Tantrums of a tyrant

Published by The Spectator (8th August, 2020)

Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen (Granta)

It is easy to forget the abnormality of Donald Trump’s presence in the White House. Before his election it would have seemed unthinkable to have the leader of the free world bragging of being a ‘very stable genius’ on social media, then taunting the despotic ruler of a nuclear-armed nation as ‘Little Rocket Man’ and threatening annihilation of his country. Or for a United States president to lie so frequently and casually that the Washington Post counted more than 10,000 ‘fishy claims’ by the end of last April alone. 

But we have become inured to Trump’s self-obsessed boasts and infantile tantrums. We have become accustomed to the deceit, the disorder, the disruption and the daily outbursts on Twitter that pass for policy- making under the 45th presidency of the United States. As Masha Gessen says in this impassioned tract, one way to respond to these absurdities and tensions is to accept the new reality. The other is to stop paying attention and to retreat to one’s private sphere, as seen in totalitarian systems. ‘Both approaches are victories for Trump.’

This is a fabulous, furious blast of a book — short, sharp and very much to the point. Gessen is not part of the cosy, consensual crowd, seeing the ‘dirty story of Russian interference’ in the 2016 presidential election as simply one more distraction from difficult facts that daily stare the American people in the face. The author points out that Trump ran as an outsider to ‘drain the swamp’, and after winning declared himself above the law, lied consistently, ignored norms of accountability and then saw some of his closest associates go to prison. ‘We already knew that his was an administration of swindlers and conmen — and in effect we had come to accept it.’Trump’s autocratic behaviour, ignoring all need for truth or consistency, has now become normalised

Gessen, born in the Soviet Union and the author of a brilliant biography of Vladimir Putin, is offering a warning to the world’s leading democracy based on her observations of the Russian leader — another egotist focused on the spectacle and trappings of authority. ‘He and Trump are alike. Power is the beginning and end of government, the presidency, politics — and public politics is only the performance of power.’ Certainly this feels true of Trump, veering around the political spectrum, altering his positions constantly and clearly in love with the theatricality of office. 

This polemical work began as an article published in the New York Review of Books soon after the election that offered six survival tips under autocracy beneath headings such as ‘Institutions will not save you’, ‘Do not be taken in by signs of normality’ and ‘Don’t make compromises’. The piece rightly urged Americans not to assume that Trump, having won the election, would evolve into a ‘regular, rule-abiding politician’, since he was ‘the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat — and won’.

Now comes an uncompromising book expanding these arguments. Surviving Autocracy asserts that Trump has declared open warfare against the system of government, pointing to the contemptuous way a reality-star president treats the usual democratic processes. This started with his choices for cabinet, several of whom had shown antipathy to the departments they were chosen to lead. Then there was the inaugural cake, ordered from a modest bakery as an exact copy of the one created for Barack Obama by a celebrity chef, yet mostly comprising Styrofoam. Gessen sees this as a symbol of the new administration: fake, plagiarised and making a mockery of the concept.

Drawing on the lessons of Putin, Gessen examines not just the damage caused by Trump’s approach but also the responses that assist his stance. Why would he make obviously false claims about climate and crowds at his inauguration? ‘It is the power lie or the bully lie. It is the lie of the bigger kid who took your hat and is wearing it while denying that he took it.’ She believes this mimics the actions of an autocrat with no need for truth or consistency. It has become quickly normalised. And it presents problems both for flummoxed opponents, used to the usual rules of politics and dignifying his rants and tantrums with talk of ‘policy differences’, and for journalists attempting to grapple with a president who openly flirts with racism and routinely tells untruths.

Gessen concludes by saying that the world’s leading democracy is witnessing ‘an autocratic attempt’ rather than a full-blown takeover, which can be reversed not just by voting but understanding the conditions that led to Trump’s victory. But this bracing book would have benefited from a more perceptive analysis of the nation’s problems, beyond blaming the dismantlement of welfare systems and the accumulation of wealth by ‘a small group of white men’. It also underplays the strength of US institutions. 

Yet history shows that even as nations spiral into darkness or disorder, the journey to end points that seem obvious in retrospect are confusing, and open to misinterpretation for contemporaries. Ultimately, Gessen is hopefully alarmist, while also right to remind us of the risks of normalising the disturbing antics of this nightmarish president and the challenge he poses to his country.

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