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Inside the madhouse: why the American oligarchy won’t let Trump fail – yet

The US president, for all his anti-establishment posturing, has turned out to be a servant of an oligarchy he professed to despise.

In one of many inimitable utterances that Michael Wolff reports, Donald Trump seems to come close to achieving what might almost be described as self-awareness:

Once, coming back on his plane with a millionaire friend who had brought along a foreign model, Trump, trying to move in on his friend’s date, urged a stop in Atlantic City. He would provide a tour of his casino. His friend assured the model that there was nothing to recommend Atlantic City. It was a place overrun by white trash.

“What is this ‘white trash?’” asked the model. 

“They’re people just like me”, said Trump, “only they’re poor.”

Fire and Fury contains many such scenes. When asked with whom he talks before he decides to act, Trump responds: “Me. I talk to myself.” When pressed by Steve Bannon and others early on to fire James Comey, the president said: “Don’t worry, I’ve got him” – meaning he was confident he could charm the formidable FBI chief into supporting him. Women, Trump believes, understand and get on with him better than men; at the same time he can refer casually to his female employees as “tail” or “cunt”.

When they meet in Saudi Arabia, the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi tells him: “You are a unique personality capable of doing the impossible.” Trump replies: “Love your shoes. Boy, those shoes. Man…” Settling reluctantly into the White House, he reproves housekeeping for picking his shirt up from the floor – “If my shirt is on the floor, it’s because I want it on the floor”–  and instructs them not to touch anything, especially his toothbrush. Wolff cites a report in the New York Times that had the president, two weeks into his term, wandering around the White House at night in his bathrobe, unable to work the light switches – an image former chief strategist Bannon suggested was reminiscent of the ageing, near-senile movie star Norma Desmond in the film Sunset Boulevard.

An immediate best-seller, Fire and Fury has had a mixed critical reception. Journalists have baulked at Wolff’s methods, saying he does not properly attribute sources and moves without warning from reportage to semi-fictional reconstruction. Many have commented that the depiction of the White House contains nothing we do not already know, others have dismissed it as gossip, while some have spotted outright errors.

But even if Wolff has at times embroidered on the facts, his book is an unforgettable revelation of the monstrous oddity that is Trump. No one has so vividly captured this “enigma, cipher, disruptor”, who didn’t want to be president and was horrified to find himself landed with the job. Whatever may become of Trump, this is a book that will endure as a picture of one of the defining figures of our age.

The Trump that emerges is sharply delineated – petulant and volatile, prone to rage and sulking, incorrigibly ignorant and grotesquely egomaniacal. At the same time, he remains an almost indecipherable figure, and behind the rant and bluster it sometimes seems as if there is no one there at all. As an email purporting to represent the views of National Economic Council director Gary Cohn put it, “Trump is less a person than a collection of terrible traits”.

Some of these traits have precedents in other American presidents. Lyndon B Johnson was obsessed with the White House plumbing, and conducted meetings with staff while using the bathroom. Going further than Trump has to date, LBJ reportedly gave an interview aboard Air Force One during which he removed his clothes until he was naked.

Richard Nixon was convinced the press was out to get him, and military staffers worried about what he might do with the “nuclear button” in the course of one of his regular sessions of late-night heavy drinking. Signs of mental deterioration were suspected in Ronald Reagan while he was still in office, years before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Trump may be unique in his many peculiarities, but it is not this that marks him out from any previous president. He is different because the times are different. Legions of liberal Democrats and mainstream Republicans who are aghast at him and the seemingly chaotic White House over which he reigns are implicitly confessing their inability to comprehend the age – and for that matter, the country – in which they live.

No doubt the staffers and cabinet members whom Wolff reports as describing Trump as an “idiot” or “moron” have reason to think of him in this way. Dealing with an “ultimate executive” who turns briefing sessions into rambling monologues and is unwilling or unable to read even half a page cannot be easy. It may be, as Wolff suggests, that Trump “seemed incapable of performing what would be essential tasks in his new job”. Yet a man who destroyed two American political dynasties – the Clintons and the Bushes – and saw off professional politicians such as Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Marco Rubio cannot be a mere fool who became POTUS by accident.

Whatever his intellectual deficiencies, Trump grasped a truth America’s political classes couldn’t handle: the last thing many voters wanted was a continuation of the status quo. Despairing at the decades of neglect they had suffered, enraged at how their economic grievances were dismissed as racist and seething at having their values and identities demeaned as backward and stupid, voters from America’s post-industrial wastelands stuck two fingers up at the established political classes.

Channelling the fury of this third of the population, Trump aimed to use the campaign to realise his ambition of founding a new television network and becoming the most famous person in the world. He ended up as supposedly the most powerful, only to discover that in many contexts he was practically impotent.

The pivotal character in Wolff’s story and the chief source of this book, Bannon, is also the figure whose fate tells us most about Trump’s future. Sacked on 9 January from his post as executive chairman of Breitbart News, a position he held from 2012, Bannon thought of himself as the visionary kingmaker who injected the alt-right into the American political mainstream.

Using Breitbart to inflame racial divisions, he aimed to engineer an apocalyptic turning point in American politics. According to Wolff, Bannon even began to think of himself as running for president in 2020. That this dishevelled, shambolic hustler – for much of his life “an Elmore Leonard character”, as Wolff describes him – should have entertained such a fantasy is telling. For all his self-image as a rough-and-tumble street-fighter, he seems not to have grasped where real power lies in America.

Viewing Trump as a “blunt instrument”, Bannon saw himself as an ideological mentor. Whether Trump ever looked for guidance of this kind is doubtful. A solipsist of the moment, he has been entirely opportunistic in his policies and loyalties, shifting unblinkingly from declaring himself pro-choice and pro-gay during the campaign for the presidency to endorsing the homophobic, anti-abortion Alabama senate candidate, Roy Moore. It was not Bannon’s visions but Breitbart’s online resources that energised Trump’s campaign of irregular warfare against the American political establishment.

Wolff is unrivalled in capturing the surreal weirdness of Trump as an individual. He is less compelling on Trump as a political phenomenon. He offers what may be the definitive one-line description of the president’s politics: “He was the ultimate anti-liberal: an authoritarian who was the living embodiment of resistance to authority.” But Trump’s eruption into the political process was not a one-off event. He was propelled to office in a time of political insurgency. The movement he created had a clear precedent in the Tea Party, which also rejected the Republican hierarchy, mistrusted the media, immersed itself in conspiracy theory and nurtured the anti-Obama birthist mythology. Through his mastery of social media, Trump mobilised an already existing insurrection against the American party system.

When he won the presidency in November 2016, the shock to the American political classes was severe. Wolff describes the mood before the inauguration:

On the verge of Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency, the media, with its singular voice on Trump matters, was propounding a conspiracy theory of vast proportions… a compromised Trump had conspired with the Russians to steal the election and to install him in the White House as Putin’s dupe. If this was true, then the nation stood at one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of democracy, international relations and journalism. If it was not true – and it was hard to fathom a middle ground – then it would seem to support the Trump (and Bannon) view that the media, in also quite a dramatic development in the history of democracy, was so blinded by abhorrence and revulsion, both ideological and personal, for the democratically elected leader that it would pursue any avenue to take him down.

Still proceeding, the Russia investigation has up-ended the American political system. That was Vladimir Putin’s goal in meddling in the election, many now believe. There can be no reasonable doubt that Russian interference occurred, though whether it did so through collusion with Trump or his team will not be easily determined. Wolff thinks the meeting in Trump Tower attended by Donald Trump Jr and assorted Russians in June 2016 was “imbecilic” rather than particularly sinister – “a case, or the lack of one, not of masterminds and subterfuge, but of senseless and benighted people so guileless and unconcerned that they enthusiastically colluded in plain sight”. Wolff may well be right.

One of the new facts of our time is the fondness of liberals for conspiracy theory. In reality, Russian interference could have had little effect without the tens of millions who were ready to take a gamble on a candidate they perceived as being subversive of Washington’s power elite. When they pass over this fact, liberals are refusing to learn from their mistakes and surrendering the initiative to the forces that Trump embodies.

***

Not the least of the paradoxes of Trump’s disruptive presidency is that it may yet prove to be a means to continuing the American status quo – though in a radically altered shape. The dismissal of Bannon shows where power lies: with Rebekah Mercer – the Trump donor, part-owner of Breitbart News and decisive force in firing its executive chairman – and the US oligarchy to which the Mercer family belongs. Unless the Republicans lose control of Congress in the mid-term elections, it will be this oligarchy that determines whether Trump stays or goes. A process involving impeachment or the 25th amendment – which covers presidential disabilities – may still conceivably be invoked, but only in the event that Trump is no longer capable of delivering the kind of government this section of the oligarchy demands.

We are often told that Trump’s mental state is ultimately a political question. What this actually means is rarely spelt out. Trump is too useful in enriching the wealthiest sections of American society to be ousted anytime soon. The tax cut and reform bill passed in December will benefit that small group the most. Though there is some evidence that working-class wages are rising in industries such as construction, mining and food services, where many Trump supporters are employed, the bill will do little or nothing for swathes of the population that are more or less permanently out of the workforce and subsisting on food stamps. The stock market, on the other hand, could levitate higher as big firms repatriate cash in return for tax reliefs and use it to buy their own shares. In that case the inflation in financial assets that has gone on throughout the experiment in quantitative easing will continue, leaving the wealthy even wealthier.

There is no way this prospect is going to be jeopardised just because Trump may have “lost his stuff”, as Bannon put it. The economic nationalism urged by Bannon has been a dead letter for months – maybe from the start. A trade war with China would be extremely bad for business. Harder heads than Bannon’s are now securely in control, and mean to stay that way. It is only if Trump can no longer serve these interests that he will be pushed out before the presidential election in November 2020, and the semi-invisible vice-president Mike Pence – hardly mentioned by Wolff, apart from being quoted as saying to a colleague, “I do funerals and ribbon-cuttings” – eased into his place. Equally, it is hard to envision the Russia probe being so conclusive as to force Trump’s removal. Far too much money is riding on his presidency for him to be unseated simply by a legal process. As many of his “white trash” supporters may have suspected even as they voted for him, this accidental president has turned out to be a servant of the oligarchy he professed to despise.

Liberals who endlessly diagnose the nature of Trump’s personality disorder are missing the point. While he is tweeting his mouth off, judges are being appointed to America’s federal judiciary who oppose affirmative action, gay rights, abortion choice and interventionist government. The regulatory state is being demolished and environmental protections dismantled. These are not policy changes that can be quickly and easily reversed. American government is being fundamentally reshaped – wherever new conservative judges have sway, possibly for generations. At the same time, the power of big money in politics is becoming even more firmly entrenched.

On its current trajectory, the US looks set to become an oligarchical and illiberal democracy not unlike the kinds that have emerged in post-communist Europe. Against the background of this ongoing regime shift, Donald Trump himself – however gruesomely fascinating he may be – is not much more than a distraction. 

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House
Michael Wolff
Little, Brown, 321pp, £20

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history