On November 7th, the Humanities Institute at Wake Forest invited acclaimed journalist, literary critic, activist and political commentator Masha Gessen to campus. Gessen, a currently a columnist at the New Yorker, framed her discussion within the chosen theme: “Democracy in the Age of Putin and Trump.” Gessen’s remarks were civil and thoughtful, but also wildly irresponsible in terms of their rhetoric.
This is, of course, not to indict the character of Ms. Gessen. She has demonstrated unfathomable courage as a protestor and harsh critic of the Vladimir Putin regime in her native Russia, where Putin has committed outrageous and heinous crimes against humanity, the Russian body politic, and the citizenry of Russia. Gessen ultimately felt compelled to flee Russia, as Putin’s anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric threated Ms. Geseen personally to an extent where she no longer felt safe in her hometown of Moscow—understandably so.
Since then, Gessen has focused the preponderance of her writing on President Trump. She takes a no-holds-barred, blunt, and brutally honest approach to her analysis of our President and his perceived effect on this country. While one must respect Gessen’s candor and articulate logic, many of the claims she makes about the Trump Administration are dangerous, misguided, and flawed.
Wake Forest and the Humanities Institute felt absolutely no need to have a balanced conversation on the topic of the Trump Administration. Instead, the implicit, not explicit thesis of the night (one can derive it from the title, naturally) was Ms. Gessen utilizing her experience as a dissenter in the Putin regime to liken the iron fist that Mr. Putin rules with to the current policies and posturing of President Trump. In place of an open forum for questions, an interview between Ms. Gessen and the decidedly liberal Professor Dean J. Franco, executive director of the Humanities Institute transpired, generally focusing on the crystallization and refinement of many of the points Ms. Gessen made in her viral article “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” in the wake of Trump’s election exactly a year ago. While Professor Franco asked diligent and careful questions, absolutely none of them even ventured to challenge her on any of her ideas, some of which are quite outrageous. This stymied any attempt whatsoever at a meaningful conversation occurring where the concerns or thoughts of the intellectual right-wing community at Wake Forest could be addressed by Ms. Gessen.
Ms. Gessen employed a bevy of dangerous claims in her remarks. She referred to the night of Trump’s election as “disastrous”and implied that our President is an autocrat tantamount to Putin. First, attitudes such as those about the election merely perpetuate the polarization our discourse currently possesses, where nothing can be done to engage because the left is too preoccupied in dealing with the ‘emotional trauma’ of the election to find solutions to their woes. Next, President Trump is not, nor will he ever be, an autocrat, especially one tantamount to Mr. Putin. Does President Trump, as brash as he is, order the imprisonment, abuse, and murder of the media which criticizes him? Does President Trump drop bombs on his own citizens, committing savage atrocities the scope of which is comparable to the Second World War? Even absent his traditionalist and perhaps bigoted views on LBTGQ+ rights, does Trump comply with systematic torture, imprisonment, and purge of homosexuals in his own country? No, but Putin does. President Trump is not the abhorrent, despicable, and despotic executive that Putin is. He is far more benign. Why? The great institutions of our country keep even the most erratic of political calculi in check. Our just political process has endured over 200 years, and it will continue to. Trump, as foolish and asinine as he can be, would never order the death of his own citizens based on their identity.
Nonetheless, this is an all-too-common instance of Wake Forest failing to take the initiative in providing spaces for discourse, and being complicit (or perhaps even endorsing) rhetoric that is terribly misguided and irresponsible.
Gessen did not stop with this outrageous comparison. She continued to assess newly commissioned Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch as a “frightening human being and judge.” First, say as you will about Gorsuch’s jurisprudence, but an unwarranted indictment of his character as “frightening” is wholly unbecoming of any journalist, or citizen. Justice Gorsuch is completely fit of character to serve as a Justice on our revered court and has received multiple awards (even from liberal namesakes such as Harry S. Truman) for his unwavering commitment to public service. Moreover, nothing about Justice Gorsuch’s jurisprudence is frightening. He is akin to Justice Antonin Scalia in his legal philosophy, a man respected on both sides of the aisle. Advocating for judicial minimalism and a reduced role of government in interference with civil rights is in no way frightening.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also received flak from Gessen. Sessions was labeled as “worse than we thought”, and as complicit in Trump’s “all-out attempt” to transforming our judicial culture in America. This too is just blatantly false. While Session’s harsh stances on immigration are in need of more refinement, and his ignorance of the rights of LGBTQ+ people in the workplace are dismaying, nobody respects the rule of law more. Sessions ended DACA not on the basis of ethics or efficacy, but instead on returning the American system to its natural order of respecting the rule of law (something that President Obama knowingly ignored with the majority of his executive orders and expansion of federal power without a legislative mandate). The culture of increased discretion for judges—both federal and local–under the Obama administration should be terrifying to liberals as well. Judges are not directly democratically appointed into lifetime positions, and when they have the ability to make value judgments without clear legal directive because of increased delegation to their personal preferences, they enter the path to autocracy that Gessen alludes to in fear.
Finally, Gessen’s most stunning assertion was that of her final point in her article: “be outraged” and “do not compromise.” There is so much wrong and problematic with these notions, it is hard to even begin criticizing them. Gessen encouraged the protests we have seen in the wake of Trump’s so-called “travel ban”, which inconvenienced and disrupted air traffic for thousands of everyday Americans. While this seems callous, one ought to exercise their right to protest sensibly. Protestors continue to make inflammatory demonstrations that estrange and alienate the majority of Americans to their causes (see ‘The Resistance’, Antifa, and countless other militant left-wing grassroots organizations), they do absolutely nothing to solve the problems of the status quo. Respectful discourse, especially in supporting bipartisanship and Republican (and Democrat of course) legislators who see the problems with the status quo is a much more stable way forward.
Granted, Ms. Gessen boasts great feats of bravery for standing up to oppression in the spirit of her beliefs. Any sensible person should respect and admire her great achievements, and what she has done to unearth the truth of a truly evil Russian regime. Nonetheless, this is an all-too-common instance of Wake Forest failing to take the initiative in providing spaces for discourse, and being complicit (or perhaps even endorsing) rhetoric that is terribly misguided and irresponsible.