Since last November when the nightmare truly began, I’ve been struck by how many friends and relatives have admitted that when they voted for the Orange Man-Child they were simply “making a statement” that they were tired of “business as usual,” they viewed any current elected official as corrupt, and they wanted to “drain the swamp” and install someone who would do just that, never mind that the person they voted for had no experience whatsoever in government.
In virtually every area of our lives we seek out the best people to help us solve our problems, even going so far as to pay for membership in organizations like Angie’s List and Consumer Reports to give ourselves every possible advantage in getting the best doctors, the best lawyers, the best carpet installers, the best plumbers. We ask friends about their experiences with dentists, with restaurants, with day care.
Yet when it comes to trusting someone to run the most complex political and economic entity on the planet, the government of the U.S., somehow—inexplicably– experience becomes a liability and rank amateurism a virtue.
The fact that the Popular Vote Loser had rung up seven bankruptcies, had paid out a $25 million fraud settlement, had stiffed countless vendors, been sued twice by the feds for housing discrimination, was provably incompetent in running something as simple as a real estate business, and was unable to secure any loans from any U.S. banks to run his failing enterprises was completely lost on these voters. I had friends in Florida get angry with me and declare loudly that “it’s time for a businessman to run this country,” and they were unconvinced when I reminded them that we had recently tried that with Bush Jr and that turned out well. And had they checked the record on this latest republican offering?
In this excellent piece by Masha Gessen in the NYT, she describes the incompetence and general lack of curiosity and appreciation of complexity that seems to be the hallmark of most latter day authoritarians, not just ours, and the destruction and havoc putting someone like that in office can cause.
Damn good writing.
[Masha Gessen is a contributing opinion writer and the author of “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”]
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.
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. Historians and their readers bring an unavoidable perception bias to the story: If a historical event caused shocking destruction, then the person behind this event must have been a correspondingly giant monster. Terrifying as it is to contemplate the catastrophes of the 20th century, it would be even more frightening to imagine that humanity had stumbled unthinkingly into its darkest moments.
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.
Modern strongmen are more obviously human. We have witnessed the greed and vanity of Silvio Berlusconi, who ran Italy’s economy into the ground. We recognize the desperate desire of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to be admired or at least feared — usually literally at his country’s expense. Still, physical distance makes villains seem bigger than they are in real life. Many Americans imagine that Mr. Putin is a brilliant strategist, a skilled secret agent turned popular leader.
As someone who has spent years studying Mr. Putin — and as one of a handful of journalists who have had an unscripted conversation 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. Whether he is attending a summit, piloting a plane or hang-gliding with Siberian cranes, it is the spectacle of power that interests him.
In the past few months, Americans too have grown familiar with the sight of a president who seems to think that politics consists of demonstrating that he is in charge. This similarity is not an accident (nor is it a result of Russian influence). The rejection of the complexity of modern politics — as well as modern business and modern life in general — lies at the core of populism’s appeal. The first American president with no record of political or military service, Donald Trump ran on a platform of denigrating expertise. His message was that anyone with experience in politics was a corrupt insider and, indeed, that a lack of experience was the best qualification.
Since taking office, he has been largely consistent, purging experienced staff from agencies like the State Department and appointing officials who have no relevant experience and often have nothing but disdain for the mission of their agencies. It’s hardly a coincidence that plagiarism has become a regular occurrence among the Trump team — from Melania Trump’s convention speech to the cake at an inaugural ball to an aspiring assistant secretary’s master’s thesis. If the value of political expertise is less than negligible, then the theft of expertise is barely a transgression. (The Putin government is similarly afflicted: A number of cabinet ministers plagiarized material for their dissertations, as did the president himself.)
Mr. Trump has communicated repeatedly his apparent belief that the presidency should be a job of simple decisions and clear gestures. This was why during the campaign he reportedly asked a foreign policy adviser repeatedly why the United States can’t use nuclear weapons “if we have them.” That is why, in the wake of using the “mother of all bombs,” he bragged of giving the military “total authorization” — because why complicate things by restraining the generals? It is also why Mr. Trump announced on Thursday that the United States will pull out of the complex, sprawling, painstakingly negotiated Paris climate accord, which he apparently made no effort to understand but every effort to recast for his public in deceptive, primitive terms.
That is why Mr. Trump fired James Comey, the F.B.I. director. Mr. Comey was annoying, and Mr. Trump, the most powerful man in the world, wanted him to go away. In his subsequent interviews, he displayed a clear lack of comprehension of why the news media and the Washington establishment insisted on creating so many complications in the wake of such a simple act as dismissing an employee. The sequence of events that followed — from the appointment of a special counsel to Mr. Comey’s expected testimony in the Senate — would have been predictable in a conventional, complicated view of the political world. In the Trumpian universe, however, one effective gesture simply makes a problem go away.
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. The United States would run like a business, an old-fashioned top-down company of the sort Mr. Trump used to run, the kind of company managed through the sheer exertion of power.
Consider some of the latest revelations to have shocked the nation: Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, appears to have asked the Russian government, back in December, to provide the incoming administration with a secret communication channel based in Russian facilities. In the complicated world of American politics, Mr. Kushner’s behavior appears bizarre, dangerous and, most of all, inexplicable. In the Trumpian universe, there is likely to be a simple explanation, such as the incoming president’s desire to boast of a tremendous accomplishment before he took office, and his son-in-law’s being dispatched to negotiate an anti-terrorist alliance by making a few calls — the way Mr. Trump himself negotiated with Carrier, the air-conditioning company, a deal to keep several hundred jobs in the United States. Whatever the objective, pushing aside the accumulated national-security and foreign-relations expertise of the United States government came naturally to the budding Trump administration, which attacks institutions and attempts to render expertise irrelevant every step of the way.
This is one way an autocracy can come into being. In other words, it is Mr. Trump’s insistence on simplicity that makes him want to rule like an autocrat. Militant incompetence and autocracy are not in opposition: They are two sides of a coin.