Michael Wolff’s sensational exposé of the supposed chaos of the Trump White House is no doubt largely a mix of fantasy, exaggeration, and some accidental truth. The postmodernist author even admits that his own methodologies defy verification, and so leave it up to the reader to distinguish his facts from fiction.
Wolff’s theme is that Trump is hopelessly petty, childlike, and uninformed. The few adults in the room around him—primarily, we are asked to believe, Wolff’s chief source, Steve Bannon—must cajole, pamper, and flatter him to get anything done, when they are not backstabbing one another.
Fair enough—Trump certainly may be naïve and uninitiated. No one doubts that he is thin-skinned and far too often goes down Twitter cul de sacs. But Trump’s naiveté is not quite what Wolff thinks.
Rather, no sane president should ever have let a writer with Wolff’s dubious and often discredited background into the White House. That such a rogue was even allowed through the door raises the question of administration sobriety.
Wolff at the Door
Not since the late Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone charmed his way into General Stanley McCrystal’s inner circle—only to trash his benefactors—has an executive team apparently proved so naïve with reporters. Certainly, in letting Wolff talk “off the record” to high officials, the Trump Administration showed poor judgment. That Wolff claims he easily got such haphazard access, if half true, could be a testament to Trump’s ego or the ego of those around him, such as Bannon. Did they really believe that they could charm and flip almost anyone—even among a media whose stories and reports are 90 percent negative to Trump?
Of course, any president lax enough to let a Wolff through the door inevitably would be embarrassed by the results, given that all administrations can be petty, even gross.
Lyndon Johnson had a repulsive habit of referring openly to his sexual organ as “Jumbo”—and occasionally displaying it to startled staffers—a felony in our present culture. Worse still, he often gave dictation while defecating on the toilet.
John Kennedy crudely seduced dozens of his own female staffers. One, Mimi Alford, who came to work a 19-year-old virgin, wrote an entire memoir of her mechanical trysts inside the White House with JFK, including his inaugural seduction, which, by any contemporary definition, would now qualify as sexual assault. She lamented that he once had pawned her off to fellate one of his aides. A perverted rapist as our beloved commander-in-chief? No need to imagine a Wolff version of the Clinton White House.
I could an imagine a Wolff in FDR’s White House circa early 1945 having a field day: jazzing up the clandestine nocturnal trysts between the wheelchair-bound president and his mistress Lucy Mercer. His daughter Anna would be exposed as the go-between, the upstart young proto-Ivanka who had moved into the White House and became virtually a ceremonial First Lady.
All the while the Roosevelt team would struggle to lie to the press about the president’s sky-high blood pressure, chain-smoking, martini drinking, and growing feebleness. In place of Steve Bannon’s shoot-from-the-hip notions of geopolitics, a Harry Hopkins or freelancing and estranged Eleanor Roosevelt could offer mini-interviews on the administration’s successful politicking with good old Uncle Joe at Yalta. The difference is that FDR had the press in his pocket and even was too crafty to trust any of his “friends” with unfettered access.
Petty and Petulant vs. Sober and Judicious?
For all his gossip and intrigue, Wolff offers little insight into why such a supposedly disruptive and dysfunctional campaign team won the presidency. The victory, according to Wolff, was to the surprise of Trump and his advisors themselves! The logic of Wolff’s argument is that a pathetic Trump team that did not really wish to beat Clinton, Inc. If true, that paradox would say what exactly about Hillary’s fate? That wasting a mere year to win something you do not want is preferable to spending 17 years scheming in vain for your life’s ambition?
Wolff’s ogre purportedly sloppily eats Big Macs in bed, golfs more than Obama did, has no hair at all on the top of his head, and at 71 is supposedly functionally illiterate. OK, perhaps someone the last half-century read out loud to Trump the thousands of contracts he signed. But what we wish to know from Wolff is how did his trollish Trump figure out that half the country—the half with the more important Electoral College voice—was concerned about signature issues that either were unknown to or scorned by his far more experienced and better-funded rivals?
Why did not a well-read Marco Rubio or later Yale Law graduate Hillary Clinton focus on unfair trade and declining manufacturing, illegal immigration, unnecessary and optional overseas interventions, and the excesses of the deep administrative “swamp” state?
Who discovered these issues or knew how to develop them? Was it really the feisty Corey Lewandowski? The genius Paul Manafort? How, then, could Wolff’s idiot grasp that these concerns were the keys to flipping purple swing-states that had previously been written off as reliably Democratically patronized clinger/irredeemable/deplorable territory by far better informed and more tech-savvy campaign operatives?
Once Trump was in power, how does Wolff explain the near phenomenal economic turnaround in the latter part of 2017? Does he not see that the stupider you make Trump in his successful first year, by inference the even stupider you make the supposedly smarter actors in their many failed years?
Although psychological in part, the upswing is not accidental. So far economic robustness seems predicated on massive deregulation, the expectation and then the reality of comprehensive tax reform and reduction, wooing home capital and industry, expanded energy production, loud business boosterism, recalibrating foreign investment and trade, and declining illegal immigration. Did Trump do that between scarfing down cups of Häagen-Dazs? Did his team act on their own while Trump was too busy scraping the crumbs out of the bottoms of his barrels of KFC?
Why did not the supposedly far more sober and judicious Obama comprehend how to achieve 3 percent GDP growth. Could not Larry Summers or Timothy Geithner have ushered in record consumer and business confidence? Why did not black employment reach 2018 levels in 2013?
Is not a man like Obama who eats arugula instead of daily swigging a dozen diet sodas far more studious and intellectually curious on all matters economic? Are we dunces really to believe merely building a high-rise in Manhattan takes more savvy than editing in near absentia the Harvard Law Review?
Abroad, why did not the supposedly worldly Hillary Clinton as secretary of state tweet her support for the Iranian revolutionaries in the streets in 2009—in the manner that a supposedly buffoonish and semi-literate and combed-over Donald Trump instinctively did in 2018? Presidencies in purported shambles, after all, are supposed to leave the country in greater shambles.
Buffoon or Revolutionary?
Absent, then, in Wolff’s supposed Confederacy of Trump White House Dunces is any explanation how such supposed clueless amateurs reset economic and foreign policy in such a way as to achieve startling improvements in less than a year at home and abroad.
And that is the quandary is it not? The dunce Trump in his first year was supposed to prove an irrelevant dumbo, not a skilled conservative revolutionary who threatens to nullify 2009-2017?
The lurid revelations of Trump White House chaos make no sense, given the Trump electoral success and first-year record of governance—unless the stories are either fake news or perhaps a quarter true.
If the latter, then the answer might be while the Trump West Wing could at times resemble the pages of Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, the Trump team—his cabinet officers and economic and national security advisors—were not only not much involved in such Bannon intrigue, they were most likely completely free from it.
Or cabinet heads won unsurpassed latitude from a supposedly novice and naïve West Wing—and benefitted through its directives to act boldly and without worry about past centrist protocol or having their initiatives being overridden by a control-freak president.
But that possibility, in turn, raises a further question: how can a vain man who is in constant need of reassurance from everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Joe Scarborough know enough to appoint the likes of a James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, or Nikki Haley? Would it not be more likely that Michael Wolff’s Howard Hughes-like Trump would have appointed his sister to the Supreme Court, or avoided the likes of the bulldoggish ramrod John Kelly as his chief of staff?
Furthermore, given that Wolff argues that the Trump inner circle seems to be little different from the Trump of “The Apprentice” reality TV fame, why, then, would half the country vote for someone who has orange skin and combed over yellow hair, and is supposedly paranoid to the degree of eating junk food out of fear of being poisoned?
What does that ribaldry say about the voters lack of confidence in the more normal Harvard or Yale Law alternative nursery of properly schooled presidents? Is Trump’s crudity tolerable given the 2016 alternative of breaking federal law by setting up a home-cooked email server, and lying about it, but doing so with the fawning admiration of bicoastal elite culture?
If, in reductionist terms, half of the country accepted the crude antithesis of refined New York-Washington establishment expertise, why exactly was that?
Could it be that for all the sophistication, education, and training of a Hillary Clinton or Susan Rice, they could be even cruder in their own way—whether lying about deaths in Benghazi or scapegoating and jailing a video maker on a trumped up charge of parole violations? Was it that voters did not trust the establishment’s collective judgment on the Iran or Bowe Bergdahl deals, or Hillary Clinton’s “We came, we saw, he died” sick giggle of an idea of a brutally murdered Gadhafi and bombing Libya to smithereens—and then leaving?
In short, an isolated Trump campaign and initial administration were, by the definition of its very character and intent, going to be very weird and strange—and orphaned from the halls of supposed expertise and sober establishmentarian protocol. Was that not the point of Trump’s blind Samson with his arms around the pillars of the Temple of Dagon campaign?
What few people—Wolff least of all—understood is that amid the supposed chaotic palace intrigue, Trump on his own chose to receive some good advice from Mike Pence, congressional Republican leaders in the House and Senate, conservative activist organizations, the legal team in the White House, and others. Thus he made good political and legal appointments and liberated them with wide parameters and trajectories.
Wolff’s disclosures, if a few are even marginally true, are messy and the stuff of caricature—but not as funny and depressing as the fact that someone of Trump’s background and temperament saw more clearly than his supposed betters where the country should be headed and who might lead it in such a direction.
If that be chaos, then Trump made the most of it—and at least for now the result is preferable to the mannered mediocrity of the past. Such an admission says lots more about those who think they should be in power than it does those who voted for their antitheses.