The Book That Blew Up Washington

Column: Donald Trump, Fire and Fury, and the never-ending shocks to the system

January 5, 2018

Shows you what I know. In the final days of December I told friends that 2018 might turn out to be a year of normalcy: an economic boom, a president with a win in the form of a tax bill, a Russia investigation stumbling toward its inevitable conclusion. It took less than 72 hours for 2018 to prove me wrong.

First came the epic January 2 Trump tweets regarding the protests in Iran, the latest on Fox and Friends, tax cuts, the Korean peninsula, aviation safety, the new publisher of the New York Times, the fate of illegal immigrants brought to this country as children, veterans' health, Orrin Hatch's retirement, aid to Pakistan and the Palestinians, the size of Kim Jong Un's nuclear button, next week's fake news media awards, and Lou Dobbs.

As if all this wasn't enough, January 3 brought the first excerpts from Michael Wolff's book Fire and Fury, which hit the Beltway with the force of the thermonuclear explosion referenced in its title. The president's former chief strategist suggested the president's son and chief strategist had committed treason and money laundering. And that was just for starters. David Stockman, George Stephanopoulos, Scott McClellan, Bob Gates, eat your heart out. No insider tell-all beats this.

I don't know what to make of the Wolff excerpts. It's clear that Steve Bannon was a major source, and I wouldn't trust a thing that man says. A lot of the material falls into the "too good to check" category of journalism. There are some basic errors involving ages, dates, and typos. And the content seems designed to fit the media's preferred narrative that President Trump is senile or crazy or both. Purporting to confirm what everyone in the press already believes is a surefire way to maximize publicity and sales. Doesn't mean what you're selling is true.

Sensational books are perennial in Washington. What's different here is the president's response. Reagan, Clinton, W., Obama kept their distance from the controversies engendered by disgruntled former aides. To engage would be beneath the office. Not for President Trump. He was formed by the New York press and continues to operate according to its Thunderdome-style rulebook. His scathing denunciation of the overrated Bannon was brutal, funny, over the top, and absolutely withering. Then his lawyers followed up with a cease and desist letter.

But it came with a price. Suddenly all of the successful work John Kelly had done to impose order on the West Wing was forgotten. We were thrown back into the White House snake pit of January 20 to July 28, 2017, filled with gossipy, anonymously sourced accounts of eccentricity, deception, chaos, unpreparedness, and perfidy. Even Anthony Scaramucci made a guest appearance, reminding everyone how he had been right (if anatomically imprecise) about Bannon from the start.

What the first days of 2018 make clear is that the decisions Donald Trump made at the outset of his administration haunt his presidency: putting Bannon in a position of access and trust and keeping him inside the White House even after his influence had waned; choosing to deliver a polarizing inaugural address and following it with the surprise and poorly executed travel ban; bringing the unstructured, unpredictable, and improvisational atmosphere of Trump Tower to D.C., which led to disorganization and turf wars; waiting months before firing Jim Comey and thereby inadvertently bringing the Mueller investigation into being. No matter his policy accomplishments, Trump will have to deal with the consequences of these mistakes.

It won't be pleasant. And he won't be alone. I realize now my assumption that things might return to normal in 2018 was incorrect because there is no normal to return to. What is happening is far larger than Steve Bannon and even Donald Trump. The world of globalization and social media is a world where politics is essentially negative. We find ourselves in a continuous cycle of revolt, where the only things that change are the names of the protesters on the march. The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Deplorables, Black Lives Matter, the Women's March, alt-right, antifa—elections are a sideshow to the parade of networked crowds outraged at whichever elite temporarily finds itself in power.

As Ivan Krastev wrote in his 2014 book Democracy Disrupted:

In this, a world defined by mistrust, popular sovereignty will assert itself as the power to refuse. Do not expect politicians with long-range visions or political movements to inspire collective projects. Do not expect political parties to capture the imagination of the citizens and command the loyalty of their followers. The democracy of the future will look very different. People will step into the civic limelight only to refuse certain policies or debunk particular politicians. The core social conflicts that will structure political space will be between the people and the elite, not between left and right. The democracy of tomorrow—being born today on the streets of the world's great cities—will be a democracy of rejection.

Challenge and response, proposal and rejection, election and protest, Tweet and counter-Tweet: This is the way of things in a networked and fractured and data-rich world. Meet the New Year, same as the last year.

Published under: Donald Trump