Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Fire and Fury

In Sunday's NY Times, Columnist Nicholas Kristoff reminded us of much of the real good that happened around the world in 2017 - a wholesome corrective to our excessively politics-obsessed and America-centric tendencies. That said, 2017 was in so many ways a terrible year for the United States (and for the world to the extent that the world depends on continued American participation in international life).  It was with that sad awareness that I read Michael Wolff's perversely entertaining, new best-seller, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, this past weekend.

Of course, anyone who came of age in New York in the same years as Donald Trump has known - almost since forever - that he was singularly unqualified for the Presidency (or any other public office). So what is purportedly the book's principal "revelation" really is no revelation at all - although its implications and consequences in terms of how those around the President try to cope with and compensate.for the President's unpreparedness does make for somewhat interesting reading.

Michael Wolff is considered an unconventional journalist, and some journalistic purists may disparage his product. Be that as it may, the book works and has had the effect it has had largely because enough of it rings true and reflects what has already been widely whispered (or shouted) in the past year. And, of course, it helps any author when the President of the United States tries to ban your book! What surer guarantee could there be that a book will be a best-seller when the President tells people not to read it?

On the other hand, the real story of 2017 - and the greater calamity - has been how successful this Administration has in fact been in certain respects, in particular how it has empowered the Republican Congress to do as much damage as it has done, most notably through its recent tax bill. Indeed, one of the ironies is how the publication of this book seems to have hardened the split between President Trump and his one-time adviser Steve Bannon, paradoxically bringing Trump and the Republican Establishment closer together, thus strengthening the latter at Bannon's expense. Sidelining Bannon undoubtedly has its benefits, but empowering the Republican establishment does the country no favors either.. Whatever his multitude of faults, Bannon did recognize the Republican establishment for what it is, charmingly noting (according to Wolff) how "[Paul] Ryan was created in a petri dish at the heritage Foundation."

Prescinding from the President's personality (which admittedly is what makes the story), the book in part resembles a traditional journalistic account of West Wing competition and factional infighting, which is actually quite interesting. The three principal factions which Wolff identifies competing around Trump are the Wall Street Democrats (Jared and Ivanka), the establishment Republicans (Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Congress), and Steve Bannon.- "Bannon taking an absolutist base position, Priebus aligned with Ryan in support of the Republican leadership, and Kushner maintaining, and seeing no contradiction in, a moderate Democratic view."

It is, of course, the curious interaction between this ideological factional in-fighting and the President's personality which has produced the curious outcome that was 2017. "The paradox of the Trump presidency," Wolff notes, "was that it was the most ideologically driven, and the least. It represented a deeply structural assault on liberal values - Bannon's deconstruction of the administrative state meant to take with it media, academic, and not-for-profit institutions. But from the start it also was apparent that the Trump administration could just as easily turn into a country club Republican or a Wall Street Democrat regime. Or just a constant effort to keep Donald Trump happy."

Overall, however, the main takeaway from the book is what is perhaps the most extreme example yet of one of the more dangerous tendencies in modern American politics - the electorate's empowerment of political outsiders. As Wolff notes at one point, "There was a lack of coherent message because there was nobody to write a coherent message - just one more instance of disregarding political craft."

The other impression one takes from Wolff's book is just how appallingly so many of the people involved in our contemporary politics seem to behave, which itself seems not unrelated to the increasing power of money in our politics. "In an age when all successful political candidates are surrounded by, if not at the beck and call of, difficult, even sociopathic, rich people, pushing the bounds of their own power - and the richer they were, the more difficult, sociopathic, and power-made they might be," observed Wolff, referring especially to Bannon's backers, the Mercers, but expressing a sentiment it is easy to apply quite generally after reading this account.

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