A Mafia State Within a Totalitarian Society

Reflections on Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin from the writer Masha Gessen, whose new book about Russia won the 2017 National Book Award for nonfiction.

Jorge Silva / Reuters

It is a skill, actually, to make someone feel as though they are drowning in words. If you’ve ever read a transcript of a Donald Trump interview, you know what the experience is like. Next-level incoherence is disorienting—and can be oddly powerful.

The American-Russian journalist Masha Gessen has thought a lot about Trump’s rambling and disjointed way of speaking—in part because it reminds her so much of Vladimir Putin’s style. In Russia, Putin uses words yet means their opposites. At times, he seems to render words meaningless.

“He just keeps talking,” Gessen says. “And throwing numbers out there. Most of them wrong.”

Then there’s Trump: “He talks and you don’t even know where the punctuation marks fall. And the more you try to engage with those words, the less they mean.”

In the latest episode of The Atlantic Interview, Gessen speaks with The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, about the similarities between Putin and Trump, the way intergenerational trauma can shape a political movement, and why the United States is marching away from democracy.

An edited and condensed transcript of their conversation is below.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Do you think Donald Trump was brought to power by Russians or by Americans?

Masha Gessen: I think Donald Trump was brought to power by Americans. They voted for him.

Goldberg: Do you think we are overemphasizing Russia’s nefarious—either intent or actual—actions in this moment?

Gessen: These are leading questions, but yes. Absolutely. I do think that we’re overemphasizing it. And I think we’re overemphasizing it at the expense of actually being able to think about the election.

Goldberg: What do you mean?

Gessen: Americans voted for Trump. A lot of people in this country feel the system of representative democracy hasn’t worked for them for a long, long time. And those are the issues that this election gives us an unfortunate opportunity to engage with. And engaging instead with the Russia conspiracy takes up that bandwidth.

Goldberg: Is the Russia conspiracy real?

Gessen: I don’t know. I mean, we don’t know, right? But it’s not a terribly important question or answer.

Goldberg: Whoa. Wait, why?

Gessen: Well, because ultimately it doesn’t matter what Russia wanted. Right? What matters is whether there was an actual arrangement with the Trump campaign. That’s the part we actually don’t know yet.

Goldberg: Let me just push back a little bit and say that if a foreign power is actively trying to meddle in an American election it still seems to matter, no?

Gessen: Okay, let me give you an example. The weekend before the election I was in Philadelphia with my daughter, canvassing for Hillary. And there was this church where they handed out the clipboards. And so we’re standing in line for clipboards, and a busload of Dutch tourists get off and get in line. And my first reaction was like, Oh these people are Dutch. They shouldn't be canvassing. And then I thought, okay, these people over in Amsterdam—if Donald Trump is elected, they will live on this planet that will risk being annihilated by a nuclear holocaust and damaged by irreparable climate change. And do they have less right to ask the people of Philadelphia to vote in a particular way than I, as a New Yorker, have to ask the people of Philadelphia to vote in a particular way?

Goldberg: So you’re not a huge fan of sovereignty as a concept.

Gessen: As a concept, no, not a huge fan.

Goldberg: As someone who does believe in American sovereignty, I’m offended by the idea that any country would try to interfere in our domestic affairs. But even more so when you have a government that is adversarial.

Gessen: Russian attempts to sow discord—first of all, they’re predictable. Second of all, they’re ridiculous. They’ve been doing pretty much the same thing for at least 50 years. American political reality has moved a lot closer to the Russian perception—what used to be a really distorted perception, it used to be a total caricature—which I think is a little disturbing.

Goldberg: We are becoming more like Russia?

Gessen: No, we’re becoming more like what Russia imagines us to be. Easily manipulated, absurdly polarized, torn apart by issues that really divide cultures in this country into two separate realities. And that you can play these realities against each other, and that will actually work.

Goldberg: This goes to a larger point that you make which is that Putin is not the Bond villain mastermind of global chaos.

Gessen: It’s an incredibly circular thing because he, of course, wants to be the Bond villain. That’s what he dreamed of doing his entire life. He always wanted to be the secret agent who rules the world from the shadows. He never wanted to be a public politician. This behind-the-scenes stuff, that’s the real fun part. And I don’t think he’s very good at it. What we have seen now of what Russia did in the campaign is mostly ridiculous. And yet the way that Americans have reacted to it—or a large number of Americans have reacted to it—has actually elevated Putin exactly to the level of the Bond villain that Putin aspires to be.

Goldberg: Are you surprised that American liberals now are on the Russia-paranoia bandwagon?

Gessen: I am really surprised, and I’m really disappointed.

Goldberg: The idea that [Trump’s campaign] would want to do something—if they actually did want to do something—with Russia is profoundly disturbing, but they’re so bad at this.

Gessen: [Laughs]

Goldberg: Which one is worse: the idea that the Trump people would want to collude, or that Russia was engaged in an effort to create dissension and anxiety in America?

Gessen: One can actually argue that no matter what happens with the investigation, we’re not going to learn anything new about this. Because we have known for years that Russia tries to create dissension in America. But I don’t know that it tells us anything significant about the political moment we’re in. I think the significant stuff is actually in the voting data and in the states that voted for Trump.

Goldberg: What is happening in America? How are we becoming more like a dysfunctional non-democracy?

Gessen: There are a couple of ways to use the word democracy, and the way that I think is productive is to think about democracy as not a state that can actually be achieved, but as an ideal. It’s an aspirational ideal and the ideal is always changing. But at this point this country is not moving toward democracy. It’s marching away from democracy.

Goldberg: You write in your book, The Future Is History, about Homo Sovieticus.

Gessen: Homo Sovieticus is basically the human being who evolved to survive under conditions of state terror. Any person faced with an ongoing traumatic situation develops certain survival skills, certain coping mechanisms—the personality fragments, and different parts of the person get activated depending on these rapidly shifting circumstances.

The hypothesis that I write about in the book, on the part of the sociologist who invented the term Homo Sovieticus, was that it was generationally bound. And once enough time had passed since state terror ended, since the 1950s, Homo Sovieticus was just going to die out, and then the Soviet Union was going to collapse. And the Soviet Union seemed to collapse right on schedule. But then it turned out that Homo Sovieticus didn’t go anywhere, because there’s such a thing as intergenerational trauma. And those coping skills—those ways of behaving and thinking—are actually passed on from generation to generation in society as a whole.

So society as a whole has cultural institutions that sort of kick into gear as soon as they start getting signals that they interpret as signals from a totalitarian past. And I think that’s what's happened under Putin. Putin set out to build a mafia state. He didn’t set out to build a totalitarian regime. But he was building his mafia state on the ruins of a totalitarian regime. And so we end up with a mafia state and a totalitarian society.

Goldberg: How does Trump relate, in behavioral ways, to what you’re talking about?

Gessen: Two things. There’s a direct parallel in this appeal to the imaginary past. That’s what Putin does, and that’s what Trump does. And they do it in some really remarkably similar ways. This vague idea of traditional values. This idea of making America great again, making Russia great again.

And it’s not clear which “great” it is, but it communicates in a very comprehensible way: You can go back to the time when you felt more comfortable, when you could understand the world that you lived in, when you were not constantly confronted with things that make you uneasy—those things can be homosexuals, immigrants, transgender people—and I’m going to take you back to a comfortable past ... At this point it’s pretty sort of traditional isolationist.

Goldberg: When I hear Trump talking about invading Iraq and taking the oil, or language that is intemperate and that could trigger a war with North Korea, I don’t think he’s an isolationist. I think he believes that the world is America’s for the taking. This is why he’s so offended—but also so impressed—by people who argue for strong trade deals on behalf of their own countries ... But go back to the Trump voter.

Gessen: I want to really think differently than the very consistent liberal-media line of, Well if they just knew better they would vote differently. They’re under-informed, they’re under-educated. I think it really misunderstands something, which is that, just because people are not acting rationally in accordance with what you think is rational, doesn’t mean that they’re not acting rationally. And I think there’s perfectly rational voter behavior in voting for Trump. For economic reasons and social reasons.

Life is getting worse. You are less comfortable in your own house, in your own town, in your own skin. Your outlook for the future is worse with every passing year. And you conscientiously voted for people through this entire time. So it is actually an established fact that the system did not work for you. This representative democracy thing. And so you go and lob a grenade at it, when the grenade becomes available. And that is rational.

Goldberg: In your book, you draw a picture of Russia in seemingly permanent decline—a decline caused by trauma and corruption and unexamined psychological duress. Is there any off-ramp?

Gessen: After Putin is over—and he will be over eventually, everything ends—Russia will not maintain its current borders. I’m pretty sure of that. It’s an empire that is experiencing more and more tension, and it’s holding together as a result of a combination of both fear and greed. So Putin either instills fear in the regions, or buys them off. That system will break down the moment the Kremlin is thrown into disarray, which it will be when Putin is gone. Putin is definitely aware of the challenges to Russian territorial integrity.

Goldberg: Let’s assume that it’s his attempt, personally, to interfere or weaken American unity and American morale. Is it of a piece with his successful attempt to occupy Crimea? I’m going to make the stronger country—that’s my rival—weaker, and I’m going to build out the Russian empire because I know that the Russian empire is actually so weak. In other words, are these the actions of a weakling?

Gessen: Well these are the actions of somebody who does feel permanently threatened—threatened personally [and] to the extent that he doesn’t actually perceive a boundary between himself and the state. He has continuously come in—and this is actually another weird parallel between him and Trump—he has continuously campaigned on the threat to the country. His message has consistently been, We’re on the brink of catastrophe and I’m the only person who can hold things together. And if I step away, everything will fall apart. I think that he sincerely believes that. He believes that even more sincerely because he has been watching Putin TV for 17 years. And so he says to the television what it should say, and then it says it, and then he believes it. Which is also not dissimilar from the media bubble that Trump is intent on creating—or has, to a large extent, created for himself.

Goldberg: Fox and Friends, the Russia Today of America.

Gessen: Fox and Friends and Breitbart. So, yes, there is deep moral justification that Putin feels for things like the annexation of Crimea, and interference in a variety of Western elections—because all those things pose a threat to Russia.

Goldberg: You’ve spoken a lot about Trump’s use of language—and misuse of language. Does Putin engage in the same practices? Making words mean the opposite of what they mean?

Gessen: Similar practices. Putin came to power after 10 years of a transitional state in Russia, and 70 years of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism was marked by a kind of new-speak where words were used to mean their opposites. One of my favorite examples is what they called voting, “the free expression of citizen will,” when “the free expression of citizen will” was actually somebody having to go to your precinct under penalty of law and having to put a check mark next to the one name on the ballot. And then Putin came and renewed the practice of having words mean their opposites, but also introduced the new practice of having words mean nothing. He just keeps talking. And throwing numbers out there. Most of them wrong.

It’s meant to create the impression that he knows what he’s talking about. But it’s also just meant to drown you in meaningless stuff. And Trump actually does both of those things.

I think he has an incredible instinct for assimilating words and phrases from the liberal discourse and making them mean their opposite—“safe space,” “witch hunt,” “fake news.” But he also just creates word salad. So he talks and you don't even know where the punctuation marks fall. And the more you try to engage with those words, the less they mean, because you just drown in them. And so, in that sense, they’re both doing the same thing. They do it so differently, but the effect is so similar.