All the fire and fury inside the Trump White House

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Donald Trump is seen as an aberration in his display of irrationality as United States President. But unreasonable policymaking has been a long-standing strain in the coveted seat in the White House. Trump just wears it on his sleeve.

The title of Michael Wolff’s literary exposé contains a subtextual warning about misjudging Donald Trump, who just happens to openly brandish his aggressive irrationality, as a radically anomalous U.S. President. | Reuters

There has possibly never been a book on politics that has acquired as much worldwide traction and attention as Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, an account of the first 100 days of the Trump Presidency gathered by journalist Michael Wolff. “The Trump Presidency” is now a phrase that sends late-night hosts and almost all liberals into conniption fits of laughter. If there was any debate about Donald Trump’s fitness for office, this book rather emphatically settles that debate. Donald Trump is clearly not fit to occupy the post of president in any country.

Reactions to the book have ranged from outright disbelief to presidential pronouncements by Mr. Trump on Twitter claiming he is a “stable genius” and that the instability and ignorance of which he is accused — the book’s dominant undertone — are pieces of fiction. No doubt in Mr. Trump’s mind, Wolff’s book is just another wave, another onslaught from that entity called the free liberal media that he has made a policy to boycott, insult and avoid.

 

Leaders, even unfit ones, often rise in stature when they acquire office. With Mr. Trump this has not been the case. Mr. Wolff starts his narrative with a description on election day in November 2016, when most of Mr. Trump’s team did not really believe he would ever win the election. When he did, everyone was shocked, even Mr. Trump himself. However, as Wolff describes within the span of a few hours he went from thinking of his campaign as a great hustle of a public relations exercise, to unexpectedly winning, and then believing that he actually deserved to win. The point that has been made several times over the last year is now a tired one — Mr. Trump is unfit for political office. He himself has not helped his case. His speeches are disconnected, he rambles and repeats himself, sometimes describing the same incident word for word multiple times, as Wolff has noted in his book. His Twitter account is a ticking time bomb, and it is almost as though he seems to equate policymaking with tweeting.

The book places special emphasis on ‘Jarvanka’ — a term coined by Steve Bannon, as the book has it — the team of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who faced off on several occasions over quotidian matters and policy issues with Bannon, who, until he was fired by Mr. Trump, was perhaps one of the most powerful men with such extreme views ever to walk the corridors of the White House. The figure of Bannon, the erstwhile White House Chief Strategist, commands much scrutiny in the book. From his background, his failed marriages, his rise through Breitbart and then becoming a part of the Trump administration, Bannon emerges as the pained advisor to an emperor-like Trump. Neither Trump, nor Bannon nor Kushner nor Ivanka Trump had any policy experience. Yet this was the team, along with Reince Preibus, Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer, that was vested with the task of turning this Monty Python sketch–like dispensation into a “real” presidency.

 

The book dwells on the idea that no one that surrounded and later hung on to Mr. Trump was actually that interested in the White House or the presidency or had any illusions about the responsibility that came along with it. This presidency, and their presence in it, was supposed to act like a diving board for future political and corporate endeavours. A job in the White House basically looked good on their resumés. Wolff describes how several operatives in the White House were already seeking alternative employment avenues for when they would inevitably not be in the White house anymore.

Fire and Fury is a book that serves as a warning on how institutions are compromised when politics revolves around personalities, a point that has been repeatedly experienced in many countries in South Asia and Africa. The point of argument between Trump and Bannon is over this. Bannon understands politics is about institutions, Trump thinks it is about him. Trump wrongly believes, for instance that getting rid of the Director of the FBI, James Comey, would also get rid of the Russia investigation. However, in spite of Bannon’s warning that the investigation would not go away, Trump fires Comey and in doing so drops an axe on his own foot — Robert Mueller is appointed as the head of a Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

 

My worry about the book and Mr. Trump’s perpetually lampooned figure is that when his craziness is juxtaposed alongside the actions of former presidents, they end up looking wise and reasonable in comparison when there is very little defence of many of their foreign policy decisions.

 

Wolff’s portrayal of the Trump Presidency is funny and irreverent, peppered with gossip and almost slapstick descriptions of interactions between powerful men and a handful of women. But then, how else does one write a book about President Trump? It is based on reporting in a very loose sense of the term. It is more a collection of anecdotes from several sources and personal observations.

The undercurrent of the book, however, is more insidious. Amidst the laughter it evokes in the reader through its amusing anecdotes, the book reminds us that here are men who believe all too much in their own self-worth, are openly misogynist — some are even openly racist — and between them, are trying to “make America great again” but have no clue as to what that means and how one should go about it. The only person with any sort of a vision is Steve Bannon. However, his vision is located in the 1960s where men were market-loving and dapper (mostly white) alpha males and women were cooking meals in aprons and heels. In Bannon’s version of America, immigrants are invisible or simply absent, women are “disciplined” and the white man is king. For Bannon, Mr. Trump is a perfect candidate in that he can be convinced that an idea is his and can be trusted to read out his speeches (like on inauguration day). Sitting in the crowd on inauguration day is George Bush, who after listening to Trump’s first ever speech as president says, as Wolff recounts, “That’s some weird shit”.

 

While everyone that observes American politics keenly has probably read this book by now and realised that it affirms their own ideas about the Trump Presidency, there is still one matter to be discussed. This is the matter of reason and leadership. By characterising Mr. Trump as mentally incompetent and, in short, “nuts” (a perception shared by many of the characters in the book), there is an unwitting comparison with Mr. Trump’s predecessors, who, by corollary, were supposedly “not nuts”. George Bush led America into a gratuitous war with Iraq over fictitious nuclear weapons, and a war with Afghanistan — both were undertaken as the “War on Terror”. Under the Obama administration, Nobel Peace Prize in tow, drone attacks and troop strength were increased in Afghanistan, even while troops were recalled from Iraq (only to be sent back to fight ISIS) and military and intelligence interference began in Syria and Libya. However, these “reasons of state” certainly affected millions of lives negatively in other parts of the world. Can such leadership be reasonably classified as rational when it engenders and endorses the use of such destructive force?

My worry about the book and Mr. Trump’s perpetually lampooned figure is that when his craziness is juxtaposed alongside the actions of former presidents, they end up looking “stable” and wise in comparison when there is very little defence of many of their foreign policy decisions. It is indeed true that Mr. Trump is unusual as a presidential candidate, as a president, as a speech-giver or policymaker. However, to focus on him alone as being the definition of presidential irrationality, even on the evidence of Wolff’s account, would perhaps be a tad simplistic.

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