What Makes People Want Autocracy?

What separates President Trump’s behavior from that of the average autocrat? Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who has been writing about authoritarianism for decades. Their latest book, “Surviving Autocracy,” makes the case that Trump’s presidency has endangered American democracy and the world’s faith in it. Gessen speaks with Michel Martin about all this–and about the road ahead.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, as the rest of the world waits for a formal transition to begin, what is the difference between Trump’s behavior and that of some international autocrats? That is what many people are asking, and our next guest has been writing about authoritarianism for two decades. Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and staff writer at the “New Yorker” whose latest book “Surviving Autocracy” makes the case that Trump’s presidency has endangered American democracy and people’s faith in it. Here’s Gessen speaking to our Michel Martin about the road ahead.


MICHEL MARTIN: Thanks, Christiane. Masha Gessen, thank you so much for being with us once again.


MARTIN: You’ve written extensively about the rise of authoritarian regimes in recent years, and a lot of your focus has been on Europe, but sadly in recent years you’ve also applied that analysis to the United States. And recently, for your piece in the “New Yorker,” you said that Donald Trump has been engaged in an autocratic attempt for the last three year, and you said that he’s now trying to stage an autocratic breakthrough. And I know you’re borrowing a bit of analysis from a Hungarian sociologist but can you briefly tell us what you mean by that.

GESSEN: I’ve been using a framework developed by a Hungarian sociologist, Balint Magyar, and he divides — he has studied extensively democratic backsliding over the last couple of decades and he’s developed this framework for thinking about autocracy divided into three stages, autocratic attempts, autocratic breakthrough and autocratic consolidation. And they sound fairly explanatory, but what deserves attention is the difference between an autocratic attempt and autocratic breakthrough. An autocratic attempt is the stage when it is still possible to reverse it through electoral means and autocratic breakthrough is the moment that that becomes impossible. The moment or the period in time when it becomes impossible. And that’s really what we’re seeing now. We have voted Donald Trump out of office. He’s refusing to leave office. He’s trying to create a situation where it will be impossible to remove him by peaceful means. So, that’s the battle we’re seeing now.

MARTIN: Well, what is most concerning to you about this period? As we are speaking now, the president is refusing to concede and demanding that the votes stop being counted in certain states that — where the trend has moved against him. So, what is it that’s most concerning to you about this period? Because some people say, oh, well he’s just throwing a tantrum. It will be all over soon. Do you think so?

GESSEN: Well, I hope it’s all over soon. But he’s not just throwing a tantrum. He has the Republican Party behind him. The at this point, we have what, two-and-a-half Republican senators who have recognized the results of an election.

MARTIN: It’s been four.

GESSEN: Oh, now we have four, OK. We have four Republican senators who have recognized the results of the election. Only two of them at the same time that the rest of the country did. This is extraordinary. We have the attorney general instructing the Justice Department to investigate what he’s calling credible challenges to the vote count before the votes have been certified. So, what we’re actually seeing is an attempt to solidify what, again, Magyar calls the vertical (INAUDIBLE). And this idea of vertical, I think, is super important. You know, when we think about democratic government, we think about it kind of horizontally. We think of a system of checks and balances in which different branches of government interact in more or less a horizontal fashion, right? We have a distribution of powers and we have checks on the power that are exerted by the other branches of government. In a vertical system, you have the autocrats and — who is the command center. And the people who receive commands and power and money from the autocrat, and that’s what Donald Trump has tried to create. He’s tried to create a vertical of people who owe him loyalty and who look to him for direction, and he’s trying to assert that that has been created. Bill Barr is a part of his vertical. Mitch McConnell is a part of his vertical. I think he believes that the Supreme Court is a part of his vertical, right. He appointed three justices to the Supreme Court using Mitch McConnell. And we keep hearing the hope expressed that the election will go to the Supreme Court because, of course, the Supreme Court is packed with people who owe Trump a debt of loyalty.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is that the American public, to this point, doesn’t seem more disturbed by this? I mean, as you pointed out in your piece, 65 million, 70 million people consciously chose Donald Trump as their president, as their choice despite seeing the you had autocratic tendencies over the last four years as you’ve described. And yet, Americans, some of the people who supported him, seemed more concerned about being told to wear a mask on their face to prevent the spread of disease and they are being sort of being told who is going to be president no matter who voted or not, and I’m just wondering what you think about that.

MARTIN: So, I think there are two topics here, right? One is why Americans are not more disturbed about what we’re watching, which is basically an attempted coup, right, this attempted autocratic breakthrough. And I think there’s — part of that is kind of a healthy reaction. Part of it is that we have a president who should no longer be taken seriously. He is a lame duck. He’s been voted out of office. He’s throwing a tantrum. And at the same time, he’s throwing a tantrum as commander-in-chief, which, of course, is the symbolic meaning of firing the defense secretary, right. It’s to assert his power as commander-in-chief. But more than, I would be really concerned about the Republican Party. The 48 senators who are not recognizing the results of a fair and — well, I mean, not greatly fair in the sense that lots of people, especially people of color had to stand in line for hours and hours and hours, not terribly open in that sense, but as good an election as we can muster under our current system. And that should be disturbing, right, that elected officials are undermining the results of an election. That’s terrifying. The other thing, of course, that’s terrifying, is that yes, 70 million people voted for him. This was not a repudiation. In fact, you know, if you look at the percentages in this election, not the turnout, right, we had record turnout, but if you look at the percentages by which Biden won the popular vote and the electoral college, it looks like a normal American election. And there’s nothing normal about throwing an autocrat out of office.

MARTIN: Clearly, you don’t see it that way. In fact, Mitch McConnell who is the senate majority leader, a senator from Kentucky who has certainly been supportive of President Trump’s aims, you know, throughout his presidency, I mean, really, frankly, in advance of his presidency by holding had open so many seats, by refusing to advance qualified nominees in the judiciary in the hopes that a Republican president would then take over. I mean, he created the soil for this to grow, at least as far as the judiciary is concerned. He says that the president is doing the most American thing possible, which is taking his beef to court, because that’s what Americans do.

GESSEN: Apparently. You know, I don’t think the problem is that people don’t recognize Trump as an autocrat. I think the Republican Party has turned into an autocratic party. And in my book, “Surviving Autocracy,” I talk about how I think we can distinguish an autocratic party from a democratic party, a democratic party with a small D. The audience of a democratic party, the political receipt are the voters. Whatever — however imperfect our Democratic Party may be, and it’s hugely imperfect, you can always tell that when we see our politicians speak, they speak to the voters. They speak to the people that they perceive as being — as themselves as being accountable to. When we see Republicans speak, they have an audience of one, and that audience is Donald Trump.

MARTIN: Is there something about sort of Republican electorate at this point that finds this stance and this posture so appealing that the people who are elected by them, that’s where they are as well? It seems as though there’s a great appetite for this among certain sectors of the American people. And so, the question I have for you is why? Why do you think that is?

GESSEN: You know, social psychologists have studied what makes people want autocracy or at least since Hitler rose to power, and I think that the theory developed Erich Fromm, who is a German social psychologist, is actually the most illuminating. He had this theory there are times in human history when people feel so dislocated, so economically anxious, so fearful of the future that it is easier to hand their agency over to an autocrat in exchange to the promise of stability. The autocrats never deliver the promise of stability, but there’s this emotional promise of predictability, stability and the message that you don’t have to think about your future. I will lead you to — into it. I will constrain you enough to make it not so unpredictable and so frightening. And so, Fromm’s theory was that a time of great sort of human movement and a huge number of refugees in the wake of World War I and incredible economic anxiety is what handed power to Hitler. I think from what little we know about why people vote for Trump we can apply that theory to the United States. Donald Trump does speak directly to economic anxieties. He speaks directly to anxieties, right? And I’m not sure that Democrats have been as successful at it. If you look at this election’s results, a weird disconnect between policies that people seem to like and the politicians that they voted for actually testifies to this hypothesis, right? People want to be taken care of. People want, you know, Medicare for All. People want a $15 minimum wage. In Florida, right, they voted for him, and then they voted for these blustering autocrats.

MARTIN: I’m interested in your take on what should happen now assuming that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris do successfully take the presidency.

GESSEN: I think two things should happen. One, is they should address the problem of this vertical that Trump has tried to create, right? We’re assuming that this vertical is weak enough that his autocratic breakthrough will fail, but it needs to be dismantled. It cannot remain a part of government, and that really means thinking about what made it possible, right. Biden will need to look at the course, will need to look at the possibility of expanding the Supreme Court, but also how to address the court-packing. Again, when we talk about autocracies in other countries, we talk about what Trump has done with appointing more than 200 federal judges as court packing, because he has not simple exploited the system that we have for appointing federal judges, he has abuse the system that we have for appointing federal judges by appointing a number of politically extreme and inexperienced judges that owe him a debt of loyalty. They wouldn’t be there if not for him, which is very different from exploiting the system as it’s designed to political ends, right. So, I think thinking about this as a vertical and dismantling of vertical is one task that’s super important. And I think the other super important task is reckoning. You know, we have come to sort of fetishized moving on ever since Ford pardoned Nixon or more recently, Barack Obama decided not to prosecute and not to investigate illegal detention and torture under the George W. Bush administration. There’s this idea that letting sleeping dogs lie is somehow a virtue. But what it really communicates is that after a certain level of power you always have immunity, and it also communicates that the trauma that we have lived through over the last four years, you know, the trauma of watching this president flail and abuse power, the trauma of watching the first family use the presidency as an annex to their personal business, the trauma for immigrants of being afraid daily or for people who are not immigrants of being somehow complicit in creating that fear, you know, the trauma of seeing a pandemic and an executive branch that sees your lives and the lives of your friends and family as disposable, as worthless, the trauma of a call for a reckoning with racism to which the president responds by flaming racism, right? We can’t go into the future carrying that with us. That is unfair and unpainful and too much to ask of the American population to just set that aside and continue as though we’re going back to some kind of normal. We need a reckoning. And I think that there’s been a lot of conversation about whether do we prosecute, is that vengeance or do we create truth and reconciliation commissions, and I think those are wrong questions. I think the question is, do we have a national commitment, a commitment that’s led by the president, the new president, to think about, to talk about what happened to us and what made it possible? There has to be a commitment to a national conversation and to creating a story about what happened to us. And that attempt to create a story is the best chance we have to actually to create a shared reality.

MARTIN: I hate to ask you to do this but I am going to ask you to do this. Assess the damage for us from your perspective. I mean, how bad do you think the damage has been to our democracy even if the Biden/Harris ticket does prevail in the end and takes hold? Is this reversible?

GESSEN: That’s the $64,000 question, right? Is this reversible, right? At this point, if the Biden/Harris ticket takes power, and I think it will, right, we will have prevented the autocratic breakthrough right now. I keep flashing back to Hungary where Viktor Orban after his first term in office, and Viktor — you know, Hungary was for a brief period on a thriving liberal democracy. And Viktor Orban was elected, voted out of office after one term, spent two terms — two election cycles as the leader of the opposition and then swept back in on a super majority and changed the constitution. And that to me is one of the biggest reminders of — in recent history to not just move on and sweep things under the rug. The preconditions for an autocrat in the United States exists. They existed before Donald Trump came into office. He managed to do an incredible amount of damage to the functioning and the structures and the credibility of American institutions, and we have to repair the damage. Otherwise, possibly not Donald Trump, possibly one of his kids will be running for office in four years, in eight years, and that vertical, that vertical of power that Trump has tried to build will be there waiting for them.

MARTIN: Masha Gessen, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

GESSEN: Thank you for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane speaks with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair about the world reaction to the U.S. election. She also speaks with father daughter pair Jorge Ramos, a Univision anchor, and Paola Ramos, author of “Finding Latix,” about President Trump’s strong performance with Latinx voters. Michel Martin speaks with journalist Masha Gessen about autocracy and the road ahead for the U.S.