“Waking up every morning is like having a tennis ball machine and having the tennis balls shoot us in the face,” said Samantha Bee Sunday night in her candid conversation with Russian American journalist Masha Gessen at PEN America’s World Voices Festival. After Gessen delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, the two unanimously agreed that one of the biggest assaults on American democracy is Trump’s ability to throw words into a pile that makes them mean nothing—that a world where “fake news” is a thing, where lies aren’t called out as lies, is a very dangerous place to be.
“I worry about the irreversible damage to the country. I worry about the reverberations throughout the world,” lamented Bee. Hours before the Full Frontal host uttered these words, Emmanuel Macron had become President of France, having beaten far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. It seemed like a moment of reprieve from hateful politics, a moment for hope, even—perhaps this signaled the end of the Trump and Brexit-inspired nationalist rhetoric sweeping the west?
But Bee and Gessen, who’ve made it their mission to speak truth to power, didn’t necessarily think so. Gessen, an expert on authoritarianism, urged everyone to be afraid of the way Trump continues to use language. And she should know—she was writing dire warnings about Vladimir Putin and his maniacal consolidation of power for 17 years before anyone took her seriously. In late 2013, Gessen was forced to leave Russia after working there for two decades as a journalist. She’d been spied on and smeared for speaking out against Putin, and when the government threatened to dismantle families with same-sex parents, Gessen and her partner knew it was time to come to New York with their three kids.
“Donald Trump has an instinct for doing the kinds of violence to language that are familiar to me from speaking and writing in Russian,” said Gessen. “He has a particular nose for taking words and phrases that deal with power relationships and turning them into their opposite.” She used the example of Mike Pence’s attendance of the Broadway musical, Hamilton, after which the future vice-president was booed and addressed by the show’s cast. “Trump was tweeting that [this]should not have happened, because, he said, theater should be a safe space. The thing about the phrase ‘safe space’ is that it was coined to describe a place where people who usually feel unsafe and powerless would feel exceptionally safe. Claiming that the second most powerful man in the world should be granted a safe space in public turns the concept precisely on its head.”
When lies are used to change language, Gessen said, words are robbed of their ability to mean something concrete. Frighteningly, the next step might be losing the meaning of words like law, freedom, truth, power, responsibility, life, death, lie, fact, war, peace, democracy, law, justice, and love.
Gessen compared Trump’s word piles to static in a public place, saying that it’s like having the air we breathe replaced with carbon monoxide: A deadly switch. Language is for communicating about our shared reality—to make sure that when a doctor asks for a scalpel on the operating table that’s what he is given, or that a mother can understand the story her daughter tells her when she comes home from school, or that a judge can evaluate a case. None of this is possible when words mean nothing.
“I WORRY ABOUT THE IRREVERSIBLE DAMAGE TO THE COUNTRY. I WORRY ABOUT THE REVERBERATIONS THROUGHOUT THE WORLD”
For Bee, aside from Trump’s incomprehensible word salads, which she hopes are a function of his wandering mind and not Dr. Evil intent, her fear was that the president hasn’t yet reached full understanding of his station and his power: “I’m worried about what he’ll do when he understands what his capabilities are—when he learns how to use the toys he has at his disposal.”
Obviously, the conversation went to dark places, but Bee found solace in Gessen’s faith that Americans have something precious to protect. “You always scare the hell out of me,” Bee admitted to Gessen. “And yet I find you so reassuring somehow,” she joked, “in the same way that when I go home at night, I try to relax watching The Handmaid’s Tale.” That’s how we all felt after last night—engaged, enraged, freaked out, but comforted (slightly) by Gessen’s closing joke—”I’m willing to give up the word ‘tremendous,’ but little else.”