The Trump administration is truly the impossible presidency. Donald was never supposed to win. He didn’t believe he would win. When he did, he did something that absolutely no one could have predicted: he didn’t become anything we have associated with being president, ever. He refused to be anything but Trump. As a result, a century or two of protocols, rituals, pomps, decorum, and presidential seriouso – the entire apparatus of governing as the head of the world’s largest and most powerful state – are being dismantled. And think of it: it has barely begun.
For this, he has earned his right to be a universal folk hero forever. He has shattered every illusion of power associated with the presidency, bringing near daily delight to multitudes around the world with his incessant, bitter, bragging, and petty tweets. The whole thing is stunning. It certainly has defied my most pessimistic predictions of what this presidency would do. I had expected far more darkness and far less comedy.
My above impressions are heavily reinforced by a tremendously delightful book that I just finished, a book which might break all records for political bestsellers. I highly recommend Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff to get a sense of the man we are dealing with here. I don’t want to minimize the dangers Trump represents – he would be so much more delightful if he had no power and, indeed, he is the best argument for limiting government there’s ever been – but there are ways in which he is playing some kind of appointed role in the unraveling of state power. Or so we can hope.
What Have You Forgotten?
One feature of this book is rather overwhelming. It covers all the things that you remember happening but the truth is that you had already forgotten 9/10th of them. This one year of a presidency has produced as much drama (much or most of it fake but most all of it fascinating) as 20 years of a normal presidency. It’s like whole seasons of Mad Men, binged on fast forward and running daily.
Near the end of the book, the author offers a fascinating insight into Trump’s tweets and how they capture the news cycle, invariably. The media barely has time to react. The op-ed writers fulminate. The magazines write long think pieces. Everyone is aghast or laughing or something. But by the time the outrage is just getting going, there is another tweet, and the previous outrage is forgotten and a new one ensues.
This has the effect of creating an addictive narrative and a means of survival. “If every new event canceled out every other event, like some wacky news-cycle pyramid scheme,” observes our author, “then you always survived another day.” This seems like a good description of the process of government in the age of Trump.
The book does have a clean narrative theme throughout: the battle for Trump’s soul between Steve Bannon and the First Family. The battle has been lost by Bannon, and this book throws the last bit of dirt on that grave. Wolff is highly astute about the difference between Reaganite liberalism and Bannonite revanchism. “The essence of Bannonism (and Mercerism),” he writes, “was a radical isolationism, a protean protectionism, and a determined Keynesianism.”
The stunning split with Bannon has been beautiful to watch. Bannon was his strongest connection to fascist ideology, and it is possible that this break with Bannon will drive Trump to upend the aspects of Trumpism that Bannon had created and cultivated. What remains is a kind of chaos. Let’s hope it is manageable enough to keep the world from going up in flames.
What follows are some of the most salient anecdotes I found in the book, not all related to the core thesis, in no particular order.
Usually, the new president is socialized to become “presidential” because he is suddenly and overwhelmingly surrounded by courtiers, pleasers, servants, policy experts, lifetime bureaucrats, tasks, meetings, briefings, and so on. Trump was different: for him, the lifestyle of the White House, which he considers to be something of a dump, was a downgrade from all that has come before. This accounts for why the presidency hasn’t changed him.
In one of so many anecdotes that humanize Trump, it is revealed that the president prefers to eat McDonald’s because he has long feared a poisoning plot. He figures that McDonald's would not expect him to show up and so no one would know to prepare a special poison meal. This is not unreasonable, as I think about it.
Similarly, Trump will not permit the White House maids to move a single article of clothing in his bedroom nor change his sheets without his specific request. Again, this reflects a not unreasonable paranoia he has. This is both a reason for and a product of the kind of life he has lived, inside a bubble, always feeling under fire, feeling like an underappreciated great man, certain that he and he alone can save himself from the vicissitudes of a crazy world.
All that said, he desperately wants to be liked, and it is this which accounts for his stunning level of political malleability. How malleable? There was a moment during the transition that he began to change his mind on immigration. He had met top tech executives during the transition, a scene set up for him by his son-in-law. He became very concerned that these companies do not have all the H1-B visas they need for new employees. Trump pledged to help them, thereby causing his then-Bannonite inner circle to guffaw that such a stance would be completely inconsistent with basically everything he said in his campaign.
Trump didn’t care. He came to enjoy the struggle between his confidants and visitors over his mind and heart, and trusted only himself to make the final decision. Meanwhile, every faction would get a day in the sun. Inauguration day was the apotheosis of Bannon.
The book confirms what I had only suspected: Bannon wrote the inaugural address. It was a dark, chilling, fascistic, statist, grim, and frightening flurry of right-Hegelian blather. It made a god of the nation-state and its chief executive. It contained not one word of Reaganite optimism.
The truth is that Trump could not sustain this nonsense. In his heart, he is a salesman, a businessman, a promoter, and not a prophet of doom. It seems clear in retrospect that Bannonistic ideology could not survive in the mind of a man addicted to television and the culture of mass media.
One of the best features of the book is the verbatim quotes from his speeches, which somehow blend stream of consciousness with humor with nonsense. Still they invite you to take away some theme of some sort. In a strange way, too, they are endearing, like listening to a fun drunk guy at the bar who has a knack for last-call entertainment. You like him even though he makes no sense.
The big change in the first 100 days from right-wing agitator to tax cutter and deregulator was orchestrated by Jared Kushner. His idea was to organize a meeting with CEOs from around to talk about business and economics, which is a much more natural fit for Trump that Bannonite bluster. It was this meeting that began the process of driving Trump toward a more constructive approach than ethnocentricity and wall building. It was the best meeting and moment in the first weeks of the presidency. Trump was engaged, curious, fascinated, and intelligent. He was in his element. It was also the first time he felt fully comfortable in his role.
This was a pivotal moment when the demands of enterprise began to displace the weirdness of the early campaign rhetoric. In a very real sense, the merchant class might have saved this presidency.
Why hasn’t Trump hired people to fill the bureaucracies? Wolff reports the main theory from the inner circle. Trump only thinks about what is happening around him or what he sees on TV. The bureaucracy is a distant abstraction. He cannot be made to care about it. This is not exactly how anyone would have predicted things would unfold.
It wasn’t long into the presidency – which he expected would soften the attacks from him – when he realized that his troubles had only just begun. He concluded that the entire system (media, bureaucracy, political mavens, lobbyists) was rigged against him. He came into office thinking that he would finally be liked. Instead, he dealt with non-stop trouble. It was this turn that led him to fight against what he considered to be the system, culminating in tax cuts and deregulation in defiance of everything official Washington is structured to prevent.
So much of Trump’s mood is determined by his surroundings. Bannon’s description of the White House strikes me. It is not a mansion. It only has a facade and a few fancy rooms. It is actually a military base under military command. And completely government issued. Trump can’t stand the place. There is indeed not much about Washington that he likes at all.
And what happened to the repeal of Obamacare? Wolff does a superb job explaining the health insurance problem that greeted the new administration. Trump loved the cheers he received in the campaign when he denounced Obamacare. But when it came actually to repealing it, Trump pulled back, favoring the core principles of Obamacare (universal coverage, no exclusion for preexisting conditions) rather than a free-market approach. The repeal and replace efforts never got through the underlying problem that the president wasn’t really a believer.
As I say, the central drama of the book concerns the battle between the brooding fascistic fanaticism of Steve Bannon and the prowess of the instinctual marketing genius Donald Trump. Bannon was deadly serious, and came to believe his own winds-of-history rhetoric about the nation, state, and race. When Trump came to realize that Bannon is a Hegelian ideologue (not his words) and not at all practical, he drove him out. And thus does the book end with Bannon’s own phantasmagorical illusions that he Bannon will someday be president.
The Effect of this Book
Trump, of course, has been fulminating against this book. I think this is a mistake. The book is credible and beautifully written, even if we can’t know for certain how much reflects the opinion of his sources vs. how much is real. Regardless, what you come away with from this account is more sympathy than you might ever have had for Trump as a dazzling, strange, quasi-genius, accidental colossus bestriding the culture of our times as no one else could possibly do.
Will he continue to play a much-welcome disruptive role, bringing chaos and disruption where there has been mostly regimented order in the postwar period? If it is going to happen, it will happen now, under this man’s watch. If so, there will be much rejoicing in the land. As for the people who gain the impression that Trump is a tyrant in waiting (also a credible view of this man), there is a case to be grateful for the dissolution of the illusions of the presidency as the institution that holds the country and world together.
I have no idea what the author intended here, but, in my own view, Trump is the winner in this book. He should be smiling today.