Books & arts
By Masha Gessen.
Two days after Donald Trump was elected, Masha Gessen argued in the New York Review of Books that he was “the first candidate in memory who ran not for president, but for autocrat—and won.” The piece offered advice, such as “Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.”
The years since have testified to Mr Trump’s autocratic instincts. He has been more hostile to oversight and dissent, and more demanding of personal loyalty and displays of adulation, than any American president in memory. He has spurned allies and fawned over dictators. In a pithy but overstated new book, Gessen (who prefers to be referred to that way) updates and expands on that early warning. Mr Trump, Gessen writes, is qualitatively different from any of his predecessors, given as he is to “ignoring and destroying all institutions of accountability”.
The author, who was born in the Soviet Union and has written acutely about Vladimir Putin’s Russia, chronicles Mr Trump’s tussles with those institutions. The determination of the press to appear objective and balanced, Gessen argues, as well as its weakness for hope, have prevented it from accurately describing Mr Trump’s predations— even as it hyped his normal-seeming moments. Pillars of the state, such as the Office of Government Ethics, were accustomed to compliance from the White House and ill-equipped to counter open defiance. Congress was riven and cowed.
Civil society and the judiciary have each mounted resistance where they can; but, Gessen maintains, they “function on the assumption that they are partners in an ongoing negotiation”, whereas Mr Trump “sees any attempt at negotiation as an affront to his power—something that needs to be quashed at any cost.”On this view, Democrats have too often let him dictate the terms of political battle. For instance, Gessen derides Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, for saying he had a “policy difference” with Mr Trump over the border wall, rather than straightforwardly calling the scheme “immoral”.