Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker – A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America (New York: Penguin Press, 2020)
This book, by two Washington Post journalists, is a chronological, personality-based history of the first three years of Donald Trump’s presidency. By keeping a mostly straight tone, it has significant comedy value. It also has instructive value about the intersection of personality and party politics.
Historians will likely have a field day with the Trump presidency. Or at least they will when enough time has passed for partisan passions to cool. Until then, there will likely be more splenetic rants than useful analysis. Leonnig and Rucker do a better job than most about keeping their spleens in check, though they are not perfect about it.
The late Charles Krauthammer viewed the Trump administration as a stress test for America’s liberal institutions. He thought they would remain intact, and the country would learn a few lessons about executive power. So far, so good, though there has been some important damage in the areas of trade, immigration, and diplomacy. The Republican party is also in rough shape, and isn’t quite sure what to do with itself now that the personality by which it is defining itself is no longer in office.
The story of American political institutions, almost from the beginning, has been a slow growth in the executive branch’s political power relative to Congress. Each administration takes on a little bit of new power to fight a war, ward off an economic panic, deal with a disaster, or simply to accomplish a common policy goal. After two centuries of this slow accretion, the presidency has become far too powerful compared to the other two branches. This imbalance makes the country especially vulnerable when the president is corrupt, incompetent, illiberal, or all of the above.
Today, Trump’s fondness for executive power is currently combined with congressional Republicans that will not buck him, and a Democratic opposition that also likes a powerful executive branch, at least when they are in power. The combination is a potent stress test for the separation of powers and limited government.
Trump’s various capers are often humorous—many parts of this book are laugh-out-loud hilarious. Others are damaging, such as placing tariffs against allies such as Canada on national security grounds, or forced family separations at the southern border. In the long run, Trump’s de-glamourizing effect on the presidency may actually do some good. This, however, assumes that people learn their lesson about putting too much power in one office.
As Trump has proven, in America, anyone can become president. This can be dangerous, as he is also proving. While he will not be fatal to America’s liberal institutions, it is important that his precedents do not become prologue for future presidents’ power grabs. Part of that project is not taking him or the presidency too seriously. This book helps very much in that department, such as when it tells the story, with a straight face, of the time Trump told India’s Prime Minister, “it’s not like you have China on your border.”
On the other hand, there is next to no analysis of Trump’s major policy initiatives, from his signature trade and immigration policies to his regulatory policies, foreign policies, and other initiatives. Politics should be about policy. In practice, it is mostly about personality. In that sense, A Very Stable Genius is a very practical book, though one will have to go elsewhere for actual policy content.