What History Says About The Future Of Autocracy : Throughline Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen talks to us about how the rule of the people becomes the rule of the one, the role of the media, and what we can learn about the building blocks of autocracy from the work of philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt, and what history tells us are the ways to dismantle it.
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The Anatomy Of Autocracy: Masha Gessen

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The Anatomy Of Autocracy: Masha Gessen

The Anatomy Of Autocracy: Masha Gessen

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MIRIAM SHULZ: (Reading) This moment of anticipation is like the calm that settles after all hopes have died.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADOLF HITLER: (Speaking German).

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

In 1933, when she was 27 years old, writer and philosopher Hannah Arendt was forced to flee Germany for France as the Nazis rose to power and autocrats ascended worldwide.

SHULZ: (Reading) In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world, the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.

MASHA GESSEN: Hannah Arendt wrote about the preconditions for creating a totalitarian movement.

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) Nothing perhaps illustrates the general disintegration of political life better than this vague, pervasive hatred of everybody and everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Withdrawing from the disarmament conference, resigning from the League of Nations, Hitler has frayed the world's nerves afresh.

GESSEN: She talked about mass displacement. She talked about economic anxiety.

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) The hatred consequently turned in all directions, haphazardly and unpredictably.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: German Jews lost their citizenship. They lost the right even to call themselves German.

GESSEN: She also thought that imperialism and anti-Semitism - but I would say racism - are essential elements, right? It has built against other people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking German).

GESSEN: There also has to be sensitive of anxiety about losing status in which people don't feel like they have a clear identity.

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) It is only natural that these masses, in the first helplessness of the new experience, have tended toward an especially violent nationalism.

GESSEN: Heeding the call of somebody who says, you know, we're going to show them - these people who don't represent us yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This year, they say there are 800,000 pairs of boots standing heel to heel waiting for the Fuhrer's final speech.

GESSEN: We're going to destroy their system.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Enemy bombers traveled hundreds of miles an hour. Every town is a target. Any town is a target.

ABDELFATAH: Hannah was forced to leave Europe for New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Warning all patrols. Air raid warning. Clear all streets, and stop incoming traffic.

ABDELFATAH: A battle for the future of the world had begun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: They're heading in this direction.

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) Factuality itself depends for its continued existence upon the existence of the non-totalitarian world.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And on this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, the Anatomy of Autocracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GESSEN: You can never predict the particulars. You know, I never could have imagined, you know, a guy in pajama pants and horns walking around the Capitol.

ABDELFATAH: A few weeks after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and just a week after the inauguration of a new president there, Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen, who writes for The New Yorker and focuses on autocratic regimes, among other things, is still thinking about how the United States ended up here with its democracy under attack.

GESSEN: We had a president who was very clearly inciting political violence for years and also a president who ahead of the election was casting doubt consistently on the election - basically telling people that it was going to be stolen no matter what. So while I'm shocked, I'm not at all surprised.

ABDELFATAH: And the words of Hannah Arendt, the writer, political theorist and philosopher who lived through World War II and much of the Cold War have been swirling around in Masha's mind.

GESSEN: The person who defined totalitarianism, totalitarian movements in the sense that we understand them is Hannah Arendt, which, by the way, she thought was possible anywhere.

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist.

GESSEN: She didn't think it was somehow specific to Germany and the Soviet Union.

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) But people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.

ARABLOUEI: There has been a lot of discussion lately about how words like totalitarian, insurrection, autocrat feel un-American - something that plagues other places not here. But Masha says that any country can become an autocracy.

GESSEN: Autocracy is the power of one person unchecked by elected officials, unchecked by the courts, unchecked by the media, unaccountable to the public.

ABDELFATAH: In other words, authoritarian regimes in which nothing and no one can stand in the way of their power.

ARABLOUEI: Masha has written several books digging into the anatomy of a autocracy, including one called "Surviving Autocracy" and another called "The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia."

ABDELFATAH: And like Timothy Snyder, a historian we talked to last week, Masha says there are no one-to-one parallels in history. But there are some symptoms and patterns, which people like Hannah Arendt observed, that can help us contextualize what we're seeing today.

ARABLOUEI: So in this episode, we're going to look at how and why countries make the transition to autocracy, the role the media plays and how the stories we tell about our past factor into all of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAURA LACHANCE: Hi. This is Laura LaChance (ph) calling from Austin, Texas, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. Love your show. Keep up the good work. Thanks. Bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: During the many years that Masha Gessen spent living in Russia, reporting on, among other things, the rise of Vladimir Putin, they spent a lot of time thinking about how a country morphs into an autocracy, how one person - the ruler, the autocrat - comes to control everything. And sure, there's no playbook. But autocratic regimes throughout history do seem to share a few things in common and tend to develop in three stages.

GESSEN: Autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough and autocratic consolidation - so autocratic attempt is the stage when it is still possible to reverse the autocratic attempt through electoral means. So an autocrat comes to - an aspiring autocrat comes to power and has to find ways of carrying out an agenda and creating the preconditions for autocratic power with a set of existing institutions.

ABDELFATAH: Institutions like the courts, the media, Congress or Parliament...

GESSEN: And so what we see usually is, on the one hand, attacks on the credibility of the institutions, on the other hand, the use of institutional weaknesses to make them pliable and to make them part of the autocratic attempt. And then, of course, we see a lot of public lying - right? - where nothing is true, where everything is possible, where there's a kind of informational haze. And that's part of what makes it possible to then use institutions every which way.

And at some point comes the autocratic breakthrough, which is when there are structural changes that make it impossible to unseat the autocrat electorally. Now, these countries continue to have elections. It's just those elections can't have an impact on autocratic power for a variety of reasons - electoral rules change, the media are taken over or, you know, they come under autocratic domination. There's mass voter disenfranchisement. There's, you know, the rigging of the counting of votes.

And then the last issue is autocratic consolidation - when the autocrat is firmly in power and starts consolidating that power and amassing more wealth and more power. We are at a stage of possible autocratic breakthrough. We've lived through an autocratic attempt for four years, and Donald Trump has been trying to stage an autocratic breakthrough. That's the stage that we're at.

ARABLOUEI: Just taking - kind of zooming out for a second away from institutions and actually to the lives that people are living in this country and the conditions in which they're living under, there's been a lot made about kind of the historical trend of white supremacy in America and the kind of, like, ethnic tensions that have existed here. But given the fact that we're in a pandemic, that economic stressors are hitting the American people at unprecedented levels, how much do you think those outside factors - poverty, the pandemic, the kind of chaos in information and the way people access information - lay the groundwork for a totalitarian movement?

GESSEN: Well, I mean, that's - that is exactly the groundwork for a totalitarian movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GESSEN: And I think we very much see that in the United States now. Another person that I'm thinking of was Erich Fromm, who was a social psychologist. Fromm, as a psychologist, talked more about the anxiety and sort of the overwhelming sense of a terrifying future, the inability to move into the future in which one doesn't have a place. And again, this is the sort of sense of a lack of belonging and wanting somebody who comes to you and says, OK, you give over agency, and I'm going to give you certainty.

ABDELFATAH: And that's a comforting - right? Like, that's such a comforting thought when you're in the midst of all the chaos.

GESSEN: Right. Somebody promises to be in charge.

ABDELFATAH: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought, for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: One of the ideas that you've written about when it comes to Hannah Arendt is this idea of the banality of evil - right? - and sort of this indifference that kind of develops between the people who are in positions of power, the kind of elite, and then the people who are part of the movement that they're creating and suffering a lot of the consequences of the actions of those in power. And I wonder if that's what we're seeing in some ways in the U.S.

GESSEN: Well, when she wrote about totalitarian movements, mass movements - and she used the words mass and mob - she actually wrote about temporary alliances between elites and the masses.

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) The temporary alliance between the elite and the mob rested largely on this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability.

GESSEN: So what we're seeing now is not at all new, right? She described that exact thing, where, like, we have the elites calling on the masses to mobilize them, to sort of bring them in to demand representation from people that they feel have left them out of politics, while the elites have not been left out of politics.

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) The true goal of totalitarian propaganda is not persuasion but organization - the accumulation of power without the possession of the means of violence. What convinces masses are not facts and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.

GESSEN: And of course, what we saw during the insurgency and in the wake of the insurgency is the extent to which the system actually does represent those people, in which it does see them as part of itself. Otherwise, we wouldn't have been able to see them enter the Capitol and nearly take over and, you know, come within a hair's breadth of actually, physically, by force, usurping power - something that a large crowd of people who are other to that power wouldn't have been able to do. They just wouldn't have been able to get so physically close.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: I'm having trouble wrapping my brain around the fact that many leaders, totalitarian leaders of the past, they articulated an ideology or a vision for the future. And in the case of Donald Trump, that doesn't seem to be the case. I at least cannot discern a cohesive ideology or vision for the future. How do you think that's become so appealing and so effective, despite not having that?

GESSEN: Yeah. You know, I'm a huge skeptic when it comes to talk of ideology.

ARABLOUEI: Interesting.

GESSEN: I think that in general, sort of historians have a particular built-in bias, which is that historians work with text. Text exists to create stories. Stories give us ideologies, give us purpose, give us meaning retroactively. If you read, for example, diaries of Nazi Germany, of which there are many, you will see over and over people saying, Hitler has no ideology. It's a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas. He keeps changing his positions based on who he's talking to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) Both Hitler and Stalin held out promises of stability in order to hide their intention of creating a state of permanent instability.

GESSEN: The way Arendt saw Hitler's ideology - and she wrote about ideology a lot, but not in a way that you probably would intuitively imagine she wrote about ideology. She didn't write about ideology as coherent thinking or as a system - as a worldview. She wrote about ideology as definitely a bad thing, as a kind of unthinking system.

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) The last century has produced an abundance of ideologies that pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.

GESSEN: And she broke down the word ideology into its component parts, one idea taken to its logical extreme to derive from this ideological thinking the laws of history, right? So if history is inexorably moving in that direction, then we can help history along. And so they see themselves as agents of history. So then they go start - go about exterminating the other masses because the laws of history dictate that that be done. In the case of Germany, the idea that the Aryan race would come to rule the world...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) Few ideologies have won enough prominence to survive the hard competitive struggle of persuasion, and only two have come out on top and essentially defeated all others - the ideology which interprets history as an economic struggle of classes and the other that interprets history as a natural fight of races. Great masses of people will no longer accept a presentation of past or present facts that is not in agreement with either of these views.

GESSEN: So do we have something comparable now? I think retroactively - if, God forbid, a totalitarian movement takes power in the United States, we can retroactively apply some kind of ideology to it. We will be able to derive it later, right? What does make America great again mean?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GESSEN: You know, if it gets to the point where we're deriving laws of history, it might mean, you know, make America smaller. Make, you know - smaller in the sense of, like, the concept of who belongs in America, which is a process that we very much saw during the four years of Trump's presidential term, right? You know, will there be more violence turned against immigrants, people who were not born here? I mean, these are the really immediate dangers that I see sort of coming out of this totalitarian movement. And then looking back on it - I mean, this is, like, the really dystopian kind of prediction. But you know, looking back on it half a century from now, we might be able to say, oh, yeah, you know, this was, like, an anti-immigrant totalitarian ideology.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Many of us have a sense that we're living through a historical moment. But what we don't know is how that history will be recorded, how future generations will read our present, our ideologies. When we come back, Masha Gessen breaks down the role the media plays in shaping those stories we tell about ourselves and how an autocrat can use that to their advantage.

JOSE: Hi. This is Jose (ph) from Chicago, and you are listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. I love you guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: These days, the, quote-unquote, "media" is a term thrown around a lot, often with some side-eye attached to it. And while it can mean a lot of things - cable TV news, radio, newspapers, social networks, podcasts - Masha says the media as a whole is a prime target for an autocrat, an effective tool to expand their power and weaken democratic institutions.

GESSEN: Traditionally, when media were more structured, we would have seen autocrats try to take over media, right? And that's what we saw in Russia, for example.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "INSIDE PUTIN'S RUSSIA")

JUDY WOODRUFF: For years, the Kremlin and the media it controls have waged a multifaceted information and disinformation campaign, both inside Russia and pointed at its perceived adversaries.

GESSEN: Vladimir Putin took over television first and then, like, local television and then - and the newspapers and the magazines, to the point where there's, like, nothing left.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GESSEN: But a more contemporary approach is to come to dominate the information sphere, including social media and whatever else might come along. But it doesn't mean, necessarily, that the state is controlling media through censorship or even through economic pressure. But it just means that, in our case, it was all Donald Trump all the time. And even though there was a lot of great investigative journalism happening, and, you know, certainly people were digging deep, the information sphere as a whole was dominated by his tweets and his - you know, his constant sort of noisemaking.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Lashing out on Twitter with claims about a victory that does not yet exist...

No, no, no, no, no, he says. He won in the eyes of the fake news media. This was a rigged election.

ARABLOUEI: How much does that have to do with the business model? Because other - you pointed out examples of where some central party or person ends up controlling the media. In this situation we have in the U.S., it's almost like the business model of media that's been developed over the last 20 and 30 years fit perfectly for Donald Trump's approach in that the outrageous things he said are then disseminated through social media. And everyone focuses on that because the view is that's what's getting people to click. That's what's getting audience to come, and that drives profits. And that - it almost seems like a kind of unholy marriage between American - good old fashioned American capitalism or business interests and Donald Trump's ability to manipulate that structure. So it seems like a different, strange kind of same effect to the media, but, like, a different mechanism by which it's happening.

GESSEN: Yeah, I don't know it's a different mechanism, but it's - I mean, look, we have something that we think of, we talk about, as essential to democracy, as being the fourth branch of government.

ARABLOUEI: The media.

GESSEN: The media. And then we leave it to profit-making corporations that are entirely what we call self-regulated, which is another way of saying unregulated, right? And then we're surprised when we get really bad results because they're functioning in accordance with their incentives and not with the incentives of democracy. I mean, we don't tell Congress to rent out rooms in the Capitol to sustain its business of making legislation. We fund the courts and pay judges' salaries and make clear sets of rules by which the courts function. These are branches of democracy that we see as part of government.

And then there's this one that's sort of out there - and especially in the American mindset, right? - this idea that it can't possibly be government-funded, it can't possibly be regulated, or else it will be an infringement on freedom of speech. But I would much rather negotiate the terms of existence of the media with other Americans and hold the people who are enforcing those terms accountable through electoral and other institutional mechanisms than not have any terms.

And, you know, this is a very simple point, but I think a powerful one - that there's a media scholar named Barbie Zelizer who makes it - and she points out, look, you know, the media can exist without democracy. Democracy can't exist without the media. But if you think that through, you realize that, you know, the media as they're currently constituted, you know, don't actually have a vested interest - an existential interest - in maintaining democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: I mean, it's a cynical but very fair, I think, depiction of the industry that we are a part of, right? It can be uncomfortable to think about it in these terms, but I mean, the truth is, like, throughout the Trump era, you see very, I think it's fair to say, simplistic narratives emerge around things. It makes me think back to something you said about sort of how we retroactively create, you know, some of these histories. Because I feel like the media is on the front lines of helping to create some of these new realities, whether intentionally or not. And I wonder how you see that factoring into everything that's kind of been happening in the last few weeks, and something that won't necessarily let up at this point, right? There's no incentive for the media to not continue to do the same thing it's been doing.

GESSEN: Well, I mean, think there are a bunch of different things going on. There's the very long-term process of kind of deterioration of political discourse in American media, the weird ritual of substanceless debates, the kind of assumption that the media are sort of observers to the electoral process and not its central part, right? I mean, we don't have another way for candidates to reach out to voters other than through, broadly speaking, the media, right? And yet the media seem to think of themselves as kind of, you know, sports commentators in the whole process.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WOLF BLITZER: It's election night in America, and a nation in crisis is at a crossroads.

JAKE TAPPER: We're counting down to the first exit polls and the first results as our coverage begins now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Across the nation...

GESSEN: And we don't see substantive conversations about politics. So it's both this kind of idea that there's sports commentators, but also just that the public is stupid, that you can't have serious in-depth content, that you have to present everything in the most reductive way possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JESSE WATTERS: The battle of the presidents is back, and it's getting downright nasty. Former President Obama using a virtual commencement speech to take this cheap shot at President Trump over his leadership during the pandemic. But Trump was ready to fire back.

GESSEN: That's a very long-term trend that really has almost nothing to do with Donald Trump. Then there's what's happened to us during Donald Trump that I actually think is not very much the media's fault, but part of the problem of having a lying president who doesn't act like the president because it's extremely difficult for journalists to maintain the - sort of the mutually contradictory positions of respecting the office and not respecting the man. It's very difficult to report on things that don't make sense that he has said, but that have real-life consequences - so, you know, inject yourself with bleach kind of thing.

ARABLOUEI: Right.

GESSEN: You can't not report on it because it's having consequences. When you do report it, you amplify it, you legitimize it, you normalize it. And that, I think, is almost an inevitable situation.

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism.

GESSEN: There's no good way of covering a lying president. And eventually, any kind of coverage starts to normalize it because it has become normal, right? I mean, it's a very, kind of, circular thing.

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) Instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

GESSEN: And then the third thing is the sort of - the clicks, the rush to report the first tweet, the very profit-driven model that Trump has so ably weaponized. You know, if we had a different business model, we could say, you know, we're not going to be the first people to report his tweets. We're just going to decide as Media Organization X that all we're going to have is, like, super thoughtful, long, contextualized analysis that's probably going to come out 24 to 72 hours after the fact.

ABDELFATAH: And until that happens, you can keep listening to THROUGHLINE - just kidding. When we come back, Masha reflects on where we go from here and how a democracy can recover from an autocratic attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANDREW: I'm Andrew (ph) from Pittsburgh. You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. This is my fourth try, so I hope that was good. You guys do a great job. My props to my favorite podcast. Thanks.

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) The outstanding negative quality of the totalitarian elite is that it never stops to think about the world as it really is and never compares the lies with reality.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Back when Hannah Arendt fled Europe, she was witnessing a wave of autocratic rulers emerging across the world, most notably Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. It was like a contagion - once unleashed, hard to contain. And Masha Gessen says what we're seeing in the U.S. today might be a part of another wave.

GESSEN: The United States is definitely part of a worldwide trend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: There's an old saying, never let a crisis go to waste. And for some leaders around the world, the pandemic has been the crisis they've been waiting for.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: One of those countries is Hungary.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: The far right has been gaining ground in Europe, and Italy is no exception.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: For a time, Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, was suppressing his urge to lash out at journalists. But now the truce with the media has just ended.

GESSEN: And this is something that's very difficult for Americans to grasp and actually very difficult for the world to grasp.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Parliament approved the emergency bill on Monday by a two-thirds majority, effectively suspending its own powers. It allows the government to bypass democratic institutions in its response to the coronavirus outbreak.

GESSEN: It's funny, I was - I had a conversation recently with a Hungarian journalist, the editor of the one remaining independent publication in Hungary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Media freedom organizations complain that most of the Hungarian media is either managed or owned by people loyal to the government.

GESSEN: And we found ourselves talking about, sort of, the advantages that the United States has over Hungary, the advantages that Hungary has had over the United States. And he said, you know, that's so ridiculous. Like, every time we say that phrase, that seems so weird, right? I mean, you have tiny Hungary that's very used to thinking of itself as kind of backwater and always smaller than - right? - and the United States on the other hand. There's no direct comparison. Obviously, all of these autocrats or aspiring autocrats have their particular traits and quirks. But I think Israel provides a better comparison.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: For years, Israel's rowdy politics have balanced constitutional promises to be Jewish and democratic. Today, lawmakers gave Jews the exclusive right to self-determination.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: Critics say it's a betrayal to the country's Declaration of Independence, which ensured equal rights to all of the country's residents.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11: Members of the Arab minority are calling the law racist and verging on apartheid.

GESSEN: You know, Israel is a country that has an idea of itself as a democracy. And we've seen autocratic rule arise there, in many ways, despite existing institutions that were supposed to be providing checks on the power of the prime minister.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #12: Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has won the Israeli national election, securing a record fifth term in office. The closely contested race...

GESSEN: You know, this is a country where you have 14 million people. And by that, I mean, you know, the entire territory governed by Israel, not what's legally Israel. But of those 14 million, 5 million are completely legally disenfranchised, right? They don't have political rights. They don't have freedom of movement. They have severely limited land rights. Five million people don't have citizenship. So you can't talk about a country as being democratic when it systematically disenfranchises, dominates, limits the rights of a very large minority of its subjects.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I think very powerful people have the interest of staying put and not moving. And so we're stuck.

GESSEN: And the thing is that - and this is, I think, important, right? When I talk about democracy, I think it's a direction. A country is either becoming more democratic, or it's becoming less democratic. If a country is becoming less democratic, it will eventually affect all of the people who live in the country, right? Something is either expanding or is getting smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller. The closer you are to the margins, the faster you're affected, the greater the impact on your freedoms and your ability to live. And then the closer you are to the center of power, the later you're going to be affected by this flesh-eating machine. But it will get to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHULZ: (As Hannah Arendt) Every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning. This beginning is the promise, the only message which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man. Politically, it is identical with man's freedom.

ARABLOUEI: Given that this insurrection failed - and some people might call it a coup attempt - failed, how does a country respond to this kind of, like, you know, aggressive attempt to undermine the - you know, do away with a piece of the democratic process? What lessons can we learn about how either harsh or lenient societies have come down on this kind of attempt before?

GESSEN: I don't think it's a question of whether the response is harsh or lenient. I think it's a question of whether the response is, A, centralized and, B, deep, right? And what I mean is that I think the worst thing that can happen is a hundred different trials in a hundred different courts of a hundred different people. We have to think of it, I think, as an attempted coup, which means to think about its center, its vertical organization, and to have a single process that examines it, not a hundred different trials. And that - you know, that may be a Senate trial. It may be a national commission. It may be a combination of those things.

But I think it's super-important to tell a deep and detailed story like the story told by the 9/11 Commission. But the 9/11 Commission was largely - a lot of its work was done behind closed doors. It was not explicitly an open process. This has to be explicitly an open process. And in some ways, that need runs counter to so much American political culture, which is about, you know, moving on, not dwelling, reaching across the aisle - whatever. But I don't think that's tenable at this point.

I always try to remind people to think about societies as people, right? There are a lot of people. And - but if society were a person, this one has a deep, deep wound. Whether you think of it as a physical wound or a psychic wound, we don't move on and, put a Band-Aid on it and pretend it never happened when we have wounds.

ABDELFATAH: Because it'll get infected and, you know, get worse.

GESSEN: It will get infected. Or if it's - if we think of it as a psychic wound, you know, it will get us later. The trauma of it will show its ugly face when we're most vulnerable and make us unable to function. And so we do the work of addressing that trauma because otherwise, we will be in deep trouble in the future.

ABDELFATAH: And when you refer to the wound, what is that wound for us as a country right now that we have to sort of figure out a way to patch up?

GESSEN: Well, one part of the country has done grave violence to another part of the country. Some of that violence has been physical, and some of that violence has been sort of secondary. But at this point, you know, we're talking about an accumulated huge amount of violence. Another way to think about it is, of course, the very - at this point - obvious problem of two parts of the country living in two non-overlapping realities. And, again, we can't pretend that we can go on walking with, like - with a divided brain. That's untenable. You know, that's not healing. It's just continuing to dwell in a crazy place.

ABDELFATAH: There's almost this, like, visceral reaction some people have to even using the word healing - right? - like, that this needs to just be sort of rooted out. And it's just interesting that what you're saying is there has to be a public accounting. There has to be a sort of recognition that, like, we as a nation do not stand for this but without maybe implicating the 70 million people who voted for Trump - that they're not all necessarily the same as the people who actually walked into the Capitol.

GESSEN: Yes, absolutely. I think the end point of this process has to be - OK, something really awful has occurred and has divided us. But if we are to be one nation, we have to first settle on a story that makes sense to all of us about what has happened, which is not, frankly, the case. But - and, you know, once we have that story, once it is a common narrative, which is - you know, it's not terribly likely. But it's our only chance. Then we can start thinking about ourselves as one nation again.

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ARABLOUEI: Masha Gessen is a writer for The New Yorker. Their latest book is called "Surviving Autocracy."

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: There really is nothing new under the sun. People back then are just like us today.

ABDELFATAH: On the next episode of THROUGHLINE...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: This is one of what I would call history's great mysteries.

ABDELFATAH: ...The story of a civilization that collapsed 3,000 years ago...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Did somebody run around going, oh, my God, the sky is falling? You know, was there a Chicken Little? I don't see any indication that they knew their whole system was collapsing.

ABDELFATAH: ...And what it can tell us about our world today.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Life as they had known it - that was now the good old days.

ABDELFATAH: You don't want to miss this one.

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ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me.

ABDELFATAH: And me and...

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: Jamie York.

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.

VICTOR YVELLEZ, BYLINE: Victor Yvellez.

PARTH SHAH, BYLINE: Parth Shah.

ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to Miriam Schultz for her voiceover work.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Ethan Parks, Yolanda Sangweni, Beth Donovan and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

ARABLOUEI: Also, next month THROUGHLINE trivia is back. We're celebrating Black History Month with three rounds of trivia inspired by some of our favorite THROUGHLINE episodes.

ABDELFATAH: Join us and our trusty co-host Terry Simon on Thursday, February 11 at 8 p.m. Eastern. RSVP and find all the info you need at nprpresents.org.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks to the History Channel's "The Food That Built America" for their support of this event. See you there.

ABDELFATAH: And as always, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, email us at throughline@npr.org or hit us up on Twitter at @ThroughlineNPR.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks for listening.

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