The brightest hope of the Trump presidency has been its power to radicalize liberals and bring together the left. It is curious to read how Steve Bannon, Trump’s more coherent and strategic counterpart, explicitly wants this to happen in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. Why did he push for the first travel ban to hit the airports so hard and suddenly? “So the snowflakes would show up to the airports and riot.” Throwing oil on the fire is his method. As Wolff points out, he had already perfected it as showrunner at Breitbart:
The Breitbart formula was to so appall the liberals that the base was doubly satisfied, generating clicks in a ricochet of disgust and delight. You defined yourself by your enemy’s reaction.
It was by this formula that the Trump campaign, and the entirety of his platform, got created: by screaming at the country, and seeing what echoed back. The decline of Trump and his curious method, from unbelievable initial success to its current juddering stagnation, is the story that Wolff traces in his book.
Donald Trump started his campaign in Trump tower in June 2015. At the time, it was a joke. He did it, like most things he does, for self-promotion, and it seemed to serve only as a novelty item of the Republican primary. As he hewed his way past one opponent after another, amazed at his own success, he seemed to learn a strangely democratic way to design his policies. Ever looking for approval and affection, he repeated the themes that got him the wildest applause. (Those themes were later scraped together by Steve Bannon and written down, gaining him some authority as “a keeper of the Trump promises”.)
Trump gathered enormous popularity developing his ideas by echo, and by attacking symbols resented by his crowds — the urban media, politicians, liberals and so on. He didn’t please the crowds consciously, he just wanted them to like him, and he bitterly raged at the establishment because it didn’t admire him like his crowds did.
Nobody expected him to win the election this way — by trying to please the unwashed masses rather than the establishment. As Wolff hilariously explains, not even his campaign staffers did. They simply saw this rollercoaster as a painful but promising gateway to get themselves into high society, good jobs and celebrity. “The unspoken agreement among them,” Wolff writes, was that “not only would Donald Trump not be president, he should probably not be.” Trump had an excuse ready for when he’d lose, everybody had an idea of a nice job to land when they got out. Hillary would become president, Trump would say the election was stolen, everybody would be happy.
But then he won. A rapid realignment took place as the opportunists of the campaign suddenly had a shot at a stunning array of powerful positions. There were two problems Trump faced. The first problem was that they had all behaved as if they’d never have to face the responsibilities and scrutiny of public office. The second problem was that Trump didn’t have a clue about the first problem. This failure is wholly attributable to the Trump family’s utter confusion and ignorance, well documented in the book.
“Almost everybody on the Trump team came with the kind of messy conflicts bound to bite a president or his staff,” Wolff writes. “For quite obvious reasons, no president before Trump and few politicians ever have come out of the real estate business,” which “is a preferred exchange currency for problem cash — money laundering.” Trump, his sons Eric and Don, his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner were all tainted by “the dubious limbo of international free cash flow and gray money.”
Thus, when the family had gotten hold of the reins of power, it came as a shock to hear James Comey, head of the FBI, declare that he was investigating “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government.” Jared and Ivanka “exhibited an increasingly panicked sense that the FBI and DOJ were moving beyond Russian election interference and into family finances.”
This is the true significance of the Russia investigation, and it may be this book’s biggest service to US political discourse to set this record straight. The only “collusion” there was on Trump’s part was inane and blundering idiocy, mainly by his son Don Jr. While Democrats have used the Russia-hysteria to explain away their own astonishing loss of the election, they may in fact, in their heart of hearts, be aware how far-fetched it is. As Wolff writes,
If all politics is a test of your opponent’s strength, acumen, and forbearance, then [the investigation], regardless of the empirical facts, was quite a clever test, with many traps that many people might fall into. Indeed, in many ways the issue was not Russia but, in fact, strength, acumen, and forbearance, the qualities Trump seemed clearly to lack. The constant harping about a possible crime, even if there wasn’t an actual crime—and no one was yet pointing to a specific act of criminal collusion, or in fact any other clear violation of the law—could force a cover-up which might then turn into a crime. Or turn up a perfect storm of stupidity and cupidity.
If these were well-laid traps, then Jared Kushner pushed his father-in-law straight into one. In the first of several staggering miscalculations, he and Ivanka — “Jarvanka” — exhorted Trump to fire Comey. This outraged Steve Bannon, who thought (rightly) that this was an utterly self-sabotaging move.
The split between Bannon and Jarvanka was inescapable. He is a populist, wants to tax the rich, build infrastructure, break the state and insult the establishment along the way. They won’t be your friends, so why try to make them? he repeatedly told Trump. Jared and Ivanka, on the other hand, are mainstream Democrats, not concerned with redistribution, but socially progressive. The fight between those groups was a fight over the spirit of the White House — would Trump help his base, or only appeal to it in tweets and symbols? As Bannon was gradually sidelined and finally forced out, it became clear that this was the rich people’s White House, with mere lip service to populism.
In July last year, Edward Luttwak wrote a hair-raising analysis in the TLS, explaining how Trump won this election thanks to the economy, and how he could win again with a fat infrastructure bill.
If the resulting employment generation kicks in fully by 2020, Trump will coast to re-election, especially if by then he can claim that the Mexican border is “sealed”, which will then result in his ordering the automatic legalization of all tax-paying and non-felonious illegal immigrants, giving him a chunk of the Hispanic vote as well, after decades of unfulfilled promises, including Obama’s.
Ivanka, meanwhile, is “carefully differentiating her personal views on a number of electorally important issues from those of her beloved father” to win the presidency after him. (Wolff confirms that this is her and Jared’s plan.)
For this to pan out, Trump has to regain some of his populist impulses (or, more significantly, staffers). So far, they have only been ground away by attrition. The Republican tax bill is an excellent example. It has the most piddling tax cuts for the lower classes, and only temporary ones, so the plebs will vote Republican in the 2018 midterms. After that, the lower-class tax cuts will be rescinded, and the upper class gets to take home the bounty.
Given the intensity of the Republicans’ class war, the only thing that can yet save Trump is the Democrats’ inability to reform themselves and move leftward.
Wolff’s book makes it clear that Trump doesn’t really exist as president. He largely channels whatever comments he’s just heard on TV or from the last person to command his favor (or attention). His most mellow public utterances (his February 28 speech, his “good” Charlottesville comments) are those scripted by Jarvanka, his most aggressive (the inauguration speech, e.g.) are Bannon’s or his own. But, of course, presidency isn’t just words, but actions. As Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell says in the book, Trump will “sign anything we put in front of him.” This, while not entirely true, is still a close approximation.
The greatest worry Trump causes the world is his a-bomb talk. I’m happy to say that this book made me less worried. He’s an all-round blowhard, but seems not at all inclined to action. His understanding of the presidency is very symbolic and showmanlike. He is, after all, a performer and publiciser, and acts the part. (Much of his frustration comes from the fact that the media won’t take symbolic victories for real ones.) His talk is effervescent and uncontrollable, while his actions seem to be steered by those behind the scenes — so long as they have his vaporous and unreliable favor.
He is also not a psychopath. In Wolff’s reporting of the Khan Sheikhoun chemical weapons attack, and Trump’s response, Bannon appeals to Trump’s sociopathic and transactional instincts. In Wolff’s paraphrase, “why would you do something that doesn’t actually get you anything?” Significantly, Trump turned this down when he saw pictures from the scene.
Ivanka and Dina [Powell] created a presentation that Bannon, in disgust, characterized as pictures of kids foaming at the mouth. When the two women showed the presentation to the president, he went through it several times. He seemed mesmerized. […] That evening, the president described the pictures in a call to a friend — the foam, all that foam. These are just kids.
His response, a slap on Assad’s wrist — bombing an airfield with Hellfire missiles — earned him “good ink” in the media and some pride in himself.
Michael Wolff has expressed the hope that Fire and Fury will end Trump’s presidency. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes.” Well, who thought he did? It’s hard to see how this book does anything other than reaffirm in more detail what we mostly knew before. It tells the preamble to how Trump’s presidency will end, but it’s not a part of that story.