Russian journalist Masha Gessen is something of authority on dictators. Having covered Vladimir Putin for years -- including personally interviewing him -- she's very familiar with the species. She writes that there's a myth that such men -- they are mostly men -- are evil geniuses:
We imagine the villains of history as cunning strategists, brilliant masterminds of horror. This happens because we learn about them from history books, which weave narratives that retrospectively imbue events with logic, making them seem predetermined. Historians and their readers bring an unavoidable perception bias to the story: If a historical event caused shocking destruction, then the person behind this event must have been a correspondingly giant monster. Terrifying as it is to contemplate the catastrophes of the 20th century, it would be even more frightening to imagine that humanity had stumbled unthinkingly into its darkest moments.
But a careful reading of contemporary accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education and imagination — and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they are not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brings them to power. It is the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propels their rise in a frighteningly complex world.
Putin fits nicely into that mold:
As someone who has spent years studying Mr. Putin — and as one of a handful of journalists who have had an unscripted conversation with him — I can vouch for the fact that he is a poorly educated, under-informed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world. To the extent that he has any interest in the business of governing, it is his role — on the world stage or on Russian television — that concerns him. Whether he is attending a summit, piloting a plane or hang-gliding with Siberian cranes, it is the spectacle of power that interests him.
And, like Putin, the long time star of The Apprentice is obsessed with spectacle and ratings:
In the past few months, Americans too have grown familiar with the sight of a president who seems to think that politics consists of demonstrating that he is in charge. This similarity is not an accident (nor is it a result of Russian influence). The rejection of the complexity of modern politics — as well as modern business and modern life in general — lies at the core of populism’s appeal. The first American president with no record of political or military service, Donald Trump ran on a platform of denigrating expertise. His message was that anyone with experience in politics was a corrupt insider and, indeed, that a lack of experience was the best qualification.
Trump may be a new experience for Americans. But his kind has been around for centuries.
On a personal note: I'll be away from this space for a few days. We're moving. The kids have flown the nest and my wife and I no longer need five bedrooms, ten acres and a barn. The toughest part of this experience is getting rid of 31 years of stuff. We're still purging and the moving van is coming tomorrow. When we're settled into our new home -- with a new internet connection -- I'll be back.