Democracy in Crisis: Books Trump Should Read: "The Emperor," by Ryszard Kapuscinski

A remarkable work of reporting by Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times  earlier this month described, in almost excruciating detail, the disarray of the Trump White House.

It is a nocturnal tale of palace intrigue.

“President Trump loves to set the day’s narrative at dawn, but the deeper story of his White House is best told at night.

Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit. In a darkened, mostly empty West Wing, Mr. Trump’s provocative chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, finishes another 16-hour day planning new lines of attack.”

This lede carries an almost deafening echo of another lede, the opening of “The Emperor,” Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book about the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, in 1974.

“In the evenings I listened to those who had known the Emperor’s court. Once they had been People of the Palace… I visited them after dark. I had to change cars and disguises,” Kapuscinski wrote at the beginning of his classic book.

Back in 1990, Lawrence Weschler argued in the Threepenny Review, that the “The Emperor” was “the best diagnosis of the situation in Poland in 1978—which is to say the last years of Edward Gierek’s fabulously corrupt and incompetent regime.”

Kapuscinski was Poland’s foremost foreign correspondent and, on the one hand, the book is precisely what it purports to be: reporting from Ethiopia. But on the other hand, as Weschler, who covered Poland for the New Yorker, pointed out, everybody in Poland took the book as an allegory for their own political situation.

“At another level,” Weschler wrote ‘Kapuscinski’s text works as a “general allegory—a piercing dissection of the dynamics and contradictions inherent in any and every courtly situation (political, corporate, cultural, academic, institutional)—how authority itself first comes to be engendered but then inevitably congeals and finally evaporates entirely.” (For more Weschler on Kapuscinski see here)

Thrush and Haberman’s story also functions on an almost mythical—not to say unfactual—level as it details the chaotic last couple weeks.

“Cloistered in the White House, he now has little access to his fans and supporters — an important source of feedback and validation — and feels increasingly pinched by the pressures of the job and the constant presence of protests, one of the reasons he was forced to scrap a planned trip to Milwaukee last week. For a sense of what is happening outside, he watches cable, both at night and during the day — too much in the eyes of some aides — often offering a bitter play-by-play of critics like CNN’s Don Lemon.”

It is striking, though, that Kapuscinski’s tale is about the fall of regimes, while the New York Times story is about the shaky beginning—and it is both terrifying and somehow comforting that the dawn of this regime is indistinguishable from dusk.

The level of chaos, especially surrounding Steve Bannon, one of the sources of power within the administration, is frightening, especially when we recall how the Bush team missed a lot of intelligence that may have thwarted the 9/11 attacks due to their inexperience. And the Bush team had a deep bench of lifelong public officials and veterans of numerous administrations on board.

Still, we can’t apply Kapuscinski's allegory directly to our situation. Like families, every unhappy era is unhappy in its own way. But they belong to the same genre, The Palace in Disorder, and there are lessons we can learn. When insecure rulers flail, those around them fall.

“The custom of relating things by word of mouth had this advantage: if need be, the Emperor could say that a given dignitary had told him something quite different from what had really been said...Thus the Emperor heard from his subordinates not what they told him but what they thought should be said.”

I wrote to Thrush and Haberman to see if they were aware of the Kapuscinski echo. Thrush wrote back and said that he had read some Kapuscinski—”The Soccer War” and “Travels with Herodotus”—but noted that the only Kapuscinski passage he could recall “is this paraphrase 'The definition of a wall is anything taller than a man.'”

I couldn’t find the passage in a quick search (I’ve been meaning to read “The Soccer War,” now I have an excuse), but it sounds almost prophetic, something Trump may say someday soon when the great wall turns out to be a janky fence.  

This is the first installment of Books Trump Should Read, a new blog where Democracy in Crisis contributors read literature in the light of current events. 

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