Disregard for human life and an obsessive focus on pleasing the leader are two features of autocratic leadership. Masha Gessen, author of numerous books, (including one about Vladimir Putin’s rise to power), staff writer at The New Yorker, National Book Award recipient, knows the autocratic playbook. Her latest tome, Surviving Autocracy, examines how Donald Trump has come close to ruling America like an autocrat. 

“Trumpian news,” writes Gessen, “has a way of being shocking without being surprising.” The more Donald Trump wages war against our government and tramples every convention and norm of his office, the less the public seems to grasp what is happening. Part of the problem, according to Gessen, is the words we use. The sanitized, “objective” language used by our media isn’t up to the task of covering someone like Trump, and if we use the wrong language, how can we describe what we are seeing?

With clarity and moral force Gessen argues that we can’t, which is one reason why Trump has succeeded in framing events according to his agenda. Recall how a procession of unarmed, poor, and desperate asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America in 2018 became a “migrant caravan” of dangerous invaders intent on storming our southern border. Words frame our perceptions. Not only do asylum seekers and refugees from war zones or countries experiencing civil strife have protections in international law, their plight is viewed with more empathy from the polity than is granted to itinerant migrants in search of work. 

Surviving Autocracy is an important work at a fraught juncture in American history. Gessen demonstrates that words matter. To prevent Trumpism from dictating our future, we must dedicate ourselves to reclaiming our political language. 

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