Trump's Mafia state
by Masha Gessen
[This article published in August 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.blaetter.de/ausgabe/2020/august/trumps-mafia-staat
President Donald Trump will be accompanied by the Congressional leadership and his family as he formally inaugurates his cabinet nominations on Friday, January 20, 2017, in the Senate Presidential Room at the Capitol in Washington.
On the day three years after Trump took office, on 20 January 2020, the first person in the United States, a man living in Washington State, was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. This marked the beginning of an invisible clock ticking for the Trump administration, indicating its inaction in the face of the threat of a deadly pandemic. Although American presidents do in principle have the power to save or destroy lives, it is only in times of extreme danger - in wars, natural disasters or even epidemics - that this power can be exercised so directly and with such devastating effect.
For Trump stubbornly stuck to his line - the disdain for knowledge and experts and the contempt for the system of government. He ignored the reports of the intelligence services, which had warned him of the danger of mass death. He ignored the public appeals of the epidemiologists and also the appeals of his own former leaders in the "Wall Street Journal". On television and Twitter, the President wiped fears about the coronavirus as a "hoax" off the table and promised: "Everything will be fine." Trump praised himself beyond words for acting decisively, but refused to act concretely and activate the Defense Production Act, which could have angered the leaders of the powerful corporations. Instead, he resorted to raising false hopes and even promising false remedies. Often the experts had no choice but to either correct Trump's statements in real time, as the immunologist Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, repeatedly tried to do, even at personal risk, or to neutralize Trump, as the coordinator of the Coronavirus Task Force, Deborah Brix, tried to do, risking her reputation as a health expert.
As the death toll continued to rise, Trump's unwillingness to deal with the crisis began to take on grotesque features. The catastrophe apparently neither impressed nor intimidated him: he simply didn't seem to want to take notice of it. Although he sometimes expressed concern and called himself a "war president", he was immediately distracted by what he was really after: self-glorification and money. Nothing and nobody else was important to him.
The Corona crisis shows: Trump's incompetence is militant. It does not mitigate the threat this man poses; it is the threat itself. The mechanics of the war he waged with his militant incompetence against competence and expertise were revealed during the Corona pandemic. While his own government's health experts were trying to contain the pandemic and educate the population about the dangers, the president denigrated these efforts and repeatedly denied the risks - complacent, smug and proud of his ignorance.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, the vacuum that Trump had deliberately created at the head of the federal government turned into state inaction - with deadly consequences. Some people compared Trump's response to Covid-19 to the Soviet government's reaction to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. For once, such a comparison was not far-fetched. The people who were at greatest risk were deprived of necessary, potentially vital information, which was a failure of the government; on the one hand there were rumors and fears, on the other dangerous ignorance. And, of course, there were also unpleasant, avoidable tragedies.
To put it bluntly, in 2020 Americans had far better access to information than Soviet citizens had in 1986, but there are two key points where the Trump administration and the former Soviet government are similar: total disregard for human life and a monomaniacal focus on pleasing the leader, making him seem infallible and omnipotent. These are the characteristics of autocratic leadership. In the three years of his presidency, even before the Corona pandemic, Trump made more progress towards autocratic rule than most people would have thought possible. In the three years of Trump's reign, the system of government was partly dismantled and partly corrupted. Only in those areas that had not attracted Trump's attention was it allowed to continue to drift in part. But, as Corona also shows, in a crisis a government cannot function properly without leadership. Despite his anti-bureaucratic rhetoric, Trump has created a gigantic network of bureaucratic failure in his administration. Worst of all, the entire system of government is dominated by Trump's inability to recognize and admit his own failures. Hannah Arendt has called bureaucratic rule the "rule of no one". And now Trump is that nobody. He didn't even know what he was not doing. For it is quite clear before our eyes that Trump evaded, ignored, or destroyed all institutions that called for accountability. It's also very clear that he was ensnared by one dictator after another.
All the hallmarks of autocratic leadership
And Trump is also behaving increasingly autocratically in domestic politics. Meanwhile the president boasts that he has repealed more laws than anyone else in his entire term of office, "in one case sixteen years" Almost everything about this boast is a lie. Only one thing is true: It was the first administration focused on destruction. Trump's appointed officials set about repealing one Obama-era ordinance after another, from protecting the rights of transsexual students to public school performance assessment systems, mining water conservation, and restrictions on arms sales to the mentally disabled.
Trump issued a presidential decree that for each new rule, two existing rules had to be repealed. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exceeded this target. In 2017 it revoked 16 regulations and introduced a new one; in 2018 it revoked ten and adopted three new regulations. Entire advisory bodies resigned, were dissolved or lost some political influence, such as the Council of Economic Advisors, the main White House economic policy advisory body. Scientifically sound knowledge was marginalized or literally erased; for example, information on climate change disappeared first from White House websites and then from the EPA website.
Most of the departures in the administration, including the disappearance of expert opinions, remained hidden from the public. But sometimes a disturbing example became visible. For example, during a hearing in May 2019, the MP Katie Porter, a law professor who used to work as a bank supervisor, questioned Ben Carson, the Minister for Housing and Urban Development, about foreclosures of homes, using the well-known abbreviation REO (real estate owned). Carson thought Porter was talking about Oreo cookies. By this time he had been Minister of Housing and Urban Development for over two years. Carson had appeared before the committee that day to lobby for the proposal to cut his own agency's budget by 16 percent. In fact, all of the Trump administration's proposed budgets included cuts for virtually every government agency except the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.  Any budget proposal would have meant drastic cuts: in the case of the State Department, 24 to 33 percent; in the case of the Environmental Protection Agency, 25 to 31 percent; and in the case of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, 13 to 19 percent.  The heads of the respective agencies did not resist, but left it to Congress to continue providing funds to a government that wanted to cut its own funds.
Trumpism as a history of permanent abuse of office
Trump has so damaged the government, the media and the basic understanding of politics in the last almost four years that they are hardly recognizable. Partly out of habit, partly out of necessity, we continue to report and consume the news - Trump's presidency has made more headlines than any other before it - but after the first well over a thousand days of his term in office, we have made no progress in trying to understand what is happening to us.
The difficulty in grasping the news is partly due to the words we use - they have it in them that they make the monstrous seem ordinary. But how can we talk about a series of almost unimaginable events that have become routine? How to describe the confrontation of our state institutions with a presidential apparatus that is out to destroy those very institutions?
I found possible answers in the work of the Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar. In his attempt to conceptualize and describe what had happened in his own country in the three decades following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Magyar came to the conclusion that neither the language of the media nor that of science was up to the task.
After 1989, both Hungarian and Western commentators had tried to describe events in the region in the language of liberal democracy. They talked about elections and legitimacy, the rule of law and public opinion. Their language reflected their assumptions and their limitations, namely that their respective countries would be transformed into liberal democracies, which at the time seemed to be the inevitable result of the Cold War. And they had no other language at their disposal anyway. But if we use the wrong language, we cannot convey what we see. With a language that was developed to describe a fish, we can hardly understand what makes an elephant - words like "gills", "scales" or "fins" wouldn't do us much good.
When some post-Soviet states did not develop as expected, language hindered our ability to understand what was going on. For example, we asked whether they had a free press or free and fair elections. But according to Magyar, to say that this is not the case is the same as saying that the elephant can neither swim nor fly: it tells us nothing about what the elephant is.
And that is exactly what has now happened in the United States: We used the language of political argument, legal procedure, or party political argument to describe something that destroyed a system for the description of which that very terminology had been invented.
A clan-like system in which one man distributes money and power to all other members
Bálint Magyar spent a decade developing a new model and a new language to describe what was going on in his own country. He coined the term "mafia state" for this, which he described as a specific, clan-like system in which one man distributes money and power to all other members. From this, he developed the concept of autocratic transformation, which takes place in three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation. It seems to me that American political culture could now borrow these words, in a symbolic reversal of 1989 so to speak - for Magyar's terms describe US reality better than any other terms from the standard political lexicon. Magyar analyzed the signs and circumstances of this process in post-communist countries and proposed a detailed taxonomy. However, how exactly the autocratic empowerment in the United States might proceed is still unexplored territory.
Using Viktor Orbán as an example, Magyar describes how the emerging post-communist leaders establish their autocracies: by undermining the separation of powers, primarily by restricting the judiciary and claiming the power to prosecute. Of course, this model cannot simply be put over the reality of the United States, not least because the formal separation of powers between the various branches of the system of government has been partially weakened for some time. The Department of Justice, for example, which is actually the institution with the ultimate power of prosecution, is part of the executive branch, and its functional independence is determined by tradition. A monopoly on political power, which Magyar identifies as a major risk factor, is therefore not unusual in the United States.
In all this destruction of US institutions, one area was an exception: the federal courts. This also shows how helpful Magyar's description of the mechanisms of the autocratic experiment in post-communist societies can be for the analysis of events in the United States. Magyar describes how state institutions are contained until the differences between the various branches of government disappear - and how the courts are ultimately involved in this destruction.
Trump's privatization of the common good
In Trump's case, the takeover of state institutions consists of two parts: the personal advantage he derived from them and the restriction of services to the public. The elimination of the differences between the various branches of government took the form of the subjugation of the Republican Party. And the containment of the judiciary took place through a takeover of the courts: through the mass appointment of judges. By November 2019 Trump had already set a new record in appointments. The judges he appointed made up a quarter of all judges at federal courts of appeal. In doing so, he had pulled the courts on his side, which could potentially make key decisions in an impeachment proceeding. And he had appointed two judges to the Supreme Court.
The people appointed by Trump not only stand far to the right ideologically, they also specifically oppose freedom of choice in matters such as abortion, disregard the protection of civil rights, oppose the rights of LGBT groups and advocate deregulation. Several of the newly appointed judges were also remarkably inexperienced. Like only one other president before him, George W. Bush, Trump chose to bypass the review process of the American Bar Association, the professional association of lawyers. Over time, the candidates of his choice became ideologically more extreme and less qualified - reflecting the personnel decisions of his entire administration. Some of the confirmation hearings for new appointments constituted an attack on politics reminiscent of Trump's rallies or press conferences: one is ashamed to have to listen to and watch such things.
Had the impeachment proceedings at least led to Trump's removal from office, it would have been a triumph of the institutions over autocratic pretensions. But it did not. It became a marginal note in American history - a history of abuse of office, which is part of Trumpism.
Completely different from previous administrations...
Today it is quite clear that Trump's presidency is completely different from previous administrations. But as late as 2016, when Trump put himself at the head of the list of candidates for the Republican nomination, many Americans took comfort in the certainty that the American institutions would prove stronger than any candidate and even stronger than this or that President. But after the election, this supposed certainty sounded hollow.
On the same day that Obama celebrated the sunrise as planned, I published an article in the New York Review of Books warning readers that "the institutions will not save you. I based this on my experiences as a journalist*in Russia, Hungary and Israel - three countries that were completely different from the United States and, of course, different from each other. However, their institutions had collapsed in remarkably similar ways. At the time, I had no idea that American institutions would fail in a similar way, but I knew enough to say that absolute trust in institutions would not be appropriate.
However, Americans talk about institutions much more often than they do about another factor that Obama mentioned in his reassuring speech after Trump's election: the presumption that everyone was guided by good intentions. It is true that despite continuing injustices, the rights and protection of citizenship have been granted to a growing number of Americans, and by different types of Americans. If one looks at American history over a sufficiently long period of time and with sufficient benevolence, it can indeed be interpreted as continuous progress towards greater justice. The ingenious structure of the institutions is one of the reasons for this.
The other reason is that American citizens and civil servants usually act in good faith. Of course, there is also lying and deceit, and some try to bend the system to suit their own purposes, but by and large, citizens act in accordance with firmly held beliefs and a coherent system of values. When they abuse their power, they usually limit themselves to certain, often discreet, often ideologically defined areas.
And that means: even if the system of separation of powers fails, a subsequent administration can repair the damage. (However, it should be noted here that Obama did not succeed in closing the Guantánamo detention camp). No powerful political actor has so far set out to destroy the American political system itself - except Trump. He is probably the first party candidate who did not run for president, but an autocrat. And he actually won.
November 3, 2020 - the next chance
In Bálint Magyar's terms, we are now undoubtedly at the stage of an autocratic attempt to achieve clan-like rule - efforts that can still be averted and reversed by institutions. The impeachment process in Congress was an attempt to turn the tide. The failure of the impeachment proves that a monopoly on political power can make autocracy possible - if, as is currently the case, both the Executive and the Senate are in the hands of the Republicans.
The next opportunity to put a stop to the autocratic tendencies of Trumpism will - presumably - come on 3 November 2020 at the ballot boxes. However, to succeed and to defend the victory against an expected massive and possibly violent counterattack, we must do more than vote and do more than campaign. We must involve both formal and informal political institutions, and we must reconsider why these institutions exist.
Because it is also clear that the country that elected Trump as President was a country that had prepared the ground for his Presidency. It was a country that, in the midst of a world refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions, deported more people than it naturalised - and proportionally fewer people were naturalized than Canada or the individual countries of Europe. It was a country that continued to tell the fairy tale of the "immigrant nation", but with each passing year it became more and more afraid of the outside world, becoming increasingly isolationist and resentful. It was a country that dismantled its welfare state and allowed a small group of white men to continue to accumulate wealth and power. It was a country where moral values were only a memory and where the government now regarded it like a corporate management - as if efficiency and efficiency were the most important and sufficient qualities expected of a leader. In other words, it was a country that had long since started its own dismantling, which Trump only made worse. He took advantage of fear, instrumentalized hatred and (thus) filled the vacuum created by his lack of vision.
To undo Trump's autocratic attempt, we must abandon the idea of returning to a pre-trump normality in which American institutions functioned as they should. Instead, we must remember that Congress and the courts, the media and civil society are based on the belief that this country can be one country for all its people.
Moral standards are the foundation of these institutions. Yes, moral claims have been used as cover-ups for hypocrisy and to justify violence, but they are moral claims nonetheless. They must be reinvented. Such reinvention is the task of people who are in every respect the exact opposite of Trump: political figures and powerful moral authorities whose authority stems in part from life courses lived outside Trump's "we", such as the late Elijah Cummings or the seriously ill John Lewis, but also the women of the so-called Squad.
The vision of a different America
Most media and political experts describe the new, rebellious generation of politicians - whose most visible representatives are the women of the squad - in terms of left-wing politics and discuss whether the Democratic Party should turn left in order to attract more and younger voters.
The main characteristic of this new generation of politicians is not, however, that they are politically left of centre - which, of course, applies to many. What distinguishes them from the last generations of American politicians is that they do not simply propose measures to the public, but they do so with a vision of a very different policy, a different life and a different society that might be possible in the future. As different as their visions may be in detail, they focus on dignity rather than power, equality rather than prosperity, and solidarity rather than competition.
These new ways of thinking about politics have not yet penetrated the mainstream consciousness: The Democratic Party and most of the media are still discussing the election in terms of measures, solutions and, of course, fundraising and eligibility, however it can be measured.
What will make Trump's opponent successful - if he or she can be successful at all - is the ability to counter his or her simple promise of a return to the "we" of a white, male, racist past with a vision of how we see ourselves that is more complex, offers fewer certainties, but inspires more Americans - than a vision of what America could be.
The African-American poet Langston Hughes described this vision - and its necessity - with absolute precision in his poem "Let America Be America Again". It ends with the following lines:
I'll say it plainly,
America was never America to me, and yet I swear -
America will be!
Of depravity and criminality,
Of rape and corruption, cunning and lies,
We do, the people,
The land, the mines, the factories,
The mountains and the endless plains redeem -
As far as these great green states extend -
And re-create America!
In this day and age, that would be a bold slogan. One thing is certain: The day will come when the era of Trump will end. In the best scenario, it will end with his removal from office by the voters in the presidential election on November 3. In the worst scenario, it will last another four years.
However, the three and a half years of this presidency have now proved that an autocratic attempt in the United States has a realistic chance of success. And worse still: that an autocratic attempt can logically build on the structures and norms of the American system of government - on the concentration of power in the executive branch and on the marriage of money and politics. The recovery from Trumpism will therefore not be a process of merely returning to a system of government as it was before, to a fictitious normal state as it existed before Trump. The recovery process will only be possible as a reinvention of institutions - as a redefinition of all that politics means to us, of what it means to be a democracy, if that is what we want to be.
The article is based on "Overcoming Autocracy", the latest book by Masha Gessen, which has just been published by Aufbau Verlag. The American translation is by Henning Dedekind and Karlheinz Dürr.