Michael Wolff’s Withering Portrait of President Donald Trump

. A chronicler of media, power, and wealth, Wolff is also willing to dish the dirt, as he demonstrated in a gossipy tome about Rupert Murdoch, which was published in 2008.

.. After that book came out, there was an inquest inside Murdoch’s News Corporation into who had granted Wolff access.

.. as Wolff noted in a foreword to the paperback edition of the book, Murdoch was the person primarily responsible for the access he gained. The press baron “not only was (mostly) a patient and convivial interviewee but also opened every door I asked him to open,” Wolff wrote.

.. His original idea, he says, was to write a fly-on-the-wall account of Trump’s first hundred days. “The president himself encouraged this idea. But given the many fiefdoms in the White House that came into open conflict from the first days of the administration, there seemed no one person able to make this happen. Equally, there was no one to say ‘Go away.’ Hence I became more a constant interloper than an invited guest.”

.. Still, the over-all portrait that Wolff draws of a dysfunctional, bitterly divided White House in the first six months of Trump’s Presidency, before the appointment of John Kelly as chief of staff and the subsequent firing of Bannon, has the whiff of authenticity about it—and it echoes news coverage at the time.

.. during one Oval Office meeting, Bannon called Ivanka “a fucking liar,” to which Trump responded,“I told you this is a tough town, baby.”

.. Equally plausible is Wolff’s portrait of Trump as a one-dimensional figure who had no conception that he could win the 2016 election; little clue what to do after he did emerge victorious from the campaign trail; and virtually no interest in, or aptitude for, acquiring the skills and information needed to fulfill the role of President. “Here was, arguably, the central issue of the Trump presidency,”

.. 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 didn’t have to, and that in fact this was one of his key attributes as a populist. He was postliterate—total television.

.. Trump often retires in the early evening to his bedroom, where he has three television screens, and interrupts his viewing only to converse by telephone with his friends and cronies, some of them fellow-billionaires.

.. unconfirmed new anecdotes, too, about Trump’s sexism and narcissism. In one meeting, Wolff says, the President referred to Hope Hicks, his communications director, as “a piece of tail.”

.. described Sally Yates

.. Trump is, ultimately, a self-fixated performer rather than a politician, and his primary goal is to monopolize public attention.

.. This depiction probably understates Trump’s devotion to making money, as well as his racism and nativism, both of which go back decades.

.. Donald McGahn, the White House counsel, were adamantly opposed to firing Comey. “McGahn tried to explain that in fact Comey himself was not running the Russia investigation, that without Comey the investigation would proceed anyway,”

.. Chris Christie and Rudolph Giuliani, who “encouraged him to take the view that the DOJ was resolved against him; it was all part of a holdover Obama plot.”

.. the concern of Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, “channeled through his son and daughter-in-law, that the Kushner family [business] dealings were getting wrapped up in the pursuit of Trump.”

.. Jared and Ivanka “encouraged him, arguing the once possibly charmable Comey was now a dangerous and uncontrollable player whose profit would inevitably be their loss.”

Jared and Ivanka were urging the president on, but even they did not know that the axe would shortly fall. Hope Hicks . . . didn’t know. Steven Bannon, however much he worried that the president might blow, didn’t know. His chief of staff didn’t know. And his press secretary didn’t know. The president, on the verge of starting a war with the FBI, the DOJ, and many in Congress, was going rogue.

.. Wolff was surely right to stress the momentousness of the decision to get rid of the “rat”— Trump’s term for Comey.

.. five months after Comey’s firing, Bannon was predicting the collapse of Trump’s Presidency.

.. In any event, there would certainly not be a second term, or even an attempt at one. ‘He’s not going to make it,’ said Bannon at the Breitbart Embassy. ‘He’s lost his stuff.’ ”

The Bannon Revolution

Bannon’s grand ambitions should inspire the same soul-deadening déjà vu, the existential exhaustion, with which Bill Murray’s weatherman greeted every morning in Punxsutawney, Penn. They should bring to mind both Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence and his warning that if you stare deep into the abyss, it stares into you.

.. What Bannon is promising is what the Tea Party actually delivered, in a past recent enough to still feel like the present: a dramatic ideological shake-up, an end to D.C. business-as-usual, and the elevation of new leaders with a sweeping vision for a new G.O.P.

.. The ideological shake-up took the form of paper promises, not successful legislation. The end to D.C. business-as-usual just created a new normal of brinkmanship and gridlock. And when the Tea Party’s leaders — Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, above all — reached out to claim their party’s presidential nomination, they found themselves steamrolled by a candidate who scorned all their limited-government ideas and offered, well, Trumpism instead.

.. when it comes to governance, Trumpism turns to have two fatal weaknesses:

  1. the dearth of Trumpists among elected Republicans, and
  2. the total policy incapacity of Trump himself.

So having failed in his appointed role as Trump whisperer and White House brain, Bannon has decided to do the Tea Party insurgency thing all over again, except this time with his

  • nationalist-populist cocktail instead of the
  • last round’s notional libertarianism.

.. Maybe the Tea Party was a dead end, but some Trumpist primary candidates will finally produce a Republican Party capable of doing something with its power.

.. His professed nationalism, with its promise of infrastructure projects and antitrust actions and maybe even tax hikes on the rich, is potentially more popular than the Tea Party vision ..

.. But this imaginative exercise collapses when you look at Bannon’s own record and the candidates he’s recruiting.

.. At the White House, Bannon did not manage to inject much heterodoxy into any part of the same old, same old Republican agenda. But he did encourage the president to pick racialized fights at every chance.
.. his new grass-roots populism promises to be more of the same:
  • a notional commitment to some nebulous new agenda,
  • with white-identity politics and the
  • fear of liberalism supplying the real cultural-political cement.
.. Especially because the would-be senators he’s recruiting are a mix of cynics and fanatics who seem to share no coherent vision, just a common mix of ambition and resentment.
.. if you believe figures like Roy Moore and Erik Prince are going to succeed where Trump is obviously failing, I have some affidavits attesting to Harvey Weinstein’s innocence to sell you.
.. He and his allies are the latest group to recognize the void at the heart of the contemporary Republican Party, the vacuum that somebody, somehow needs to fill.
  • .. The activists and enforcers of the Tea Party era tried with a libertarian style of populism.
  • Paul Ryan tried with his warmed-over Jack Kempism.
  • My friends the “reform conservatives” tried with blueprints for tax credits and wage subsidies.

.. now they, too, need to reckon with a reality that has confounded every kind of Republican reformer since Barack Obama was elected: Our politics are probably too polarized, our legislative branch too gridlocked, and the conservative movement too dysfunctional and self-destructive to build a new agenda from the backbenches of Congress up, or even from the House speaker or Senate majority leader’s office.

.. Our system isn’t really all that republican anymore; it’s imperial, and even an incompetent emperor like Trump is unlikely to restore the legislative branch to its former influence. So if you want to remake the Republican Party as something other than a shambolic repository for anti-liberalism, the only way it’s likely to happen is from the top down —

  1. with the election of an effective, policy-oriented conservative president (which Donald Trump is not),
  2. surrounded by people who understand the ways of power (which Bannon, for all his bluster, didn’t) and
  3. prepared to both negotiate with Democrats and bend his own party to his will.

.. I would not be wasting my time trying to elect a few cranks and gadflies who will make Mitch McConnell’s life more difficult.

Instead I would be looking for the thing that too many people deceived themselves into believing Trump might be, and that Bannonite populism for all its potential strength now lacks: a leader.

Roy Moore, Luther Strange, and the Lessons of the Alabama Senate Primary

At one point, it looked as if there might be only days left in Sessions’s tenure, and his position still appears precarious; it now seems to depend on his openness to obstructing justice. In other words, Sessions might be out of his new job with two rounds of voting still to go to determine who gets his old one.

.. Roy Moore, meanwhile, had quit his most recent job, as Alabama’s chief judge, after being suspended for telling other state judges not to listen to their colleagues on the federal bench—not even those on the Supreme Court.

..  It was his second time losing that job: the first was in 2004, when he defied a federal-court order saying that he needed to take a large stone statue engraved with the Ten Commandments out of his courthouse.

.. But while, or maybe because, he has any number of problems with the Constitution, Moore does not have a problem with Trump. When he was asked about the President’s endorsement of Strange, Moore saidthat he wasn’t worried about losing Trump voters, because “They’re voting for his agenda, which I firmly believe in.” He has presented himself as someone who would be willful and stubborn enough, or just extreme enough, to follow Trump even if Party leaders decided that it was madness to do so. Also, he rode a horse to the polls to cast a vote for himself.

.. Robert Bentley, in a case involving ethics and campaign violations, and what was, reportedly, a wildly indiscreet affair with an aide. (Certain of Bentley’s family members recorded his conversations with the aide, and the transcripts were, inevitably, published online.) At the same time, Bentley, exercising his gubernatorial power, was interviewing candidates to replace Sessions in the Senate—one of whom was Strange, the man investigating him.

.. the Senate seat amounted to a favor to a prosecutor from a man facing potential felony charges. Strange could have waited to run in the primary against whomever Bentley did appoint. Instead, he headed to the Senate, with little regard for how the circumstances of his appointment may have compromised him.

.. Mo Brooks, a member of the Freedom Caucus, who campaigned on the premise that he is more Trumpish than Trump’s designated candidate because he, like Trump, is disdainful of McConnell, who is a Washington insider and not nearly enough of an absolutist.

Liberalism’s Summer of ’17

Liberals whine about being governed by Trump. Pity those governed by them.

Many of those now climbing over the Democrats’ blue walls were willing to live under the original liberal governance model that existed before 1960 because it recognized the legitimacy of private economic life. The wealthy agreed then to pay their “fair share.”

.. Defenders of the liberal model argue that cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles are changing into sophisticated, cosmopolitan hubs that attract a new class of young professionals who will restore urban America. Instead, many of these urban revivals are producing a phenomenon economists now call “racially concentrated areas of affluence,” or RCAAs.

An area gets RCAAed when the residents who pack themselves into it are mostly white people whose median incomes are unprecedentedly greater than the city’s poverty level. Some of the most RCAAed cities are liberal duchies like Boston, Baltimore, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Today, private economic life, especially that of the urban middle class, is no longer a partner in the liberal model. It’s merely a “revenue source” for a system whose patronage is open-ended welfare and largely uncapped public-employee pensions. I’d describe the liberal-progressive governing strategy as ruin and rule.

.. Not widely noticed is that liberalism’s claimed beneficiaries—black Americans—are also fleeing its failures. Demographers have documented significant black out-migration from New York, Michigan, California and Illinois into Florida, Georgia, Texas and North Carolina. North to south.

.. They are now asking the federal government, meaning taxpayers who live in parts of the U.S. not hostile to capitalism, to give them nearly $15 billion to replace the 100-year-old train tunnel beneath the Hudson River. Why should they? Why send money to a moribund, dysfunctional urban liberal politics that will never—as in, not ever—clean up its act or reform?

Maybe we need a new default solution to the urban crisis: Let internal migration redistribute the U.S. population away from liberalism’s smug but falling-apart plutonomies.