On those few occasions when Trump now emerges from behind his self-imposed Twitter wall, Americans are given a glimpse of just how fundamentally inept and unsuited he is for the task of the Presidency. His European trip provided the most recent example as he proceeded to stumble through simple photo-ops and interviews making juvenile gaffes and clumsy mistakes. If nothing else was accomplished on that trip, it underscored his incapacity at the job. For some, that was a source of a peculiar relief—after all, how much harm can an incompetent do?
Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen has emerged as one of the most perceptive critics of the Trump Administration since the election. Her article, Autocracy: Rules For Survival is now mandatory reading for anyone seeking to make sense of the national catastrophe that has befallen us. As a longtime, outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin (she is the author of The Man Without A Face: The unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin”) Gessen often teases out uncanny parallels between the Russian despot and his sycophantic admirer in the Oval Office. In doing so she opens a window into a dark world of autocratic misrule that we as Americans-- until this point in time-- had the good fortune to escape.
Writing for the New York Times this weekend, she takes on the widely held perception that Trump’s painfully obvious incompetence at mastering the art of the U.S. Presidency will somehow mitigate the horrendous damage he has already begun to wreak on the country and the world:
Can an autocrat be ridiculous? Can a democracy be destroyed by someone who has only the barest idea of what the word “democracy” means? Can pure incompetence plunge the world into a catastrophic war? We don’t like to think so.
Trump’s grandiose buffoonery, lack of social skills, manners or class, and sheer ignorance have made him the butt of withering jokes and sneers from whole swaths of the American population, particularly the educated and professional classes. The Western European Democracies have demonstrated their contempt as well, but their disdain is more reflexive, grounded in painful historical experience. Reflecting on the recent French election in which voters resoundingly repudiated the ultra-nationalist, “Trumpian” Marine Le Pen, the writer James Traub commented:
A tragic history has taught the French never to take their values for granted....The French know that you cannot trifle with history; Americans have had fewer reasons in modern times to worry about the dark consequences of political choices.
In the same way Americans have never had to contend with an impervious, rigid, autocratic presence in the White House, they have also never had to contend with an utter fool. A nation that historically prides itself on its sophistication and competence, even mastery, of all things from economy to warfare will naturally have a hard time internalizing the fact that a delusional egomaniac with no demonstrable intellect, talent, or other redeeming quality can bring the entire nation down with his fumbling grasp. Even George W. Bush, seen by many as a President far out of his depth, had the intelligence to surround himself (mostly) with competent, if rigidly ideological people and adhere to basic governmental protocol. Trump’s modus operandi appears to be to obstinately thumb his nose at all of the country’s institutions, with a heedless disregard to history or the consequences of his acts.
But that utter lack of interest, that stunning embrace of ignorance, is exactly what Trump tapped into in order to get where he is today. By and large his voting base is made of those who shun complexity and deliberately shut their ears to complicated solutions. These are people for whom ignorance is a warm cocoon against the realities of modern existence. These are the people who want to “build a wall” or “bring back coal.” They embrace the rejection of reason and science that Trump embodies This simplistic, anti-intellectual attitude, with a dose of media-generated charisma thrown in, is terribly appealing to many millions of Americans.
Gessen questions the popular perception that history’s worst actors, the Hitlers, the Stalins, the Mussolinis, were the “evil geniuses” that the scope of their crimes suggest. In fact, they were starkly mediocre men:
We imagine the villains of history as cunning strategists, brilliant masterminds of horror. This happens because we learn about them from history books, which weave narratives that retrospectively imbue events with logic, making them seem predetermined.
But a careful reading of contemporary accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education and imagination — and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they are not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brings them to power. It is the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propels their rise in a frighteningly complex world.
Gessen has personal experience with Putin, having been, as she notes, one of the few people to have been permitted an unscripted interview with him:
I can vouch for the fact that he is a poorly educated, under-informed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world. To the extent that he has any interest in the business of governing, it is his role — on the world stage or on Russian television — that concerns him.
This same lack of imagination and mediocrity,--a “militant incompetence”-- is exactly what Trump has demonstrated in virtually every significant action he has taken thus far, from his Cabinet appointments of people who revile the agencies they are now tasked to lead (read: “dismantle”), to his interactions with foreign leaders. As Gessen points out, Trump is far more interested in being seen as someone who is “in charge” than whatever consequences of his decisions may follow.
The arbitrary and senseless withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement is simply the most recent example of this. The travel ban on Muslims was one of the firs, The pointless launch of Tomahawk missiles wasted on a Syrian airfield, the dropping of a MOAB bomb for the spectacle of it, are others. The sole goal is to appear “decisive,” no matter how abominably bad and uninformed the “decision” turns out to be, no matter what terrible consequences may flow from it, and many in this country—including many in the media—are all too eager and willing to accept it and genuflect to the simple exercise of raw power.
Gessen concludes that Trump’s basic mindset is simply the mindset of other autocratic tyrants throughout modern history:
Mr. Trump has admitted that being president is harder than he thought. He does not, however, appear to be humbled by this discovery. More likely, he is, in keeping with his understanding of politics, resentful because his opponents — his predecessor, the elites, the establishment — have made things so complicated. If they had not, things would be as he thinks they should be: One man would give orders, and they would be carried out. He would not have to deal with recalcitrant legislators or, worse, meddlesome investigators. One nation, with the biggest bombs in the world, would dominate every other country and would not have to concern itself with the endlessly intricate relationships among and between all those other countries.
From Mao to Hitler to Pol Pot ordinary, untalented and barely marginally competent people placed into positions of power in the right place at the right time have wreaked tremendous, lasting damage on human society, during the last century alone. The fact that they happened to be mundane, incompetent human beings didn’t save the world from the consequences of their acts. All they needed was a set of tools at their disposal, a segment of their society to cheer them on.