Wall Street Journal
Trump: The Reader’s Guide
To understand Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts,’ pick up Hannah Arendt.
Angela Merkel is reading Playboy—for the articles.
That’s according to a report from Bloomberg, which noted that the German chancellor has scoured old Donald Trump interviews in search of clues regarding the 45th president’s character, including one he did with the men’s magazine in 1990. Among the insights: “I could be happy living in a studio apartment.” Sure.
Mr. Trump is what English teachers call an unreliable narrator, meaning Ms. Merkel is wasting her time reading such interviews. But that’s not to say there aren’t books to help explain the new president and his administration to the chancellor and other foreign leaders—and I don’t mean “The Art of the Deal” or the various biographies written about him.
Start with literature. What character from fiction does Mr. Trump most resemble? I’ve seen comparisons to Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby and Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman, a k a “American Psycho.”
But Mr. Trump’s closest literary doppelgänger will be more familiar to Ms. Merkel: Mynheer Peeperkorn, from Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain.” Forceful, magnetic and “filthy rich,” he speaks in “robustly prepared but incomprehensible phrases . . . a forefinger bent to form a circle with a thumb.”
Read Mann’s description of one of Peeperkorn’s diatribes and ask yourself whether it reminds you of someone.
“He had said nothing. But his head had looked so incontrovertibly imposing, the play of features and gestures had been so definitive, compelling, and expressive that all of them . . . believed they had heard something very important or, to the extent that they were aware of the lack of anything communicated, and of any thought completed, they simply did not miss it.”
Later in the novel, two of Mann’s characters debate whether Peeperkorn is a genius or an idiot. “ ‘The issue of “stupidity” and “cleverness” is at times a complete mystery,’ ” observes Hans Castorp, the story’s hero. “ ‘Let me ask you this question: Can you deny that he has us all in his pocket?’ ”
Mann’s final, impenetrable judgment of Peeperkorn: He’s “a personality.” He dies by suicide.
What about the Trump administration? Here too, foreign leaders are trying to figure out who, among the new cabinet secretaries and White House officials, is likely to have the president’s ear. Will Rex Tillerson or James Mattis set policy on Russia? Will Steven Mnuchin or Wilbur Ross have the last word on trade?
Such speculation misses the point about the Trump presidency. It is not an administration in the usual sense. It’s a royal court. The family rules. Bloodlines count. Princes and princesses wield real political power and guard the king’s treasures. Proofs of loyalty are delivered in the coin of conspicuous flattery and aggressive denunciation of critics. A suspicious, prickly and capricious ruler relies on confidants, not ministers, and treats his parliament with disdain. Queens from foreign lands come and go.
A frequent point of comparison here is the court of Henry VIII. Ms. Merkel could do worse than to read Peter Ackroyd’s history of the Tudors, or Hilary Mantel’s fictionalized account of Henry’s court in “Wolf Hall.” But the Tudors were larger figures than the Trumps—in their brilliance and debauchery, their intrigues and bloody-mindedness.
A better comparison might be to Napoleon III, an ostentatious real-estate developer trapped in the body of an overmatched statesman. “He is not an idiot,” Victor Hugo wrote in “Napoleon the Little,” his biography of Bonaparte’s nephew. “He seems absurd and mad, because he is out of his place and time. Transport him to Spain in the 16th century, and Philip II would recognize him; to England, and Henry VIII would smile on him; to Italy, and Caesar Borgia would jump on his neck.”
Finally, foreign leaders trying to understand the Trump phenomenon can also help themselves by reading some of the classics of modern political thought.
One such book is Czeslaw Milosz’s “The Captive Mind,” which explains the psychological pathways intellectuals in postwar Poland took to justify and celebrate their new regime as the unsentimental agent of a necessary and inevitable future. Another book is Elias Canetti’s “Crowds and Power,” with its perceptive understanding of the “peculiar angry sensitiveness” of the crowd “against those it has once and forever nominated as enemies.”
And then there is Hannah Arendt’s “Origins of Totalitarianism,” with its clear-eyed analysis of how public cynicism toward flawed political institutions can be transformed by a wily regime into an assault on foundational concepts of truth—the substitution of facts with Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts.”
“One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive,” Arendt wrote. Anyone watching Ms. Conway’s performance with NBC’s Chuck Todd on Sunday knows that one needn’t be totalitarian, much less elite, to employ the same tactic.
Ms. Merkel, start reading.