The evidence would suggest I’m not alone in being somewhat gripped by Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury. One of the central themes of the book is how no one, including the candidate himself, expected Trump would win and what we have seen since then has been a rapid adaptation, self-serving and bewildered in equal measured, as the apparatus around him tried to make sense of a situation in which they never expected to find themselves. From this standpoint, the ‘post-truth’ character of Trump’s administration with their ‘alternative facts’, comes to look like a pragmatic adaption to a chronically incapable candidate rather than anything more sinister. From loc 873:
The media, adopting a “shocked, shocked” morality, could not fathom how being factually wrong was not an absolute ending in itself. How could this not utterly shame him? How could his staff defend him? The facts were the facts! Defying them, or ignoring them, or subverting them, made you a liar—intending to deceive, bearing false witness. (A minor journalism controversy broke out about whether these untruths should be called inaccuracies or lies.) In Bannon’s view: (1) Trump was never going to change; (2) trying to get him to change would surely cramp his style; (3) it didn’t matter to Trump supporters; (4) the media wasn’t going to like him anyway; (5) it was better to play against the media than to the media; (6) the media’s claim to be the protector of factual probity and accuracy was itself a sham; (7) the Trump revolution was an attack on conventional assumptions and expertise, so better to embrace Trump’s behavior than try to curb it or cure it. The problem was that, for all he was never going to stick to a script (“ his mind just doesn’t work that way” was one of the internal rationalizations), Trump craved media approval. But, as Bannon emphasized, he was never going to get the facts right, nor was he ever going to acknowledge that he got them wrong, so therefore he was not going to get that approval. This meant, next best thing, that he had to be aggressively defended against the media’s disapproval.
This isn’t just a matter of gossip about political leaders or a corrective to the excessive abstraction pouring forth from an intellectual class on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It allows us to recast politics in micro-social terms involving absence, failure and incapacity rather than simply telling stories of the powerful exercising that power in pursuit of their established projects. Fire and Fury tells a vivid story of how the Whitehouse revolves around managing the incapacities of Trump, as the staff struggle to come to terms with their willingness to play this role (in a manner which can just as readily be cast in terms of incapacity). From loc 1989:
Here was, arguably, the central issue of the Trump presidency, informing every aspect of Trumpian policy and leadership: he didn’t process information in any conventional sense—or, in a way, he didn’t process it at all. Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate. (There was some argument about this, because he could read headlines and articles about himself, or at least headlines on articles about himself, and the gossip squibs on the New York Post’s Page Six.) Some thought him dyslexic; certainly his comprehension was limited. Others concluded that he didn’t read because he just didn’t have to, and that in fact this was one of his key attributes as a populist. He was postliterate—total television. But not only didn’t he read, he didn’t listen. He preferred to be the person talking. And he trusted his own expertise—no matter how paltry or irrelevant—more than anyone else’s. What’s more, he had an extremely short attention span, even when he thought you were worthy of attention. The organization therefore needed a set of internal rationalizations that would allow it to trust a man who, while he knew little, was entirely confident of his own gut instincts and reflexive opinions, however frequently they might change.
However the incapacities of others provide a valuable object for one’s own strategic capacities. The point is not to counterpoise a strategic and agentive analysis to a non-strategic and non-agentive one. This misses the obvious ways in which absence, failure and incapacity structure the field of opportunities to which agents strategically respond. As Wolff recounts on loc 2009:
It was during Trump’s early intelligence briefings, held soon after he captured the nomination, that alarm signals first went off among his new campaign staff: he seemed to lack the ability to take in third-party information. Or maybe he lacked the interest; whichever, he seemed almost phobic about having formal demands on his attention. He stonewalled every written page and balked at every explanation. “He’s a guy who really hated school,” said Bannon. “And he’s not going to start liking it now.” However alarming, Trump’s way of operating also presented an opportunity to the people in closest proximity to him: by understanding him, by observing the kind of habits and reflexive responses that his business opponents had long learned to use to their advantage, they might be able to game him, to move him. Still, while he might be moved today, nobody underestimated the complexities of continuing to move him in the same direction tomorrow.
As he writes on loc 2046, “If Trump cared about something, he usually already had a fixed view based on limited information. If he didn’t care, he had no view and no information”. This created openings for all the senior figures in their pursuit of power and influence. Bannon styled himself as the high priest of Trumpism, exercising power over the President and others through becoming deeply conversant with his writing and speeches, able to quote back Trump’s intentions in a way which cast him in the role of a consistent and strategic actor. Wolff’s description of this is particularly resonant:
Bannon’s unique ability—partly through becoming more familiar with the president’s own words than the president was himself, and partly through a cunning self-effacement (upended by his bursts of self-promotion)—was to egg the president on by convincing him that Bannon’s own views were entirely derived from the president’s views. Bannon didn’t promote internal debate, provide policy rationale, or deliver Power-Point presentations; instead, he was the equivalent of Trump’s personal talk radio. Trump could turn him on at any moment, and it pleased him that Bannon’s pronouncements and views would consistently be fully formed and ever available, a bracing, unified-field narrative. As well, he could turn him off, and Bannon would be tactically quiet until turned on again.
Meanwhile Priebus was able to offer endorsement from the political establishment which has previously loathed him, while Kushner brought the prestige of the business elite who had never taken Trump seriously. The president seemingly wanted all of these, representing an important vector through which chaos ensued within the Whitehouse, alongside many others at all levels of the organisation. Reading these accounts, it’s hard not to be sceptical of accounts of ‘post-truth’ et al as overly abstract and epochal accounts which obscure a messy all-too-human reality, albeit one that could ultimately produce outcomes of epochal significance.