Friday, February 9, 2018

Fire and Fury

At the beginning of the year, Red Baron learned about a whistleblowing book by Michael Wolff reporting from inside the White House. The book titled Fire and Fury was to be published on January 7, but when I looked into Amazon it was available in Germany only on January 9.

Somewhat angry I browsed the Apple store on January 5, and there it was Fire and Fury alright ready for download. What had happened? The Little Brown publishing house had advanced the delivery by two days fearing an injunction that President Trump’s lawyers were preparing forbidding the publishing of the book.

Some people hate e-books, but they have several advantages. They do not need precious space on your bookshelf, let you read the book in parallel, synchronized on multiple devices, allow the marking and annotation of text as well as the looking up of unknown expressions in online dictionaries. Wolff writes a demanding style using a vocabulary sometimes unknown to me.

In the States, Michael Wolff writes for a couple of newspapers and had published in 2008 a biography about the Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch titled: The Man Who Owns the News. In the U.S., Murdoch owns the 20th Century Fox studios, the television network Fox, and the influential Wall Street Journal.

Michael Wolff had already accompanied Donald Trump during the election campaign and writes, „Shortly after January 20, I took something like a semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing of the White House. Since then I have conducted more than 200 interviews.“

The first Freiburg-Madison-Gesellschaft Stammtisch of 2018 was on Wednesday this week and I presented Wolff's book to a considerable audience.

The Transition
Almost no one in the Republican camp had counted on Trump's victory. The electoral team was totally surprised and inexperienced when they moved into the White House. Such as Kellyanne Conway, Trump's election campaign manager, who coined the term "alternative facts" while she had intended to say, "The president has other information," by the way also a peculiar way of describing Trump's fixation on the size of the crowd present at his inauguration on the Mall in Washington.

Wolff’s book then reveals that it had been Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon who was behind those hasty Executive Orders restricting the entry of citizens from some Arab states.

The ultra-right, all-right activist and Breitbart TV maker Steve Bannon tried, until his dismissal in July 2017, to turn America morally and politically back into the good old 1960s. As the chief strategist, he often had the president's ear, if the latter had not listened to Jarvanka — an artificial word formed from the names of Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and of daughter Ivanka.

It turned out that the president had no long-term strategy except for "Make America great again". Often the last person to see Trump influenced his opinion. As Wolff knows: "It was one of the key elements of Bannon's understanding of Trump: the last person Trump spoke to ended up with enormous influence.” So the chief strategist was permanently present in the White House; sometimes he slept a few hours on a couch.

There are the long nocturnal phone calls, the evening cheeseburger, the three television screens, and the morning tweets in the bedroom that determine POTUS's daily routine, "If he was not having his six-thirty dinner with Steve Bannon, then, more to his liking, he was in bed by that time with a cheeseburger, watching his three screens and making phone calls — the phone was his true contact point with the world — to a small group of friends.“ And so, “Trump would brag that Murdoch was always calling him; Murdoch, for his part, would complain that he couldn't get Trump off the phone.“

And then there was Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, rather than being a personnel manager, playing the role of a prime minister in the White House taking care of the president's day.

As in any organization, there are power struggles and intrigues in the White House too. Here the main front line ran between the right wing Bannon/Priebus and the liberal Jarvanka. It would need an intelligent boss smoothing the waves and knowing the game of divide et impera.

The Media
Wolff writes that Trump is not interested in politics. In a televised expert meeting of Republicans and Democrats on a new bipartite immigration law, Potus said, when it came to the legalization of the Dreamers illegally residing in the States, "I'll sign anything you guys will come up with", but later rejected a hastily elaborated draft bill submitted to him.

It was unique that such a special meeting in the White House took place in front of live television cameras, but, “The president’s most pressing concern was his media reputation.“ As Wolff knows, “The media treat him in a way that no other president had ever been treated”.

“His enemies were out to get him. Worse, the system was rigged against him. The bureaucratic swamp, the intelligence agencies, the unfair courts, the lying media — they were all lined up against him. This was, for his senior staff, a reliable topic of conversation with him: the possible martyrdom of Donald Trump,”

Here Trump is paranoid as Wolff describes the president’s feelings, “The media were sore losers and hated him for winning, they spread total lies, 100 percent made-up things, totally untrue, for instance, the cover of Time magazine — which, Trump reminded his listeners, he had been on more than anyone in history.“

„The cover showed Steve Bannon, a good guy, saying he was the real president. ‚How much influence do you think Steve Bannon has over me?‘ Trump demanded and repeated the question, and then repeated the answer, ‚Zero! Zero!’”

More Challenges
The president’s collaborators had more challenges, as Wolff reports, “Everyone was translating a set of Trump’s desires and urges into a program, a process that required a lot of guesswork. It was, said Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh, ‘like trying to figure out what a child wants.’ But making suggestions was deeply complicated. Here was, arguably, the central issue of the Trump presidency ... he didn't process information in any conventional sense — or, in a way, he didn't process it at all.”

“Trump didn't read. He didn't really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate ... Some thought him dyslexic; certainly, his comprehension was limited. Others concluded that he didn't read because he just didn't have to and that in fact, this was one of his key attributes as a populist. He was postliterate — total television.”

“But not only didn't he read, he didn't listen. He preferred to be the person talking. And he trusted his own expertise — no matter how paltry or irrelevant — more than anyone else's. What's more, he had an extremely short attention span, even when he thought you were worthy of attention.”

And then there was the failure in the appeal of Obamacare, "Trump wanted to break things, he wanted a Republican Congress to give him bills to sign, and he wanted the love and respect of New York machers and socialites.”

Obamacare was the acid test for the Trump administration, "It was Bannon who held the line, insisting, sternly, that Obamacare was a litmus Republican issue, and that holding a majority in Congress, they could not face Republican voters without having made good on the Republican catechism of repeal. Repeal, in Bannon's view, what the pledge and repeal would be the most satisfying, even cathartic, result.”

On the other hand, the Republican speaker of the House Paul Ryan knew that, if at all, he would succeed with his majority only sticking to a "repeal and replace" approach. In fact, Trump, now indifferent to everything, had, during the election campaign, offered to voters a better health insurance than Obamacare.

Then, as the various attempts in Congress failed to abolish and replace Obamacare, "Bannon was careful to take a back seat in the debate. Later, he just said, ‘I hung back on health care because it's not my thing.’”

Foreign policy
Steve Bannon behaved differently when the Trump government was challenged in the field of foreign policy: “In the beginning of April, Bashar alAssad's government, once again defying international law, had used chemical weapons at Khan Sheikhoun. There was video documenting the attack and substantial agreement among intelligence agencies about Assad's responsibility. Barack Obama had failed to act when confronted with a Syrian chemical attack, and now Trump could. The downside was small; it would be a contained response. And it had the added advantage of seeming to stand up to the Russians, Assad's effective partners in Syria, which would score a political point at home.”

“Chief Strategist Bannon's approach was very much it was not our mess, and judging by all recent evidence, no good would come of trying to help clean it up. That effort would cost military lives with no military reward. Bannon, believing in the need for a radical shift in foreign policy, was proposing a new doctrine: Fuck 'em. This iron-fisted isolationism appealed to the president's transactional self: What was in it for us (or for him)?“

“To son in law Kushner it seemed obvious that the president was more annoyed about having to think about the attack than by the attack itself.”

Checks and Balances
Let us have confidence. “At the heart of the U.S. Constitution is a system of checks and balances that was established primarily to guard against the concentration of power in an executive branch that might tend toward royalism. The founders of the American experiment wanted to prevent a repeat of the monarchical abuses of King George III, against which their constituents had risen in the revolution.” To this day these checks and balances have prevented that Trump did not get out of hand.

Trump's narcissism, however, continues. About his State of the Union speech, he twittered, "Thank you for all the nice compliments and reviews on the State of the Union speech. 45.6 million people watched, the highest number in history ...“

Fake news! Obama had 48 million viewers in 2010, G. W, Bush holds the record with 62 million in 2003 while POTUS came in only in seventh place.

Last week in Ohio, while stock prices fell through the floor, Potus said, “I am not braggadocios,” although two days before he had bragged that he was the cause of the booming stock market.

My presentation stimulated an interesting discussion that however diverged into present German politics. While I was partly listening to the arguments thrown around I became possessed by the idea: Will Donald Trump permanently damage the position of the U. S. presidency by his behavior? Will this result in the fact that future American presidents will have less authority? We shall see.

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