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Masha Gessen on Trump, political language, and totalitarianism

Vox’s Sean Illing interviewed Gessen, mostly about the Trump moment, for a great piece that the headline said was about “American politics after the death of ‘truth.’”

I went to college in a very liberal place (Oberlin), and it was during a time of surging radicalism (Vietnam War) and some folks in that environment got a little too comfortable throwing around the F-word, by which I mean “fascist,” about everyone to the right of them. I thought then, and I still think now, that calling someone a “fascist” is a serious matter, not to be done lightly. 

I haven’t yet called Donald Trump a fascist, although it’s harder and harder to restrain myself, given his (and the entire Republican establishment, especially featuring the formerly sane and reasonable Minnesota Congressman Tom Emmer) tendency to call almost every Democrat a “socialist” in a way that strips the word of any useful meaning and is plain demagogical name-calling to scare voters.

I’ve spent some time and done some reading trying to figure out the lines (there really aren’t any clear ones) between the American right-wing, Republicans in general, Donald Trump in particular, and the characteristics that would justify dropping the F-word (fascist) on them. I’ve probably been too careful. Trump doesn’t deserve such caution and restraint, but I’m reluctant to stoop to his level.

I benefited this morning by reading the thoughts of writer Masha Gessen, a deep thinker and clear communicator, born in the Soviet Union with a mother who was a committed socialist. Gessen now lives partly in Russia and partly in the United States and writes often for the New Yorker. Gessen’s 2017 book about totalitarianism won the National Book Award.

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Vox’s Sean Illing interviewed Gessen, mostly about the Trump moment, for a great piece that the headline said was about “American politics after the death of ‘truth.’” Illing wanted to talk about Trump because, he said, Gessen’s book, “more than any other Trump book I’ve read, focuses on ‘the corruption of language’ and the subsequent loss of a collective space for what we typically think of as politics.”

Gessen used the “f” word (fascism) only briefly at the top but I wanted to pass along a few of Gessen’s efforts to locate the Trump moment in the context of totalitarianism, drawing on the work of the great Hannah Arendt, who writes brilliantly about Hitler and about the Soviet Union. A few excerpts:

Masha Gessen
Wikimedia Commons/Bengt Oberger
Masha Gessen
Gessen: “We can’t do politics if we can’t talk to one another. We can’t talk politics if we don’t inhabit a shared reality. We can’t have politics if we can’t agree on what we’re living through, because then we can’t discuss how we’re going to be living together tomorrow, which is what politics is.

“Now, that doesn’t necessarily create the preconditions for totalitarianism, but I actually think that the complete elimination of politics is what authoritarianism is. Under authoritarianism, everybody goes home, has their private lives, cooks dinner, bakes bread, and the authoritarian individual or group accumulates money and power out of sight. So politics disappears entirely, public space disappears entirely. It’s like lockdown forever.

“But totalitarianism is the opposite. The private space disappears and everything becomes political, but everything becomes political on the terms of the ruling ideology. So the authoritarian leader wants people to go home and tend to their lives. The totalitarian leader wants them out in the public square, demonstrating their support for him.

“This is why there’s no doubt in my mind that Trump is a totalitarian-style leader. If he could, he would have the whole country at a Trump rally 24/7.”

Sean Illing: “You write in the book that the longer Trumpism lasts, the harder it will be to undo the damage he’s done to our political language. Is the real damage already done? What would it even mean to recover or reinvent political language?”

Gessen: I don’t think that it’s impossible, at this point, to recover. I spent most of my life writing about and living in a country where language had really been damaged to what I think might be the point of total disrepair. We’re not nearly that far along. A lot of people are thinking through how to write and talk about this era in ways that are better than we have talked about politics in the pre-Trump era. And there’s some incredible writing and talking that the Trump era has produced, so I think we still have a lot of potential if we get to reverse this in November. …

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“Language determines what’s thinkable, right? I mean, it’s very hard to think a thought that you don’t have a word for — it’s impossible, in fact.

“But there’s a huge difference between that limitation, which is just part of the human condition, and being in an encapsulated, ideological world that is divorced from the reality you can experience. And when Arendt writes about totalitarian ideology, she makes a very important point that any ideology can be totalitarian. And she writes that its key characteristic is that it’s entirely encapsulated; it’s impervious to any input from outside reality. So I think the problem with Fox News, or living inside the Fox News bubble, is not just the language and the framing, but it’s that the language and the framing actually do not apply to your daily reality.

“I was talking to somebody the other day whose entire family has had Covid, and yet they don’t believe in Covid. And that is, like, a perfect example of totalitarian ideology. Even if they had said that it wasn’t that bad and not a lot of people are getting it, or something that acknowledged their personal experience — that would be one thing. But they literally do not think that the thing exists. They think that it’s a conspiracy.”

Illing: “That’s wild. Is that sort of reality-denying ideology the precondition for actual totalitarianism?”

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Gessen: “Well, you had all these great German thinkers who survived fascism in the 1930s and ’40s, and they came to the U.S. in the ’50s and ’60s and basically said the preconditions for fascism or totalitarianism were already in place here. But even suggesting that seemed outlandish at the time. You can’t use words like ‘fascism’ without getting dismissed.

“But look, there are really important distinctions between the country that I spent most of my life writing about [Russia]and this one. And the distinctions may not be what’s important right now. Maybe what’s important right now are the similarities, and I don’t know that Donald Trump has the intellectual or organizational capacity to create state terror. I do believe he has a totalitarian ideology and he has been able to pull a huge number of people into his encapsulated world.

“I guess the question is, how much state terror is necessary to create a totalitarian society?”

Again, the full Vox Piece is here.