One of Trump’s three rallying cries on the campaign trail – one of the three apparent components of making America great again – was “Drain the swamp” (the other two were “Lock her up” and “Build that wall”). It may have sounded like a call to battle against corruption, but it was in fact a declaration of war against the American system of government as currently constituted.
The Trump campaign ran on disdain: for immigrants, for women, for disabled people, for people of colour, for Muslims – for anyone, in other words, who isn’t an able-bodied white straight American-born male – and for the elites who have coddled the Other.
Contempt for the government and its work is a rhetorical trope shared by the current crop of the world’s antipolitical leaders, from Vladimir Putin to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. They campaign on voters’ resentment of elites for ruining their lives, and they continue to traffic in this resentment even after they take office – as though someone else, someone sinister and apparently all-powerful, were still in charge, as though they were still insurgents. The very institutions of government – their own government now – are the enemy. As president, Trump went on to denigrate the intelligence services, rage against the justice department, and issue humiliating tweets about officials in his own administration.
For his cabinet, Trump chose people who were opposed to the work, and sometimes to the very existence, of the agencies they were appointed to lead. His pick for the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, had, as attorney general of Oklahoma, sued the EPA 14 times for what the state alleged was regulatory overreach. For Health and Human Services, Trump nominated Georgia congressman Tom Price, who said that he wanted to get rid of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. For attorney general, Trump’s choice was Jeff Sessions, an Alabama senator who was once denied a judgeship and was an outspoken opponent of civil rights law. Trump’s choice for energy secretary, former governor of Texas Rick Perry, had, during the Republican primary race in 2011, promised to abolish the Department of Energy. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s choice for secretary of education, was a consistent foe of public education.
Trump’s cabinet picks lied and plagiarised their way through their confirmation hearings. Six weeks after Trump took office, the investigative journalism foundation ProPublica compiled a list of lies told to the Senate by five of Trump’s nominees: Pruitt, DeVos, Treasury pick Steve Mnuchin, Price and Sessions.
Lying to Congress is a criminal offence. It would also, in other historical periods, be a disgrace. Why would the nominees to some of the nation’s highest offices lie, and lie in ways that were easy enough to catch and document? Why wouldn’t they? They weren’t merely parroting the behaviours of their patron, who lied loudly, insistently, incessantly; they were demonstrating that they shared his contempt for government. They were lying to the swamp.
A close cousin of contempt for government is disdain for excellence, also shared by a number of contemporary autocratic leaders – whose antipolitical politics are also distinctly anti-intellectual. As president-elect, Trump opted to take intelligence briefings just once a week rather than daily or almost daily, as had been the custom. He explained why: “I’m, like, a smart person.” Like a pouty eighth-grader, he added: “I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.” If something should change in the world, he said, the intelligence chiefs could find their president and inform him. Trump was perhaps the first American president who seemed not at all impressed by the burden of responsibility of his office: he had no regard for his predecessors, or for the job, and its demands annoyed him.
Much was said following the election about the probability of Trump – the buffoon, the vulgarian, the racist – becoming “presidential”. The underlying assumption was that as president, Trump should develop some reverence for the office he would now hold, and for the system at the pinnacle of which the electoral college had placed him. This assumption – this misplaced hope – ran counter to the essence of the Trumpian project. On January 20, 2017, the nation saw that it was inaugurating a president like no president before him: a president who viewed the government with contempt.
Autocrats declare their intentions early on. We disbelieve or ignore them at our peril. Putin, for example, had made his plans apparent by the end of his first day in office: a series of spare statements and legislative initiatives, along with a police raid, showed that he was going to focus on remilitarising Russia, that he would dismantle its electoral institutions, and that he would crack down on the media. His autocratic attempt – the buildup to actually wielding autocratic power, throwing opponents into jail, controlling media, and eviscerating any political power outside his office – took three or four years, but he had made his objectives clear from the start. Trump was also broadcasting his intentions: during the campaign and again on the first day of his presidency.
For 24 hours, Trump not only trampled on some of the most hallowed public rituals of American power; he made a spectacle of doing so. He defiled the inauguration with a speech that was mean and meaningless and also badly written, pitched to the basest level of emotion and intelligence. “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon” was how he summed up the American foreign policy legacy. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost” is how he summed up the work of all the men and women who had come before him, in effect the entire political history of the country, which he now declared to be over: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Having dismissed the political past, he offered, by way of a vision for the future, a fortress under siege: a walled country that puts itself first, convention and consideration for others be damned.
In his small-mindedness and lack of aspiration, Trump curiously resembled Putin, though the origins of the two men’s stubborn mediocrity could not be more different. Aspiration should not be confused with ambition – both men want to be ever more powerful and wealthy, but neither wants to be, or even to appear to be, better. Putin, for example, continuously reasserts his lack of aspiration by making crude jokes at the most inappropriate times –as when, during a joint appearance with German chancellor Angela Merkel in 2013, he compared EU monetary policy to a wedding night: “No matter what you do, the result will be the same,” he quipped, his way of lightly covering up the “you get fucked” punch line. (The German chancellor was captured cringing on video.)
Trump marked his first moments in office by wielding power vengefully: the head of the DC national guard lost his job at noon, as did all US ambassadors around the world – just because they all serve at the pleasure of the president, and the incoming president liked firing people. Between festivities, Trump signed an executive order to begin undoing his predecessor’s singular achievement, the Affordable Care Act. He had the White House website swept clean of substantive content on climate policy, civil rights, health care and LGBT rights, took down the Spanish-language site, and added a biography of his wife that advertised her mail-order jewellery line. At the same time, as the new president moved through the day, he repeatedly turned his back on his wife. He immediately degraded the look of the Oval Office by hanging gold drapes.
At one of the inaugural balls, Trump and vice-president Mike Pence cut a great white cake with a sword. The cake, as it turned out, was a knockoff of President Obama’s 2013 inaugural ball cake. Obama’s was created by celebrity chef Duff Goldman. Trump’s was commissioned from a decidedly more modest Washington bakery than Goldman’s, and the transition-team representative who put in the order explicitly asked for an exact copy of Goldman’s design, even when the baker suggested creating a variation on the theme. Only a small portion of Trump’s cake was edible; the rest was styrofoam (Obama’s was cake all the way through). The cake may have been the best symbol yet of the incoming administration: much of what little it brought was plagiarised, and most of it was unusable for the purpose for which presidential administrations are usually intended.
Three years to the day after the inauguration, the first person in the United States, a man in Washington state, was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, starting the symbolic clock on the Trump administration’s inaction in the face of a deadly pandemic. While all American presidents wield the power to save and destroy lives, only in times of peril – during wars, natural disasters, and epidemics – is that power wielded so immediately, and with such devastating effects.
Trump maintained his disdain for government and his contempt for expertise. He ignored intelligence briefings in which he was warned about the threat of mass deaths. He ignored the public pleas of epidemiologists, including his own former top officials writing in The Wall Street Journal. On television and on Twitter, he dismissed fears about the coronavirus as a “hoax” and promised, “It’s going to be just fine”. In the first half of March, when the looming disaster was coming into focus, Trump visited the Centers for Disease Control, wearing a red “Keep America Great” cap, and bragged: “I like this stuff, I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said: ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.” Standing in a lab, facing the cameras, Trump claimed that anyone in the United States who needed to be tested for Covid-19 would be able to get the test. Everything he said was a lie.
He lavished praise on himself for acting decisively, but he resisted taking action such as invoking the Defense Production Act, to compel companies to turn their facilities over to manufacturing essential equipment, which could have displeased the heads of large corporations. Instead, he trafficked in false hopes and even the promise of fake remedies. This left experts either to try to correct Trump in real time, as Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tried to do, at great personal risk, or to neutralise him, as the coordinator of his coronavirus task force, Dr Deborah Birx, tried to do, at great cost to her reputation as a public health specialist. As the death toll climbed, Trump’s lack of aspiration took on grotesque dimensions. He did not seem cowed by catastrophe, or scared by it: he could barely be bothered to notice it. At moments, he would seem grave, even referring to himself as a “wartime president” but almost immediately he would be distracted by his real and permanent concerns: adulation and money. Nothing and no one else mattered.
• Extracted from Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen (Granta, £12). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
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