Is Russiagate a Conspiracy Theory?
Is Russiagate “a conspiracy trap” and a “colossal distraction”? How much is President Trump like President Putin after all? And what about the press—are we really the new “opposition party,” as Trump and his top adviser, Steve Bannon, have labeled the media?
Author and journalist Masha Gessen has emerged as a perceptive, prolific—and not at all predictable—analyst of the two presidents as American politics has been consumed by the investigations surrounding the Russian hacking of the U.S. election and whether Trump and his team might have colluded with it. The Russia-born New Yorker, author of a critical biography of Putin, “The Man With No Face,” joined The Global POLITICO this week to talk about the strange confluence of two leaders, her worries about the investigation that might be leading Trump’s critics right down a paranoid rabbit hole—and what we really should be afraid of when it comes to Trump and Putin.
And in fact, that may be the most surprising aspect of our conversation. Gessen, who says her family’s traumatic experiences in the upheavals of the 20th century in the Soviet Union gave her the “catastrophic imagination” so many Americans lack, now worries not as much about a new Trump-Putin grand bargain selling out our allies as about a falling out between the two tough-guy leaders. In other words, “a nuclear holocaust.”
“The danger,” she says, “of having these two unhinged, power-hungry men at their respective nuclear buttons cannot be overestimated.”
Glasser: Well, hi. I’m Susan Glasser, and welcome back to the Global POLITICO. Joining me today is Masha Gessen, journalist, author, friend, insightful reader of both Russia and these day’s American politics. I couldn’t be happier to be talking with her. I think the last time we sat down, you and I, was in a café in Moscow. And if—as I recall, I actually was like an hour late for our breakfast. Is that right? Masha, do you remember this?
Gessen: I think breakfast sort of turned into dinner. Yes. And I think we talked Pussy Riot the last time we saw each other.
Glasser: Well, that’s right. And then you went on to write a whole book about Pussy Riot.
Glasser: What does Pussy Riot tell us about Donald Trump?
Gessen: Well, Pussy Riot has actually made a video. A series of three videos about Donald Trump. But I think, you know, one of the members of Pussy Riot, actually, Masha, early on—I think it was in the summer—said, “Look, Americans,” you know, “Anything can happen.” We also thought that there were things that were unimaginable, and we were proven wrong.
Glasser: Well, you know—
Gessen: Which I think one of the sagest analyses I’ve heard.
Glasser: Every day we wake up and something unimaginable happens. And I think that’s really the subject of our conversation today. You were one of the first people—as far back as last summer—to write a piece saying, basically, “Think the unthinkable for a moment here. Let’s go through the exercise of what if Donald Trump actually won. And what if,” you know, “All those naysayers, the same people who said he couldn’t win the Republican nomination, what if they’re wrong?”
And walk through what—I think a pretty plausible scenario for what we’re actually watching now. And I was thinking about that in preparation for this conversation today. It seems to me that actually a lot of Russia watchers, Russia hands, almost have a leg up in observing American politics today. And why is it? What are the echoes that we’re hearing here?
Gessen: Well, I think, for one thing, you know, I sometimes brag that I predicted the Trump election. But of course, you know, nobody could have predicted 70,000 votes, a three-county victory. Just such a bizarre victory, right? But I think that we all have our own heuristics. That’s how we sort of understand the world. And my heuristic is basically the unimaginable will happen.
Listen carefully to the most bombastic statements that he makes, because that’s exactly what’s going to be policy. That’s a skill that I think Russia hands developed over the course of 17 years now, of watching Putin. There are huge differences between Trump and Putin, obviously, right? Both in temperament, and in presentation, and in the history, and the political culture that they inherited. But there are some really interesting similarities that I think give us a leg up, as you said, right?
And one of them is, of course, the way that they use language. The way that they lie. The way they assert power over reality. It’s remarkably similar. And I think you develop certain listening skills over the course of a decade-and-a-half of listening to that.
Listen carefully to the most bombastic statements that he makes, because that’s exactly what’s going to be policy.
Glasser: Well, I was really struck, actually, that both you and I had zeroed in, at various times, and in our writing on this. Listen to what he says and don’t make the mistake of discounting what these guys say as the surest pathway, in effect, to understanding what they’re actually going to do.
For me, I’ll tell you, it was actually the moment when Putin used the massacre of the children in Beslan, as the pretext for canceling elections; gubernatorial elections all around Russia. So here you have, you know, this heartbreaking stack of children’s bodies in Southern Russia, and we’re canceling elections, democratic elections, for governorships in Siberia as a result of that. Why? Because it was a plan that they’d been talking about inside the Kremlin for many months. And this just happened to be the triggering event that was used to put it into effect.
And so, for me, that’s the one that I look back on as the most clear-eyed moment of understanding that these guys are going to offer you a guide if you’re able to look and see it. What about for you? What—how did you come to this understanding?
Gessen: Well, it’s actually similar because if you listen to Putin early on, and as you said, with the—the dismantling of the Russian electoral system, he basically—on his first full workday in office, right—the Thursday after inauguration or whatever it was—he put in a legislative proposal that laid out a blueprint for reforming the way that Russia was governed.
And you could see in that proposal that gubernatorial elections were going to go. It was basically eviscerated. Russia is a federation. At that time, it had 89 different members of the federation that had, according to the constitution, pretty significant rights of self-governance, right? I mean, it was on paper, it was a robust sort of federal structure. And you could see that he was going to eviscerate that entire federal structure.
That wasn’t on most people’s radars, but it was also very hard to imagine, right? And I think that that’s part of the reason that we sort of shoved this stuff out of our minds, because if you can’t think your way through something that someone is actually saying that they’re going to do—like build a wall, or, you know, declare war on immigrants—you just kind of assume that it’s impossible, and that you’re better off ignoring what the person is saying.
So I agree. I mean—it’s interesting that you brought up the Beslan massacre and the way that it was used as an excuse to cancel elections. Because I’ve actually been thinking about it a lot. There’s so many lessons in that story, right? And it’s a classic sort of Reichstag fire story in the sense that it was a disaster. A tragedy was used to basically to further political crackdown.
But, you know, we have learned in the last few years that the Reichstag fire was probably not actually set by the Nazis, as was often assumed, because it benefited them that it was a conspiracy. So it’s also a great lesson in the pitfalls of conspiracy thinking.
Glasser: Well, that’s right. So, first of all, let’s go back, for our listeners, to Beslan. They might not remember, but this was the first day of school, September 1, 2004. And basically, a school in southern Russia taken over by militants. And I’ve also been thinking about this a lot for two reasons. One, very personal, I was seven months pregnant at the time with our son. And, you know, this was really an ordeal, to cover a story like that. Number two, this was also a key moment where the Russians asserted, with no evidence—in the—in fact, flagrantly defying the evidence. Well, these were foreign jihadists is what they said. They were foreign terrorists who came in and took over the school. And it was used to justify the canceling of elections all over Russia.
And, of course, it actually turned out that there were no foreign terrorists at all among them, despite what state TV—when they eventually got around to covering it—showed. Actually, when the initial attack happened, you know—you’ll remember—they didn’t even show it on TV. And this issue of the state media versus the rest of us. And, you know, if a tree falls in the forest, if an attack happens, and the state media chooses to show a soap opera or a ballet instead, does it really exist? And I think—
Glasser: —that all of those lessons did come together in this one horrific event that still resonates so many years later. Thirteen years later.
Gessen: Yes. There’s actually another lesson for me in that as well. I mean, I think a lot of us remember Beslan in relationship to our children. For me, I took my oldest son, who is now a senior in high school in New York City, I took him to his first day of school. And I had dropped him off, got in the car, turned on the radio, and there it was, Beslan.
And I went to work. I was editing a magazine at the time. And everybody—
Glasser: In Moscow.
Gessen: —was watching—in Moscow. Everybody was watching television, and we were talking about what was going to happen and how it was going to play out. And everybody in the office was saying, “Well, they’re not going to storm the building because it’s full of children.” And I said, “Of course they’re going to storm the building.”
And the reason I knew they were going to storm the building is because I had spent the previous year at Harvard studying terrorism. And I knew that, in a hostage situation, they always storm the building. It doesn’t happen any other way, right? In the entire sort of history of contemporary terrorism, you’d be hard put to find one example—and there’s actually the one example that come from Russia, but it’s iffy—of a hostage situation, a mass hostage situation like that not being resolved with a storm.
So I said, “Of course they’re going to storm the building.” And that moment has stayed with me. You know, not because I was so smart, but because it was his exercise in imagining the unimaginable. The people in the officer were saying, “They’re not going to storm the building because it’s impossible for us to imagine that anybody would shoot”—or as it turned out, shell—“a building full of children,” right? But, of course, that’s exactly what happened.
Glasser: That’s exactly what happened. And when my husband went down there, he went into a morgue with bodies of little children stacked like cordwood. So expecting the unimaginable in a way that is the line that you’re drawing that connects Russia to this incredible and bizarre moment in American politics today, for you.
I want to talk a little bit about where we are right now. And then back up to why it is, in your life, you’ve figured out this expecting the unimaginable. But recently, you know, American politics has been consumed by Russia. Russia, Russia, Russia, Russia. And you wrote something that a lot of people were surprised by the other day, although I was not. And you said, “Beware the conspiracy trap.”
And that, in fact, the Russia scandal that now threatens to engulf President Trump’s very new presidency, you wrote, “In effect, could be actually helping President Trump and amount to a sort of a colossal distraction for us.” What did you mean by that?
Gessen: Well, a couple things. One is that, if you look at, you know, what we actually know about the Russia story, which changes every day, but what—at this point, what we actually know suggests that the likelihood that there’s going to be a causal link between the Russian interference in the American election and the outcome of the election. The likelihood that was a causal link, and that that causal link can be shown, is basically vanishingly small, right?
So—and I think that part of the reason—there are basically two reasons that a lot of journalists and a lot of activists have been focusing on Russia is because it serves as a crutch for the imagination. And again, I’m coming back to this topic of imagination, which obsesses me.
So one way in which it serves as a crutch for the imagination is that it allows us to imagine that, maybe, Trump will be so sullied by this Russia scandal, by this connection, even if he can’t prove a cause—causal link, just that the darkness of the scandal will be thick enough of a cloud that he will eventually be impeached by a Republican Congress.
That’s a huge leap. And it also, I think, doesn’t take into account the tools—the rhetorical tools that will have to be used to sully Trump in such a way, right? Which are basically xenophobic and, you know, corrosive to the public sphere. And the other way in which it serves as a crutch for the imagination is it also serves to explain how Trump could have happened to us, right? The Russians did it.
Glasser: That’s exactly right; if it’s an external thing. And you wrote that very, very early on. Actually, before this latest round, that the real threat to Trump would be to misunderstand where this comes from. And if it’s not Americans who voted for him, but somehow, it’s a wily, dark conspiracy theory. That leads you down a whole different set of responses to Trump.
Gessen: Right. Which—
Glasser: I think that’s your point.
Gessen: That is my point. And also that it’s destructive to politics. Politics is what happens out in the open. And there’s lots of politics happening, right? There’s this endless barrage of frightening bills being filed at this point. There are the Cabinet appointments. There’s the, you know, dismantling of the federal government as we have known it for generations.
All of that is going on out in the open. And we only have so much bandwidth. If we’re not talking about what’s going on out in the open, if we’re talking about conspiracy instead, then we are, by doing that, destroying the politics that we should be preserving, right? I mean, how do we emerge out the other end, when Trump ends, and Trump will eventually end. Everything ends, right?
If we’ve engaged in conspiracy theorizing this whole time, instead of engaging in politics—and only by engaging in politics can we actually preserve the political space.
Glasser: Now, would you change your mind about this if the FBI, ultimately, comes out and says, “Well, actually, in fact, there was a major collusion between Michael Flynn,” who now—we’re learning just now, more details of the payments that he did receive from Russian government entities and Russian-connected entities. Would that change the way that you think about the nature of the Russian intervention in the American election?
Gessen: I hope so. I mean, I hope that my thinking is evolving and will evolve further. It’s really hard for me to conceive of the kind of proof that they could emerge with that would, you know, change my position on this—on the conspiracy thinking.
And you know, what I mean by “conspiracy thinking” is not that I think that there’s no way that there could have possibly have been a conspiracy. It’s conceivable, right? It’s difficult to imagine, but it’s conceivable. But right now, the story is driven by a lot of intelligence leaks, right, which are, you know—can’t be contextualized, can’t be independently corroborated. That’s corrosive, again, to public space, and to the media in particular. And it’s also increasingly just being driven by plain, old fake news.
Which is really frightening in the sense that, you know, what we saw actually leading up to the election was that the liberal part of the political spectrum wasn’t susceptible to fake news. It’s not that there were no attempts to float fake news on the liberal side. It’s that they didn’t get a lot of traction. They didn’t get the kind of shares that fake news was getting on the right.
Gessen: That’s changed, apparently.
Glasser: Well, that’s—you know, the point is, anytime one side in American politics thinks that they have the monopoly on virtue, and that it’s the other side that is susceptible to a tactic, or a new weapon, you know, that always is proved false. And no one party is the master of Twitter.
Glasser: And no one party is the good guy forever when it comes to fake news. You wrote, in your piece on this, “Modern Russian spymasters get their ideas about the West from the West itself. They are generally convinced that the American political system is accurately portrayed by House of Cards. If Russian disruption efforts were more successful during the 2016 American election, it’s not because the Russians have become so much better at what they do, or have finally developed a sophisticated understanding of American politics. It is because American politics have come to resemble the TV caricatures.”
A lot of days, it feels like we’re living in a reality show, doesn’t it? [LAUGHTER] But I think—
Gessen: I think we might be.
Glasser: There are two different conversations, right? And it’s—I think you and I are finding it hard, even in this conversation. We have, on the one hand, we have the Trump/Putin conversation, which is to say, “what’s happened to American politics and how does it, or does it not, resemble the trend toward authoritarianism that we both experienced in different ways, in Russia, under Vladimir Putin.”
So that’s one bucket of issues. And then there’s this other bucket of issues. Which is the permanent machinery of scandal, and how the American political system works when there is an investigation that spirals into a series of things. And in that sense, Russiagate is not that dissimilar from Benghazi. It’s not that dissimilar from emailgate. It’s not that dissimilar from, you know, its progenitor, many iterations ago, of Watergate itself.
And so you really have these interrelated issues, but I find that these conversations keep getting merged. So I’d like to take us back into the Russia-Putin conversation for a second, because that tells us the story—or at least the beginning of the story—of Masha Gessen, and why you’re a guest on The Global POLITICO today.
Let’s go all the way back. The very first time I really remember encountering your work in a big way is an editor at the Washington Post book review asked me to review a fascinating book that you wrote about your two grandmothers, Ester and Ruzya.
Gessen: That was a long time ago.
Glasser: That was a long time ago. That was in 2005, right?
Gessen: Maybe even, ’04, yes.
Glasser: Yeah. Right after Beslan, and right after I returned here to Washington. How did you end up being this creature of both Russia and America? Why is it that you came, because of your life experience and your biography, in a way, to expect the unimaginable?
Gessen: My family immigrated to the States in 1981, when I was 14. And I think that accident of having been 14, as opposed to, I don’t know, 10, or 20, it really, really made a huge difference. I was young enough to learn to write in English, as a first language, and to really be shaped by this country; by going to high school and then to college in this country. But I was old enough to maintain my Russian and to, you know, to pass in Moscow, when I started going back to Moscow in the early ’90s and reporting, and to really feel a very, very strong pull to be there. Partly, because it became the most interesting place in the world when I was a journalist going there in the early ’90s. But also because I felt very much at home.
So it’s that very strange age which also happens to be the age at which I brought my older two kids to the States, when they themselves became immigrants three years ago. So I was educated here in the States, and then I went back. And I became a journalist here, and I worked, actually, in the gay press in the ’80s, and up through the early ’90s, covering AIDS.
And then—that was such a devastating beat that I’d been on for several years, that when the opportunity arose, and that I went to Moscow on a magazine story. And it was such a much more life-affirming place, in addition to being the most interesting place in the world, that I gradually drifted back. And by the end of ’93, I was living in Moscow, and then I stayed there for 20 years working as—first as an American correspondent, and then I started writing in Russian as well, and was editing magazines in Moscow.
Glasser: So this is basically the period of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the sort of uncertainty, but newfound freedom, of the early 1990s that you found yourself in. But it turned you back to writing about and thinking about this sort of amazing and unlikely story of how your own grandparents had survived the cataclysmic events of the 20th century in Russia and in Eastern Europe.
Gessen: So, I think because I had been out of the country for 10 years, and I hadn’t seen my own grandmothers in 10 years, I didn’t take them for granted. I didn’t take their stories for granted. I sort of re-met them when I went back to Moscow. And for a while, I was this crazy person who was running around Moscow, telling everybody, “Interview your grandparents before they go,” you know?
And nobody wanted to listen. And then, of course, it became a fad like 20 years later. But in the early ’90s, it was really too early for people try to delve into this history of the mid-20th century. But I ended up writing a book. All the interviews that I did with my grandmothers, I did in the ’90s. So it was very soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I didn’t write the book until later.
But they, you know—I wanted to write a book about sort of the nature of collaboration and resistance. So it ended up being this odd book with a novella in the middle of it. A long chapter on my great-grandfather, who sort of became the existential hero of the book. Where I had grown up knowing that my great-grandfather had been a leader of the resistance in the Bialystok Ghetto, and the leader of the Bialystok Ghetto uprising; that he had smuggled arms into the Bialystok Ghetto.
And when I went to Bialystok to research his life, I found out that the reason he was in a position to smuggle arms into the Bialystok Ghetto was because he was the de facto leader of the Judenrat, the Jewish self-governance in the Bialystok Ghetto. He’d also been a man who had, from everything I could gather, he had actually, personally compiled lists of Jews to be liquidated in the ghetto.
So it became this—you know, the story of both collaboration and resistance on an extreme scale. If that wasn’t too much detail. But I’ve been—you know, I’ve been obviously obsessed with these issues of moral choice in totalitarian societies for a long, long time.
Glasser: Well, that’s right. And how did your grandmothers and your conversations with them, at the end of their lives, how I did that help prepare you, do you think, for understanding Vladimir Putin, when he first came to power at the end of 1999?
Gessen: Well, I think that it certainly gave me a catastrophic imagination. [LAUGHTER] Because—and you know, I’ve gone around the world, asking people for their backstories about imagination. And one of my favorites is my publisher in Australia is—he’s the child of Holocaust survivors, who were living in Paris, doing quite well in the early 1950s, and the Korean War started, and they decided that was clearly going to be a nuclear war. And so they immigrated to Australia; picked up their stuff in Paris and immigrated to Australia.
And I thought, “Right, of course, because they’re Holocaust survivors.” You know, they had a catastrophic imagination. So I think because I interviewed my grandmothers in such detail, I sort of inherited that catastrophic imagination. Not just, you know, genetically, but also verbally. So I think that helped. I looked at Putin and was terrified from the very beginning. That makes me look very prescient because he actually turned out to be exactly the monster that I thought he was. I could also have been proven wrong, but I wasn’t.
Glasser: A lot of people ask me all the time, and I’m sure they ask you, “Could things have turned out differently?” Was Vladimir Putin really destined to become, not only inside Russia, the sort of authoritarian that he is, but also basically to have moved to revise the world order outside of Russia’s borders? Do you think that was preordained? That he was always going to take back Crimea? That he was always going to want to project force back outside of Russia’s borders?
Gessen: You know, I actually don’t think that anything is preordained. I mean, I certainly think that there’s—if Yeltsin had picked another bureaucrat instead of Putin, it’s likely that things wouldn’t have gotten so bad. There is sort of a perfect storm of Putin’s personality, and the kind of nostalgia for a great power, and even I would say nostalgia for totalitarianism; for sort of the mechanisms of totalitarianism. The sense of—the extreme sense of belonging. The constant mobilization. The constant motion of totalitarianism that he tapped into.
But we have to be aware, right, that it’s his personality plus what he was tapping into. Plus, of course, the way that the world has treated him, which was, you know, giving him a lot of leeway, certainly at the beginning of his reign, to transform the society that he was taking over. I mean, the West didn’t really start—getting, you know, serious with Putin until after 2012.
Glasser: Well, I mean there were bouts of it. Clearly, at the beginning, the West had a massive failure to compute. You know, it had all these data points. It had a fairly clear understanding. It had a segment of society inside Russia that was very clear from the beginning. But it couldn’t put them all together. It preferred the “Who is Mr. Putin” narrative to the “We know who Mr. Putin is” narrative. And that happened, clearly, for a pretty long time.
But, you could argue, by the time of the Georgia War, certainly George W. Bush even had changed his mind about the guy. He famously looked into his eyes and saw his soul at their first meeting in 2001. I would say, even by 2003, 2004, when the Iraq War came, Putin was violently against that and he lashed out at, if you’ll remember, Tony Blair. And I think both Blair and Bush, his buddy, were shocked by that, and understood that Putin was not the partner that they would have him be.
Now, again, define “get serious about it.” Really, you’re talking about the actual sanctions that were imposed on Russia, and the decision, in a policy sense, right, to, in effect, say, “We are drawing lines and we’re one team, and they’re on the other.” Is that what you mean by that?
Gessen: Yes. I mean, actually, when I sort of hesitated before naming a year, I sort of mentally ran through the 2003, 2004 data point. And then then the 2008 data point. I thought, “No, I’m going to land on 2012,” because I think I’m talking about a combination of policy and public opinion.
And I think that public opinion, which was very difficult to measure, but that’s my sense of it. And part of my sense of it comes from working in the American media, and also writing through most of—a lot for the British media as well, right? Sort of what editors perceive as readers wanting and expecting what their own sort of concept of the bigger narrative is. And I remember that like in 2003, 2004, I was being driven crazy by requests that suddenly started coming, to write about Putin’s so-called “authoritarian tendencies.”
It was like the guy had already taken over the media, dismantled elections, had basically instituted autocracy in Russia. And it was a little too late to talk about authoritarian tendencies. I—and I think, you know, that’s sort of where we were in 2003, 2004. But the Georgia War, it blew over so quickly. And it partly blew over so quickly because there was this weird sort of Medvedev/Putin duality. And there was this idea—especially in policy circles—that if Medvedev could be cultivated, then there could be a better relationship with Russia. And that Medvedev could be empowered from the outside, and become sort of the real president of Russia, and then things would get better.
So I think that 2012, and I think also, for the media-consuming public, in 2008, Russia was just incredibly confusing. What happened in 2012, I’m not even talking about sanctions because sanctions didn’t come until a bit later. I think, weirdly, actually, one of the major points was the arrest of Pussy Riot. I think that had a huge impact on public opinion, and sort of an understanding of how to talk about the Putin regime, right?
Because it was suddenly—it went from being a weird, amorphous regime to a regime that puts girls in prison for dancing.
Glasser: Well, that’s right. Outside of the country, clearly, it had that sort of head-snapping, “Oh, this is the kind of thing that tin-pot dictators do when they don’t like what people say about them.” And it did seem to be a moment in the West. And of course, here in the United States, in 2012, was the presidential campaign. And you had this fascinating moment, right, in hindsight, where Mitt Romney says, “Yes. Russia is the greatest geopolitical threat that America faces.” And Barack Obama laughed at him. And we forget that.
Glasser: He laughed at him. Flash forward to today and our politics. And I do want to get back to what’s happening here in the United States today. And you have, again, kind of the imaginable. Now, Democrats are the Russia hawks and are driving the story, and are absolutely looking for every opportunity to prove themselves to be even tougher on Russia.
Marco Rubio, who used to be a Russia hawk, is nowhere to be found anymore. Republicans, the polls show, have completely flipflopped in their view of Putin and Russia. And in fact have gone from being the party whose public seemed to support much tougher measures against Russia, to going along with Donald Trump’s view of Putin as a strong man, a leader, a guy we can do business with. How is this possible?
Gessen: It is possible. So, I mean, I think it’s—it really does screw with the way, I think, Americans imagine that ideology works. Because I remember, again, when I was talking about Putin publicly, and basically, I’ve been, you know—nonstop on the lecture circuit in this country since my Putin book came out in March 2012.
So I now have five years of experience with mostly university audiences, but all over the country, sort of talking to people, and hearing the kind of questions that they have. And it used to be that people would say, “But wait a second. How can you say that Putin is,” you know, “A proto-totalitarian, or a retro-totalitarian leader when he as no ideology?” And you have to backtrack, and actually talk about how ideology works, and how mutable ideology is, and how it is—it becomes infinitely more mutable when, you know—at times of crisis and sort of at times of societal mobilization.
I think, in hindsight, when we, you know, think about Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, in part because we think of them, in hindsight, based on text, and text seems—you know, text presents a coherent ideology, most of the time, it makes narratives where there were not narratives in the first place. But we think that there was, you know—there were these grand ideological constructions that stayed constant, and—and that create the framework within which everything happened.
And in fact, those historical events mostly happened in this cacophony. And the Soviet and Nazi leaders, in fact, had this uncanny ability to flip things around, right? Destroy the family, destroy the bourgeoisie. The family is the bedrock of communist society. I mean, Stalin went from one to the other within a year, right? And that’s just one example of sort of the mutability of ideology, which is a really longwinded way of answering your question. But—
Glasser: It’s the mutability of ideology, but also the mutability of fact, which gets to the role of us journalists in all of this. One thing I’m struck by was the very first sort of act you saw Trump and Steve Bannon undertaking when they came into the White House was this move, right, literally, the same day as the inauguration, to brand the press as the opposition party.
Perhaps, they saw the Democrats as being sort of hopelessly weak and disorganized, and it was really a recognition of the strength of journalists. But there was a very concerted effort, you’ll remember in January, to say, “The press is the opposition party.” And that struck me as very much a very loud echo, if you will, of what Putin’s first moves were in his very beginning period of time in office; when he didn’t have the power and the resources that he has now. Why?
Gessen: Exactly. Well, it’s actually amazing how similar all of their first moves are, right? Basically, Trump’s significant first moves have been twofold. To marginalize the media, and to start dismantling the federal government. Putin’s first moves were to “other” and marginalize the media, and to raid the media. And to completely reform the way that Russia was governed, to concentrate power in the federal center, right?
These are very—they’re actually sort of—their moves in terms of federal reform are going in the opposite directions, but it’s still—they’re still revolutionary, right? It’s the end of government as we know it. I didn’t find it at all surprising. [LAUGHS]
Glasser: It’s an awkward thing, though. For American journalists with our previous code of objectivity and this belief, we didn’t think of ourselves as an opposition party, right? We saw ourselves as the fourth branch of government, and performing this sort of almost sacred function in American democracy. And really, although there’s been a partisan tinge to comments about the media every four years, you would certainly have, usually, Republican candidate’s media bashing as part of their campaigns.
In reality, I would say since Watergate, it’s been more or less a sort of fixed or settled notion here in Washington, the role that the press plays in our democracy. And that more or less, without fear or favor, and that, you know, George W. Bush maybe didn’t like the media more than others, but you can’t say that Bill Clinton and the excavations of his personal life—he wouldn’t accept the idea that reporters only went after Republicans.
And so, basically, there was almost like a truce. There was a standoff here in Washington in which both parties understood that there was this almost separate institution, the press, and it was going to beat them up, and they were going to hate it most of the time. But that it would also be used against the other guys.
That social contract has been sort of shattered and eroded, and I don’t know that it gets put back together. But I think that’s where you have journalists right now feeling deeply uncomfortable with this notion of them as the opposition party. But you saw what happened to your Russian colleagues, in Moscow, over the period of time that Putin was consolidating power. You, sometimes, were working for Western institutions, covering that, so you had a little bit of a different—more of a cushion, perhaps.
But do Russians inherently understand more what it means to be an opposition journalist and do your job in a situation like this? Are we really all in the same boat?
Gessen: You know, actually Russia is not where I would look. And not where I’ve been looking for understanding how this is done now. Where I would look is outside the national press in the United States. There’s a rich tradition in the United States of community media and activist journalism, right? I men—I mentioned that I got my training in the gay press during the AIDS crisis.
And I think if you—there’s a wonderful NYU media scholar, Jay Rosen, who’s been writing about we need to sort of change our framework to reporting from the outside in because we’re losing access. And I have a couple of issues with what he has been writing. One of which is that I don’t want to over-romanticize the idea of losing access and reporting from the outside in.
Losing access is a net loss, right? You get less information if you lose access. But at the same time, there are—we have a lot of experience in this country, and in this language, and in this political culture of reporting from the outside in. And—working for the gay press, for example. I mean, nobody was going to invite me to briefings. Nobody was going to train me to cover the Food and Drug Administration. I had to figure it out on my own using the expertise of activists primarily, right?
And nobody was going to train me to—you know, to invite me to briefings at major health conferences, right? Or to even accredit me early on at major health conferences. And I had to teach myself to read medical papers, which has come in very handy over the course of my life and writing career.
So we have the experience of reporting from the outside, and we have the experience of being perceived and positioned, you know, as hostile actors by the government. I’m not—you know, I’m not trying to glorify that position. That’s a really difficult position to be in, and I think it does lend itself, sometimes, to like the kind of trafficking conspiracy theories that we’re seeing in relationship to Russia right now.
But it also—you can get a lot of skills from it, and a lot of sort of—I don’t know—personal affirmation from the fact that it has existed and it has worked. And I think that some media outlets, and I think not coincidentally, ones without a hugely long sort of institutional memory, have, I think, reinvented themselves much faster. Like I think that, you know, the work that Propublica has been doing has just been so well—the intonation of it has been just right. Like I think they found it.
And I think the New York Times is really scrambling. It’s a much bigger ship to try to turn. But there’s been some amazing stuff there too.
Glasser: Well, do you think that the press then should proudly wear this label of opposition party, or reject it?
Gessen: No. I would reject it. I don’t think it’s useful. I mean, I think if the project is to unseat Trump, then we can call the press the opposition party. If the project is—and I would argue this is what the project is—to protect the public space, protect politics, save politics, really, then that—you know, then we should not be calling ourselves the opposition party. We should be calling ourselves—you know, considering ourselves as the saviors of—the protectors of the public sphere.
Glasser: Well, and this is where that Russia conversation and the American conversation merges right back into one again. You wrote in the New York Times recently, “I’ve been here before. As Putin consolidated power in Russia, it became more and more difficult for journalists to report facts. We lost access to many institutions, while others became progressively less trustworthy. With the president often lying or obfuscating and all the government brought under the control of the executive branch, we could no longer look to the courts, the police, or other state institutions to learn or corroborate facts, if we could anyone to talk to us all. Reality became squishy.”
And I thought that was an incredibly on-point description of the environment as we experienced it. You know, we were the frogs boiling slowly in the water in the first years of Putin. More and more people who just wouldn’t return our phone calls. Things that didn’t quite make sense. And by the way, when I looked up that article the other day, I noticed that the New York Times was running their new ad campaign at the bottom the thing that says, “Truth — because it matters now more than ever.”
So you have this convergence of two stories that you and I probably never thought would merge. I think, maybe, your “expect the unimaginable,” or at least “imagine it” mantra of going through life has made you better prepared than most. So Masha, I’ll leave our conversation with this: what should we expect next? What are the scenarios that keep you up at night with your imagination?
Gessen: Oh, the nuclear holocaust is my primary worry. But—
Glasser: You know, why—cut straight to the big stuff. You know, never mind the littler crises. Any particular nuclear scenario?
Gessen: I’m worried about Russia. I’m—this is—I mean, we’re already out of the honeymoon phase, and it’s been less than two months. And I think it’s—I mean, the danger of having these two unhinged power-hungry men at their—respective nuclear buttons cannot be overestimated. But—
Glasser: So you would see them as potential enemies as much as potential friends? That this scenario—
Gessen: Oh, absolutely.
Glasser: —we should worry about is Trump versus Putin, not just Trump and Putin uniting?
Gessen: Right. I’m actually worried about a collision with them.
Gessen: The Trump/Putin collision. But, you know, as useful as I think it has been for me to think back to the early Putin days, and the middle Putin days, [LAUGHS] to understand what’s happening here, there are some huge differences, right? And one difference, weirdly, is just how fast Trump is moving, right?
He is not—you said, you know, we’re the frogs boiling slowly, there is no sensation of slow boil in this environment, right? This is just the barrage of disasters, which is something that’s not very familiar to those of us who are trying to report the Putin story. In fact, the Putin story, much like, I’d say, the Orban story, right, in Hungary, was unsettling because it left a little too slowly. And then there were like long periods of what passed for normality in betweenmajor blows to the world as we know it.
That’s definitely not the—what we’re experiencing here, and that gives me a little bit of hope, right, because certainly we’re in no danger of losing our sense of outrage at what’s going on.
Glasser: I’m feeling a little whipsawed, though. You can’t feel a little hope and be worried about nuclear holocaust. Well, I mean, I guess—
Gessen: But you can’t or you can?
Glasser: Well, I—
Gessen: Oh, yeah. Totally. I have a little hope that the nuclear holocaust doesn’t happen. [LAUGHS] I have a little hope that even the damage—you know, the preordained damage to the climate, that this administration is going to do, can be somehow mitigated after it’s over. These are all tiny hopes. I have a little hope that America’s, you know, amazingly robust and wealthy civil society, which is unlike any other civil society in the world ever, will change the situation, or will make it progress differently.
Glasser: But basically, you see it as a sort of a liberal fantasy, the idea that the Republicans are going to rise up and unseat Trump. You view him as with us for the foreseeable future, even with these Russia investigations?
Gessen: I do view him as with us for the foreseeable future. I could obviously be wrong. But just to—if you think about sort of all the hurdles that would have to be overcome on the way to an impeachment, and—most of them, again, are out in the open. It’s a Republican Congress. We are now another couple of months closer to the next election. Most of the people who will be voting on these Congress members—in these Congress members’ elections are people who voted for Trump.
It will take something mammoth to reverse it, and that mammoth thing is made so much less likely by the bubble in which so many Trump—the information bubble in which so many Trump voters live.
Glasser: Information bubble. This coming week in Congress, we’ll hear a little bit more about the Russia scandal, and the investigation, and how it unfolds, and the next chapter. But I feel pretty safe in saying that, Masha, you and I could have this conversation a week from now, two weeks from now, and there would still be this extraordinary confluence between what we know about Vladimir Putin and what we’re seeing unfold with Donald Trump here in the United States.
So I can’t think of anyone better to talk about these issues with than you. And I’m delighted we’ve gotten the chance to do so. Thank you so much for joining me this week on The Global POLITICO, Masha.
Gessen: Thank you, Susan.
Glasser: Excellent. Well—and thank you to all of our listeners. You can, of course, always subscribe to us at The Global POLITICO on iTunes. I hope you’ll rate us. Give us feedback. Send me an email any time at SGlasser@POLITICO.com. Thanks again to Masha Gessen and to all of you.
SUSAN B. GLASSER
Susan B. Glasser is POLITICO’s chief international affairs columnist and host of its new weekly podcast, The Global Politico.
Glasser, who served as founding editor of the award-winning POLITICO Magazine and went on to become editor of POLITICO throughout the 2016 election cycle, has reported everywhere from the halls of Congress to the battle of Tora Bora. The former editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, she spent four years traveling the former Soviet Union as the Washington Post’s Moscow co-bureau chief, covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and co-authored “Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin and the End of Revolution,” with her husband, New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker. They’re now working on a biography of former Secretary of State Jim Baker.