At a lecture this past Friday, well-known journalist Masha Gessen caught her audience by surprise when she compared the current president to Vladimir Putin, who has historically served as a foil to the United States. The Vassar English Department, along with the Political Science Department and International Studies Program, co-sponsored Gessen’s lecture on President Donald Trump’s first 100 days. However, the lecture was not exclusive to these departments, as many Philosophy, Mathematics and Economics majors attended the event this past Friday, concerned about America’s current political climate. Gessen primarily spoke about the backtracking of the Trump administration—cutting funding for environmental regulation, isolationist international policies and increased scrutiny of marginalized groups. Though the biggest shock came from her comparison of Trump to Putin, in his lack of political aptitude and poor strategic planning. Unfortunately, she said, while Putin navigates political waters to achieve his goals, Trump blatantly ignores political protocol, and his unpredictable actions may have cost America its political standing in the international sphere.
Scattered throughout the audience, aspiring journalists hoped to learn about Gessen’s career and lifestyle as a writer on the cutting edge of politics. She has covered topics varying from homophobia in Russian society to the Pussy Riot demonstration. Her most acclaimed work, however, is “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin,” which details Putin’s rise to power despite the overwhelming odds against him. As the current vice-president of PEN America, Gessen’s political expertise stems from her constant criticism of Putin, which culminated in her most recent book, “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.” She has become well known for openly exposing the oppressive nature of Putin’s regime without fear of social and physical backlash. Tyler Lopez ’20 was impressed by her career, stating, “I think Gessen’s past works reveal her strong passion for journalism and dedication to protecting the freedom of speech. She has a lot of experience in dealing with public manipulation, which is extremely relevant.”
In the lecture, Gessen addressed the disastrous policies Trump has attempted to instate. The massive pushback against the Muslim ban, the fallout with his healthcare bill and the protests against his Cabinet nominations have led to the lowest presidential approval rating in history, standing at just 41 percent (New York Times, “Donald Trump’s First 100 Days: The Worst on Record,” 04.26.2017). She explained that while Trump may be strident about his plans for reducing illegal immigration or improving the economic climate, he lacks the strategic planning to execute his plans. As such, they devolve into poorly designed regulations, which are either blocked by Congress or repealed by courts for their unconstitutionality.
She noted of the similarity between Putin and Trump: “They have interests…[but] they don’t have priorities. They don’t have policies that they proposed. They’re really basically bored with the business of governing” (Slate, “Donald and Vlad: Compare and Contrast,” 02.27.2017). However, both leaders diverge when it comes to communication: Trump extensively utilizes Twitter to announce his plans or respond to his opponents, whereas Putin is more discreet when it comes to his personal goals. His discretion ultimately allowed him to take over one of the largest media conglomerates in Russia and propose a set of motions to dismantle the federal electoral system. Some Americans are concerned that Trump’s policies will similarly encroach on American civil liberties. For example, Trump signed a bill in April repealing privacy regulations—ones that prevented broadband companies from selling user information (NPR, “As Congress Repeals Internet Privacy Rules, Putting Your Options In Perspective,” 03.28.2017).
Notably, Gessen warned the audience about the Russia-Trump conspiracy theories. Despite several investigations into Russian interference in the U.S. election, no valid evidence has been found to actually convict the president. Nevertheless, many of Trump’s opponents place their hopes on a treason scandal that would result in his impeachment and eventual removal. Gessen advised against this sort of thinking, cautioning, “What we imagine every time we engage in conspiracy thinking is something neat and simple that solves all of our problems—problems of the imagination and also problems of our life” (WBUR, “Author Masha Gessen Warns Against Falling Into Russia-Trump ‘Conspiracy Trap,’” 04.06.2017). The focus on this conspiracy, Gessen cautions, detracts from the more serious problems underlying America—the ones that caused so many citizens to vote for Trump. Problems with the economic climate, frustration with two-party politics and anger at deceitful politicians long preceded Trump. In this election, they all congregated in Trump’s victory as supporters found themselves drawn to his simple rhetoric and straightforward viewpoints on immigration, crime and the right to bear arms. Despite promises of creating more jobs and lowering crime rates, the first 100 days have largely come up empty.
The first 100 days may be over, but there are still over three years left of the Trump administration. Many students in attendance were fearful about the future and the best way to address new problems that would arise. In the age of Trump, the forms and tools of activism may grow and change. Nonetheless, Gessen stressed the importance of personal values, of drawing a line between what you are willing to compromise and what you will never surrender. Taylor Lodise ’19 agreed, saying, “People have been left feeling offended and violated on many different levels, and I think these marches and demonstrations are important in order for people to be able to express that. [This] has brought the reality upon us that there is certainly a need for [activism], and that we do seem to be losing much of the progress our country has made the last several years.” As the U.S. political climate grows more tense, this line will become increasingly integral to our lives.
[Correction 05/05/2017: Gessen’s books were previously referred to as novels, even though neither are works of fiction.]