Hello and welcome to the Sensibly Speaking Podcast. This is Chris Shelton, the Critical Thinker at Large, coming at you on Stitcher, Google Play, iTunes and here on YouTube with video. This week, we are going to talk nothing but politics, centered around Michael Wolff’s new book about the Trump White House. If you can, you’ll probably want to watch this on my YouTube channel if you can because there will be some visual aids and you’ll get a chance to see me dress up too. I figured if I was going to talk politics, I might as well look like I’m taking it seriously.
On the other hand, if you are one of my long-time viewers who has decided that my politics are useless and stupid, then this show isn’t for you but I think that’s only a few of you. One thing a lot of people may not realize is that my channel is about my recovery from Scientology and application of critical thinking to all areas of my life and that includes politics. If you’ve been following me for a while, you may have noticed that my personal views have changed quite a bit over the last few years and I’m sure they’ll continue to. I have a lot more to talk about than just Scientology and destructive cults but I do get it that some people get sick of hearing about Trump and politics every day. It is an exhausting subject on both sides of the aisle. I think I have something fresh to say about some of this, so hopefully you’ll come along for the ride. Let’s start with this quote from All the President’s Men, which I think encapsulates a lot of what is going on right now:
“Look, forget the myths the media’s created about the White House — the truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.” (Deep Throat, All the President’s Men)
Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury – Inside the Trump White House was published last week to a great deal of, well, fire and fury from the White House about its controversial and allegedly fallacious content. Like millions of other Americans, I have been watching the dignity and rationality of both our Presidental election process and the Executive Branch of our government dive in free fall over the last two years, ever since Donald Trump announced his candidacy on June 16, 2015.
Having been raised in and then spending almost three decades of my life working deeply in the Church of Scientology, politics was never something I paid much attention to. Who was in office and what shenanigans they got up to were things we thought was just part of problem of life here on Planet Earth, and we were the self-appointed saviors. I came out of that nonsense five years ago and have been recovering from the experience ever since. Learning about and then following politics on the national and, to a lesser degree, the state and local levels, has been a new experience for me. Unlike most Americans, I didn’t learn to become jaded and disgusted with the whole process until much later in my life. I’d say I’ve reached that point now thanks to Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the most powerful office in the world. Wolff’s book helped me understand how and why our process is so flawed.
Much is being made about how Wolff’s book is about the power dynamics between Steve Bannon and Team Donald (meaning not only Donald Trump himself but his whole family, who he brought in to the White House in a shocking display of nepotism at a level never before seen in the US government). However, the central theme of this book is not to lay out in soap-opera-style the power struggles in the Oval Office. Rather, the theme is that Donald Trump, the individual, is wholly, completely and utterly incompetent; emotionally and psychologically unfit for the office he now holds. However, I think Wolff is being overly optimistic when he said on BBC Today that “we will end this presidency now.” I’ll get into this more below, but first there are a few points which become evident in this book which I haven’t seen too many people talk about so I wanted to address them.
Elections as Personality Contests
It is not any kind of new revelation that the Trump campaign didn’t expect to win, or even want to. I’m no political pundit and we were talking about this very thing right here on this very podcast during the election cycle, wondering if Trump was doing this entire thing just for brand placement. Anyone who knows anything about how political campaigns are run — and none of them seemed to be involved with Trump’s campaign — would tell you as much since almost nothing about Trump’s campaign was normal. If there was any sort of strategy, it all centered around Trump basically trashing anyone and anything that came into his mind at his Nuremburg-like rallies where he went off on stream-of-consciousness diatribes against immigrants of all colors, his political opponents, and his wrecklessly poor understanding of policy issues such as taxes, health care and foreign relations.
Whereas one can conjecture about such things, it’s interesting to gain some level of corroboration when Wolff describes the white-faced shock of Trump and his inner circle once the numbers actually started rolling in. How Melania was in a fit of tears. How everyone didn’t just think they were on a losing train but were absolutely certain of said failure and had been making plans to place themselves in more upscale positions of influence and power just because of the fact that they had been involved in any of this in the first place. Election night was as much of a shock to their system as it was to ours.
More importantly to me personally, though, this also highlighted something Wolff did not mention once: the gross incompetency of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee overall to lose to a political neophyte like Donald Trump. I’m not going to re-hash the reams of analysis that have been done to figure out what were all the factors behind Hillary’s loss, but one thing that liberals have utterly failed to accept is that the most important of those factors was that Hillary’s campaign simply dialed it in. While Trump may have been putting on a good show with the idea that he was just improving his brand, Team Hillary was so sure of their success that they barely tried. Their most fatal mistake as far as I’m concerned is that they didn’t bother to listen to the people on their own side much less to the very real concerns that Trump’s supporters were shouting at the top of their lungs at Trump rallies.
“When you don’t reach out to community folk and reach out to precinct campaigns and district organizations that know where the votes are, then you’re going to have problems,” said Virgie Rollins, the former chairperson of the Michigan Democratic Women’s Caucus and resident of the key state Hillary ignored becasue she assumed they had Michigan in the bag.
“They believed they were more experienced, which they were. They believed they were smarter, which they weren’t. They believed they had better information, which they didn’t,” said Donnie Fowler who was quoted in Politico as a DNC consultant during the final months of the campaign.
I don’t know about before the 1970s, but in my lifetime, political elections could best be described as popularity contests, with more attention paid to the color of a candidates clothing and his/her style of hair then meaningful debates on substantive policy issues. Sure, there are debates near the end of the election cycle, but by that point most voters’ minds are already made up.
In the US in part icular, just getting people to vote at all is a very real challenge. The 2016 Presidential election busted the earlier all-time high record from 2008, with 139 million Americans coming out to give their opinion but that is only 60% of the total voting population. Percentage-wise, the highest turnout ever was in 1876 when 83% of the eligible voters turned out, giving Rutherford B. Hayes a bare victory with only a 1-vote difference in the electoral college totals. The bottom line is that it’s a record-breaking event when less than 2/3 of the country even bothers to come out to vote at all. That’s not good news.
Now don’t get me wrong. When I say Hillary waged an incompetent campaign, that is not to say that she and her staffers didn’t work hard, that there were not many sleepless nights and a lot of blood, sweat and tears in their effort. But you have to remember the gigantic mistakes: her husband meeting privately with the US Attorney General on an airport tarmac in Phoenix; the inept PR handling of her email server (a contentious issue which ultimately was a nothing-burger and which Trump’s own staff have also become guilty of since coming in to office but which no one bothers to report on because, hey, who cares about emails anymore?); getting back to Hillary, there was also her ill-advised comment about half of Trump’s supporters being a “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it” basket of deplorables. You don’t change hearts and minds by insulting people, no matter how true your statement might be. While Hillary Clinton is better educated, better experienced and was without any question, on any metric you care to use, the superior candidate for President, the way she comes off to Joe Sixpack is as an effete snob who not only doesn’t understand the plight of the lower classes, but doesn’t even care to try.
Trump’s campaign, on the other hand, came just short of a gold-gilded Las Vegas show. I’m honestly surprised he didn’t have a chorus line of Trump Hotel dancers parade him out to speak to his flock of desperate and guillible followers who truly believed he was there for them. Call it the perfect storm of showmanship, credulousness, desperation and sheer stupidity with a generous helping of hatred for the DC swamp. Trump’s lies rang true for enough desperate people who felt they had watched their American Dream pass them by, that they decided he was the right guy for the job. At last, a millionaire tycoon who has the resources to get to DC but who is a straight shooter and will stand up for the Little Guy! Not since Ross Perot had anyone put forward a platform like this and the teeming millions who felt they had no representation stood up and took note. They united as Trump (or his surrogates such as now-convicted-felon Michael Flynn) led them in chants of “Lock Her Up!” and “Drain the Swamp!” It would be a new era of government by the people and for the people. Why, I hadn’t seen anything like this since…Obama.
Even when I was in the bubble world of the Sea Org, Obama’s powerful campaign mantras of Hope and Change pierced the veil, as did images of him reminding his enraptured audience at the DNC National Convention that he was not born in a manger. When he was elected, there were tears of joy and hope in people’s eyes. Like Trump, Obama was going to be the savior they had hoped and prayed for. It’s mind boggling to me how short people’s memories are of these things, somewhat akin to Charlie Brown’s hopeless quest to finally kick that football that Lucy swears she will hold in place for him.
Trump is not a genius; he’s not even of average intelligence, but neither is Joe Sixpack and that is who Trump was levelling his instinctively good salesmanship at. He talked using a fifth graders vocabulary, boucing around from one topic to another depending on what took his fancy. Of course, this mostly consisted of angry tirades and blistering attacks on anyone who had ever insulted Trump in any way (meaning, of course, that they had dared to make an accurate observation about him). There were empty promises of draining the swamp, and best of all, making America great again. When asked what that meant, Trump was routinely at a loss for specifics but never at a loss for words, so his followers filled in the blanks for themselves. The genius of slogans like “Make America Great Again” are that you don’t have to provide specifics because everyone already has their own ideas of what that means and they are sure you are speaking to that understanding. Kicking out job-stealing immigrants, closing the borders, renegotiating foreign trade deals from a position of American Superpower strength, creating an endless parade of jobs for every red-blooded patriotic American and more more more. “Everything you’ve been waiting for, everything you’ve needed and Washington hasn’t done, I’ll do” he promised and they believed him for no better reason than because he looked and acted so different from any other politician they had seen before. We know we don’t like what we’ve had; Trump is different from that; he must be the Real Deal. He’s got my vote!
Trump was Something New and Something Different and after decades of empty promises by an ever-more blatantly corrupt stream of Same Old Same Old politicians in the House, Senate and White House, the Hope and Change the GOP offered was the perfect counterpoint to 2008 Obama. Joe Sixpack bought into Trump hook, line and sinker.
Soap Opera Politics
If the election cycle has become a popularity contest, then the administration and running of the affairs of government has become a soap opera, at least as far as the American people are concerned. While this may sound like a dumbed down insult to the perception of Washington by an Idiocracy public, my reasoning is a bit more complicated.
Public and foreign policy and legislative bills take reams of paper to describe and law degrees to really understand. Without some kind of middleman to explain what is going on, people are just not going to follow or understand the inner workings of Washington and frankly, don’t want to anyway because most of it is very dry stuff which doesn’t have broad appeal or even directly apply to them. Not too many people in Kansas are very interested in hearing about the intricacies of infrastructure development in the San Francisco Bay Area, but this is the sort of thing that gets haggled over in Congressional meetings all the time.
When confronted with confusing, boring or repetitive information, people tune out. So how does an ad-driven, profit-centric media present what goes on in Washington in a way that people will tune in? The answer is that instead of focusing on policies or legislation, for the most part news stories tell a personal story or focus on celebrities or politicians in conflict. Which do you think most people would watch for longer than 10 seconds: Charles Krauthammer describe changes in tax deductions or Brooke Baldwin talk about the latest politician busted for sexual harassment? People can relate to other people much easier than they can relate to abstract legal issues or legislative referendums, so our entertainment-focused, drive-by media serves up salacious stories with as many gory details as they can dig up. As Don Hedley said:
“We can do the innuendo,
We can dance and sing,
When it’s said and done,
We haven’t told you a thing.
We all know that crap is king,
Give us dirty laundry!”
During Donald Trump’s campaign, media coverage was overwhelmingly negative. A December 2016 study by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center analyzed news reporting both on cable news and in print media like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
The study’s author, Thomas Patterson, was quoted in Politico: “Negative news has partisan consequences. Given that journalists bash both sides, it might be thought the impact would be neutral. It’s not…. If everything and everyone is portrayed negatively, there’s a levelling effect that opens the door to charlatans. The press historically has helped citizens recognize the difference between the earnest politician and the pretender. Today’s news coverage blurs the distinction.” [Coverage of both candidates] “was overwhelmingly negative in tone and extremely light on policy.” Big surprise there.
Donald Trump received free and extensive coverage from the point of his announcement in June all the way through to election night and he took full advantage of it, getting an average of 15% more coverage than Clinton did. Whether by craft or gut instinct or savvy media consultation, Trump’s messages were tailored to be picked up more often by the media because they made for easy and sensational stories that created outrage on the Left.
Patterson said, “The mainstream press highlights what’s wrong with politics without also telling us what’s right. It’s a version of politics that rewards a particular brand of politics. When everything and everybody is portrayed as deeply flawed, there’s no sense making distinctions on that score, which works to the advantage of those who are more deeply flawed. Civility and sound proposals are no longer the stuff of headlines, which instead give voice to those who are skilled in the art of destruction.”
And whereas the mantra from the right and from Trump himself is that the media is overwhelming “fake news,” the way news is reported actually has worked to dramatically help Trump and the GOP. Says Patterson: “Although conservatives claim that the press has a liberal bias, the media’s persistent criticism of government reinforces the right wing’s anti-government message. For years on end, journalists have told news audiences that political leaders are not to be trusted and that government is inept … The news creates a seedbed of public anger, misperception, and anxiety — sitting there waiting to be tapped by those who have a stake in directing the public’s wrath at government.”
So with a media that is hungry to serve up personality-driven, sensationalized stories of conflict, and an American public that gladly eats it up and asks for second servings, we have a portrayal of the White House as a soap opera of conflicting personalities vying for position in the court of power. We don’t have royalty in the United States like they do in Britain, but the struggles of the First Family and also of the Kardashians more than makes up for it.
Wolff comments on this in Fire and Fury by writing about the daily coverage the media gives to Trump’s dramatic and often irrational Tweets and press statements:
“…it is worth considering the possiblity that this constant, daily, often more than once-a-day pileup of events — each one cancelling out the one before — is the true aberration and novelty at the heart of Trump’s presidency.
“Perhaps never before in history — not through world wars, the overthrow of empires, periods of extraordinary social transformation, or episodes of government-shaking scandal — have real-life events unfolded with such emotional and plot-thickening impact. In the fashion of binge-watching a television show, one’s real life became quite secondary to the public drama.”
But Wolff is not one to rise above this. In fact, he revels in it throughout the book, describing in detail the palace intrigues between the whole cast of characters we have come to know and love (or hate): Ivanka and Jared Kushner who we can just call Javanka, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Jeff Sessions, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, Jim Mattis, Hope Hicks and of course, Steve Bannon. What was noteworthy and interesting to me was how little some others featured in Wolff’s narratives. Vice President Mike Pence was hardly mentioned at all, maybe twice throughout the entire book. Whether that is a reflection of how uninvolved Pence is or a decision on Wolff’s part to exclude Pence, I could not tell. So too was there hardly any real discussion of Trump’s interactions with members of Congress, except to dawdle over Paul Ryan for a bit when it came to discussing how Trump handled (or mishandled) health care.
What was dwelled on ad absurdum were the power plays between Javanka and Bannon, vying for the President’s ear and currying his favor, as well as creating allies and enemies amongst the other key Executive Branch players. I was truly intrigued by all this for about half the book, but then it became rather tedious as Wolff dwelled on their struggles and failed to take the narrative beyond that. Much of what is discussed is clearly from the point of view of Steve Bannon, who obviously was the key source of information for Wolff, though he claimed to have interviewed over 200 people.
For example, Wolff writes of Bannon during the transition: “There was no competition in Trump Tower for being the brains of the operation. Of the dominant figures in the transition, neither Kushner, Priebus, nor Conway, and certainy not the president-elect, had the ability to express any kind of coherent perception or narrative. By default, everybody had to look to the voluble, aphoristic, shambolic, witty, off-the-cuff figure who was both ever present on the premises and who had, in an unlikely attribute, read a book or two.” In other words, Steve Bannon.
As to Bannon’s laissez-faire approach to dealing with Trump, Wolff says: “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.”
I’ll admit that it was an interesting ride to see the inner workings of Bannon’s mind and the machinations of White House power strugg les between him and the First Family, as well as the intense difficulties both sides had dealing with the mercurial moods and attitudes of our new President. Yet surely there were other players who had just as much to contribute to what went down in Trump’s first year in office? If so, either Wolff didn’t know enough to say or excluded them for other reasons.
As to the issue of Russian collusion, an interesting conundrum is presented in the timeline and details given by Wolff, and these really are not so different from what has already been reported on. Yes, Don Jr. was contacted by Russians and yes, he did set up a meeting and yes, various players showed up for it at Trump Tower. Whether they went up stairs and met with Donald Trump is not clear, but Bannon thinks it would be a total certainty given how Trump’s family operates. I would tend to agree. Were they engaged in criminal behavior? Not exactly but it was certainly behavior that federal officials should have been made aware of anyway. Meeting with representatives of a semi-hostile foreign power during a Presidential election campaign is not something one just does. Unless, of course, one is a Trump. A life of entitlement and privilege and a general lack of common sense can allow just about anything to be rationalized to those with a low IQ and no one can accuse any of the Trumps of ever being the smartest people in the room. So were they guilty of premeditated collusion and treason? I’ll let Mueller’s investigation go where it’s going to go, but here’s how Wolff summed it up:
“When this meeting became public thirteen months later, it would, for the Trump White House, encapsulate both the case against collusion with the Russians and the case for it. It was a case, or the lack of one, not of masterminds and subterfuge, but of senseless and benighted people so guileless and unconcerned that they enthusiastically colluded in plain sight.”
Also of interest is how, more often than not, Trump’s childish impulses and free reign on Twitter actively sabotaged almost e very attempt on the part of his staff to develop and implement some kind of stable policy or long-term planning. Time and again, Trump would agree to one thing and then, in a fit of outrage or impulse, would hours or even minutes later send out a Tweet saying exactly the opposite. One gets the idea that working for Donald Trump is not a win-win situation. Trump does what he thinks is best for him and it literally does not even occur to him how his actions will affect anyone else but him.
Politics is all about influence, money and connections. Why would anyone with a moral compass and common sense of any kind not only ally themselves with someone like Donald Trump but agree to even work in the West Wing under him? Why would anyone support his administration with their money, their time and flowery speeches praising his greatness? The answers are frustrating, angering, or saddening depending on how much faith you have in our system and in moral constructs like human decency, compassion, reason and faith. When you cut through the PR smoke and mirrors, the real reasons power players in the Beltway and conservative media pundits support Donald Trump come down to opportunism, career advancement and ego.
Take someone like Paul Ryan, for example. A career politician who never met an entitlement program he didn’t want to cut, Ryan stated many times his moral and political disagreements with Trump’s racist comments about Mexico sending us their rapists, which Trump doubled down on when he accused Judge Gonzalo Curiel of bias in a Trump University lawsuit because of his Mexican ancestry. Ryan also disagreed with Trump’s ban on Muslim countries and was sickened by Trump braggging to Billy Bush that he could grab women “by the pussy” whenever he wanted as an entitled millionaire celebrity. Before Trump was President, Ryan clearly did not agree with anything Trump stood for personally yet he couldn’t bend the knee fast enough when Trump entered the White House. Why?
Because to get what you want in politics, you have to give, even if that means giving over some of your dignity and self-respect. President Trump was someone that Ryan felt he could work with and who would quite literally sign anything put in front of him. Where Ryan had been insulting and condescending towards Trump during the election process, now that Trump was in, it was time to make nice and cultivate at least a working relationship. According to Wolff, right out of the gates, both Ryan as Speaker of the House and Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader lobbied hard to get former Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus into the White House as Chief of Staff because then they’d have someone who actually knew what he was doing to deal with and an ally to grease the wheels between Trump and Congress. Wolff makes it clear in many passages that Bannon had absolutely no interest in the Republican platform that Paul Ryan represented and he wanted him gone not just from Trump’s ear but from the House of Representatives too. Trump considered going after Ryan but, as we’ve seen in the news this last week, the last person to talk to Trump is the one who he is paying most attention to and apparently Bannon’s effort to poison Ryan’s reputation failed.
Wolff wrote about what happened right after the election: “Trump had not only saved the Republican Party but had given it a powerful majority. The entire Bannon dream had been realized. The Tea Party movement, with Trump as its remarkable face and voice, had come to power – something like total power. It owned the Republican Party. Publicly breaking Paul Ryan was the obvious and necessary step.
“But a great deal could fall into the chasm between Bannon’s structural contempt for Ryan and Trump’s personal resentment. If Bannon saw Ryan as being unwilling and unable to carry out the new Bannon-Trump agenda, Trump saw a chastened Ryan as suddenly and satisfyingly abject, submissive, and useful. Bannon wanted to get rid of the entire Republican establishment; Trump was wholly satisfied that it now seemed to bend to him.
“‘He’s quite a smart guy,’ Trump said after his first postelection conversation with the Speaker. ‘A very serious man. Everybody respects him.’
“Ryan, ‘rising to a movie-version level of flattery and sucking-up painful to witness,’ according to one senior Trump aide, was able to delay his execution….Trump dithered and then finally decided that not only was he not going to push for Ryan’s ouster, but Ryan was going to be his man, his partner. In an example of the odd and unpredictable effects of personal chemistry on Trump – of how easy it can be to sell the salesman – Trump would now eagerly back Ryan’s agenda instead of the other way around.
“If Ryan could be counted on to handle Congress, thought the president, well, phew, that takes care of that.”
This is the business of Washington. The Republican Party has certainly had plenty of egg on its face this last year with their failure to handle health care or pretty much anything else until last month’s gruesome tax plan was passed, despite the fact that it was the least popular major law in at least four decades. However, there is no real resistance coming from the White House anymore on their agenda and that is the one and only reason for cooperation from Congress. In order to get that cooperation, Ryan and the other Republicans who could see the writing on the wall, had to engage in embarassingly obsequeous behavior.
However, this enabling of Trump in order to get their agenda passed is a two-edged sword. While Wolff doesn’t talk about this much in Fire and Fury, in allying themselves with Trump, the GOP leadership have created a situation where they can be blamed for Trump’s many personal and professional failings. When you go all in, that is one of the consequences and it certainly hasn’t helped the GOP’s reputation.
But in terms of Trump enablers, we absolutely cannot ignore the media on both the Left and the Right. Wolff writes about how Trump’s every move, every Tweet and every Executive Order was met with a near hysterical response: “The media was failing to judge the relative importance of Trump events: most Trump events came to naught (arguably all of them did), and yet all were greeted with equal shock and horror.”
He also wrote: “Morning Joe was a ground-zero study in the way the media had overinvested in Trump. He was the whale against which media emotions, self-regard, ego, <i>joie de guerre<i>, career advancement, and desire to be at the center of the story, too, all churned in nearly ecstatic obsession. In reverse regard, the media was the same whale, serving the same function, for Trump.”
Ratings and ad revenue are major drivers for what news the media editorially decides to pursue and publish, both in print and on screen. It is a business, after all, driven by a bottom line which they want to increase year by year.
Seeing what was going on while the election was still mid-stream, before the GOP nomination was even finalized in fact, author Neal Gabler wrote about this in an article for Moyers & Co in March 2016. “According to the Lexis-Nexis tracker, which follows the coverage for each candidate on the web, Trump laps the field. This past Thursday, he was the subject of 52,683 articles. Bernie Sanders was next at 4,400. In a measure of what Lexis-Nexis calls ‘voice,’ which tallies both web mentions and mentions on social media like Twitter, Trump received 84 percent of the Republicans’ share. No surprise there.
“How much of this attention is driven by the media itself and how much by public fascination is hard to determine since these two feed each other. We do know, as Rubio said, that the media gives Trump attention because he is a ratings-getter, and he has cleverly played off this. CBS head Les Moonves gave away the game earlier this week when he admitted, ‘It may not be good for America,’ meaning the Trump-dominated campaign, ‘but it is damn good for CBS,’ meaning the ratings. And then he kept doubling down: ‘The money’s rolling in and this is fun.’ ‘I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.’ ‘Donald’s place in this election is a good thing’ – presumably for CBS stockholders. To which I can only say that the networks were granted licenses to the public airwaves, our airwaves, by promising to provide a public service. Moonves just blew that pretense all to hell.”
Not only is there the obvious reason of ratings and advertising revenue for media outlets to stick like glue to Trump’s bizarre ramblings and questionable executive decisions, but potential career advancement on the part of individual media pundits is also a factor. This is brought up a few times by Wolff as a reason for people like Sean Hannity to overtly bow and scrape to Trump’s every mood swing and Twitter tirade. He writes:
“The president had surely become the right wing’s meal ticket. He was the ultimate antiliberal: an authoritarian who was the living embodiment of resistance to authority. He was the exuberant inverse of everything the right wing found patronizing and gullible and sanctimonious about the left. And yet, obviously, Trump was Trump — careless, capricious, disloyal, far beyond any sort of control.”
Yet during the time of Roger Ailes’ funeral, there was a real problem with Trump being Trump because he didn’t bother to call the widow of one of his most powerful former allies to express his condolences. There was a kind of shock amongst those in the right-wing media who had been supporting Trump and according to Wolff, they pondered their options.
“The morning of the funeral, Sean Hannity’s private plane took off for Palm Beach from Republic Airport in Farmingdale, Long Island. Accompanying Hannity was a small group of current and former Fox employees, all Ailes and Trump partisans. But each felt some open angst, or even incredulity, about Trump being Trump: first there was the difficulty of grasping the Comey rationale, and now his failure to give even a nod to his late friend Ailes.
“‘He’s an idiot, obviously,’ said former Fox correspondent Liz Trotta.
“Fox anchor Kimberly Guilfoyle spent much of the flight debating Trump’s entreaties to have her replace Sean Spicer at the White House. ‘There are a lot of issues, including personal survival.’
“As for Hannity himself, his view of the right-wing world was shifting from Foxcentric to Trumpcentric. He did not think much more than a year would pass before he, too, would be pushed from the network, or find it too inhospitable to stay on. And yet he was pained by Trump’s slavish attentions to [Rupert] Murdoch, who had not only ousted Ailes but whose conservatism was at best utilitarian. ‘He was for Hillary!’ said Hannity.
“Ruminating out loud, Hannity said he would leave the network and go work full time for Trump, because nothing was more important than that Trump succeed — ‘in spite of himself,’ Hannity added, laughing.”
Trump’s Character and Mental Stability
“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll be sure to fall for anything.” Rev A. J. Whitney, Cooperstown, New York
The vast bulk of Wolff’s book is about Donald Trump as a person, and the verdict is simple: he’s wholly and completely unfit in every way, not only to hold elected office, but just as a decent human being. He has a questionable hold on reality; he may not be illiterate but he refuses to read much of anything and is a horrible student; his ego is beyond the bounds of what most people can understand, a malignant narcissist in every sense of the concept including a grandiose sense of importance and an absence of anything resembling a conscience; but underneath it all, Trump is desperate for approval and adoration and will do anything or say anything to get it.
We all remember the farce of the attendance at Trump’s disastrous inauguration. The photos and eyewitness accounts clearly indicated that this was no great affair and that there was a pitiful turnout compared to earlier administrations. But Sean Spicer had to go out as his first order of business as the new Press Secretary and sell the White House Press Corps on how it was actually a riveting and awe-inspiring success the likes of which had never before been seen in history.
Wolff writes: “It was the first presidential instance of what the campaign regulars had learned over many months: on the most basic level, Trump just did not, as Spicer later put it, give a fuck. You could tell him whatever you wanted, but he knew what he knew, and if what you said contradicted what he knew, he simply didn’t believe you.”
Early on, Wolff describes what was behind the decision-making process for Jared and Ivanka Trump to decide to pursue employment in the new Trump White House:
“Part of Jared and Ivanka’s calculation about the relative power and influence of a formal job in the West Wing versus an outside advisory role was the knowledge that influencing Trump required you to be all in. From phone call to phone call — and his day, beyond organizing meetings, was almost entirely phone calls — you could lose him. The subtleties here were immense, because while he was often most influenced by the last person he spoke to, he did not actually listen to anyone….
“Ultimately Trump may not be that different in his fundamental solipsism from anyone of great wealth who has lived most of his life in a highly controlled environment. But one clear difference was that he had acquired almost no formal sort of social discipline — he could not even attempt to imitate decorum. He could not really converse, for instance, not in the sense of sharing information, or of a balanced back-and-forth conversation. He neither particularly listened to what was said to him, nor particularly considered what he said in response….
“In a sense, he was like an instictive, pampered, and hugely successful actor. Everybody was either a lackey who did his bidding or a high-ranking film functionary trying to coax out his attention and performance — and to do this without making him angry or petulant.”
Last February, when Trump finally got a win by reading strictly from his teleprompter and giving what some called a truly Presidential address to a joint session of Congress, there was much rejoicing in the West Wing. Wolff writes: “The president himself spent almost two full days doing nothing but reviewing his good press. He had arrived, finally, at a balmy shore (with appreciative natives on the beach). What’s more, the success of the speech confirmed the Jared and Ivanka strategy: look for common ground. It also confimed Ivanka’s understanding of her father: he just wanted to be loved. And, likewise, it confirmed Bannon’s worst fear: Trump, in his true heart, was a marshmallow.”
As the investigation into possible collusion with the Russians during his election heated up and more and more pressure was being felt on this in the White House, Wolff writes that Trump was very seriously considering firing Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor heading the investigation. He writes:
“The idea of a showdown in which the stronger, more determined, more intransigent, more damn-the-consequences man prevails was central to Trump’s own personal mythology. He lived in a mano a mano world, one in which if your own respectability and sense of personal dignity were not a paramount issue – if you weren’t weak in the sense of needing to seem like a reasonable and respectable person – you had a terrific advantage. And if you made it personal, if you believed that when the fight really mattered that it was kill or be killed, you were unlikely to meet someone willing to make it as personal as you were.
“This was Bannon’s fundamental insight about Trump: he made everything personal, and he was helpless not to.”
Even the most irrational and unsettled people outside the White House and outside the election process could see that in Trump they had a willing ally they could work with. Take Richard Spencer, a self-professed white supremacist and president of the National Policy Institute, a white supremacist think tank who talked to Wolff following the Charlottesville disaster where a woman was killed by a neo-Nazi with a car and which Trump took three days to finally and clearly denounce.
“‘I don’t think Bannon or Trump are identitarians or alt-rightists,’ Spencer explained, ‘but they are open to these ideas. And open to the people who are open to these ideas. We’re the spice in the mix.'”
The Donald Trump presidency has been anything but boring or uneventful, despite the ironic fact that it has bene one of the least productive administrations ever. The work that has been done in the Executive Branch has mainly been by the equivalent of royal decree, otherwise known as Executive Orders. Many of these, if not most, have been blocked or stopped by judicial action because, contrary to popular belief on the Right, we don’t live in a monarchy and the Office of the President is limited in many ways.
For those who have watched the events of the last year in shock, awe and horror, there is a bright side to all this. The gears of bureaucracy in Washington grind exceedingly slow and no one man is capable of bringing the change which every Presidential candidate for time immemorial has promised. It’s no peculiarity of Donald Trump that a good chunk of the American public bought in to his lies and nonsense while he was campaigning, or that those same people have stood firm in their resolute support of his administration despite every good reason on a personal and policy level to change their minds. It’s simply the way of most human beings to double down on bad decisions because we’d rather think of ourselves as right than wrong. It’s been appalling for me personally to see the apparent reasoning behind some of Trump’s supporters, but given the alternatives the DNC has presented, it’s not too difficult to see why many of us felt we were between the proverbial devil or the deep blue sea when we were in the voting booth last November.
As events continue to unfold, we will continue to see the Republicans in Congress and the White House Administration lie through their teeth about anything they can get away with for as long as they can get away with it. We’ll also continue to see lies, exaggerations and half-truths pour out from the Left in its anger and upset over the current Republican majority and the more and more unhinged Tweets and statements from President Trump and his administration. There is no side that has any monopoly on the truth or on honesty or decency. There are opposing values and philosophies about economics and social policies and like every adminstration in history, the people will decide in the mid-term elections next year whether they like where this is all going or whether a paradigm shift is in order yet again.
For my part, I am most upset because at first I thought that Donald Trump’s behavior was so much like that of my old cult leader, L. Ron Hubbard. On that basis, I tried my best to speak out on this podcast and in my other videos to warn people about those common behaviors and speak my truth. I hoped to avoid a Trump presidency for those reasons, knowing what I know about cult leaders and the disastrous consequences in putting one’s faith and trust in them. But after the last year of this administration and some of the inside skinny provided by Wolff’s book, I have come to realize that Donald Trump is worse than a destructive cult leader. He’s a man with no principles, no purpose and no idea that he is actually leading people in any direction at all. To him, the adoration and applause is all that matters. He is a man of no principles outside of his own selfish self-aggrandizement and that means he will say or do anything so long as he thinks it will make people like him. Such people are almost impossible to predict or rely on unless you have a good gauge of their own personal interests.
It truly is a worst-case scenario to have such a person in the White House. It’s somewhat like that old Twilight Zone episode about the spoiled child who has the power to create or destroy anything he wants and who can send people away to some other horrible dimension if they displease him. The adults around the child bow and scrape and plot to figure out what to do, but ultimately, there is no solution except to take the power away from the little dictator and find someone who can wield it responsibly and ably. That is our task now as US citizens. I don’t know what the future holds, but my take is that the faster Trump is out of office, the safer and more secure we will all be. He is not the only problem in Washington and his departure is not going to signal the end of dirty politics or dirty laundry but it will be a good start. We have descended into a kind of madness in American politics where it’s all black and white, where you’re either all right or all wrong and there is no middle ground, there is no nuance and there is no conversation. Donald Trump has not solved that problem, he’s only made it bigly worse. It’s time we started turning this ship around.
I look forward to seeing your comments about all this, good bad or sideways. Thank you for watching and I’ll see you guys next week.