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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

The reason more than 80 percent of New York City dwellers voted against Donald Trump was because we knew him—his history of pathological lying, his grandiose credit-taking for things he had nothing to do with, his cheating almost everybody who worked for him, his serial misogyny and complete lack of scruples. Mayor Mike Bloomberg said it straight at the Democratic National Convention: "I'm a New Yorker and I know a con when I see one." For people who liked Trump, his charm had to do with the fact that he was an unapologetic con artist who laughed at his own antics (for an example of the old Trump charm and humor at his own expense, listen to the Howard Stern interview about how he reacted to someone else's trauma). The mistake New Yorkers made was thinking that of course everybody could see the act.

I certainly saw it, but I was also so clobbered by the Recession that I saw the rage, desperation, and racism that was throbbing in our culture, and I was terrified that, with his P.T. Barnum instincts, Trump would trump his own plan (to lose) by having the con succeed. Wolff delineates the shock of the turnaround, obliterating the game plan to "win by losing" and become the most famous person in the world, making more money.

All of it is chronicled in Wolff's free-wheeling book, and really there is nothing new about Trump here. But it is somewhat pleasurable to read confirmation of what we knew and saw, reported by somebody who was a self-described "fly on the wall" of the West Wing and has actual tapes of Trump machine insiders speaking the truth.

And on further reflection (this revision added 1/27/18), the validation of many people's belief that Trump never intended to win the election may be the one bit of real news in this book. It explains so many things that have happened and continue to happen: the complete lack of preparation of Trump and his entire staff to assume responsibilities (because it would have been wasted energy, since losing was the plan) and the fact that Trump seems to have no interest in learning history, protocol, or what is or is not legal. It never interested him and continues to bore him. (The future ramifications of this are laid out in a wonderful Bloomberg article by Tim O'Brien, author of [book:TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald|1479850], who was sued by Trump for libel.)

Almost as much as Trump, Steve Bannon is a star of this book. He is an angry man, with zero political experience, eager to wage a battle, in search of his power to do so. When he finds it by being the only person who has read books and can speak literately about history in the Trump White House, he sets to work "doing things":
Just doing things became a Bannon principle, the sweeping antidote to bureaucratic and establishment ennui and resistance. It was the chaos of just doing things that actually got things done. Except, even if you assumed that not knowing how to do things didn't much matter if you just did them, it was still not clear who was going to do what you wanted to do. Or, a corollary, because nobody in the Trump administration really knew how to do anything, it was therefore not clear what anyone did.

Sean Spicer, whose job was literally to explain what people did and why, often simply could not—because nobody really had a job, because nobody could do a job. (pp. 63-64)

After reading the chapter called "Jarvanka," I was amazed and disgusted at the fact that nowhere in any of the people involved with Trump is a thought about service—that the job is to serve the millions of people who elected them, let alone all those who didn't. According to this book, Ivanka and Jared saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (the chance to work in the White House) and decided to seize it, with the understanding that if the next step was running for office themselves, Ivanka would go first and be the first woman president! Not only is there no thought of WHY and that it has something to do with working for the people, but the sense of entitlement obliterates even the possibility of respect for people who know what they're doing because they've spent their entire adult lives learning through service, and by the time they get to the White House, they know the rules of law and governance!

In the chapter on Russia, Wolff writes that Trump could understand politicians, but he was finding it hard to get a handle on these bureaucrat government lifer types. He couldn't grasp what they wanted. Why would they, or anyone, be a permanent government employee? "'They max out at what? Two hundred grand? Tops,' he said, expressing something of wonder." Trump has never felt an impulse to serve anybody so he has no comprehension of people who commit their lives to the greater good. This point later illuminates the foundation for Trump's inability to comprehend other people: Attorney General Jeff Sessions's lawfully correct decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. In Sessions's worldview, the greater good, and his "life's work" was "to curb, circumscribe, and undo the interpretation of federal law that had for three generations undermined American culture and offended his own place in it. (155)" Nor does Trump really grok his former pal Steve Bannon, who was driven by a conviction that we are in the midst of civil war and restoration of white American values circa 1950-1965 is paramount. Trump has no convictions other than an incontrovertible belief in his unassailable grandeur.

I've never been able to make sense out of Trump's feelings about Jews. His father was a well-known anti-Semite; Trump believes there are Nazis who are good people; his son-in-law and by-conversion-daughter and their children are Jewish. In a chapter titled "Goldman," I finally got some help:
For Trump, giving Israel to Kushner was not only a test, it was a Jewish test: the president was singling him out for being Jewish, rewarding him for being Jewish, saddling him with the impossible hurdle for being Jewish—and, too, defaulting to the stereotyping belief in the negotiating powers of Jews. "Henry Kissinger says Jared is going to be the new Henry Kissinger," Trump said more than once, rather a combined compliment and slur. (142)

Fire and Fury profiles a White House in chaos and a president with serious mental problems who has no attention span or capacity to listen, read, and learn—a man who made four-year-old-bored-boy faces when briefed about the specifics of the Constitution or health care reform or any policy matter, a man who landed the most important job in the world without meaning to, a man whose main concerns are being liked, getting richer, and playing golf.

I read the Kindle version of this book, which like the hardback, was launched early in response to Trump's attempt to block publication. It is in severe need of proofreading. (My favorite typo: "Bannon, with mounting ferocity and pubic (sic) venom . . .") As an editor, I am annoyed, however the sloppiness does match its subjects, who have zero respect for care and the painstaking effort it takes to do something well. So there is a certain karmic justice and artistic symmetry to the current picture:

(1) This blustery self-promoter with no scruples rides the free publicity of the media's fascination with his insanity, and he uses the coverage to stoke self-righteous rage and promises to use the loopholes and outright illegal tactics that made him wealthy to benefit the little guys, so they vote for him.

(2) Once in office, his lack of knowledge of, let alone care about, the law as well as his self-involved rage and inability to understand anything other than winning/losing or praise/criticism throw the White House and the world into chaos.

(3) A well-known "slasher" writer uses the open access granted him by an administration who loves attention and has no understanding of who the writer is (because vetting is not their style), not to mention the difference between on and off the record, and he hangs out, amiably observing and making nice, then succeeds in weaving his observations into an addictive story—an almost impossible-to-accomplish narrative given the a level of insanity, chaos, and its myriad participants—and it all goes into a sloppily made book, rushed to publication to cash in on the free publicity of its subject trying to quash it . . . and hopefully it eventually does the job the Trump voters wanted: blowing up the swamp.

1/9/18 Postscript
Because I truly believe that compassion is a much more powerful force for change than ire, I want to add a recommendation. Read Jennifer Weiner's 1/8/18 NY Times editorial, What the President Doesn't Get About Dogs. It infused me with horrified compassion for just how lonely, isolated, and without the capacity to know, find, or receive unconditional love this man is. I actually hurt for him. But he still needs to have a fitness evaluation and be held accountable for what he has done.

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