I don’t know whether Trump has encountered the phrase l’etat, c’est moi, but he is showing us just what it means. Except for that odd passage in his inaugural address, there’s no evidence I can think of that he recognizes the claims, validity, or importance of a set of rules beyond his personal interests or aggrandizement. (The closest other possibility I can think of is when he responded to Doug Jones’s upset victory, in the Alabama Senate race over Roy Moore, not by claiming the results were rigged, as Moore did, but by tweeting “A win is a win.”)
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We all “know” this about Trump’s behavior. At least I feel I do, after chronicling 150-odd illustrations of his cast of mind during the campaign. But I wonder increasingly about the proper name to give it, which is the occasion for mentioning briefly several books and articles already familiar to Atlantic readers, and another one worth learning about.
Do we call Donald Trump’s approach to power …
… Trumpocracy? This is the name of an excellent new book by The Atlantic’s David Frum, related to—but much broader than—his “How to Build an Autocracy” cover story, published just after Trump was sworn in. David describes the interlocking brands of corruption that together keep an autocrat in power, from straight-out financial payoffs (like Trump real-estate deals linked to Trump-administration policies) to the corrosion of law-enforcement standards to the abasement of an entire political party. What I observed when living in China is what the book says is becoming true of this era’s America: “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.” Franklin Foer’s astonishing new cover story about Paul Manafort, “The Plot Against America,” vividly describes how financial and political corruption interact.
… A “dying” of democracy? That is the implication of the new book How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard. Like Frum’s book, this one works against an “it can’t happen here” complacency about the durability of American institutions. The country is so strong, it has bounced back from so much, it has withstood so many “end is nigh!” warnings, that it becomes natural to think that its health and resilience are guaranteed.
Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that democracy is far more fragile and less resilient than it seems, and that there is such a thing as irreversible damage—many signs of which we can observe now. (The refusal of one political party to consider a Supreme Court nomination was a significant step in this regard.) The book makes clear that the survival of democracies depends on participants agreeing to observe rules, and “norms,” even if they can’t be absolutely forced to comply. When the Supreme Court ruled against Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal in his White House tapes case, he acquiesced to its power. A generation later, so did Al Gore, in the face of the historically embarrassing Bush v. Gore ruling. A man like Trump might have tried to dig in his heels and see what other institutions could make him do. (After all, he has seen that no one can make him release his tax returns, or abide by the emoluments clause, or recognize other accepted limits on his power.) And a party like today’s McConnell-Ryan congressional Republicans might have failed to stand up to him.