Even if you haven’t read it, the takeaway from Michael Wolff’s tell-all about Donald Trump’s White House seems clear: Trump is manifestly unfit to be president, potentially only semi-literate and dangerously erratic. He lashes out at trusted advisors and is unable to focus on or even comprehend important policy details. He watches hours on-end of television a day, allegedly three-screens at a time in bed, and eats McDonald’s for fear that other food will be poisoned. “The story that I have told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says he can’t do his job,” Wolff told BBC.
Is Fire and Fury a valuable account that grants newfound insight into the inner workings of the Trump administration? Is it a sum positive for the world that it’s sewing internal divisions among some of the most powerful people in Washington? Should it exist? Certainly. For all of his flaws, props to Michael Wolff for managing to wander around Trump’s White House for a year without collapsing indefinitely into a fugue state.
It’s another matter to pretend that Fire and Fury will solve anything, especially the problem of the Trump presidency. “That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end … this presidency,” Wolff has said of the details he found, suggesting his book could provide grounds for invoking the 25th Amendment, which allows a sitting president — pending the support of the Vice President — to be removed from office if he’s found constitutionally unable to serve the post.
Consider the “fitness” of other U.S. presidents: George Washington’s brain may have been rotted by syphilis while he served in office. Mental illness has afflicted fondly-remembered presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson — not that grappling with depression, bipolar disorder or any other chemical imbalance should disqualify anyone for public office. Calvin Coolidge was prone to breaking into fits of rage at White House staffers and his own family, and slept as many as 15 hours a day following the death of his young son. John F. Kennedy spent much of his adult life on a dizzying array of medications to deal with a range of illnesses, both mental and physical. Woodrow Wilson appears to have largely ceded the White House to his wife when he suffered a debilitating stroke. Ronald Reagan showed signs of dementia as early as 1987.
And those are just U.S. presidents. You’d be hard-pressed to find a dictator who didn’t deal with a narcissistic personality disorder or persistent drug addiction at some point during their reign.
It’s good to have discredited the idea that Trump is anything but pretty dumb and a useful idiot for Republicans. He managed to tap into something today’s GOP — up to their necks in corporate money, and deeply out of touch with anyone not making six figures — simply couldn’t. Trump is as elite as they come, but convinced enough people that he was a populist everyman to win a primary and a general election where both options on the table offered some version of more of the same. His greatest asset in 2016 was simply that he was different—and different in a way that comforted tens of millions of white voters’ insecurities.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Trump, meanwhile, rested on the faith that she could win by convincing voters of just how unfit he was for the office of president, painting his sexist and xenophobic straight-talk as incompatible with the presidency. You don’t need a reason to vote for Hillary Clinton, the logic went. You just need to know you shouldn’t vote for the other guy. Faced with the choice between Clinton and Trump, many people chose not to vote at all, leaving Trump to win the presidency by virtue of being the Republican nominee in a country where middle-class Republican voters are one of the few groups of people who reliably go to the polls.
Castigating Trump as unfit for office didn’t work for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Why would it work now that he’s in power?
That Trump is so beyond the pale — so unacceptable — is also an easy line for so-called Never Trump Republicans as they look to salvage their political or journalistic careers after supporting, aiding and abetting some of the last century’s worst atrocities. David Frum, who coined the phrase Axis of Evil in the lead-up to the War on Terror, has had a second coming as an anti-Trump Republican, and is likely to make a large sum of cash from hi forthcoming book Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the America Republic. Bret Stephens has found the Trump era similarly profitable, landing a lucrative spot on a New York Times op-ed page, where he’s free to lazily deny the existence of climate change while staking out the moral high ground as a principled conservative.
In all his bluster and stupidity, Trump is almost too easy a foil for Republicans eager to pretend he’s not one of them. Decades of GOP policy made Trump’s political career possible, distilling the blend of racism and radical wealth redistribution toward the top that’s defined his presidency so far. Even if Trump were somehow magically whisked from office, the party that pursued the Southern Strategy — the party whose bread and butter has been weaponizing economic policy against people of color — would still be the same party, and still enjoy majorities in the House, Senate and Supreme Court.
In no small part to avoid nuclear winter, it’d be better to have Trump out of office than not, and Fire and Fury removing him from office would be cause for celebration. But the only way to get the GOP that created Trump out of power is to actually win offices from the local level on up and unseat them by mounting challengers that people actually want to vote for on their own merits. For that, there’s no quick fix, be it the 25th Amendment, a deus ex machina in the Russia investigation or a salacious, book-length tale of palace intrigue.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic and author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet — And How We Fight Back. She is co-author of A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal and co-editor of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.