There are definitely parts of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” that are wrong, sloppy, or betray off-the-record confidence. But there are two things he gets absolutely right, even in the eyes of White House officials who think some of the book’s scenes are fiction: his spot-on portrait of Trump as an emotionally erratic president, and the low opinion of him among some of those serving him.
.. Wolff’s liberties with off-the-record comments — while ethically unacceptable to nearly all reporters — have the effect of exposing Washington’s insider jokes and secret languages, which normal Americans find perplexing and detestable.
.. In the past year, we have had many of the same conversations with the same sources Wolff used. We won’t betray them, or put on the record what was off. But, we can say that the following lines from the book ring unambiguously true:
.. he seemed almost phobic about having formal demands on his attention.
.. Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. … [H]e could read headlines and articles about himself, or at least headlines on articles about himself, and the gossip squibs on the New York Post‘s Page Six.
.. He was postliterate — total television.
Instinct over expertise:
expertise, that liberal virtue, was overrated
[T]he president’s views of foreign policy and the world at large were among [his White House’s] most random, uninformed, and seemingly capricious aspects. His advisers didn’t know whether he was an isolationist or a militarist, or whether he could distinguish between the two.
.. He was enamored with generals and determined that people with military command experience take the lead in foreign policy, but he hated to be told what to do.
.. policy making … flowed up. It was a process of suggesting, in throw-it-against-the-wall style, what the president might want, and hoping he might then think that he had thought of this himself.
Low regard by key aides
If a wackadoo moment occurred on the occasions … when his remarks careened in no clear direction, his staff had to go into intense method-acting response. It took absolute discipline not to acknowledge what everyone could see.
.. he could have moments of, almost everyone would admit, irrationality. When that happened, he was alone in his anger and not approachable by anyone.
.. His senior staff largely dealt with these dark hours by agreeing with him, no matter what he said.
More than half a dozen of the more skilled White House staff are contemplating imminent departures. Many leaving are quite fearful about the next chapter of the Trump presidency.
A smaller share of the world’s people were hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before. The proportion disfigured by leprosy, blinded by diseases like trachoma or suffering from other ailments also fell.
.. Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day) goes down by 217,000.
.. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. And 300,000 more gain access to clean drinking water.
.. Readers often assume that because I cover war, poverty and human rights abuses, I must be gloomy, an Eeyore with a pen. But I’m actually upbeat, because I’ve witnessed transformational change.
.. As recently as the 1960s, a majority of humans had always been illiterate and lived in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 15 percent are illiterate, and fewer than 10 percent live in extreme poverty.
.. Just since 1990, the lives of more than 100 million children have been saved by vaccinations, diarrhea treatment, breast-feeding promotion and other simple steps.
.. “Intellectuals hate progress,”
.. President Trump rode this gloom to the White House. The idea “Make America Great Again” professes a nostalgia for a lost Eden. But really? If that was, say, the 1950s, the U.S. also had segregation, polio and bans on interracial marriage, gay sex and birth control. Most of the world lived under dictatorships, two-thirds of parents had a child die before age 5, and it was a time of nuclear standoffs, of pea soup smog, of frequent wars, of stifling limits on women and of the worst famine in history.
.. the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time. I suggest these: The world is registering important progress, but it also faces mortal threats.
.. there was never a headline saying, “The Industrial Revolution Is Happening,” even though that was the most important news of the last 250 years.
.. talent is universal, but opportunity is not.
Fish can’t explain to you what water’s like because he’s never been out of water. And I don’t think you can really understand where you’re from until you go somewhere else and see a different form of social organization.
.. I think it was Twain, I can’t remember for certain, but I think it was Twain who said, “The man who chooses not to read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” And right now, we live in a society of people who are decreasingly, appetitively literate. The average American reads 19 minutes a day, and it’s age correlated. Older folks are reading quite a bit more than 19 minutes and younger folks much less than 19 minutes. I think Gutenberg is the true father of America. I think the sine qua non of America is mass literacy, which led to competitive ideas, healthy challenges to authority, a plural marketplace after the printing press, that then creates a First Amendment culture of free speech, press, assembly, etc.
.. Ken Burns has the great phrase that right now we have a whole lot of pluribus and very, very little unum.
SASSE: And if you think of what Ken Burns’s work is about: Jazz, and baseball, and Civil War, and Lewis and Clark, and the Dust Bowl, and his new project about to come out on Vietnam — one of the things that he’s trying to do is give us a common canon.
.. There are basically three purposes to sex. Sex is a covenant, initiation, and renewal ceremony. Sex gives you a different kind of knowledge of someone. You form a kind of bond with someone that’s different than just a random person on the street. Sex matters. Sex is for procreation and sex is for pleasure.
There really isn’t much more to it than that. And yet those three things should be differentiated because it’s not just another contact sport. I don’t think it’s helpful to have teenagers not know that sex matters, and yet you can understand it. When you’re old and you look back on your sexuality, I bet most people are going to think it was basically reducible to those three kinds of categories. So I felt like I had to talk about it a little bit, but I wanted to duck the culture wars as much as possible.
.. I think that you can’t possibly become a really good parent without developing empathy. I don’t know that you have to have clear, cognitive categories to do it. There are lots and lots of people who are good parents who are empathetic who maybe couldn’t reflect on it. But since you’re asking the question for people who are advice-seeking, I think you need to self-consciously think about the cultivation of empathy.
And the travel point that you asked is another way of thinking about why it’s important to become well read. Because when you go into books, and you go to different kinds of stories, and obviously, you’ve just written a really important nonfiction book, and this this a nonfiction book, but one of the reasons why it’s critically important for our teens to read fiction is, they need to be transported to other times and places. They need to actually be able to see through the lenses of other protagonists.
.. One of the fundamental challenges of the moment we’re at is that we believe that the digital moment will necessarily expose us to more and more diverse things, and I think what’s actually going to happen is that we’re going to become more and more siloed. And there’s a real danger of tribalism and being able to at the moment that media is going to disintermediate. We’re not going to have big common channels anymore. We’re going to have more and more niche channels. It will be possible to surround yourself only with people who already believe what you believe.
In that world where you can create echo chambers and when advertisers and marketers and Russians are going to try to surround you with echo chambers to only believe what you already believe, it’s not going to be easy to develop empathy. It’s going to be really easy to demonize the other and come to believe that the deep problems of my soul and the deep problems of my mortality could maybe just be solved if I could vanquish those other really bad people from the field.
When it comes to Afghanistan, we’ve tried everything. The lesson is: Nothing works.
.. We’ve tried “light footprint.”
.. We’ve tried big footprint.
.. We’ve tried nation building.
.. the United States had spent $104 billion on Afghan relief and reconstruction funds, most of it for security but also nearly $30 billion for “governance and development” and $7.5 billion on counternarcotics.
.. Result: As of 2015, more than three in five Afghans remained illiterate. Afghan security forces lost 4,000 members a month
.. The country ranks 169th out of 176 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, ahead of only Somalia, South Sudan, North Korea, Syria, Yemen, Sudan and Libya. Opium
.. We’ve tried killing terrorists. Lots and lots of them. As many as 42,000 Taliban and other insurgents have been killed and another 19,000 wounded
.. We’ve tried carrots and sticks with Pakistan. In 2011, Washington gave $3.5 billion in aid to Islamabad.
.. American leverage with Pakistan has declined as Chinese investment in the country has surged, reaching $62 billion this year... The group’s insistence that all foreign troops withdraw before it enters talks gives away its game, which isn’t to share power with the elected government, but to seize power from it... What about two supposedly “untried” options: another surge, exceeding what Obama did in troop numbers but not limited by deadlines or restrictive rules of engagement; or, alternatively, a complete withdrawal of our troops?
.. Between 1990 and 2000, tens of thousands of Afghans — as many as a million people, according to one estimate — died in three waves of civil war.
.. President Trump may think he’s trying something new with his Afghan policy. He isn’t. Obama killed a lot of terrorists. George W. Bush pursued what amounted to a “conditions-based” approach, without target dates for withdrawal. Both were often stern with Pakistan. Both conducted intensive policy reviews.
.. Even if we could kill every insurgent tomorrow, they would return, as long as they can draw on the religious fanaticism of the madrasas, the ethnic ambitions of the Pashtun, and the profits of the heroin trade.
This week has reinforced my belief that it’s not only unethical to punch Nazis, but also ineffective. Punching a Nazi–literally or in effigy–may be satisfying, but if anything, it reduces the number of people who are empathetic to progressive causes. It’s a reactionary doubling-down on rhetoric that indicates that Nazis are so far beyond the general population that we–in the moderate-to-radical left–would not welcome them even if they tried to re-integrate themselves. One of the most chilling developments among post-Trump activism is the way liberals cling to the Nazi-punching rhetoric inspired by the protestor who punched Richard Spencer on Inauguration Day. It isolates neo-Nazis even more deeply in their narrow, self-justifying ideology–and it isolates anti-racist activists from their moral high ground, which was, “we’re all seeking to be recognized as human.” If you want your enemy to love you (or at least respect you), you have to illustrate that you are willing to love (or at least respect) your enemy.
.. The journalist quoted MJ Sharp, “rebels love talking about the past.”
MJ understood that the violent rebels he approached “were nostalgic for a mythical home and aimed to rewind history to a time that never really existed in the first place.” MJ described this as a sense of “dreaming of home”–and those who dream of home are deeply homesick.
.. Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, are homesick. For all their violence and their rallies, they don’t really know how to get home, aren’t even sure what home they’re trying to get to, they just know this moment doesn’t feel like home. The stability of this country relies on the mainstream envisioning a future white supremacists can come home to. The vast majority of Americans must remind white supremacists that the past is not the only place to find comfort.
.. Anabaptists are uniquely situated activists–they have the legacy of pacifism, but also the legacy of ostracism, shunning, and doubled-down factionalism. And they have the legacy of white supremacy. And the historical memory of homesickness. Anabaptism in America has all the tools to be bridge-people, to be allies and peacemakers.
.. We need to create a way for white supremacists to come home without violence. We need to envision and offer de-radicalization.
.. Michael Sharp recalls the message that MJ and his Congolese companions tried to deliver to rebel leaders (fighters who had moved into the Congolese forests during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide):
“You… you’re over 50 years old, it’s too late for you to take over Rwanda. But your children are growing up uneducated in the bush. Don’t you see that your children, who are the future of Rwanda, when they go back they’ll be the slaves of those who are there! Because they are illiterate!”
.. they persuaded at least 1,600 Rwandan rebels to lay down weapons. The left–the mainstream–has to use every pacifist bone it can muster to create a message like this, a message white supremacists can hear.
To the older ones: it’s too late for you to get what you dream of, but if you want your children to get that dream, you have to teach them something different. And to the younger ones: You can get back home, but this road will not lead you there.
.. It’s tempting to respond to white supremacy in reactionary ways. But pacifism–true creative nonviolence–is proactive. It sees what violence dreams of, and morphs that dream into something nonviolent, thriving, and interdependent. For Anabaptists to be allied with anti-racism, we must do the work of building exit-ramps from white supremacy. We have to develop the template for re-integration.
The Koch sons would later revive the spirit of the John Birch society under a new more respectable name: the “Tea Party.”
Given that the Tea Party-dominated Republican Party became the party of the “You Lie!” Obama-obstruction era, the Koch brothers had succeeded in reintroducing the very note of hysterical paranoid racism into American politics. This was what Bill did had worked so hard to repudiate.
Bill would have never said Obama wasn’t a real American, let alone have gone along with the “birther” or “he’s a Muslim” nonsense.
.. Donald Trump did not come out of nowhere. He is the creation of the Birch/Koch brothers designs on our democracy. Now the Koch brothers and the Republican establishment are affraid of what they made.
.. First, Neil Postman’s prophetic book Amusing Ourselves to Death has been vindicated. It’s not coincidental that Donald Trump is a reality TV star. He is the face of an illiterate America that gets its “facts” from TV news and talk radio hosts. He is the result of a celebrity “culture” gone wild.
.. Second, Donald Trump is the creation of white angry lower and middle-class Americans who have come through our educational system that failed to educate them.
.. These are fact-free functional illiterates, creatures of TV news and celebrity culture, Postman’s walking dead. The are not moved by facts but their energy is fueled by overt racism, hate, xenophobia, isolationism and ignorance.
.. It turns out that what Bill Buckley misunderstood about America was the actual character of white America. Bill thought he could civilize conservatism. But the American right has never dealt honestly with the issue of race.