Trump Agonistes

The president and his others.

The president and his others.

The first thing worth noting about Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s recently released airing of the Trump Administration’s dirty laundry, is that there is very little in it that was not either generally known or strongly suspected.

As institutions riven with infighting will tend to do, malicious stories leak out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue like water through a sieve. Mr. Wolff, a frequent columnist for USA Today and the British edition of GQ, has a not entirely unwarranted reputation for passing on louche and salacious gossip.

Yet the fact that so much of what Wolff relates has been, what with one thing and another, already a matter of public record that any such blots on his escutcheon hardly detract from the plausibility of his narrative.

That Donald Trump did not want to win the presidency is the most open of secrets. A loss to Hillary Clinton would have allowed Mr. Trump to convert his tale of noble ambition thwarted by the machinations of dishonest liberal elites into a book deal, free airtime on FOX, and yet more products of the substance-less synergies upon which he has built his trade. Also well known is that the obsessive need to be loved and accepted is the defining (perhaps the single unifying) feature of Mr. Trump’s personality.

The life and views of this outsider from the wilds of Jamaica, Queens have been shaped by his inability to worm his way into the rarefied social circles of the Upper East Side. For all the celebrity status that he achieved, Mr. Trump was instinctively and irrevocably viewed by Manhattan society as a tacky arriviste. Defeat to Hillary Clinton would have constituted an apotheosis of sorts: the moment at which Mr. Trump would convert this most painful exclusion into a new level of media affirmation, like a butterfly emerging from a midtown chrysalis of glass and steel with a Q-rating of previously unimaginable magnitude.

Sadly, it was not to be. Partly due to the bungling of the Clinton campaign, partly to the failure of the Democratic Party to recognise the intense resentment of whites excluded from the rising tide of globalised liberal capitalism, and partly to the vagaries of the Electoral College, Mr. Trump won a victory as unwelcome as it was unexpected.

Thus ensued certainly the most bizarre interlude in the long and often grotesque history of American politics. It was as if the irritating blowhard at the end of the bar was elevated to the conscience of the nation, or perhaps to illustration of its paucity of conscience. Every right-wing idea, whether crackpot or simply bampot, achieved an unaccustomed degree of cachet and influence.

There was a new dawn in America, a black dawn in which the nostrums of American political life would we washed away by the accumulated xenophobic rage of the lowest common denominator.

As mentioned above, much of what Wolff has to say is, at best, anecdotal amplifications of things mostly widely known. Even before it took power, the Trump regime careened from crisis to crisis. But it was really with the inauguration that it became fully clear exactly how far off the rails things had gone.

Fire and Fury is mostly devoted to the administration’s wild ride. From alternative facts, to Flynn and the widening Russia problems, through Charlottesville, and L’Affaire Scaramouche, the story of the Trump Administration has been (and continues to be) its continued failure to find stability.

In a sense, the ten days of Anthony Scaramucci’s tenure in the administration can be taken as emblematic. Mr. Scaramucci was presented (even by the liberal media) as some sort of high powered hedge fund maven. What he was in fact (as Wolff makes clear) was a hedge fund aggregator, playing a role somewhat analogous to that which Mr. Trump played in the commercial real estate market: creating synergy but no substantive value.

Prior to his involvement in the departure of Sean Spicer (who was certainly much relieved to finally get his walking papers), Mr. Scaramucci had been hanging around Trump Tower in New York like a bad penny, doing whatever he could to insinuate himself into the world of official power. When his day finally came, he quickly discovered the fundamental truth of the Trump circus: it has only one lead clown.

Mr. Trump can get away with boorish, ignorant bullying. The rest have to make do with the scraps. Still, he might have held on if he hadn’t managed to antagonise Steve Bannon (essentially accusing him on the record of incompetence…and autofellatio). After his precipitous departure, one could hardly have accused Mr. Scaramucci of a failure to communicate.

Instability is hardwired into the administration. Donald Trump, awash in white male privilege, assumes that the world has to reshape itself to conform to his desires. This is not exactly news. Nor is it news that Mr. Trump views the presidency as a sort of personal appanage rather than the leading position in a large and complex bureaucratic organisation.

The president embodies the belief, widespread on the right and among grump cranks of every stripe, that when government fails to yield the outcome that one desires, it must be due to stupidity, mendacity, and incompetence rather than the complexity of the enterprise (admittedly also often leavened with mendacity). Mr. Trump embodies the peculiarly ironic white male mindset (particularly in its bourgeois incarnations) whose central premise is a reversal, imputing one’s own failures and frailties to the world beyond.

Mr. Trump is simply not the sharpest tool in the shed. He is also arrogant, entitled, and only partially literate. One has no need of Mr. Wolff’s book to ascertain this (Mike Pompeo as much as admitted the last thing to the media as recently as last week). But dysfunction of his administration (and here Mr. Wolff’s book provides much interesting material) has as much to do with the conflicts among his underlings.

The story of the Trump White House is that of a three-way struggle between the first couple (often abbreviated as “Jarvanka”), Reince Priebus, and Steve Bannon. The first are essentially Clintonesque Democrats, while Priebus is (or was while he still served in the administration) the representative of the congressional Republican Party. Bannon, the entrepreneur of the (so-called) alt-right and the avatar of far-right wing-nuts Robert and Rebekah Mercer, is a sort of wildcard, ready to harness the federal government to his cynically apocalyptic worldview.

At the center of this struggle is Trump himself, constitutionally unable to listen to others, incapable of creating proper affect connections with other human beings, easily bored, and prepared to say absolutely anything to get people to like him. He is less a person than a membrane, through which the needs and inclinations of the top .1% of the income distribution can be transmitted to the public sphere in the argot of the white racial everyman.

The overall effect of the mix of Mr. Trump’s lack of intelligence and intellectual continuity and the political infighting at the level just below him gives the story of this administration the flavour of a low-ball version of the Nixon Administration as described in Garry Wills’ now classic Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man.

Indeed, it is a mark of precisely how apposite this impression is that, having assigned the rough title to this piece after reading about half of Wolff’s book, I think came upon a chapter entitled “Bannon Agonistes” only a few pages later.

If, as the Peter Principle states, managers rise to the level of the level of their incompetence, how is it that Trump, bungler extraordinaire, has managed to reach the highest office in the land? The answer lies in the peculiar structure of spectacle in modern media culture.

The liberal media, adopting for themselves and perpetually perceived by Mr. Trump as the bêtes noires of the administration, seem beholden to the idea that some tipping point of shame and outrage will eventually be reached at which point a sane, moderate, and bi-partisan movement will eject Mr. Trump from the temple. Indeed, one only has to watch MSNBC for a few hours (very few since all of it’s programming conveys the same message) to discern their strategy of piling woe upon woe, and the feeling of disbelief that it has not so far achieved their aim.

But this is predicated on the idea that political news and political scandal are cumulative. Since at least the days of the Clinton Administration it has been clear that a sort of fetishism pervades the media culture, in which each instance of scandal or outrage simply replaces the last without creating any larger aggregate.

The days of Watergate, when the steady drip of revelations eventually brought even the president’s staunchest defenders around to the idea that he had to go. Now it is more a matter of creating a continuing condition of despair and outrage at the non-Trump end of the political spectrum in order to obstruct his agenda and peel off those elements of his voter base not committed to the figure of the white racial messiah to a degree excluding any shame or reason.

Ultimately, this is the value and virtue of Mr. Wolff’s book. It is an entertaining read and provides much in terms of evidence of the pathological character of the president and the figures that surround and enable him. But if the hope is that this will convince anybody who did not already rather suspect these things to be the case, that is certainly vain. It is not at all clear if there is some way out of the spectacular politics in which conflict between ideas has been transformed into conflict between images.

What is clear is that books of this sort, entertaining as they may be in the short run, are merely links in the chain of a self-referential politics of the higher neoliberal orders. And, if journalists have merely described the world, the point remains that it needs to be changed.

Beyond Trump

Photograph courtesy of DonkeyHotey. Published under a Creative Commons license.