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Surviving Autocracy

4.21  ·  Rating details ·  2,017 ratings  ·  357 reviews
"The Platonic ideal of the anti-Trump Trump book." --The Washington Post

"An indispensable voice of and for this moment." -Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny

A bestselling, National Book Award-winning journalist's essential guide to understanding, resisting, and recovering from the ravages of our tumultuous times.

In the run-up to the 2016 election, Masha Gessen stood out
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published June 2nd 2020 by Riverhead Books (first published June 1st 2020)
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Donald A. The 2020 election was but one matchstick in this wildfire. The problem isn't--or wasn't--Trump. The problem is our inability to find or accept a form …moreThe 2020 election was but one matchstick in this wildfire. The problem isn't--or wasn't--Trump. The problem is our inability to find or accept a form of "freedom" that fits within the complex, rapidly interacting society in which we--and other would-be democracies--exist.(less)

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Average rating 4.21  · 
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 ·  2,017 ratings  ·  357 reviews

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Diane S ☔
Aug 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nfr-2020
An important book, a book that is a uncomfortable wake up call, but those who need it will doubtless not pick it up. If they do, they will either not believe, nor care. Such is this Presidents power over his base, despite actions that shows he really doesn't care. Presents analysis of how he has preverted language, the meaning of words, neutralizing journalists and fostering mistrust in their reporting and what we read and hear in the news. So much else is included but I found it balanced betwee ...more
David Katzman
Jul 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Surviving Autocracy is a valuable book in order to understand Trumpism, which she describes as “aspirational authoritarianism.” She essentially means by this that Trump wants to be a king, wants to be a dictator, and his followers want him to be as well, but it remains “aspirational” because he is still constrained such that he can’t fully dominate society the way it is in the thugocracy of Russia or North Korea. But it’s why he admires them so much…he wishes to be like them and to have their po ...more
Apr 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: e-arcs
I really enjoyed this examination of the Trump era, through the lens of Masha Gessen - a woman who was a journalist in Russia through the rise of Putin.
I largely find keeping up with Trump news a pointless exercise, because anyone who has the power to remove him seems happy to act as a malignant cancer on the world. However, Masha reframes the argument through the changing language and media coverage pulling our discourse to the right.
It was an interesting read. While she offers no concrete solu
Bruce Katz
Oct 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
A solid, thoughtful and eye-opening analysis of how autocracy works and how Trump's behaviors are what Gessen calls "An Autocratic Attempt," because Trump's not quite there. (Or as the author succinctly puts it, "Trump's incompetence is militant.") Gessen, who has won the National Book Award and who writes for the New Yorker, is widely recognized as one of the world's experts on the political culture of the Soviet Union (where she grew up) and Putin's Russia. Hence, she brings a lot of insight a ...more
Moving Towards Autocracy?
"We relate to the virus, in some ways, as we relate to Trump. We yearn desperately to return to a time of imagined normalcy, before Trump and before the coronavirus."

In the midst of the horrific global pandemic it is easy to become isolated socially as well as politically as we try to navigate our needs while avoiding the virus. Of course, the government's guidelines in regards to the virus are, eerrr, quite variable (to say the least). Masha Gessen’s book is a great opp
Jun 09, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Full disclosure: I have been Masha Gessen's fan for a long time, and this book fits with my worldview and politics to a T. So my review is very biased
I really like how she summarizes and crystallizes events of recent history. Not that I did not know how horrendous Trump has been for the US and the world, of course, I knew all of it. I have resisted his rule by marching, joining FB groups, signing petitions, voting etc.
Nevertheless, I believe this short book needed to be written and read. It ma
If you read this book thinking that Masha Gessen is going to give tips for how to survive autocracy, you will be disappointed. Instead, they analyze the Trump presidency as an autocratic attempt. The chapters on political language and journalism in the Trump era are particularly fascinating. Gessen contends that Trump has rendered a lot of political language that we are used to hearing meaningless now, and that legacy journalism (New York Times and the like) has helped to normalize Trump's behav ...more
Michael Perkins
It starts off strong, especially with chapter one, but turns into a recap of what most of us know.

Would have worked better as a magazine article, with an expanded discussion of the following....

"The Reichstag Fire in Nazi Germany was used to create a “state of exception,” as Carl Schmitt, Hitler’s favorite legal scholar, called it. In Schmitt’s terms, a state of exception arises when an emergency, a singular event, shakes up the accepted order of things. This is when the sovereign steps forward
Aug 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
Are you better off than you were four years ago?
Is America better off than it was four years ago?
Vote wisely. --My personal commentary on this issue, not the author.

Interesting and well worth the time to read, but the people who need to read it most won't and the others will just be incensed seeing it laid out so clearly. I literally tried to power read, push through fast like ripping off a bandaid, because I knew that lingering would just anger me, that and my closing library loan window. 

Jul 06, 2021 rated it liked it
More like 2.5. How do you rate a book full of ideas and observations all of which seem pretty much exactly right but not one of which you feel you haven’t read before already? (And, by the way, how do you rate a book that so obviously reads like an article fattened up to book length, which is exactly what this is?) Despite the apparent promise of Masha Gessen’s position as an expert on totalitarianism in general and on Putin in particular, there’s not a sentence in this book that one needs a Mas ...more
Jun 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Masha Gessen is a journalist who's covered Putin for decades, so she knows autocracy. In Surviving Autocracy, Ms. Gessen focuses on Trump and the post-2016 United States. She pulls no punches and offers insightful analysis about recent events.

I've read several books by Ms. Gessen and found them all to be intelligent and enlightening.

Highly recommended.
Sep 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, politics
There is no bibliography in this book, and the notes cite mainly news reports and articles from the the dates covered by Trump's presidential campaign and administration. That's because this book is not designed to apprise of you facts about Trump's rise to power you might have missed; it's designed to provide a framework in which to understand the threats Trump embodies and the motives and consequences of some of his most outrageous actions.

I found Gessen's interpretation of Trump's behavior i
Ben Vore
Jun 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The first shocking thing about Surviving Autocracy — an utterly of-the-moment book released in early June which begins with events in March and Trump’s catastrophic handling of COVID-19 — is that it’s already dated. What would Gessen make of the George Floyd protests, Trump’s comment to governors to “dominate” protestors, or peaceful protestors being tear-gassed to facilitate a photo-op of Trump holding “a” Bible?

The thesis of this book — that Donald Trump’s autocratic impulses have been hiding
Rainer F
Jul 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is an amazing, breathtakingly beautiful and important book. A brilliant analysis of what is going on in the United States and a sincere warning that democracy might be lost for good if Donald Trump is reelected. Gessen speaks about the importance of language and wording and shows why even the opposition and the media from the New York Times to CNN and MSNBC have contributed to create the dangerous situation the US are in right now. They also explain how the current rulers have shortened the ...more
Apr 24, 2021 rated it liked it
Masha Gessen's Surviving Autocracy is at once an unsettling and reassuring read. Gessen draws on their childhood in the Soviet Union and their experience with the Putin regime to point to ways to survive and even overcome autocracy, while also reminding the reader of just how egregious the Trump administration.

Where I think Gessen's writing is particularly valuable is in the succinct, clear way they point out how the generation of cognitive dissonance was such a valuable tool in the Trumpian to
Jun 15, 2020 rated it liked it
After reading several books on the subject of the Trump administration (and more broadly, American autocracy), I am faced with the fact that I feel like I know less. No book agrees on the reasoning for the Trump's administrations actions, let alone intentions.

A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump's Testing of America
Trump makes snap decisions based on what he thinks looks strong.
Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth
Drift: Th
Gessen’s book is so rich with ideas that it bears multiple re-readings. I had two key takeaways from my first reading. The first concerns the stages of autocratic takeover, of which we are in the first: the autocratic attempt. Her framework comes from a Hungarian scholar’s analysis of post-communist mafia states. The second takeaway is Gessen’s careful examination of Trump’s perversions of language. Excellent work, but I believe she missed a chance to broaden her analysis through reference to Kl ...more
This was a difficult book for me to read, even though it is short and well-written. It is basically a blazingly clear collection of all the most painful truths about the Trump years. In a way it almost felt traumatizing. Did I really want to relive Bret Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings, for example, which almost destroyed several of my family relationships and resulted in me and many women I knew talking openly for the first time about experiences of abuse that were dismissed and demonized? (My ...more
Wick Welker
Dec 25, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, politics
Alternate title: Laundry List of Reasons Trump is an Autocrat.

I've got nothing wrong with the content or arguments of this book. Trump is clearly an autocrat, of this there is no doubt. What I was expecting was a book about the nature, management and survival of autocratic states. This book gave almost nothing about the nature of autocracy, rather this is a book simply about Donald Trump. The target audience of this book will learn nothing new from this book. If you think critically and have fol
Jun 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
Russian-born award-winning author, journalist, and public intellectual, Masha Gessen is known as an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin. In this book, some parallels are drawn between Putin and President Trump. Using the ideas of Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, Gessen notes that autocracy comes in stages: the attempt, the breakthrough, and the consolidation. The upheaval we are experiencing now actually works well for an autocratic breakthrough, according to Gessen. People want stability and ...more
Jun 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I cannot recommend Masha Gessen's "Surviving Autocracy" enough. Gessen unpacks why we feel complacent (it's hard not to) since the last election. It is imperative that we overcome this complacency and push this racist, homophobic, fascist P.O.S. out of office in November. Gessen's book made me feel like I had reclaimed my sanity. Reclaim yours. ...more
Jennifer Hughes
Sep 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: politics
Published in March 2020, this is a powerful and timely examination of the Trump presidency years and is a must-read in today's election cycle.

I've had to stop watching the news because it makes me feel crazy. The world has gone insane and I just can't believe it's true. When I came across this I wanted to shout: Someone else gets it!
" This can't be happening. This is happening--the thought pattern of nightmares and real-life disasters has become the constant routine of tens of millions of peopl
Oct 20, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Born in Russia, Gessen fled in 1981, returned to post-USSR a decade later, only to be forced out again in 2013 by prominent politicians there. They bring a unique perspective to reporting on American democracy as it morphed into something more reminiscent of their homeland. This book is an expansion on the essay Gessen published just after The Election™ titled “Autocracy: Rules for Survival”.

The following excerpt has really stuck with me:

“The key distinction of this new crop of politicians is no
Dana Sweeney
Jul 26, 2020 rated it liked it
Frankly, this was a disappointing read for me. I have read and admired Masha Gessen for several years now, with particular appreciation for their powerful recent histories of Vladimir Putin and the fever dream years spanning from Soviet collapse to Russia’s present condition. Gessen’s personal courage as a dissident journalist in the face of authoritarian power in Russia (and their personal experience as an LGBTQ activist persecuted by that same power) means that they have been a clear-eyed, cer ...more
Aug 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, politics
The best description of Trump’s relationship to autocrats belongs to historian Timothy Snyder, who observed, in April 2016, “It is not hard to see why Trump might choose Putin as his fantasy friend. Putin is the real world version of the person Trump pretends to be on television.” Trump admired Putin’s grip on power, his 82 percent popularity rating, and praised him for being "a leader far more than our president [Obama] has been a leader."
Most Americans in the age of Trump are not, like the sub
Frank Chiki
Jun 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a quick, yet not simple, read. True insight in plain language and examples of how we have an autocrat in office, how voters helped get him there, and how the media have been complicit, inadvertently and overtly, in getting us to this point. Read it, read it, read it!
Oct 16, 2020 marked it as didnt-finish-didnt-start
Didn’t finish. Good but had to return before finished. Will get back out. Scary...could count for a Halloween themed read.
Jan 08, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: what-happened
In Surviving Autocracy, Masha Gessen outlines what the illiberal Trump administration did and what it means. There are many fine insights here, but I was especially struck by her ideas about moral ambition in politics and government. Gessen sees Trump and Putin as similar in their love of wealth and power and their disregard for any notion of being better. Their plagiarism, their willingness to hire flunkies, and their enthusiasm for low humour are part of their autocratic strategy. Without that ...more
Sep 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Incredibly well written book of cautionary tales, with parallels to autocratic regimes of recent-ish decades that eerily resemble what we’re living in today. It’s an anxious read but a necessary one, to say the least.
Donald Schopflocher
Jul 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: politics
Written April 2020, Gessen brilliantly details and explains all of the ways in which Donald Trump has moved the United States towards autocracy. It extends and supplements the work of Frum in Trumpocracy, Snyder In On Tyranny, and Levitsky and Ziblatt in How Democracies Die while building on sources such as Hannah Arendt and the author’s own research into Putin’s control of Russia. Particularly enlightening are sections on the power lie, how degrading word meaning undermines democracy, and how t ...more
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Masha Gessen (born 1967) is an American-Russian journalist, translator, and nonfiction author. They identify as non-binary and use they/them pronouns.

Born into an Ashkenazi Jewish family in Russia, in 1981 they moved with their family to the United States to escape anti-Semitism. They returned in 1991 to Moscow, where they worked as a journalist, and covered Russian military activities during the

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“Are you going to believe your own eyes or the headlines? This is the dilemma of people who live in totalitarian societies. Trusting one’s own perceptions is a lonely lot; believing one’s own eyes and being vocal about it is dangerous. Believing the propaganda—or, rather, accepting the propaganda as one’s reality—carries the promise of a less anxious existence, in harmony with the majority of one’s fellow citizens. The path to peace of mind lies in giving one’s mind over to the regime. Bizarrely, the experience of living in the United States during the Trump presidency reproduces this dilemma. Being an engaged citizen of Trump’s America means living in a constant state of cognitive tension. One cannot put the president and his lies out of one’s mind, because he is the president. Accepting that the president continuously tweets or says things that are not true, are known not to be true, are intended to be heard or read as power lies, and will continue to be broadcast—on Twitter and by the media—after they have been repeatedly disproven means accepting a constant challenge to fact-based reality. In effect, it means that the two realities—Trumpian and fact-based—come to exist side by side, on equal ground. The tension is draining. The need to pay constant attention to the lies is exhausting, and it is compounded by the feeling of helplessness in the face of the ridiculous and repeated lies. Most Americans in the age of Trump are not, like the subjects of a totalitarian regime, subjected to state terror. But even before the coronavirus, they were subjected to constant, sometimes debilitating anxiety. One way out of that anxiety is to relieve the mind of stress by accepting Trumpian reality. Another—and this too is an option often exercised by people living under totalitarianism—is to stop paying attention, disengage, and retreat to one’s private sphere. Both approaches are victories for Trump in his attack on politics.” 9 likes
“We imagine the villains of history as masterminds of horror. This happens because we learn about them from history books, which weave narratives that retrospectively imbue events with logic, making them seem predetermined. Historians and their readers bring an unavoidable perception bias to the story: if a historical event caused shocking destruction, then the person behind this event must have been a correspondingly giant monster. Terrifying as it is to contemplate the catastrophes of the twentieth century, it would be even more frightening to imagine that humanity had stumbled unthinkingly into its darkest moments. But a reading of contemporaneous accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education, and imagination—and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they were not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brought them to power. It was, rather, the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propelled their rise in a frighteningly complex world.” 6 likes
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