This is a fabulous, furious blast of a book — short, sharp and very much to the point. Gessen is not part of the cosy, consensual crowd, seeing the ‘dirty story of Russian interference’ in the 2016 presidential election as simply one more distraction from difficult facts that daily stare the American people in the face. The author points out that Trump ran as an outsider to ‘drain the swamp’, and after winning declared himself above the law, lied consistently, ignored norms of accountability and then saw some of his closest associates go to prison. ‘We already knew that his was an administration of swindlers and conmen — and in effect we had come to accept it.’
Surviving Autocracy is about the Trump phenomenon and how it has transformed US society. It is about what he has learned from Vladimir Putin, among other autocrats he admires. It is also one of the few analytical books to suggest plausible ways he might be stopped. Anti-Trump polemics tend to rely on satire (which has proved useless) or putting the case for ignoring him (impossible), or relying on on some vague essence of American justice to suddenly come charging in. The cavalry never arrived and is not going to.
Gessen’s book is mostly polemical, and mostly not new. Nevertheless, the writer’s tone of outrage has value. It is an inventory of awfulness we already knew about, but stopped counting. The corollary of Trump’s cartoonishness and the sheer, unredeemed squalor and corruption of his administration is that it is easy, even tempting, to tune it all out. The initial sense of grotesque comedy at his campaign has faded, and so has the shock factor of each new depth he plumbs.