United States

Whimsy in the White House

Print edition : February 02, 2018

President Donald Trump with Senators Lindsey Graham (left) and Chuck Grassley during a discussion on immigration in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on January 4. Photo: Douglas Mills/New York Times

Donald Trump is the most extreme version of democracy being reduced to image rather than substance.

A joke circulates on social media. A man calls the White House. He says that he wants to be the President of the United States. The operator says: “Are you an idiot?” The man replies: “Is that a requirement of the job?”

The journalist Michael Wolff’s blockbuster Fire and Fury:Inside the Trump White House (published on January 5) is filled with material about President Donald Trump’s character flaws. He is shown to be in equal parts intellectually shallow and arrogant, able to care little for data and yet seized onto any “fact” that he sees as important for his current obsession. Whimsy, it seems, is the main motivation for Trump’s policies. He does not choose John Bolton for his Cabinet because he does not like his moustache. He was bored of the conversation about health care reform and tried repeatedly to shift the conversation to golf. The book conveys the opinions of Trump’s close advisers, many of whom have choice pejoratives to define him. Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster calls him a “dope”, while Trump’s former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus called him an “idiot”.

A frisson of delight has gone through the U.S. press corps, which enjoys a good scandal. The media, in a peculiar way, are a perfect mirror of Trump’s vanity and myopia. Trump is said to hate reading policy documents. He is pickled in his campaign rhetoric, unwilling to find a pathway from his speeches to policy. The media are much like this. They neglect detailed assessments of policy issues for scandal and celebrity. Trump is their perfect candidate. He gives them sound bites and glamour. They mock him, but what they mock him for are their own failings.

This is a presidency that is seized by the way the press depicts the President. Trump is tied up in knots with his frustration with the media. He announced a “fake news” awards show, which he had to postpone later. He dismisses as “fake” any media coverage that belittles or challenges him. He spends a great deal of each day watching the television news and responding to it on Twitter. This is what bothers him—the coverage rather than anything else. But this is not something new. U.S. Presidents have for long been occupied with poll figures and news coverage, with spin more important than fact. Trump is merely the most extreme version of democracy being reduced to image rather than substance.

Wolff’s book participates in this world of mirrors and opinions. The main thesis is that Trump is unfit to be the President. Policy is not at the centre of the book. It is at the margins. The real issue is Trump’s character—his short attention span, his temper, his egotistical obsessions. But this is not enough. There is a deeper problem with the way showmen such as Trump operate. While they create chaos in the press with their absurd comments, in the shadows their armies of operators and lobbyists craft policies of great importance. While the press concentrates on Wolff’s book, Trump’s team expanded offshore oil drilling and cut aid to Pakistan. These issues made news on the margins. The population was diverted to Wolff’s “revelations”, while truly important policies were made away from the limelight.

Obsession with China

Wolff suggests that when Trump was to meet Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, he worried about how to pronounce his name. He was told to call him “SHE”. This is strange for a man who has made it part of his nationalist ethos to mispronounce the names of countries that he claims to be hostile towards. Buried in the book is former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s opinions on China. It is a chilling section. “China is where Nazi Germany was in 1929 to 1930,” the former Trump adviser said. “The Chinese, like the Germans, are the most rational people in the world, until they’re not. And they’re gonna flip like Germany in the ‘thirties. You’re going to have a hyper nationalist state and once that happens, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

To paint China with the brush of fascism has been Bannon’s obsession. He believed in the view that the U.S. should make an alliance with Russia against China. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s theory was for the U.S. to ally with China against Russia. These are the games of power. Respect for nations is not on the agenda. The point is global domination, to maintain the preponderance of power enjoyed by the U.S. The rise of China is a threat. “China was the first front line in a new cold war,” Bannon said. China had to be “tamed”.

This talk is inflammatory. It is what Bannon whispered in Trump’s ear. It is what Trump continues to believe, even as Bannon is out of the White House. Belligerence from Trump is not a mark of his madness but a mark of the broad policy consensus in Washington, D.C. Trump’s views on world affairs are not merely Bannon’s or that of the hard Right. It is the consensus view that the U.S. must be the most powerful nation. Differences of opinion are on strategy rather than on the goal. Who to befriend to prevent China’s ascent is the goal. Former President Barack Obama’s view was to go after both Russia and China. It is what brought these two major countries together. Trump tried to return to the “divide and conquer” policy, but the question of Russian interference in the U.S. election has suffocated Trump’s strategy. He cannot use Russia to weaken China. That is not going to happen.

Wolff’s quotations from Bannon seem positioned to shock. But they should not be a shock. This is policy that is enshrined amongst both liberals and conservatives. The first principle here is for U.S. domination. The second is to prevent the rise of rivals. Obama would agree even if he would shy away from the harshness of the rhetoric. Tone is the main difference between Obama and Trump.

Bannon’s words

Wolff’s book is less about Trump and more about Bannon. It was Bannon who spoke bluntly to Wolff about the inside of the White House. This inflamed Trump, who called Bannon’s backers to tell them to punish him. The billionaires had to make a choice: either Trump or the former Trump adviser. Put that way, the choice was clear. They went with Trump. Bannon hastily apologised for his remarks. His support for Trump, he said, was “unwavering”. Money silenced Bannon.

Trump’s ability to discipline Bannon suggests that his donors will not shy away from him. This is a clear sign that there is no appetite in the U.S. to remove Trump from his post. The billionaires are behind Trump. His eagerness to pass tax cuts and to foment trade wars that benefit them define Trump for them. The showman gets their job done. This is his main task. He is doing his job well. To believe that he will be impeached or removed by his party is illusionary. As illusionary as the hope that Oprah Winfrey, after her celebrated remarks at the Golden Globes awards, will be the next President. One celebrity should follow another is the mood.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor