On Human Rights Day last month, Donald Trump’s White House issued a statement in support of those suffering under the “yolk” of authoritarianism. Cue the inevitable puns about egg on White House faces. Amid a constant stream of Trumpian typos, this ranked among the best. It captured the indolence of an understaffed presidency that is barely going through the motions. Details are revealing. But you do not need to be a copy-editor to know that Trump cares little about human rights. The error captured the span of Trump’s persona — entertaining and chilling at the same time.
The same applies to Michael Wolff’s controversial book about Trump, Fire and Fury. The furore around it has already ended Trump’s alliance with Steve Bannon, his alt-right alter-ego, who is also Wolff’s biggest source. On Tuesday Bannon quit his job as head of Breitbart News, having lost the confidence of his financial backers. He is surely now regretting having spoken so candidly to the author. Wolff may or may not deserve his reputation as a chancer — a journalist who allegedly disrespects the meaning of “off the record” and embellishes reconstructed scenes. I do not know him personally. But having conducted my own off-the-record conversations with Bannon and others, I find his book to be largely credible.
He paints a White House in which virtually no one has any respect left for the president and where the staff are in “a state of queasy sheepishness, if not constant incredulity”. Both Reince Priebus, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, and Steven Mnuchin, his Treasury secretary, are quoted as calling the president an “idiot”. Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, reportedly describes him as “dumb as shit”. We already knew that Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, thinks the president is a “f***ing moron”. For good measure, Rupert Murdoch, whose approval Trump craves, apparently called him a “f***ing idiot”. I doubt it needs spelling out but this is not a suitable book for family reading. Meanwhile, Ivanka Trump is “dumb as a brick”, according to Bannon, while Donald Trump Junior is “Fredo” — the low-IQ sibling in the movie The Godfather. But where is Don Corleone? In his bedroom on the phone complaining to his friends, it seems.
Axios, the email-based newsletter, revealed last week that Trump is cutting his office hours ever shorter. He now only emerges for appointments at around 11am — two hours later than when he started the job. He often concludes his lightly scheduled routine before 6pm then retires to the presidential apartment upstairs. There he is surrounded by three giant flatscreen televisions and likes to order a cheeseburger, make “self-pitying calls to friends” and send tweets, says Wolff. John Kelly, the retired general and White House chief of staff, whom Wolff claims can barely conceal his distaste for the president, has professionalised Trump’s Oval Office day. People can no longer wander in and out at will. Trump’s response has been to curtail the hours that Kelly controls.
The journalist Joe Scarborough asked Trump whom he most trusted, according to Wolff: “The answer is me,” said Trump. “I talk to myself.” For those around him, it is a losing battle. Trump will always win. It is “like trying to figure out what a child wants,” says Katie Walsh, a former White House official who left last year (though she has disputed some of Wolff’s quotes).
Doubtless some of Wolff’s examples are cherry-picked. There must be occasions where Trump uses a grammatically correct sentence, or reads a briefing sheet to the end. There are surely some officials who retain loyalty to their president. But the spirit of Wolff’s narrative rings true amid suspicion over some of the details. In one quoted email purporting to represent the views of Gary Cohn, Trump’s White House is cruelly depicted as “an idiot surrounded by clowns”. The truth is that the Trump administration has no Don Corleone. Yet in spite of lacking a respected authority figure, the show is likely to go on. To work out why, readers should turn to David Frum’s Trumpocracy and How Democracies Die, a slim volume by two Harvard academics, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.
Frum, a former speech writer to George W Bush and one of the most articulate “Never Trumpers”, asks how a man like Trump could have reached high office in the first place. One answer is that Trump does possess real skills. Among these is an almost diabolical knack for divining other people’s resentments — perhaps because he is riddled with so many of his own. Trump often tries out different applause lines at rallies and sticks with the ones that resonate. Such market testing appears to work. He has an ability to identify with people who feel slighted. Wolff describes how on a tour of Atlantic City with foreign investors many years ago, Trump was asked to define “white trash”. He replied: “They’re people just like me, only they’re poor.” Trump converted their frustrations into electoral gold.
Much of their plight is real. Between the late 1990s and 2015, according to Frum, non-college-educated white Americans went from 30 per cent less likely to 30 per cent more likely to die in their fifties than non-college-educated African-Americans. White males account for just under a third of America’s population but over two-thirds of its suicides. Yet white working-class America’s collapsing morale has been downplayed by mainstream society. In the year leading up to Trump’s election victory, the word “transgender” appeared in The New York Times 1,169 times. The word “opioid” appeared just 284 times.
Now picture Trump in his tweet on December 25 2016, standing in front of a Christmas tree with his fist clenched in defiance; “We’ll all be saying Merry Christmas again!” had been the refrain. That image captured the rage against political correctness that fuelled his campaign. It also expressed the mythology. No American was banned from saying “Merry Christmas”. But people started to repeat Trump’s line. They are still doing so. As the writer Dale Beran, quoted by Frum, puts it: “Trump supporters voted for the con-man, the labyrinth with no centre, because the labyrinth with no centre is how they feel.”
Trumpocracy is a far more rewarding book than Fire and Fury. The significance of Trump’s administration goes so much deeper than Wolff’s “idiot and clown” account. Trump’s fate will shape the future of liberal democracy. That is what makes it so alarming. As Frum points out: “Democracy is a work in progress. So is democracy’s undoing.” All it takes is for good men, and women, to do nothing. Just over a third of Republican senators called on Trump to quit the race after the Access Hollywood tapes were released in October 2016. He ignored them. Thirty-two minutes after the “pussy-grabbing” transcript came out, WikiLeaks dumped its largest cache of Hillary Clinton emails to date, including those of John Podesta, her campaign manager. Most of those Republican senators are now firmly behind Trump. Roughly half of the conservative intellectuals who signed the famous “Never Trump” letter published by the National Review during the campaign have now fallen into line behind Trump.
Trump’s inauguration committee raised $107m — twice the previous record — with donations from financiers who had previously shunned Trump. Paul Singer, the “Never Trump” hedge fund billionaire, donated $1m. In the first four months of 2017, the Trump International Hotel in Washington took in $4.1m more in revenues than projected at a time when other hotels’ occupancy rates were flat or declining. Meanwhile, senior Republican figures such as Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, now routinely sing Trump’s praises. The party’s gatekeepers have decided to swallow their doubts. “It is their public actions, despite their private qualms, that sustain Trumpocracy,” writes Frum.
Where does it go from here? The great strength of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die is that it rejects the exceptionalist account of US democracy. Their lens is comparative. The authors say America is not immune to the trends that have led to democracy’s collapse in other parts of the world. “Even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity,” they write. “Our constitutional system, while older and more robust than any in history, is vulnerable to the same pathologies that have killed democracy elsewhere.”
Since the turn of this century, according to the Stanford scholar Larry Diamond, no fewer than 25 countries have ceased to be democratic. In almost all cases this happened by stealth within an existing system that retained outwardly democratic trappings. Think of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey or Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Gone are the days of military coups. During the cold war, coups d’état accounted for three-quarters of democratic breakdowns. Today they barely feature. “The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy — gradually, subtly, and even legally — to kill it,” they write.
They set out four tests for whether a democracy is in danger. Trump fulfils them all. The first is when an elected leader rejects the democratic rules of the game. Trump more than meets this test. Campaigning against Hillary Clinton in 2016, he threatened to “lock her up” and said the poll would be “rigged”. Since then he has alleged electoral fraud and repeatedly vowed to use the vast law enforcement powers at his disposal to investigate the defeated Democratic candidate. The second test is whether the leader rejects the legitimacy of his opponents. Ditto. The third is whether he tolerates or encourages violence. During the campaign he encouraged supporters to beat up protesters and even defray their legal costs. Since becoming president, he has goaded law enforcement officers to beat up immigrants and other arrestees. The final one is whether the leader is willing to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media. Trump almost daily accuses the media of bias and threatens them with libel action. It took Trump’s lawyers less than 48 hours to issue a “cease and desist” threat to Wolff’s publishers.
As these authors diligently show, and Frum eloquently argues, democracy is based on norms rather than rules. The system is only as good as the people who uphold it. Plenty of Latin American democracies adopted the US constitution almost word for word. It offered them little protection against the depredations of strongmen. According to Wolff, Trump does not even understand the basics of the US Constitution. An aide who was asked to explain it to him stopped after the Fourth Amendment — Trump’s mind had wandered elsewhere. The only people who hold real sway in his White House are his “shamelessly grasping extended family,” says Frum.
That may be true. But American democracy’s ultimate arbiters are those on Capitol Hill, in the federal bureaucracy, in the media and elsewhere who have the power to block or enable him. Whether Trump’s White House heralds a new phase in American politics — or a grotesque aberration — is in the hands of those whose names we may not know. Above all else, the secret sauce of democracy is the integrity of people.