without a Face was a chilling account of the Russian president’s rise to power; in it she also told the stories of some of the vast number of people imprisoned, poisoned, gunned down or blown to bits after doing something that displeased Putin or made their liberty or survival inconvenient from his standpoint. But Putin and Trump are best understood, in Gessen’s view, not as co-conspirators or master and puppet but as a pair of thieving demagogues riding the same global populist wave, both appealing to an imaginary past of traditional values and promising to cut through the rigmarole of democracy and due process in order to make their countries “great again.”

Of course, the quirkiness of Trump’s victory (by 44,292 votes in Pennsylvania, 22,748 votes in Wisconsin and 10,704 votes in Michigan) makes any factor crucial by a certain logic; and we have plenty of evidence of Russian hacking and trolling directed against Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But if Gessen is inclined to question Putin’s responsibility for an evil deed, I am inclined to listen.

Even if the search for collusion hits the jackpot someday, that idée fixe could prove to be an unhealthy distraction. We might do better, as Gessen suggests, to devote our closest attention and best thinking to the domestic side of the story and to what is beyond dispute – the fact that in 2016 upwards of 45 percent of the U.S. electorate decided to back a chronic liar, race-baiter, sexual predator, career criminal and tax-dodger who was running “not for president but for autocrat”; and the corollary fact that our country is now governed by a regime of thugs, rogues, kleptocrats, hacks and corporate lackeys, with one of the two major political parties almost entirely bent to their will.

Throughout the Mueller investigation, Gessen has been telling us to let go of the tantalzing idea of a truth – any truth – with the power to set us free. That is a fantasy linked, in her mind, to a misperception of Trump supporters as ignorant and deluded people who would make better decisions “if they just knew differently.” A vote for Donald Trump actually makes quite a lot of sense, according to Gessen, if we imagine ourselves in the world of many who made that choice – a world in which you are continually sensing the erosion of your status and privilege, regularly confronted with “things that make you uneasy,” and feeling less and less “comfortable in your own house, in your own town, in your own skin.” If all that is so and if your would-be leaders have little to show you or say to you, it becomes perfectly reasonable to decide that “this representative democracy thing” doesn’t serve you; “and so,” Gessen says, “you go and lob a grenade at it, when the grenade becomes available.”

Gessen has divided her life between Russia and the United States, and she brings the painful experience of her time there to her observations of life here. In a New York Review of Books essay published soon after the 2016 election, she set forth a series of rules for survival in a looming autocracy. Her first rule: “believe the autocrat.” By that she means to take the threats seriously and oppose them with “stubborn, outraged, uncompromising resistance.” In that spirit, Gessen excoriated Hillary Clinton for a milquetoasty concession speech that was both woefully inadequate to the occasion and entirely consistent with a campaign that had “offered no vision of the future to counterbalance Trump’s all-too-familiar white-populist vision of an imaginary past.”

Gessen is also gay, with a son adopted from a Russian orphanage for the children of HIV-positive women, at a time when, she has written, “no other Russian citizen would have adopted him, so great was the fear of AIDS, and so rare were adoptions generally.” She emigrated in 2013, after a wave of anti-gay propaganda in which one prominent apparatchik specifically warned against letting Russian children grow up in “perverted families like Masha Gessen’s.” She took her own advice: she believed him.

We are not Russia. The United States still has an opposition party, flawed as it is; candidates can get on the ballot without the regime’s permission; most of our adult citizens can vote if they make an effort; and the counting of votes is generally on the up and up. Our elections are, if not exactly fair, at least real – real enough that when, as in 2018, a large majority of the electorate gets fed up with the ruling party, the opposition comes away with narrow control of one of the two chambers of our national legislature. Unlike Russia, we still have many uncaptured media outlets and a galaxy of journalists, political commentators and comedy-show hosts who daily and nightly exercise their right to denounce or ridicule our leaders.

While we’re on the subject of America’s good fortune, it remains possible in this country to be a dissident or resister without living in physical fear. No federal police force stands ready to round up – or rough up – the President’s enemies. His hooligans do not control the streets. When Donald Trump feels like stirring up nationalist hysteria, he fills the internet and the airwaves with rants against oncoming hordes of criminal immigrants. But he is mostly content to lie about events rather than to foment them: we have seen nothing comparable to, say, the Russian apartment bombings of 1999 – a cycle of supposed terrorist acts, many of them encouraged if not concocted by government agents provocateurs in order to set the stage for Putin’s emergence as a full-on dictatorial thug with a mass following.

Trump and Co. may not think they could get away with that kind of thing. For that, we can count ourselves lucky. If we heed Gessen’s advice, we will not for a moment take our luck for granted.


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