According to the book, ordinary Americans, too, are ill-equipped to grapple with the president’s brazenness. Ever since Watergate, they have been primed to sniff out political conspiracy. But Mr Trump lacks the attention span and managerial skills to run a conspiracy. Faced with pressure to reveal who received $500bn in taxpayerfunded emergency loans, his administration did not manufacture a false paper trail. His treasury secretary simply refused to say. It wasn’t muckraking journalists who informed the public that Mr Trump had sacked James Comey, a former director of the FBI, because of its probes into his campaign’s links with Russia.As Gessen relates, the president said so on television.
Borrowing a phrase from Balint Magyar, a Hungarian writer and politician, Gessen now characterises Mr Trump’s overall project as “an autocratic attempt”, rather than the thing itself; he is said to be testing America’s defences and laying the groundwork for further power grabs.The country can still fend off this bid—notably by voting him out of office. But more will be required, Gessen urges, to repair the damage and see off the danger. Ideals have receded from politics in favour of an uninspiring technocracy; America will have to reinvent, or at least rediscover, its “moral aspiration”, in particular “the belief that this can be a country of all its people”.
Bracing as it is, though, this book underplays the robustness of some of the institutions it frets over. The Supreme Court, for instance, has recently issued a string of rulings that enraged the president; though Republican senators preserved him in office, occasionally even some of them have disappointed him. And it misses the extent to which the fightback Gessen craves is already happening. Mr Trump has led Republicans towards nativism, but also to three years of electoral defeats—including the loss of the House of Representatives. Should Democrats win the presidency and both chambers of Congress in November, he may inspire a raft of ethics legislation.
Mr Trump may be a sign of decadence in American democracy, as Gessen implies. He could also prove its renewer.