It's Worse Than You Can Imagine

I have just finished reading Fire and Fury.  I confess to opening the Amazon package with a certain salacious eagerness.   In the upside-down world of the Trump Presidency, many of us have become almost addicted to the daily fix of bizarreness that reinforces our conviction that he is uniquely unfit for the job.  Fire and Fury will cure you of this tendency.   It will give you no pleasure. 

For those who haven’t yet read the book, let me share a few of the things that caught my eye:

1.      “Dope.” (General McMaster) “Dumb as shit.” (Gary Cohn) “A moron.” (Tillerson) “Idiot.” (Reince Priebus and Steve Mnuchin)  “A fucking idiot.”  “Irrational.”  “A child.”  (Various staff).  And those who created the monster: “A moron” (Rupert Murdoch) “An idiot obviously.” (conservative Fox news correspondent Liz Trotta).  And his “friends” when speaking privately to their own friends: “He’s not only crazy, he’s stupid.” (Investor Tom Barrack) I could go on.  So, we now know what those whose careers and reputations are tied to his success, really think.  If you are one of those people who think the Trump phenomenon still falls within the range of some kind of normalcy, consider whether words like this ever have been uttered about any other President by those closest to him.

2.     Most of us imagined Trump buffered by people who, although perhaps ideologically extreme, were at least rational, informed, normally functioning humans.  Instead, those in the West Wing closest to the man, those doing the manipulating and enabling, are themselves revealed in the book to be a terrifying bunch of squabbling misfits.  Moreover, the crew that walked into the West Wing after the inauguration had almost no relevant experience in the business of government and no inclination to consult those who did.  Bannon told Miller to go the Internet to look up how to draft an executive order.   Katie Walsh, when she finally left her job as Deputy Chief of Staff, called it bitter rivalries joined to vast incompetence and an uncertain mission.

3.     And what did Trump think about those around him?  Bannon: disloyal and looks like shit.  Priebus: weak and short, a midget.  Spicer: stupid and looks terrible.  Conway: a crybaby.  Jared and Ivanka:  a suck-up, never should have some to Washington.  Ever and only the reality-TV man, looks mean everything to Trump.   On the hiring for a senior national security position, Trump instructed: “That’s the guy I want, he’s got the look.”

4.     What does Trump believe?  The picture that emerges from those close to him is pretty clear: a man of many obsessions but no fixed views, and certainly nothing that can be characterized as conventionally ideological or political.  Katie Walsh called them a set of vague beliefs and impulses, some of them contradictory.  Converting these impulses into policy was, Walsh said, “like trying to figure out what a child wants.”

5.     It is scary how completely journalists failed to understand what was happening during the first year.  They diagnosed the problem as a White House that was “disorganized” or “dysfunctional.”  That is like calling an airplane crew disorganized when the real problem is that no one in the cockpit knows how to fly and all are busy fighting with each other as the plane rumbles down the runway toward disaster.   Apologies for mixing transportation metaphors, but the media missed the boat on how bad things were in the West Wing.

6.     It is particularly painful to read how those closest to him before and during the campaign mislead the public.  His business “friends” argued publicly that he was a brilliant businessman while observing to friends in private that he couldn’t read a balance sheet, had no appetite for details of any kind and was a terrible negotiator. 

7.     Some of the most frightening details concern his inability to process information.  He doesn’t read.  He doesn’t skim.  “If it was print, it might as well not exist.” An email attributed to Gary Cohn (and summarizing the views of staff) reported “Trump won’t read anything – not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing.  He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.”  Some staff members concluded he was only semi-literate or dyslexic.  He mistrusts expertise and has faith only in his own intuition.  He doesn’t listen, except to television, and then only selectively.  And, if you don’t process information in the normal way, then you make it up.  As Trump bragged, “I’ve made stuff up forever, and they always print it.”  Is someone unable to absorb and process information “fit to discharge the duties of the office”?

8.     The book is filled with testimony from both long time “friends” and those working with him during the campaign and first year in office, of his fundamental mental incapacity.   They found that he was incapable of what doctors and neuroscientists call “executive function,” meaning the cognitive abilities to plan, organize, pay attention, focus, switch focus, exercise self-control or tailor his behavior toward the fulfillment of goals.  “Executive function disorder” is a step beyond, and more crippling than, ADHD.  The book paints the picture of a man “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” (in the words of the 25th Amendment).  It starts with his inability to understand the Presidency as an institutional or political concept, as opposed to a media platform.  The very idea of statesmanship is beyond him.  When an important decision presents itself, such as our response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, Kushner and McMaster both reported that he was more annoyed about having to make the effort to think about and deal with it, than he was by the attack itself.   Staff report multiple moments of irrationality, “uncontrollable, vein-popping, ugly-face, tantrum stuff . . . primal.”  He makes hugely consequential decisions (including the firing of James Comey) impulsively, without any process, consultation, or staff work.  According to Steve Bannon, the debate within the staff is not about whether the situation is bad, but whether it is 25th amendment bad. 

9.     Lacking executive function, he is easy to manipulate.  Imagine dealing with a man where nothing sticks.  Where the decision depends on the last person in the room.  Where everything is personal (amazingly, he views it as a “waste” to give a government job to someone he doesn’t know personally, which explains a great deal).  If you are rich, a celebrity, or powerful, or you are sufficiently flattering and obsequious, then you can say or do no wrong.  Until, that is, you disappoint him, in which case you are the subject of vituperative angry calumny.   

10.  If any single thing in this book should make you re-read the 25th amendment, it’s the image of him sitting alone in his locked bedroom in the early morning hours, three large screens replaying cable news, and the President of the United States making decisions by Tweet and publicly embracing whatever cock-eyed conspiracy story the provocateurs of the right are peddling that day.   You wonder how he could possibly praise beyond-the-pale white supremacists or retweet anti-Muslim videos from British hate groups?  Without knowledge, experience, and executive function there can be no judgment.  It’s not that he has bad judgement, he has no judgement.   

11.  I won’t belabor my long-standing theme that it all comes back to his narcissistic personality disorder, but some of the anecdotes in Fire and Fury will go down in the annals of psychological history.  When frantic staffers begged his “friends” to call him to get him to calm down and focus, “morning Joe” Scarborough advised him to figure out who in the West Wing he really trusted and sit down and talk things out before acting.  “Who can talk you through this stuff before you decided to act on it?” he asked the President.  “Well,” the President replied, “you won’t like the answer, but the answer is me.  I talk to myself.”  This should not be a surprise.  During the campaign, when asked from whom he plans to take advice, he answered, from “myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”  His narcissism is so all-consuming, that he regards all publicity as a zero-sun game – Roger Ailes explained, “If someone else gets on [the cover of Time], he doesn’t”.   

12.  We’ve long seen Bannon as a Svengali-like figure.  But the book paints the picture of a man as twisted, damaged, and angry as Trump, but much brighter and thus more dangerous.  If you breathed a sigh of relief when Roger Ailes died, think again.  You think the bungled executive order on Muslim immigration, or the “two sides” comment were failures?  Think again.  Bannon’s strategy (perfectly aligned with Putin’s) is to drive the wedge between the American right and left ever deeper, until no reconciliation is possible.  He wants nothing less than civil war resulting in total defeat of the left and destruction not only of the “administrative state” but the media, academic, and non-profit organizations that support it.  As Wolf puts it, the overt racism, misogyny and daily outrages are designed to “shock the liberals so the [right-wing] base [is] doubly satisfied,” this is, both by the original outrage and by the liberal consternation it foments.  Bannon’s plan: “the way to crush the liberals: make them crazy and drag them to the left.”  Democrats, you’ve been warned. 

13.  So, here’s the question for the Vice President and the Cabinet:  you all know about his disabilities and flaws and have observed that they have, on multiple occasions, rendered him unable to discharge his duties responsibly and effectively.  Do you wait until one of those occasions involves war or other fundamental interests of the country, or do you do your duty now?  And it is getting worse.  His staffers worry that his speech has become even more rambling and repetitious and his ability to focus, even momentarily, has “notably declined.”

The people working in the West Wing are desperate, “I am in a constant state of shock and horror,” said one.   Fire and Fury just cracks the lid on the pot, giving us an early glimpse.  It will all come out in due time, because a man who cannot be loyal has no one loyal to him outside his own family.  They all will spill their guts in return for six and seven figure advances, and, if we survive his tenure, future historians will have all they need to paint a vivid picture of American democracy’s most terrible failure.