Fire and Fury Signifies Nothing

We must not pretend this book will solve anything, especially the problem of the Trump presidency.

Kate Aronoff January 8, 2018

While Michael Wolff's new book "Fire and Fury" is flying off the shelves, it's unclear whether it will lead to a long-term change in national politics. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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.

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.

So what?

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 dif­fer­entand 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.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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