Review: The Despot’s Apprentice by Brian Klaas

Another of my review of Trump books. This one not about the daily doings of the administration, but more a psychological profile of Donald Trump and what he is doing to imitate autocrats and tyrants in an effort to erode American political institutions. Why? Like many autocrats (Trump a wanna-be autocrat, Klaas illustrates with many examples of real ones throughout the book) Trump does not seem strongly wedded to a political ideology. Rather his aim seems to be to keep himself in power as long as possible while enriching himself and his family.

Most autocrats leave it at that, but some become also despots by adding to the mix a fragile ego that thrives on self-aggrandizement, a characteristic of those who commit atrocities.  Trump is, alas, in this group as well, or would be if there weren’t powerful institutions around to constrain him, the very institutions he is doing his best to erode!

Most interestingly, this book was written in 2017, less than a full year into Trump’s first term. Even then, he has exercised (or attempted to exercise) every trick of every autocrat (or despot)  Klaas uses in his examples!

The other book reviews in this series (Trump) are listed a few paragraphs down in this link here.

 

The Despot’s Apprentice (2017) by Brian Klaas

Another in what is now a considerable series of books about the problematic Trump administration. Unlike the others I’ve reviewed, this one is less about day to day happenings in the West Wing, nor any history of how we got here. It is rather a comparison between the sorts of things Trump does personally (berate the media, accuse non-partisan government agencies of conspiring against him, dissemble, amass family wealth, and much more) and the acts of autocrats around the world both past and present. As it turns out, most of the autocrats do most of these things, but Trump does all of them. But Trump also adds in a fragile ego, and relative ignorance of the political process, something even most (though not all) of the real autocrats used for comparison, do not suffer.

The book’s chapters are not divided up by time or crisis, but by type of autocrat-like behavior. For example Trump’s attacks on free press, the politicization of non-partisan institutions (Trump has accused the Office of Management and Budget of conspiring against him), nepotism, personal and family financial gain, misdirection in foreign policy, and so on. Klaas begins almost every chapter with a brief review of one or more famous examples of such abuse either from history or today’s headlines. He does not neglect past American presidential examples either. The amazing thing about Trump is that he engages in all of them at the same time. More unbelievable still, this book was written less than one year after Trump formally took office! Now, almost four years into his term, the most alarming thing is that so many of these abuses are to a great degree taken for granted, or “the new normal” by the institutions that should be calling them out! The free press has stopped beating the drum because their audience has largely dialed out, and what used to be non-partisan institutions (the OMB, intelligence agencies, FBI, NASA [believe it or not]) are largely cowed into silence with “trump loyalists” dominating the upper echelons of their leadership.

To be sure, Klaas notes, America is not an autocratic nation, and Trump is no autocrat. But he does show every inclination to want-to-be an autocrat and that in itself is dangerous particularly when surrounded by other powerful people who want much the same thing. Further, the degree of political polarization in the United States, a social and political phenomenon that began long before Trump, becomes much more detrimental to the survival of a plural society and democratic regime when a want-to-be autocrat comes along and takes advantage of it. Trump has leveraged the polarization for his own personal gain and in so doing amplified it. If it was always difficult to bring both sides of the American polity together, it is rapidly becoming impossible.

Despot’s Apprentice is a short book that says a lot. Unfortunately, those who dislike Trump basically know all this about him already. For them this book will do no more than apprise them of the vast depth and breath of his malfeasance. For the others, the 30% of Americans who now believe (so the polls say) that a free press are the “enemy of the people”, such books as this will not be read thanks to the magnified political polarity Trump has deliberately fostered, and that is precisely the point of it all!

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