The End of Democracy as We Know It Case File #98—The Trump Presidency
Laura Bush made literacy one of her signature issues as First Lady. But in the former librarian’s eight years in the White House I doubt she encouraged half as many people to read books as Trump has in the past two months alone. Of course Trump, for whom reading seems to be as foreign, detestable and inconceivable an endeavor as exercise or self-reflection, doesn’t actually want people to read.
On the contrary, Trump wants people not to read. Specifically, he wants the American public, and particularly voters, to not read Michael Wolff’s gossipy tell-all about Trump’s presidency Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. When the most rightfully hated man in the world (Thanks, Osama, for vacating that position!) angrily and repeatedly encourages people not to do something, it serves as a powerful incentive for his enemies and detractors to vigorously engage in whatever action he’s discouraging.
The more Trump raged against Fire and Fury as fake news and a phony book, and a pack of lies (or, as they’re known in his administration, alternative facts), the more irresistible it became to people like myself, who despise the president with an intensity and fervor that even I sometimes find a little disconcerting.
The greatest publicist in the world couldn’t provide Wolff’s book with a fraction of the publicity and notoriety Trump’s enraged public statements against it have. If I were Wolff, I’d send Trump an extra-large Edible Arrangement every day for making sure that pretty much everybody in the country, if not the world, knows about my book and its juicy, salacious, Trump-angering content.
It’s easy to see why Fire and Fury pisses Trump off so much that he has no choice but to continually call attention to its existence. Half gossip, half-journalism, Fire and Fury is a damning, morally questionable portrait of an administration of dangerous incompetents thrust into a situation they’re almost uniquely ill-equipped to handle.
It’s almost as if handing the reins of the government over to Donald Trump and the two-headed monster of ego and ambition nicknamed here as Jarvanka (that would be Trump’s son-in law Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka), two entities with nothing in the way of relevant governmental experience (or governmental experience of any kind) but all manner of messy, ugly business dealings and egregious conflicts of interest, might have been a bad idea.
The big, not terribly shocking revelation here is that not only did Trump and his supporters not expect to win; they ultimately didn’t want to win, either. Wolff compares the situation to The Producers. The idea was for Trump to lose in a way that would benefit everyone on Trump’s team. Trump’s minions would score lucrative, high-profile gigs in lobbying, cable television and/or punditry and Trump could start his own news channel where he could rage against Crooked Hillary and the stolen election to his heart’s content.
Instead of the awful responsibilities that come with great power, Trump could enjoy a responsibility-free life of yelling at Crooked Hillary via Twitter and bragging about how he could have done the impossible and gotten elected president if only the election hadn’t been stolen by those awful swamp monsters and Deep State representatives.
In an upside-down scenario, losing by two or three points would have represented a huge victory for Trump and his movement. But winning, actually winning, as in “Holy-fuck, he’s our next president, what do we do now?” would register as a terrifying loss because it meant that Trump would actually have to do a job he was patently unqualified for.
Trump might have wanted the title and prestige of being the most powerful man in the world, but he sure didn’t want all the work that went along with it, not to mention the tough decision-making and self-discipline that goes with having to run just a business but a country. Being president is exceedingly difficult even for people who aren’t belligerent, hateful morons, so you can imagine how impossibly tough it is for a baby-man like the Commander-in-Chief.
Despite his tough guy posturing, the Donald Trump of Fire and Fury is weak in every conceivable sense, and not just because the Humpty Dumpty-shaped septuagenarian appears to be as physically weak as a baby. Trump is also weak on information. He’s weak on experience. He’s weak on expertise. He’s weak in temperament and intellect and attention span and concentration and social acumen and decency and just about every other way a human being can be weak.
This weakness created an enormous opportunity for the overwhelmed and under-qualified people in Trump’s circle. Trump’s disinterest in actually running the country led to a power vacuum a deplorable contingent of opportunists raced in to fill. Paul Ryan, for example, sparred repeatedly with Trump during his campaign, never missing an opportunity to hypocritically take the moral high ground and wag a scolding finger in judgment at Trump for his latest unforgivable transgression.
But once Trump was in office, he soon realized that he had no real agenda, particularly a legislative agenda, so he was happy to out-source it to Ryan, one of many figures who discovered just how easy it was to manipulate and control the new President through flattery and guile.
For his primary advisors, Trump assembled a singularly combustible, incompatible trio. There was, of course, Steve Bannon, Breitbart kingpin and the Alt-Right’s slovenly, belligerent Prince of Darkness, a man not known for his love of Jews, particularly of the pampered or preppie variety or establishment Republicans. Bannon is a man of ideas and a man of conviction. True, those ideas are scary, racist and reactionary, and that conviction is analogous to that of a super-villain’s commitment to taking over the world, but he at least believes passionately in something, in sharp contrast to the many people buzzing around the White House and Trump Tower who believed only in the gospel of self-advancement, and self-promotion.
Then there’s Jared Kushner, a pampered and preppie Democratic Jew in his mid-thirties who could easily pass for a grad student or even an under-graduate. In Fire and Fury, Kushner is the eternal Bar Mitzvah boy whose indulgent relation gave him a ridiculously unearned gift that’s more of a curse: an opportunity to play a major role in the Trump administration. A boyish man barely qualified to run a failing newspaper suddenly found himself in the surreal position of helping guide the least experienced and qualified President in history through a series of nightmarish political quagmires he probably should not have survived, but inexplicably has. Kushner is like a political version of Rushmore’s Max Fischer, a precocious prep school type desperate to play in an adult world where he does not belong. In a saner world, Kushner would still be an intern learning how the world operates. In Trump World, he was given the modest assignment of making peace in the middle east, despite famously now having less of a security clearance than the White House calligrapher.
Last, and most assuredly least, is Republican National Committee chairman turned Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a cold grey nothing of a man who personifies the uselessness of a gutless Republican establishment to Bannon and the party’s obeisance to Trumpism and the mercurial whims and rages of its namesake to everyone else. He’s nothing more than a warm body to be tossed overboard when the time comes, yet another sacrificial lamb for an administration that burns through employees at an alarming rate.
What is Trumpism? What does Trump believe in? In Fire and Fury, Trump comes across as a syphilitic, half-mad boy Emperor ruled not by principles or ideals but powerful, perpetually shifting whims often dictated by what he happens to be watching on Fox News at any given moment. If Trump believes in anything, it’s his own greatness and the infallibility of his gut instinct. That’s less than nothing.
The famously sub-literate, ferociously uncurious Trump needed a forceful street-fighter of an intellectual like Bannon, in a way that made him bitterly resent his profane king-maker, even as he relied upon him to give his shambling mess of an administration something resembling direction. I’m not sure the universe itself is vast enough to contain the egos of both Trump and Bannon, let alone a single administration.
Trump rages against leaks but in Wolff’s telling, everybody leaked. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine that a lot of those people were leaking directly to Wolff, and that Trump himself was a source of any number of leaks.
Leaking became a key strategy in the vicious, dog-eat-dog infighting that characterized the early days of the Trump presidency. Leaking was a way to embarrass enemies. Leaking was a way to gain leverage. Hell, at a certain point leaking became a way of life. Besides, neither Trump nor Bannon was capable of censoring themselves for the sake of propriety or party unity, as evidenced by the many, many instances here where Bannon rails profanely and viciously against Trump’s inner circle, particularly his daughter and son-in-law, who formed the core of a group of Trump insiders he called, with poisonous, pointed sarcasm, “The geniuses.”
Trump created an atmosphere of paranoia and Machiavellian scheming that made leaking not just a possibility but an inevitability. Leaking all but defined White House culture, then and now.
Fire and Fury depicts life in Trump’s White House as indistinguishable from a season of The Apprentice, with outrageous, larger than life characters all vying desperately for the approval and validation of the short-tempered, media-obsessed lunatic at the top of the food chain. These include outlandish, unlikely figures like Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci, who roared into office as a hot-tempered mouthpiece for the president every bit as obnoxious, aggressive and arrogant as his boss, only to get fired in a matter of days after inexplicably calling a New Yorker writer in a rage about leaks he attributed to arch-nemesis Priebus (it’s a lovely and endearing trait of Trump minions that their most hated enemies often seemed to be fellow Trump minions rather than outsiders or Democrats) in a rage over possible leaks and proceeded to give the mother of all leaks, along with plenty of profane vitriol directed towards Bannon.
How do you run a government with an emotionally stunted man-child at the helm both uninterested and unqualified in fulfilling even the basic requirements of the job? The answer, according to Wolff, seems to be that you work around Trump, rather than with him. Working at the White House in this telling is like being a rodeo rider: the idea is to hang on as long as you can, all too aware that you will get thrown, and it will probably be painful and ugly.
Fire and the Fury’s breeziness is at once one of its greatest strengths and a major weakness. It feels less like a magnum opus than a deeply dishy magazine article on steroids built on betrayed confidences, gossip, wild conjecture and the author’s own enormous ego.
It's telling that when I saw that Hope Hicks—the truest of true believers in the wisdom and wonder of Donald Trump—had resigned right after publicly admitting to lying on Trump's behalf, my brain registered the news as a development on a reality show I'm hate-watching rather than actual politics.
To really drive home what a disreputable, sleazy venture this is, Wolff has very strongly insinuated—to fellow creep Bill Maher no less—that Trump is almost assuredly currently conducting an affair while in the White House. All signs point to UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who he quotes a staff member describing as “as ambitious as Lucifer.”
That seems to apply to Wolff as well, who at the very least seems to have made a Faustian bargain to compromise what’s left of his journalistic integrity for a bombshell-filled best-seller that catapulted him into the very eye of the ongoing hurricane that is Trump’s cataclysmic presidency.
Trump’s presidency may be an unmitigated disaster for the country but it’s provided golden opportunities for a select group of schemers, back-stabbers, leakers, gossip hounds and plotters unencumbered by ethics or integrity. That’s a group that, for better or worse, certainly includes Fire and Fury’s author, who has written the perfect book for the cultural moment: gossipy, sleazy and riveting in no small part due to its laissez faire attitude towards journalistic ethics
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco
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