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!

Book Review: The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton

Once again, for consistency sake (there being little of additional philosophical import) I include this review of John Bolton’s memoir of 18 months working as National Security Advisor from April 2018 to September 2019 for the Trump administration. It would I think be unfair of me to criticize Bolton on the basis of my politics compared to his. In point of fact I do not disagree with some of his assessment of threat situations. Iran and North Korea will never give up development/possession/proliferation of “weapons of mass destruction” (nuclear or otherwise). Bolton is quite right I think to believe that the only way to stop these developments is with overwhelming military force, but he is far to sanguine about assessments that, in response, millions of people (especially South Koreans) would die.

Is there any other option? India and Pakistan (bitter enemies for 72 years) possess nuclear weapons (Pakistan also a known proliferator) for some decades now and neither have used them (the potential collapse of the Pakistani State being another kind of problem). Perhaps there are sensible means of preventing N. Korea or Iran from ever using their weapons? In this respect, not sanctions, but trade and economic engagement make more sense. Why? Because when you tighten economic and diplomatic screws to the point where a people figure they have “nothing else to lose”, you provoke war rather than prevent it. Bolton knows history well enough to know this. He also knows what happened to Qaddafi in Libya after he gave up his weapons programs, yet dismisses this history as though it mattered not to Iranian, and especially to N. Korean calculations.

So I differ from Bolton on these matters, but I am not sure enough about my own views to say Bolton must be wrong. In any case this chasm between us does not take away from his observations and criticism of Trump’s administration concerning both substance and (more importantly) its lack of consistency, not to mention Trump’s self-serving, ego-maniacal fixations.

Like the other books reviewed in this series (“Fire and Fury”, “Fear”, “A Warning” “Devil’s Bargain”, “A Very Stable Genius”,  and “The Despot’s Apprentice”), this is a frightening book and the only one of the six reviewed focused on foreign policy.

The Room where it Happened (2020) by John Bolton

People mostly either like or dislike John Bolton based on their alignment with his politics. I do not see him that way. I have had jobs (never in government) where my role was to highlight and advocate for some specific aspect of a corporate hardware and software infrastructure. Bolton’s job was to advocate for the national security interests of the United States, and of course the recommendations he made (like mine) flowed from his background, experience, and yes, politics.

His experience is the key here, for Bolton has consummate knowledge of the workings of international institutions and also the governments they serve. He has also an appreciation for geopolitical history and isn’t afraid to call out a pointless exercise when he sees it. In part his politics is informed by his historical knowledge, for example the duplicity of nations like Iran, North Korea, and yes also China and Russia, with regard to respecting treaty obligations. But if anything makes Bolton more angry than Trump’s waffling and sometime expressed admiration for tyrants, it is his treatment of our own allies, the EU (NATO), Japan, and South Korea in particular. All this is revealed!

This book is about what Bolton found himself facing from April 2018 until September 2019, Eighteen short (must have seemed very long to him) months in the middle of Donald Trump’s administration. Reorganization of the NSA early in his tenure, the book touches on every new and on-going global threat of the time stemming from North Korea, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Russia, China, and others. Each of these regions is a fount of over-lapping threats.

Bolton is in a unique position to appreciate the complexity of these situations. He castigates the Obama administration on a few matters, but points out, with some irony, that Trump’s instincts sometimes paralleled Obama! With regard to North Korea he is fair enough to note that none of the past four administrations (two Republican and two Democratic) have accomplished anything useful. When he alludes to differences in procedural style between Trump and former administrations, he mentions only the prior Republican administrations for whom he worked.

Very much this book is a detailed account of the operation of the Trump administration as concerns foreign national security issues with an occasional domestic matter (the Mexican border, Russia’s 2016 election interference) crossing the line. Although the NSA is involved in these matters, Bolton does his best to minimize his role in them, preferring the more global threats whether immediate or more temporally distant. As with my own some-time role in corporations, Bolton does not expect his boss to agree with his every recommendation. He notes that as goes national security, Trump’s instincts are often like his own. The problems threaded throughout the book are concerned with Trump’s flip-flopping almost constantly on matters where waffling, with mixed signals sent via tweets to the world, is universally detrimental to the outcome we want, that is a more, and not less, secure United States. There are a even a few examples, (to my politics not Bolton’s) where the President made the right call (even if for the wrong reasons) over Bolton’s recommendation as when Trump chose not to risk Iranian lives (Iranian body bags would make him look bad) in exchange for an American drone!

The bigger problem, as Bolton sees it, is that the decisions Trump does make, whether coming out right or wrong for national security, are made only on the basis of what Trump thinks makes him look good in the press, helps him in the 2020 election, or furthers the enrichment of his family! Along with all of this come also problems with the bureaucracy surrounding Trump. Bolton is an astute critic of bureaucracies in general (see his “Surrender is not an Option” also reviewed) and where warranted, individuals who do little to serve the organization’s purpose. In this regard the Trump administration is no different than others except for the extraordinary number of musical chair events and as consequence the style and substance variations already and still passing through this administration — including of course now Bolton himself.

In only a couple of places in the body of the book does Bolton call attention to what his government book reviewers forced him to remove. In an epilogue he describes a little more of this process but on the whole does not seem too unhappy with its results. He also offers a critique of the House impeachment process that got going after he left the NSA. This short analysis is among the most telling of Bolton’s real feelings about his time as National Security Advisor. He does not say that Trump should not have been impeached. The Ukraine matter over which the House obsessed was, in Bolton’s opinion, only one, and a lesser one at that, of Trump’s potentially impeachable offenses! The House should have taken more time, let the court processes (for documents) complete themselves at their own pace, and evidence of more serious malfeasance would have turned up! By rushing the job for political reasons, the Democrats shot themselves in the foot, and left Trump more unconstrained than he was before. No one, after all, is going to try to impeach him again!