What does Trump think? Does Trump think? Does it matter? They’re questions you might hope a book about his presidency so far will answer – but it’s one more occupied with the looming black hole that appears to be enveloping the Oval Office.
That black hole isn’t simply Trump, but the very idea of Trumpism. For a book that aims to tell the story of the most important man and building in the world, Michael Wolff’s explosive new work is about fighting, not thinking; it’s a book that has at its centre a giant void – the one inside Trump’s head.
This isn’t really a book about Trump at all, but the people who try to fill up that black hole. It’s a book mostly about Bannon; it begins with his attachment to Trump and his remarkable prescience in doing so, and it ends with him suggesting that he has cleared the way for his own presidential bid.
In between, even the moments Bannon isn’t present are seen through his eyes. But is Bannonism really a force in how Trump is now ruling, as opposed to how he won the contest to rule?
You can see the Breitbart man’s hand in decisions like the Muslim ban – but that was a mostly failed policy, especially when compared to some of the more quiet decisions, many of which go unexplored in this book.
Donald Trump’s least presidential moments so far…
That’s because Trump is depicted only as a flapping orange windsock, pulled around by the winds given off by Bannon as well as other handlers like Jared and Ivanka.
Trump doesn’t seem to make decisions, but rather than have them made for them – if he does anything, it is simply as a judge of how well his various advisers make their point, with decision making depicted as something like the end of each episode of the Apprentice.
Trump isn’t simply a void, though. Sometimes, snatches of light escape the black hole – but the book, terrifyingly, doesn’t have an explanation for them.
Nobody seems to have suggested that Trump blame “both sides” for the death of an antifascist protestor at the hands of white supremacists, for instance, but he did it anyway; the decision to launch missile strikes at Syria is told as a victory for PowerPoint presentations and touching pictures of dying children, but there must be some reason that Trump opted for intervention then and not in other cases. (His approach to North Korea, for instance, takes up barely a page despite having given the book its title – perhaps because it’s a question of policy and thought, not about tittle-tattle.)
This is, ultimately, neither an intellectual criticism of Trumpism or a political history of its rise. It is a gossip book, written for a president who generates more of it than any before, and who found fame through his gift for reality shows.
And there’s plenty of reality, sometimes told in excruciating and prurient detail. Does it matter that the Trumps sleep in different beds, for instance, or that the President has asked for another television in his bedroom?
Much has been made of the explosive parts of the book, which reveal the strange machinations behind the walls of the White House. But just as shockingly entertaining is the experience of re-reading the events of the last few months, which can be forgotten in the swirl of the news. Remember when Trump stood next to a load of potentially empty envelopes and rabbited on about being a germophobe? That was only a year ago. Somehow there’s been decades of news in the meantime.
Wolff at one point suggests that it’s partly true that Trump is covered differently than any other president before him, and that he has some right to feel aggrieved by that. But its our interest in Trump’s sex life and eating habits that led the US to elect its most corporeal president ever; it surely won’t be his body or his bed that brings him down, but his brain – or lack thereof.
In the meantime, the administration appears to have switched from intentionally riling people up about its policies to slipping them into law quietly. Even the book itself served as cover for some of its most radical decisions yet: allowing offshore drilling, cutting aid to Pakistan and beginning the process of reversing legal marijuana. The book makes a great and compelling case that the President is a clown – but it’s worth remembering that clowns and their circuses can sometimes be a little too entertaining.
There’s nothing in this book that really outlines either his strengths or his weaknesses, in any strategic way. That makes it, practically, a mostly useless book for both those opposing and supporting him – you finish the book no more clear about how to make him do what you want, or what he might want to do.
He appears to be holding on with far more tenacity than he’s ever been credited with, but why? Bannon suggests at the end there’s only a one-third chance the President will see out the remaining three years of his term – but is there anything that his opponents could do to make that happen? This book, supposedly a deep and intimate portrait of the man’s flaws, offers less than nothing.
Wolff is very interested in Trump and his campaign as losers. In his telling, the presidential run was never intended to be successful, at least not in normal terms; it was a publicity campaign, not an election one. But the fact is that Trump is a winner, at least on some measure, and there’s very little effort to try and understand why that happened, and why it’s still happening.
Here is the most terrifying thing about the void that Trumpism represents, at least in this book: does it appear that there’s no plan simply because Wolff didn’t want to or couldn’t write about it? Or is there simply no plan at all?
The book offers consolation in the fact that we can understand the Trump presidency via his advisors, whether that is Bannon or Javanka, and that decisions are made by successfully pushing him one way or another. Which is only important so long as he has those advisors. When Trump is on his own, late at night, eating McDonald’s and watching TV, is it all quite as stupid as it sounds?