During the 2016 presidential election campaign, Les Moonves boasted of the boost Donald Trump’s candidacy had given to his network’s ratings. “It may not be good for America,” the CEO said, “but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Despite not being a reader himself, Trump has been damn good for publishers too. After a slew of post mortems published last year trying to explain the election and how we got here, readers can now look forward to what is sure to be a flood of books offering insider and expert analysis of the Trump presidency. For journalists, historians, psychologists, political scientists, and even novelists and literary critics, Donald J. Trump is going to be the gift that keeps on giving.
The only problem will be keeping pace. It wasn’t so long ago that you’d hear complaints about how cable news had accelerated political reporting to the rhythms of a 24-hour news cycle. With the advent of social media this has been reduced even further, leaving a technology as resolutely old-fashioned as the book at a clear disadvantage when faced with daily Twitter storms.
The prominent Canadian-American political pundit David Frum recognizes the problem of writing from within the whirlwind of current events. But, seeing as this is a moment of crisis, he also feels that “if it’s embarrassing to speak too soon, it can also be dangerous to wait too long.” And so we have Trumpocracy: an angry assessment by a die-hard “Never Trumper” of what Trump’s use and abuse of power is doing to America’s political culture.
There is much to pick over in the analysis, with many valuable insights and observations. Foremost among these is the role played by “those who enable, support, and collaborate with Donald Trump.” Why have so many people in positions of responsibility and authority caved in so quickly and completely to Trumpism? Frum’s answer is institutional: they didn’t want to alienate the angry and resentful Republican base and they needed Trump to rubber-stamp their agenda. Since Trump has almost no interest in policy, all that was required was that he “have enough working digits to sign their bills into law.” In exchange, a cynical and opportunist Congress would protect him. We’ve yet to see how far they will go in this.
If Frum’s book is more concerned with the big picture, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury goes in the other direction. Here are all the juicy scoops and gossipy revelations that have been feeding the media mills for the past week, propelling Fire and Fury to the top of the bestseller lists. Trump wanted his presidency to be a reality TV program, judged not by its accomplishments but by its ratings. He has succeeded beyond all imagining.
Though hard to put down, Wolff’s breathless tell-all in fact tells us little we didn’t already know about the character of Trump himself. Nearly everyone around him considers him to be a moron. He is needy, paranoid, and narcissistic. He doesn’t “process information” well, has no attention span, and tends to ramble repetitively, boring listeners to tears. Universally described as childlike, he struts upon the stage like a spoiled, petulant bully. None of this is news.
Then there is the presidential court, headlined by the dark whisperer Steve Bannon (who even likens the White House to the court of the Tudors), prevaricating establishment Republicans and generals, and a glossy brood of spoiled but dim children, inheritors of the Trump brand.
In the mutual contempt of warring power bases, and with a near total leadership vacuum at the top, dysfunction has followed: what one outgoing high-ranking staffer characterizes as “bitter rivalries joined to vast incompetence and an uncertain mission” and another more succinctly as “an idiot surrounded by clowns.” The resulting chaos is criticized by both authors. Frum calls the White House “a mess of careless slobs” while for Wolff it becomes the “scene of a daily Trump [clusterf--k].”
In the face of all this late-night standup material, the frequently heard warnings of a slide toward fascism may be overdrawn. However, after reading Frum and Wolff my own mind kept turning back to the epilogue to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s classic account of The Last Days of Hitler. In his summary of the Nazi regime as a “monkey house” of “flatterers and toadies” Trevor-Roper saw not totalitarianism, indeed not a government at all, “but a court — a court as negligible in its power of ruling, as incalculable in its capacity for intrigue, as any oriental sultanate.”
The tragedy is that the Trump Show, or Trumpocracy, is only one symptom of a deeper rot. In Trevor-Roper’s analysis, what led to Hitler’s court was “the despair of politics.” The same despair has brought forth the strange fruit surveyed in these two books, and it’s only going to deepen.