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'Anxiety Is The Autocrat's Friend': Putin Expert Warns About Trump

Author Masha Gessen, and authority on Putin and his authoritarian tactics, gives advice on how to counter the autocrats' playbook.
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Masha Gessen, authority on Putin, Russia and autocracy, joined AM Joy on Sunday morning to talk about how we can best deal with the torrent of insanity that Donald Trump is unleashing on the American people right now. Her advice is so needed as we head into these crucial 2 months before election day, where the craziness is already ratcheted up to an 11.

GESSEN: Thank you so much for having me, thank you for the kind words. When Trump was first elected I wrote an essay called 'Autocracy rules for survival.' This was an attempt to talk about what I learned in my many years of living in Putin's Russia and writing about Putin and what I thought Americans might not realize was might be awaiting us and unfortunately I was right. There are a lot of things that I learned that really did happen here. I think the most important is the destruction of institutions. I think Americans have this incredible faith in our institutions as basically the civil religion and institutions can't function in a vacuum. They can't function in the face of the bad actor which is what donald Trump has proved to me.

HOST: One of the questions that I had for you that really struck is this idea that Putin oftentimes likes to deploy anxiety among the Russian people to ensure that they kind -- he becomes a magnet back to them. We are seeing very similar tactics right now with Trump, with the anxiety that he seems to want to talk about all around law and order. Can you speak a bit to that?

GESSEN: You know, anxiety is the autocrat's wrath. I think Trump got elected in large part by speaking to the anxieties of American people. Anxieties that are there. Economic anxieties. Anxiety in the face of the certain and unclear future and a future -- you know, we don't have a common vision about. So Trump manipulates the anxieties quite masterfully, and this is what we saw with autocrats. They say I'm going to take you back to the imaginary past when you felt comfortable, when the world wasn't changing all around you and when things that scared you weren't on your doorstep. Donald Trump has just ramped it up, right? It's a fascinating thing because he is president, right? He should be taking responsibility for this, but again, we see this all over the world. We have seen this with Putin who casts about and says, we're on the verge of catastrophe. I'm the only person who can save us, even though he brought the country to the verge of catastrophe.

HOST: So how can voters really become clear eyed to this as a tactic of creating anxiousness, to continue with the same versus fear of what an alternative person can look like? How can people combat that? I think that's an essence that we can control if we're enlightened with what is happening around us?

GESSEN: Well, I think naming it is the first step. I think that understanding the tactics, right? I think that stepping into the traps that Trump lays is something -- it's difficult to avoid. He's actually -- it's always a trap because whenever he says something, no matter how much of a law it is, we in the media are in the position of amplifying it. How can we lessen the damage, how can we reduce the harm from these statements, anxiety provoking statements and plain lies. One way is by calling lies lies by resisting the urge to keep raising the bar for calling something a lie. It doesn't have to be an outrageous lie but we have to call it a lie instead of saying it's an unsubstantiated statement. Call it a lie. And approach Trumpism as a system. Talk about what he's actually doing. When he lies. When he talks about law and order, right? Don't step into the trap of talking about law and order. Talk about Trumpism instead.

HOST: And I try to tell my kids, a lie is a lie. They're 6 and 8. But my last question to you which I thought was really revelatory, you made a distinction between Trump and his nationalism versus Putin and his nationalism. You hint at the fact that Putin heads Russia but he still deeply loves his country but it's cross to bear. You're saying that's not necessarily the case, that Trump is not patriotic. Can you speak to those differences and why you think this?

GESSEN: It's amazing to me that we have a leader that is even more cynical than Vladimir Putin. That is something where even my imagination would have stalled. I have a great catastrophic imagination, but I think what Putin has -- he has created for himself a sort of a personal myth that he bears the cross of Russia only his shoulder and the reason he has to change the constitution and make himself president for life is because it would indeed fall apart without him. It's crazy, you know, it's a delusion. It's a self-aggrandizing illusion, but not as cynical as what Donald Trump is doing, which is just -- I don't think he has a concept of that.

And that is really it. Trump is a fake patriot and he thrives on chaos. He is a chaos agent who makes us all feel anxiety at a catastrophic level every single day. He is trying to wear us down. He is trying to flood our emotions. And we need to do everything we can to keep in check, not take the bait on "law and order" and focus on what is really happening.

And most importantly - VOTE.

This is part of our continuing coverage of the 2020 elections.

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