Whereas “Surviving Autocracy” places Trump in the context of contemporary attacks on democracy in other countries, another recent book assesses his danger to the Republic in the light of American history. In “The Demagogue’s Playbook” Eric A. Posner argues that Trump should, like Andrew Jackson, be understood as a populist demagogue: someone who is hostile to expertise and existing institutions, and who seeks to further his own power by “appealing to negative emotions like fear and hatred.”
A great virtue of Posner’s conceptual scheme is that it allows him to focus on those aspects of Trump’s presidency that are of lasting significance. Instead of condemning demagogues for any phrase or policy he happens to dislike, he zeros in on their dangerous habit of positing a conflict between the people and the very institutions that have historically enabled them to exert their power.
Still, a distinct drawback of the book is that it becomes a repetitive hunt for populists and demagogues. And while Posner’s sketches of major political figures from Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Roosevelt are often interesting, they do not add to the vast stock of knowledge we owe to their many biographers.
This could be more easily forgiven if Posner gave us a fresh perspective on our contemporary predicament. But when he finally reaches the present, his view of the Trump presidency turns out to be disappointingly conventional. Trump, he concludes, should not be seen “merely as a poor choice for the presidency, like Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan or Warren Harding.” Rather, he is “a political monstrosity who should be repudiated by the body politic, so that politicians who eye the presidency in the future will be deterred from using Trump’s ascendance as a model.“ It is difficult to argue with Posner’s conclusion. But it’s one that has long been shared by a vast swath of the American public.
Taken together, these two books offer an instructive view on what, after four years of his dominating the national conversation, we do — and don’t — know about Donald J. Trump. The instinct to normalize Trump has, mostly, gone out the window; it is now amply evident that he is not just another Republican president, and that he was never destined to grow into his august office.
And yet, it remains devilishly difficult to assess how much lasting damage he will inflict on our political institutions. At times, I found myself swayed by Gessen’s fear that everything is breaking his way, that even the things that appear to constrain his power — like his persistent incompetence — will somehow serve to deepen his hold on the American Republic and the American mind. But at other times, I felt a growing sense of hope that American voters could (as they so often have in the past) soon sour on the demagogue who once beguiled them. After all, as Masha Gessen wrote back in 2016, “nothing lasts forever. Donald Trump certainly will not, and Trumpism, to the extent that it is centered on Trump’s persona, will not either.”