The Blight House Trump's Presidency Sinks Below Rock Bottom
More controversy than usual has been swirling around the White House, with Donald Trump losing his temper over a book accusing him of being an ignorant, TV-addicted narcissist. The bad news, though, is that he's not going away anytime soon.
Stephen Miller is one of the people charged with convincing the world that everything is just fine, and nothing is out of the ordinary. The White House speechwriter went on CNN a week ago Sunday for a live interview to comment on "Fire and Fury," the new book about U.S. President Donald Trump by the journalist Michael Wolff. The tome presents the president as psychologically unstable, as dumb, senile and dangerously erratic. "The book is best understood as a work of very poorly written fiction," Miller said. "The author is a garbage author of a garbage book."
Miller is 32 years old, but with his thinning hair and polished visage, he looks like he could be in his early 50s. During the election campaign, he flew back and forth across the country with Trump. "The reality is that the president is a political genius," Miller said. The accusations leveled in the book, he went on, are grotesque, particularly the quotes attributed to Stephen Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, who Miller denounced as being "vindictive." During the course of the interview, he got so worked up that the anchor, Jake Tapper, finally put an end to it, with security guards ultimately leading Miller out of the studio.
Miller's appearance shows the absurd depths to which the debate over the Trump presidency has sunk. There was, though, at least one viewer who enjoyed the speechwriter's fit of rage. "Jake Tapper of Fake News CNN just got destroyed in his interview with Stephen Miller," Trump tweeted. Just a few hours earlier, he had sent out a series of tweets seeking to assure the world of his excellent mental health. He accused the Democrats and their media "lapdogs" of only questioning his mental stability because, as he claimed in a tweet, suppositions of collusion with Russia have "proven to be a total hoax."
"Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart," he tweeted on Sunday morning. He wrote that he went from being a "VERY successful" businessman to TV stardom and then to the presidency. "I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius....and a very stable genius at that!"
Of course, that's not how a healthy person talks -- it is the voice of mania. And the patient, unfortunately, is the most powerful man in the world, a man who is resented even by his closest aids. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin called Triump an "idiot." Gary Cohn, Trump's chief economic adviser, said the president is "dumb as shit," and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster described Trump as a "dope." All of these quotes are from "Fire and Fury," and there could hardly be better corroboration of their veracity than Trump's outbursts on Twitter and elsewhere. Trump's behavior is childish, and he has now become obsessed with a book that he hasn't even read, nor is he likely to.
Incidence of Lunacy
Yet the real-life satire that Trump and his team are currently staging isn't just another incidence of lunacy. It is a deeply problematic political headache that raises fundamental questions.
How powerful can a superpower be when its leader is beset by increasing calls for his dismissal? Such a thing is possible, in theory at least, either through impeachment or the application of the 25th amendment, which allows for the replacement of a president who is no longer in a position to fulfill his duties for reasons of physical or mental health.
More important, however, is the question as to how Trump -- if he gets this upset because of a book -- might react in a real crisis. What might he do if North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un lays down the gauntlet? Can Trump really be trusted with control of America's nuclear arsenal?
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The West, it is clear, finds itself in an extremely dangerous situation with this president at the helm in the United States. With his erratic style, Trump has destabilized the alliance with Europe and put wind in the sails of the West's enemies, including autocrats in China, Russia and the Middle East.
His trips abroad have shown that he feels more comfortable in Riyadh than in Brussels, that he has more fun doing the sword dance with princes than having dinner with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Trump has transformed the U.S. into a country without a leader. There is hardly a diplomat or head of government anymore who takes what the president says seriously. America can no longer be relied upon.
In just 12 months in office, Trump has made a nuclear war with North Korea conceivable and undermined the principle of international cooperation by terminating trade deals, weakening climate protection, cutting funding for UN organizations and questioning the nuclear deal with Iran. In doing so, he has not only endangered the Western model, but also liberal democracy itself.
And as Wolff's book shows, it all comes out of a combination of ignorance, narcissism, hunger for power and a lack of compassion. The book's publication marks a new low point in U.S. history -- even for those who thought the country had already hit rock bottom.
Surrounded by Sycophants
Trump, of course, isn't the first occupant of the White House who has been sick, complicated or difficult to tolerate. Richard Nixon was widely seen as short-tempered, as a liar and an alcoholic. Many questioned Ronald Reagan's health even before he took the oath of office. And Bill Clinton used his power for sexual escapades.
It also isn't a new phenomenon for presidents to surround themselves with sycophants who then speak poorly of their boss behind his back. What is new, though, is the cynicism with which Trump's advisers serve a man who they see as incompetent, crazy and sick. Wolff writes that White House staff members discuss on a daily basis which statements uttered or actions taken by Trump might trigger the invocation of the 25th Amendment. Trump, he writes, isn't mentally fit enough to carry out his duties, nor did he really want to win the election in the first place. He was, the author asserts, only interested in increasing the value of the Trump brand.
Michael Wolff being interviewed by Savannah Guthrie on the "Today Show" in early January.
Wolff describes a dysfunctional White House that oscillates between hysteria and chaos. He speaks of bitter infighting between Bannon and "Jarvanka," a reference to Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner. He writes of feuds, leaks and an uninterested president who retreats to his bedroom at 6:30 p.m., eats cheeseburgers, watches Fox News, talks to friends on the telephone and vents on Twitter.
Wolff's main character and likely his most important source is Stephen Bannon, who was Trump's chief strategist until last August and who was widely considered to be the most powerful man in the White House after the president himself. Trump's Mephisto. Indeed, it is Bannon's quotes in the book that have angered Trump the most. In an official White House statement, he wrote: "Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind."
Joshua Green says that Bannon simply wasn't cautious enough in his conversations with Wolff. Green is a journalist with Bloomberg Businessweek and knows Bannon better than almost anyone else. Last July, he published "Devil's Bargain," a bestseller about the Trump-Bannon alliance. Bannon's ego, says Green, is just as large as that of Trump -- and he ultimately fell victim to his own narcissism.
Even former Bannon supporters have begun casting doubt upon the role he played as a Trump adviser. Trump's agenda had long been established before Bannon came on board, Roger Stone, a long-time Trump adviser said in an interview with Fox News. From Fox News to the conspiracy-theory worlds of websites like InfoWars and Gateway Pundit, Bannon is now being portrayed as unstable and self-absorbed.
A Self-Proclaimed Revolutionary
Green, though, doesn't believe that Bannon's influence on Trump was overstated. The president, he says, has always been plagued by a fear of losing his connection to his base and Bannon, via Breitbart, provided an important link to his voters. "But Wolff's book enraged Trump to the point where it didn't matter to him anymore who Bannon was," he says.
Bannon's fall began last April, when Kushner and McMaster pushed him out of the National Security Council. In August, he was then forced to leave the White House. Even after that, though, Trump continued to maintain contact with Bannon. But now, the one-time presidential adviser has been excommunicated by the right wing, his half-hearted apology notwithstanding. The family of the arch-conservative hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, who holds a stake in Breitbart and who donated millions to the Trump campaign, withdrew his support for Bannon. Not only was Bannon forced to leave Breitbart (his "killing machine," as he called it), he also lost his radio show.
The self-proclaimed revolutionary and destroyer of the establishment now finds himself without a platform for his ideas about withdrawing America from the international community and the greatness that allegedly grows out of isolation. But it doesn't appear as though he is going to disappear entirely.
After being thrown out of the White House, Bannon went on a world tour, to Hong Kong, Tokyo and Abu Dhabi. Green says he can imagine Bannon taking a closer look at Europe with the intention of providing his services to populist parties there. "He closely followed the careers of Frauke Petry and the AfD," he says, referring to the German right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany and its one-time leader. Green says Bannon has also kept an eye on Marine Le Pen in France and Beppe Grillo in Italy. Bannon, Green is certain, will land on his feet.
"Plus, there are always rich people looking for influence and for a way to get in," he says.
The ideologue remaining from Bannon's "nationalist revolution" is Stephen Miller, a man who, Wolff asserts, is unable to write in complete sentences, communicating instead in bullet points. According to an account in the book, Bannon used to refer to Miller as "my typist." He is the opposite of an intellectual, as unlikely to read a book as the president.
- Part 1: Trump's Presidency Sinks Below Rock Bottom
- Part 2: The President's Thin Skin