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Power

The dumbest president

Michael Wolff’s new book solidifies Trump’s legacy as a petulant man-child with a rodent’s attention span.

The addition of social media to America’s already brain-meltingly stupid political culture has made reading the news nearly unbearable. In order to avoid being overstimulated, I often mentally zoom out and imagine the current era through the eyes of future historians. At times, I’ve worried that the currently strong economy might overshadow President Donald Trump’s deteriorating chowder-brain and gift him the same sort of white yuppie revisionism that rescued Ronald Reagan’s legacy. But after reading Michael Wolff’s surreal tell-all, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House I can say with the utmost confidence that the Dow's recent performance won’t make it into future history textbooks. Trump will be remembered chiefly, even solely, as America’s dumbest president.

First, two disclaimers. For one, nothing in this book can be taken at face value. Excerpts of Fire and Fury have been circulating since just after New Year’s, and most of those that garnered headlines concerned Trump’s relationship with former White House chief strategist/Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon. According to Bannon — who is quoted on the record in Wolff’s book — Ivanka Trump is “dumb as a brick,” Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian agents was “treasonous,” and most in the campaign never intended or expected to win. Bannon didn’t deny these quotes, leading the president himself to dub him “Sloppy Steve” and declare the book “full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist.” He may have a point — earlier in the book, Bannon tells a dinner party “I don’t drink.”

The second disclaimer is that — as is true of anyone able to get this close to Trump and Bannon — Wolff, best-known for bringing his insights on the media industry to the comatose readers of USA Today, is a tremendous hack. This is evident in his repetition of political journalism cliches in this book; he uses the phrase bête noire roughly 50 times and repeatedly mentions that Steve Bannon has read books. Wolff's work often contains an unrealistic quantity of shocking soundbites, leading some to question their veracity. According to a 2004 profile in the New Republic, the scenes in his writing “aren't recreated so much as created — springing from Wolff's imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events.” This unfortunate confluence of several types of shithead behavior — the exaggerations of drunkards and senile sexual predators filtered through the narrative capabilities of a notorious liar — makes enjoying Wolff’s book a tad more difficult.

But not that much more. The book is very funny, mostly because Wolff’s Trump never wanted any of this. He is a petulant manchild with a rodent’s attention span who spends his days pitying himself and obsessing over media gossip. Everyone around him, with the possible exception of his daughter Ivanka, only tolerates him as a means to an end. In order to enact their agendas, Trump’s underlings vie for his attention like parents in a custody battle. Former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus wants whatever Speaker of the House Paul Ryan wants, Bannon wants fascism, and Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner want to appear respectable to Manhattan elites. But Trump is incapable of executive function, let alone adherence to any coherent policy agenda. This breeds frustration — every other line of dialogue has senior White House staffers insulting Trump behind his back. Concurring with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who famously called Trump a “fucking moron,” Priebus calls him an “idiot” and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster calls him a “dope.” Gary Cohn, Trump's chief economic advisor, allegedly elaborated in an email:

It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything—not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored. And his staff is no better. Kushner is an entitled baby who knows nothing. Bannon is an arrogant prick who thinks he’s smarter than he is. Trump is less a person than a collection of terrible traits.

(Such terrible traits include eating cheeseburgers in bed at 6:30 p.m. — he apparently believes eating McDonald’s is the only way to prevent being poisoned — hiring and firing staffers on a whim, watching TV for hours at a time, and occasionally making historically bad decisions at the behest of his dimwitted family members, like when he fired FBI Director James Comey in May because Kushner sensed “the FBI and DOJ were moving beyond Russian election interference and into family finances.”)

Through Wolff’s lens, Trump’s most significant trait is his need to personify his problems. He saw the Russia investigation as little more than evidence of a faltering relationship with Comey, the individual. In order to solve the problem, he either needed to give Comey some Art of the Deal flattery or fire him. Neither tactic worked. Similarly, Trump believed he could solve the intractable problem of negative media coverage by alternately flattering or attacking MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman. According to Wolff, Trump “spent a great deal of time talking about a fixed cast of media personalities, trying to second-guess the real agendas and weak spots among cable anchors and producers and Times and Post reporters.” While past presidents might have tried adjusting their policies or hiring competent PR people, Trump simply can’t grasp traditional political strategy. Bamboozling morons with his meager car-salesman charisma is the only tool in his toolkit.

While senility explains some of Trump’s peculiarities, most are rooted in stubbornness, narcissism, and a fundamental antipathy toward learning. After all, Rupert Murdoch (now 86) is cognizant enough to call Trump a “fucking idiot” in Wolff’s presence, and 94-year-old Henry Kissinger rightly warned the administration (through Kushner, his envoy) not to piss off the FBI. Most of the defects Wolff finds in Trump have been a constant throughout his life. The businessman Trump was also fond of deputizing grossly unqualified family members, and he was unleashing the sort of venom he now reserves for Morning Joe back during his 2006 feud with Rosie O’Donnell. Tony Schwartz, who coauthored The Art of the Deal with Trump in 1987, tweeted that Wolff’s book is “100 percent consistent” with his “experience of Trump.” He was always obsessed with winning reporters’ favor. He always exaggerated his own accomplishments. He was always racist. The difference now is that his childish manipulations no longer have their intended effect.

It would be gauche to suggest that any of Fire and Fury’s juicy bits are shocking. Most feel like statements of the obvious or direct-to-video sequels to beloved Trump gaffes. Trump’s massive suite of verbal tics and neuroses has become the new O.J. Simpson trial — we’re endlessly fascinated by it, and the details have been repeated to us so many times that everyone with a television is half an expert. But seeing it all laid out in narrative form is shocking; the effect is at once unnerving and comical. If you stop thinking about what caused Trump, or what might result from Trump, a simple picture appears: A sad, stupid man with the impulses of a child and the decomposing cortices of a hospice patient, his most repellent tendencies enabled by a cushion of yes-men and inherited wealth, made a deal with the devil in order to drum up PR for a prospective Fox News competitor.

The price Trump paid was confinement in his own personal hell. He had to get a real job, with duties other than cutting ribbons and ogling beauty contestants, for the first time at the age of 70. He had to move into a house he couldn’t name after himself. His status as a cultural pariah alienated the Hollywood elite he spent decades courting. Worst of all, the tricks he used to elevate his standing in the media as a New York real estate mogul — now hardened into instinct — began having the exact opposite effect, leaving him in a constant state of panic over his sullied reputation. At least according to Michael Wolff, Washington, D.C. is now a machine designed to torment Trump’s few remaining neurons.

Alex Nichols is a contributing writer at The Outline. He last wrote about the finest meltdowns of 2017.
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