The MacGuffin White House
The (Sur)real West Wing
The television show The West Wing never was what it was intended to be. The President’s role was meant to be minor. It was supposed to be an office show that took place in the White House that dealt with politics. Rob Lowe was supposed to be the main character, but instead he ended up leaving after the fourth season.
I was reminded of what The West Wing was supposed to be as I made my way through Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. This story wasn’t about the President. It was only partially about the White House itself as an office place. Overwhelmingly, it was about the horse race. Except instead of being a race between horses for some finish line or candidates towards an election, it was a race between people and factions over influence of the president and the White House.
The main reason for this is that nature and society both abhor vacuums, and if Michael Wolff is to be believed the president has left a very large one. Fears that he would be some sort of fascist entity proved to be quite misplaced, as were hopes that he might be a revolutionary figure. He is instead portrayed as being in deeply over his head and uninterested in day-to-day leadership. The upshot for those of us who count ourselves among the critics is that we are likely looking at a weak president throughout the duration of his presidency. He’s not a fascist because fascists are actually interested in ruling.
You may remember a while back, someone played with the concept of “what if Trump had been female” by using actors to switch the roles of Trump and Clinton and much to his surprise, Trump came off better. I felt some of it myself. Maybe not because it was a woman playing the part, but because it was simply someone else playing the part. Listening to the audiobook, it was someone else playing Trump’s words. A lot of them came across as less obnoxious and more ADD-addled rambling. That, in turn, makes him less menacing and more like a sitcom character. This only goes so far (he’s said the things he’s said), but I’ve been sussing through the implications of all of this.
I found myself thinking of Michael Scott. Specifically, the Michael Scott from Season 2 and Season 3 of The Office before the office manager’s long road to rehabilitation. Now, Michael Scott was far from harmless, but at least he’s not David Brent and due to his own haplessness it was easy to let the animosity towards the guy slip. Donald Trump lacks Michael Scott’s attention span (which is saying something), but is also sharper. While on the subject of sitcoms, he also reminded me of Bill from NewsRadio, who was played by Phil Hartman. At once too critical for the show to carry on after Phil Hartman’s death and too shallow to be the focus. Interesting, but as unable to sustain one’s interest as Trump himself is unable to sustain interest in just about anything except himself.
With Trump temperamentally unsuited to lead, that leaves a power vacuum. Unfortunately, those closest to him are unqualified to help him and those he would most trust are disqualified. So he’s left surrounded by people he trusts but shouldn’t, people he could trust but doesn’t like, and Steve Bannon. Rather than being a dominating figure in his own administration, he is more of an object. The Macguffin that everybody else is chasing. His lack of interest in policy, along with his susceptibility to flattery, give everybody hope that they can impose their own vision on his presidency. Thus demonstrating the last problem, which is that none of the three main factions have the same idea of what that vision is.
Reince Priebus and Paul Ryan
Priebus as the original Chief of Staff turned out to be pretty critical to the trajectory of the White House. Trump’s evolution into a more mainstream Republican candidate – which some believe was inevitable – may not have happened without him. While Bannon and Jarvanka were busy trying to establish a vision for the Trump presidency, Priebus was getting jobs filled and mending the relationship between Trump and Paul Ryan. Had John Kelly been the original pick, we might be looking at a different administration. But below the top level are a lot of people picked by Reince Priebus and picked by people Priebus picked.
Missing from this is Mike Pence, who some (like myself) had hoped would play an important role in keeping Trump from going too off-track. It turns out Pence is largely useless and appears to be almost as vacuous as the president just with a different orientation. He had the opportunity of a lifetime to be one of the most consequential vice presidents, but instead he appears more interested in staying out of everyone’s way. Oddly enough, the book indicates that Trump’s natural successor may not be the vice president that delivered to him the presidency, but his UN Security Advisor who had refused to endorse him in the first place.
Jared and Ivanka are at once the most permanent figures of this presidency and the least consequential, due mostly to having scant idea of what they’re doing. They are playing a game they don’t understand, which makes them both ineffective and unaware either of the rules or the importance of the rules. It’s difficult to overstate how much Russiagate helped Bannon’s relative standing simply because Jared and Ivanka were implicated in it and he wasn’t. While it’s not clear that there was organized involvement from the top, the Trump family itself is nonetheless up to its eyeballs in it and hasn’t the faintest clue how to handle the scandal.
This is actually a pity. For as much as we may dislike the whole Trump family, without a doubt their faction is the least ideologically unacceptable of the three to most of Ordinary Times’ readership. Whenever there was some idea that was hatched that didn’t work and I was sorry it didn’t work, it was usually one that came from Jared. Their vision for the Trump presidency was that of Bloombergian centrism (without the fixations on health and consumer choices). We could do a lot worse than that. But between that and the institutional force of standard Republicanism and the fire and brimstone of Bannonism, it’s an uphill climb.
Bannon has gotten more attention than anyone else in the book because that’s where the juiciest gossip was. Bannon is probably the most compelling character in the book, but that’s not saying much in a book where there is simply no one to personally root for. It’s clear that Bannon talked to Wolff as much or more than anyone else as much of the story is told through his eyes. Even so, he came off horribly. I don’t just mean that he is a bad man with bad ideas, but he has a temperament that would be immature on a sixteen year old.
He knows a few tricks and does them well. He had the sense to see Russia for what it was. He owned all of us on the Charlottesville story. His tactic of aggravating the left into taking more extreme or unpopular positions may be a successful tactic, but it’s not a successful strategy. Not when, on many of these issues, the public is on the other side. His “burn the fields” tactics within his own coalition similarly had problems. Steamrollers can’t steamroll things bigger than they are.
The Administration Rolls On…
Most of the book consists of these three factions duking it out. At various times, various people are succeeding in a higher ratio to their fails than the other. Sometimes, there is no clear idea who won a particular battle. Throughout the book, though, everything had more to do with them than with Trump himself. By my count, Trump made only about five decisions on his own (excluding messaging and media management): Firing Comey, the decision not to escalate in Afghanistan, not to (further) intervene in Syria at a particular juncture, the transgender ban, and the decision to endorse Luther Strange. Everything else is something somebody else convinced him to do.
It’s incredibly difficult for anyone who isn’t either a standard Republican or a Bannonite to find someone to root for in this book. Indeed, everything gets so twisted around that ethics end up sabotaging more of the good than the bad, or at least the less bad over the more bad. Early on, they found one of the few people who might be able to play shadow president, Tom Barrack, but he declined — largely due to what he perceived to be a complete inability to cut through all of the ethics rules given how much of his money exists everywhere. Jared and Ivanka are guilty of questionable financial dealings that somehow I wish would go away, and Russia, as I mentioned, is a godsend to the worst of the three factions. Bridgegate cost him someone who would have been a better adviser than most that he has.
One of the questions I have asked myself from the start is whether Good People (however defined) would better serve their country by serving in the administration or refusing to. If you serve, you run the risk of enabling a malignant force. If you don’t serve, you leave that force to its most malignant elements. What to do? Well in some cases it’s easy: Sean Spicer was all the former and none of the latter. But with only a few examples of that (basically, working for Trump on politics and imagery as opposed to policy and government), the answer is an emphatic yes. While I was glad that Mitt Romney didn’t apologize in order to become Secretary of State, it might have (sigh, probably would have) been better for the country if he had. Rosenstein made the Special Prosecutor happen. Given the president’s lack of interest in anything policy-related and his propensity to follow the last person he talks to, we want as many good people around him and under him as possible.
The problem is that this kind of churn isn’t sustainable. And each qualified person that leaves with less than they came with is serves as a warning sign to others on whether or not they should take the plunge. Trump’s campaign worked because he is a showman and he had a weak opponent from an arrogant party. That doesn’t really transfer to the presidency. His campaign was full of a lot of people who couldn’t get respectable jobs elsewhere. We don’t know how much campaigns actually matter. We sort of do know that administrations matter. The pool of candidates is going to get worse and not better. As the Scott/McNeal reference might indicate, the book has an almost sitcom feel at points. That wasn’t the note it ended on.
One of the interesting things about this book is how it has no happy audience. Trump and his administration had to hate it. Even if overall it made me worry about them less, it did so for the wrong reasons from their point of view. “He’s too unfocused and too poor of an administrator to be a fascist” doesn’t really work. Whatever exculpation it gives Trump on Russia, it implicates his son and all but says the president himself must have known about it. Whatever credit it gave Trump for Saudi Arabia, it was in a sea of awfulness. The media, like Trump, was always going to have some problems with this book as it granted legitimacy to some of the complaints of Trump and conservatives in general. For liberals and other critics of Trump, it’s relatively light on Russia and portrays an administration they see as evil as mostly being the gang who couldn’t shoot straight.
When that gang has the nukes, though, that’s unsettling enough.
I did not touch on all of my thoughts on the book. You can catch more of them in my Twitter thread about it.