In all the madness of 2016, I forgot that so much of the talk in the first month was about how deeply Trump didn’t want to be in the White House. That the campaign was all a ruse to create a new media organization run by Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon, with Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Satan (citation needed) at the helm. That view is reaffirmed, here, and gives me flashbacks to how terrible a prospect that would’ve been. Look, Donald Trump looked like he very well could’ve been the worst president we’ve had since at least Warren G. Harding, and one year into this disaster certainly hasn’t changed my view of that at all, but there’s a part of me that thinks him losing would’ve been an even worse situation.
Barack Obama, I think, is a very good and intelligent man. Though I disagree with a lot of his policies, and don’t think his eight years will be remembered as particularly noteworthy, from an historical standpoint, he was a generally effective president who did the most with the little support he had from a terribly recalcitrant and obstructionist Congress. But Donald Trump didn’t come from nowhere. He was the inevitable byproduct of decades of conservative talk radio and Fox News propaganda, conspiracy theories, disinformation, and the celebrated ignorance of a demographic that shuns expertise and glories in emotion over intelligence. There is a direct line between Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Alex Jones, et al, and Donald Trump. He is the offspring that should’ve been aborted, but couldn’t be thanks to the antiquated and totalitarian views of the party…..Okay, I probably reached on that one.
While it’s hard to imagine a scenario worse than the one we currently find ourselves, listening to Donald Trump scream about how the election was stolen from him while also having his own network to criticize “Crooked Hillary” and spout his racist, conspiracy minded rhetoric is maybe a darker timeline. That seems counter-intuitive, but I think the key is in the unrestrained and consequence-free nature of talk radio and its inspired off-shoots that created the environment where Donald Trump could fester. He isn’t an accident of the democratic process, he’s the inevitable result of our celebrity culture poisoned by the vitriol of the conservative right. His desire to create his own network would just compound this issue, giving him a larger audience without losing the credibility that complete and total failure has brought him.
Look, there’s no mistaking that a third of this country will support him no matter what, but nearly half of all votes cast went to him, not Hillary Clinton. If he maintains 35% approval….he’s easily beatable in 2020 (provided the Democratic party doesn’t shit the bed, again). He hasn’t accomplished anything since he’s been in office apart from sitting a conservative on the Supreme Court (which isn’t the same as saying he hasn’t done any harm). Though Congress is wholly unwilling to curb his insanity or do anything about the blatent and unrepentant corruption and possible collusion of his administration, he has squandered some of the support that got him elected. That can’t be under-appreciated.
If he had lost the election, I don’t think that would be the case. Republicans are in the driver seat, now. They need to follow through on their promises and blustering over the last eight years. Their failures and lies, now, can be pulled into the light for everyone to see (not that many will). With victory comes accountability. And though Congress may not be willing to hold Trump to account, I think the American people are. I think that only happens with a Trump victory in November, 2016. Trump is a reckoning for the Republican Party, and the tactics of their media wing.
So as terrible as this administration is, I don’t think it’s the end of the world. I think this is the step back that heralds the two steps forward.
Anyway. Part of me didn’t want to read this book. A big part of me.
Sometimes, in order to maintain one’s sanity, I think it’s necessary to just turn off. I realized a couple years ago that the steady influx and ready availability of information is, counter-intuitively, harmful. I never remember anything, for instance, because I always have access to Google. If I want to know something, I don’t have to bother learning it – I just reach into my pocket, spend thirty seconds looking it up online, and then my curiosity is assuaged. I can go about my day, happily dumping the information from my memory, content with the knowledge that if I ever need to retrieve it, Google will be there to do my bidding. So, I made the conscious decision to just stop Googling everything. I’ll allow the mystery to persist. Given time, the question will take up a kind of permanent residence in my mind, and when I finally get around to answering it, I’ve found that I remember the answer a lot better.
Similarly, I’ve pulled back from my obsessive digging into the glacial ebb and flow of progress. So much of what we consume is the surface tension of a shallow pool that, ultimately, doesn’t amount to much on a day-to-day basis. There is simply no need to read everything, because most things written about (or argued about on panel shows) simply aren’t real. Instead of rightfully being the grist in the mill of rumor mongers, they exist to justify the jobs of news anchors and pundits. At best, most of what amounts to news is no better than back page filler blown up to fill the decreasing amount of air time that is used to occupy the space between commercial breaks.
And in an age when so much of that filler does little more than scratch a primal itch in our reptilian brain that wants to be angry, I decided to just turn off. Just, not give in to the endorphin high of getting angry.
So, as I said, a part of me just didn’t want to read this book.
But, for all that, I’m not ambivalent to what’s been happening – nor am I blithely unaware. The great majority of the events described in this book weren’t really a surprise to me. I’ve seen the headlines, engaged in discussions with people who follow every tweet and verbal gaff, and have made an effort to remain at least peripherally aware. And, at the end of the day, I’m still just as fascinated by history, generally, and the office of the president, specifically, as I was when I first began reviewing presidential biographies back in CBR7. But delving so deeply into this administration while firmly embedded in the reality of its existence seemed…..self-destructive.
The last year has really made me prioritize how much of my time I’m willing to devote to the torrid miasma of hate and animosity that is permeating our culture. I’ve cut out many things I was formerly slavishly devoted to: The Daily Show (part of which is due to the absence of Jon Stewart) and all its various spin-offs, talk radio (I used to hate-listen, but I don’t have the energy anymore), and even the news. The world is just too depressing, and there’s an obsessive, almost masturbatory glee that comes with reveling in the horror of it all. And, as I said, so much of it is just nonsense. Trump feeds on that nonsense. It keeps him relevant – which is fucking insane, because he’s the president. He doesn’t need to stay relevant, because he has the most powerful single job in the world. But the only thing he hates more than being criticized is not being considered.
But ignoring him clearly won’t make him go away. John Oliver, among others, tried that during the campaign. We’ve long passed that point.
So this is the first major book to deal with this presidency, and the promise of it being revelatory was too much to pass up. In the end, I guess I’ve let my curiosity sit long enough.
I agree with the recent review by Pajiba’s papa fermilias: this is essentially a Steve Bannon tell-all written by Michael Wolff. I don’t consider that a knock against the book, either. Every book of this kind needs a source, and Steve Bannon was an important figure in the first year of this administration. That it slants the narrative in a certain direction (basically, Ivanka/Kushner are hopelessly out of their depth, Trump is a fucking idiot, Priebus is a worm, and the world is a cold, miserable place that only he can save) is inevitable, but I think Wolff does an admirable job balancing Bannon’s sour arrogance with his own perceptions from being embedded in the White House. Though there isn’t much direct focus on Bannon’s mistakes or horrendous twisting of reality, I don’t think there’s any acceptance of him, either.
And it’s true that this book isn’t quite so revelatory if you’ve even tangentially followed the news. This administration, after all, has ironically been fairly transparent given the massive number of leaks (from all sides). But so much of the last year has been one fiasco on top of another, it’s impossible to hold on to any controversy for long. Throughout most of this book, I kept thinking to myself, “oh yeah. That happened. How did I forget about that?”
Though the book may be a thinly veiled tell-all, Wolff writes it with barely concealed contempt for what’s happening. And the contempt isn’t the contempt of an ostracized Steve Bannon, but of a rational person describing exponential incompetence and unmitigated narcissism.
Overall, I rate this a pretty solid book that covers the first year (or so) of the Trump administration. You’re unlikely to learn much that you don’t already know, but it’s a good refresher of the terrible first year. Just in time to get us ready for the (probably worse) sequel.