With a talk so relevant to the ongoing political discourse, it was unsurprising that speaker Masha Gessen, a Russian-American author, journalist and activist, drew a large crowd. The surprise was how large that crowd became. Half an hour before her talk was set to begin, audience members filled Cole Assembly Room in Converse Hall to overflowing. Still more lined up at the doors.
As the crowd size reached 400—well beyond the 150 capacity of the original location—Amherst College officials made a decision to relocate the talk to Johnson Chapel, which had enough seating for everyone.
At the start of her remarks, Gessen thanked the crowd and said that having to move to a larger space was “quite overwhelming.”
Recalling recent headlines about Trump administration policies, Gessen noted that she had immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s from Russia. That opportunity, she said, kept her family safe and allowed her to pursue a career as a writer.
“I only can feel a little bit of the heartbreak that people are feeling right now all over the world when they think about the United States,” she said, “but I think I feel some of it, because I was once a refugee and I know what it’s like to have your future ripped away from you.”
Although her talk, "The Trump-Putin Connect: What We Imagine and Why," would outline nine comparable traits between the Russian and American leaders, Gessen first gave a caveat: she doesn’t think the two are actually very similar—or that Trump is Putin’s puppet.
“I think that Trump’s admiration of Putin is genuine,” Gessen added. “Putin is the despot that Trump plays on TV.”
What the two men have in common, she said, is the way they use language—in particular, she argued, the way they lie. Trump, Gessen said, uses lies in the same way a bully on the playground might hold a pencil box over your head and say it wasn't yours.
“The way he’s using language is similar to Putin’s in that it’s a power play,” she said. “He’s asserting his right to say whatever the hell he wants, and what are you going to do about it? It’s a bully tactic.”
Reinforced by self-aggrandizing media bubbles—state TV for Putin and Breitbart for Trump—the two men can comfortably live within a distorted sense of reality, she said. They can then govern through rapid, powerful gestures such as executive actions, Gessen said, rather than through thoughtful, longterm policies.
“We will wake up one morning and there will not be a barrage of heartbreaking news, and that will feel like a relief,” she said. “I’ve woken up on many such days in Russia when the barrage of gestures stops and the normalization begins.”
Both leaders, she continued, have merely fleeting interests rather than extended priorities—a trait that makes them difficult to predict but popular within their own parties, as other politicians rush to fill power gaps they leave behind.
Both Putin and Trump disdain moral authority and an open, public sphere, Gessen said, as well as concepts of excellence and originality. And perhaps most importantly, she maintained, both men have “absolute and utter disdain for government.”
“When Donald Trump said he wanted to drain the swamp, he didn’t mean he wanted to clean up American institutions so they would work better,” Gessen said. “What he meant was that those institutions shouldn’t actually exist.”
This “explains why every person picked for his cabinet is opposed to the mission of the agency that person is supposed to lead.”
Moreover, Gessen said, both Trump and Putin believe themselves to be chosen people who feel that “if something wonderful happens to us, it must be because we deserve it.” Gessen added of Trump, “He probably imagines that there’s something so super special about him, so great, so tremendous, that’s what made him president.”
During the half-hour Q&A that followed, one audience member identified herself as a “fellow queer, Russian, Jewish immigrant” and thanked Gessen for speaking out. Another asked her about the potential impact of a Trump presidency on the LGBT community.
Gessen said that changes in social attitudes were so recent that policies such as the legalization of gay marriage could be easily reversed, particularly if Trump continued to appeal to what she described as an “imaginary past.”
“It’s not the thing, to be honest, I lose sleep over, even though I’m queer and had to leave a country because the government threatened to take my children away,” Gessen said. “I’m losing more sleep over the possibility of a nuclear holocaust or irreversible climate change.”