Portrait of an unfit system

January 26, 2018

David Wood and Alan Maass look beyond the shocking revelations of Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury at what the book tells us about a cruel and undemocratic system.

ONE YEAR into Donald Trump's presidency, and few days have passed without one of his cruel insults, callous displays of arrogance or onslaughts against the poor and vulnerable.

Over time, it's gotten harder to be shocked. This makes it all the more impressive to witness the unnerving effect that Michael Wolff's book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House has had on Trump and his administration.

Even before its release, the book--or "fake book," according to Trump--caused a feud between the president and his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, leading to Bannon, who was bumped from the White House itself months ago, being driven out at Breitbart News.

In classic fashion, Trump threatened to sue Wolff for libel, demanded that the book be banned and took to Twitter to assure the public that he is "like, really smart" and in fact "a very stable genius."

Perhaps sensing that not everyone was convinced, the White House then set up a televised meeting about immigration with congressional leaders of both parties.

Left to right: Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury; Donald Trump
Left to right: Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury; Donald Trump

One might wonder why the Democrats participated in such an obvious attempt for Trump to save face by looking a little more "presidential." In fact, Wolff's book contributes to the answer to that question with telling passages that show how Democrats, however much they might criticize him in rhetoric, have accommodated and enabled Trump along his path to power.

This is one of the many substantial points to take away from reading Fire and Fury. The stunning revelations are well known by now, but it's worth looking beyond these at what the book can tell us about the wider political system that produced Trump and now surrounds him.

LESSON NUMBER one: government by executive order.

In the first days of Trump's presidency, executive orders shot from the White House faster than under any president since the Second World War. Subjects ranged from ripping up environmental protections or financial regulations to the travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries.

As Wolff writes:

Bannon had delved deeply into the nature of executive orders--EOs. You can't rule by decree in the United States, except you really can. The irony here was that it was the Obama administration, with a recalcitrant Republican Congress, that had pushed the EO envelope.

As a candidate, Trump had complained about Obama's use of executive orders. Now in power, the administration changed its tune. The executive order became the chosen blunt instrument of Bannon for the blitzkrieg attack that he intended to shake up the political landscape. "Bypassing lawyers, regulators, and agencies and personnel responsible for enforcing it, President Trump...signed what was put in front of him," Wolff wrote.

Shock and awe was the point for Bannon. "He could not have hoped to draw a more vivid line between the two Americas--Trump's and liberals'--and between his White House and the White House inhabited by those not yet ready to burn the place down," Wolff writes.

Referencing the Muslim travel ban signed by Trump during his first week in the White House, Wolff writes:

Why would we do this on a Friday when it would hit the airports hardest and bring out the most protesters? almost the entire White House staff demanded to know. "Errr...that's why," said Bannon, "So the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot." That was the way to crush the liberals: make them crazy and drag them to the left.

"For Bannon," Wolff summarizes, "[t]he new politics was not the art of the compromise but the art of conflict."

Thus, the political whiplash that people have come to know under Trump flowed in part from confusion and uncertainty in the top ranks of political power. But it was also a very intentional strategy to overwhelm and disorient the opposition, while sharpening the country's political polarization in order to fortify Trump's right-wing base.

But if the new administration's strategy was to rely on its minority base of support and antagonize everybody else, this often backfired by any objective assessment. Bannon succeeded in provoking the "snowflakes" to action, but to Trump's detriment.

The travel ban, for example, led masses of protesters to descend on international airports in solidarity with Muslims. This put pressure on the federal courts--despite being packed with conservative judges, they struck down the ban for much of last year.

Similarly, the Women's Marches gave millions of Trump's opponents a feeling of their own power and solidarity. And when Trump defended the white supremacists whose rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August led to the murder of an anti-racist demonstrator, the surge of protests around the country caused another crisis for the White House and pushed the far right on the defensive in the months to come.

Thus, Bannon's blitzkrieg contributed to Trump ringing in the New Year as the most unpopular of any president at this point in his term.

IN ANOTHER way, the administration's rule by executive order was a sign of weakness as much as an assertion of power. It served as a way for one faction within the White House to bypass another, and for the White House to bypass the rest of the Republican Party, which was often at odds with Trump.

Fire and Fury not only shows how the Trump White House is an organizational mess, but the ideological and political divisions that run through it.

One of Wolff's sources is former Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh, who ended up quitting out of frustration at trying to manage White House faction fights among the "three gentlemen": Bannon, former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, the only one of the three still with the administration.

Bannon, of course, was the "alt-right, populist, anti-party disrupter," in Wolff's words, while Kushner, a registered Democrat, was "the representative in the White House of the liberal status quo." Then there was Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee when Trump won the nomination, who attempted to pull the White House in the direction of the GOP establishment.

The frequent leaks to the media that fed Trump's paranoia often flowed from these factions trying to outmaneuver each other--when they didn't come from Trump himself, via his rambling evening phone calls to billionaire friends, who then told all to reporters.

For Wolff, these factional conflicts are largely the result of a lack of organizational structure--"the direct result of the lack of a rational org chart or chain of command," he writes.

This observation is true, but by itself, it underplays how the administration's factions represent larger political divisions, and not just in the White House.

Trump's electoral victory--despite having gotten nearly 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton--was the outcome of both dysfunction in the Republican Party and the Democrats nominating a candidate who represented the hated status quo that caused declining living standards and expectations for so many people.

During the GOP primaries, all quarters of the party establishment grew increasingly alarmed at Trump's success in mobilizing the Republican base with a combination of fake populism and crude scapegoating that went beyond the usually coded rhetoric of party leaders. Trump's economic nationalism, meanwhile, represented a minority position within the ruling class that the Republicans answer to.

But without a Republican capable of beating him for the nomination, Trump prevailed in the primaries--and then won again against a Democrat incapable of exposing Trump for what he really was.

Wolff's book documents how this outcome shocked even Trump and his campaign. But the larger point is that his narrow base of support inevitably produced an administration plagued by factionalism and often in conflict with other quarters of the ruling class and its political institutions.

Trump was still able to do enormous damage through unilateral executive action--a symbol of the fact that, as Paul Heideman wrote recently at Jacobin, "[t]he American state is massively powerful, and even an administration unskilled at steering can still get somewhere with it."

But some of his top priorities were thwarted during his first year, sunk by Republican disunity rather than effective Democratic opposition--the best known example being the collapse of the drive to "repeal and replace" Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.

Not surprisingly, the administration's major legislative accomplishment--the corporate tax cut rip-off passed last month--was the issue where the most elements of the ruling class and political establishment lined up with Trump.

IF ONE issue could be singled out as dominating Trump's campaign and the first year of his presidency, it would probably be immigration.

In his announcement that he was running for president, Trump smeared immigrants from Mexico as "rapists"; he promised a border wall paid for by the Mexican government; many of the administration's executive orders were anti-immigrant measures; Trump started out the New Year by demanding to know why the U.S. allowed immigration from "shithole" countries; and he allowed a government shutdown this month rather than agree to a deal to extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The Trump campaign, and later his presidency, became an experiment of the hard-line right wing "to see if nativism really had legs," Wolff writes.

But even on this issue, the Trump-Bannon-Republican message was bound up with a recognition of the continuity with immigration policy under the Democrats, who claimed to oppose the immigrant-bashers, but supported draconian enforcement policies.

The Democrats' position was, in Wolff's words (which betray his own conservative views), "a double liberal hypocrisy, because, sotto voce, the Obama administration had been quite aggressive in deporting illegal aliens."

Bannon told Wolff that the Trump executive orders would expose liberals by forcing them "to acknowledge that even liberal governments, even the Obama government, were engaged in the real politics of slowing immigration."

The example of immigration policy illustrates how the right has been able to gain the advantage on this issue, like so many others, against a Democratic "opposition" committed to compromise and concession.

The right's anti-immigrant crusade is built on myths and lies about "American jobs" being stolen, borders being swamped, an immigrant crime wave, and on and on--but the Democrats legitimize this narrative by accepting parts of it, such as the divide between deserving "good" immigrants, like the DACA youth, and undeserving "bad" ones.

After meeting with Trump last year, Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer spelled out the rotten bargain they tried to strike once again this month: "enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and...work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that's acceptable to both sides."

Thus, the Democrats "art of the deal" around immigration makes the Bannon-Trump "art of conflict" possible.

Fire and Fury highlights another political retreat by liberals in the Trump era: their new love affair with the "deep state."

Wolff points out that during Trump's feud with the intelligence community, who he accused of trying to undermine his presidency with its Russiagate investigation:

Much of the left--which had resoundingly and scathingly rejected the intelligence community's unambiguous assessment of Edward Snowden as a betrayer of national secrets rather than a well-intentioned whistleblower--now suddenly embraced the intelligence community's authority in its suggestion of Trump's nefarious relationships with the Russians.

Wolff's judgment is clouded on this and other questions by his narrow view, accepted in mainstream U.S. politics, that liberal Democrats represent the extreme left of the political spectrum.

But the takeaway is still important: If Trump and the right are to be countered, the left can't support forces of the state committed to upholding a system of repression and injustice, even if they are at times at odds with Trump.

FIRE AND Fury provides a fascinating and often frightening look at the inner workings of the Trump White House.

But like Wolff's assumption that organizational incompetence lies behind its factions and failures, the book also encourages the view that Trump's mental health, his ignorance or his erratic and belligerent personality are at the root of the "fire and fury."

Obviously, Trump is ignorant and belligerent, if not necessarily certain to be diagnosed as mentally ill. But the focus on these personal traits or alleged pathologies shifts attention away from his reactionary politics: Trump's racism, misogyny and xenophobia, and his contempt for the poor and all have-nots, bred into him by a wealthy birth.

It's vital for those who oppose his agenda to understand that Trump shares all of these attitudes and prejudices with fellow members of the ruling class who are not ignorant at all, nor suspected of being mentally unbalanced.

An even more important lesson is that Trump's commitment to any number of policies that perpetuate oppression and injustice--from immigration controls to tax-cut giveaways to Corporate America to blame-the-victim social measures--are shared by the liberal wing of the political establishment that claims to oppose him.

Emphasizing Trump's reactionary politics points the way to a more effective resistance than hoping he will be judged unfit and removed from office or waiting for his power curbed by a Democratic Congress that is at least a year away anyway. The Trump agenda has to be countered, ideologically and in struggle, by an alternative politics based on democracy and solidarity.

For those wanting to carry such a resistance forward into the New Year, Fire and Fury will help puncture any illusions that the White House is monolithic and all-powerful. The book illustrates the tensions and fractures within the ruling class that are given political and organizational expression at the top of society and can sometimes paralyze it.

But these dynamics alone aren't enough. The record of the last year shows that struggle and dissent, not relying on the Democrats and their art of the deal, is the only hope for stopping the Trump agenda.

No one should make the mistake of thinking that ineptitude alone will stop Trump. That underestimation is why Hillary Clinton lives in New York today, not Washington, D.C.--and the profound human, social and environmental damage that Trump has wreaked is further proof.

But the popularity of Wolff's book is one of many indicators that millions of people despise Trump and everything he stands for. They need to understand the bizarre political world of the Trump era--but even more, they need to find new and bigger ways to fight back.

Further Reading

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