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Deconstructing Donald

Recent books on Donald Trump by authors representing a wide range of perspectives help to shed light on some of the under-appreciated or already forgotten features of Trump's presidency. If there is one takeaway, it is that the last four years have been every bit as disastrous for America as they seem.

The most turbulent presidency in US history has led to an abundance of books even before its main figure has completed his first (and, one hopes, only) term. Many more tomes can be expected, but a few of those already published deserve attention.

Donald Trump is not only the most improbable, confounding president America has ever produced; he is also clearly the worst. In less than four years, he has plunged the country into deep turmoil. Reasonable people now worry that he has eroded American democracy beyond repair. The most dangerous period yet, November’s election, still lies ahead, but Trump has already signaled his intent to discredit the result if he loses, and to take unusual and possibly illegal steps to ensure a victory.

Trump’s most alarming attribute as president is that he observes no boundaries. Social, civic, moral, and legal norms are meaningless to him. He spends a great deal of time alone with his cell phone and his television, letting his id do the tweeting. His aides and allies are often taken aback by what spews forth.

Although Trump became president knowing almost nothing about government, that is no longer true. He has, for example, learned how to use it to exact revenge – for both real and perceived slights – and bend it to his whims. He is far less tolerant of opposition from within his administration than he was at the start of his term, regularly replacing dissenters and independent inspector-generals with pliant toadies.

Much of the messaging torrent that is so central a part of Trump’s governing style is powered by his compulsive, pathological lying, which has reached the point that neither US citizens nor foreign leaders can know whether to believe what he says. Worse yet, his combination of incompetence, ignorance, and pride has cost as many as 200,000 US lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. While most other countries are starting to recover from the virus, the disease remains out of control in the United States, with Americans increasingly unable to believe anything that Trump says about the crisis.

Compounding Trump’s shortcomings, he has become more unaccountable than any preceding US president. He began to see himself as indestructible after escaping being thrown out of office by the Senate, having been impeached by the House after trying to bully Ukraine into helping him against his Democratic challenger in November, Joe Biden.

As the election draws nearer, congressional Republicans – who have largely surrendered their independence to Trump – are growing restless and worried. If Trump loses, they wonder, how many of them will he down with him? And, in such a scenario, will his efforts to discredit the election cast a dark shadow over the legitimacy of whatever happens in November? One thing seems certain: If Trump loses, he will try to do just that.

Ordinary Americans, too, have been left to wonder whether there will be a legitimate election. Many are concerned that Trump will accept no limits on his efforts to remain in power, given how overweening his autocratic instincts have become. People now openly ask if Trump will even allow the democratic process to play out in the run-up to November 3.

The six books under review are only the beginning of the necessary reckoning with Trump’s presidency and its impact on America and the world. The list isn’t exhaustive, but these titles struck me as the most significant and insightful ones available thus far.

Perhaps the most striking of the Trump studies under review here is journalist and former Republican speechwriter David Frum’s second book on the administration, Trumpocalypse. But do not be deceived by the subtitle: Frum is far less optimistic than it suggests.

Frum does not pretend to be an insider in Donald Trump’s Washington, but instead applies his deep knowledge and first-rate political instincts to interpreting this most peculiar presidency and its effects on the country and the world. (Frum is a friend, but I do not suspend my critical faculties on that account.) A Canadian by birth who has spent a great deal of time in the US, Frum has a unique ability to discern what escapes others, and this allows him to present a picture that few will have seen until he reveals it.

Moreover, Frum is that most unusual of species in the age of Trump: an intellectual conservative. He is no dogmatist. He can spend time with liberals and leftists without getting worked up into a frenzy. He wrote speeches for George W. Bush in support of the Iraq War, but he has since written that the decision to invade Iraq was based on mistaken assumptions. “We were ignorant, arrogant, and unprepared,” Frum wrote last year in The Atlantic, “and we unleashed human suffering that did no good for anyone.”

Frum was troubled by Trump before the outset of his presidency. In his 2018 book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, written during the early weeks of Trump’s presidency, Frum listed the ways that Trump was already threatening democratic principles while his family enriched itself from the presidency. Frum was not the only person to see this, but he saw it more clearly and wrote about it more elegantly than anyone else of whom I am aware.1

Now, nearly three years later, Frum is unhesitant in his view that the Republican Party in 2016 was taken over by an odious character – the worst, least qualified person ever to serve as president; a lonely, unloved, and unloving reprobate who was enabled by scam artists, self-dealing lobbyists, and other hangers-on, as well as weak figures terrified of a tweet from an ignoramus.

Frum sees the Trump base as a collection of Americans who saw no place for themselves in the world of post-Reagan conservativism or conventional liberalism (particularly when represented by a black president). “The gangster politics of Trump,” he writes, “worked in great part because the conservatism that dominated US politics in the 1980s and 1990s lost its relevance to the America of later decades. The inherited political system left a lot of people stranded for meaningful answers at the exact same time that Facebook and YouTube lowered to virtually zero the cost of spreading mass disinformation.”

Worse, much of that disinformation begins with Trump himself. Frum portrays Trump as essentially a con man, and coins the deft term “affinity fraud”: “a scam that exploits the trust of people who feel something in common with the fraudster.”

But Frum doesn’t limit himself to dissecting Trump. He also fulfills the earnest duty of suggesting reforms that might prevent the rise of Donald 2.0. Most of his proposals make sense. For example, all presidential candidates should be legally required to publish their tax returns. Had this been policy in 2016, Frum suspects that Trump wouldn’t have dared to run.

Frum also proposes ending the Senate filibuster, which allows the minority party to block any measure that doesn’t command the support of a 60% supermajority. This has been a way of blocking progress not only on civil-rights legislation, but in general as well. Speaking in July at the funeral for Representative John Lewis, a civil-rights hero, former President Barack Obama described the filibuster as a “Jim Crow relic.” Suddenly, an idea that previously had little chance of being accepted began to gain traction.

The filibuster exacerbates the fundamental unrepresentativeness of the Senate, where a thinly populated state like Wyoming (population 600,000) has the same power as California (population 40 million). As Frum argues, “A law passed by senators representing 290.4 million [people] can effectively be vetoed by senators representing 36.6 million of them, or 11 percent.”

But to implement such rule changes, the Democrats will need to sweep this year’s Senate election and then expend political capital on institutional reforms – all while trying to overcome the COVID-19 crisis and address the rollbacks of various environmental regulations and other Trump “reforms.”

Frum’s book is so rich in insights that it seems churlish to suggest what else he should have written about, as reviewers are wont to do. Still, I wish he had confronted the question of why Trump persisted in governing for a “base” that would never be large enough safely to re-elect him. Was it sheer laziness – the path of least resistance? Is Trump so ignorant that he didn’t understand the need for a larger coalition in order both to govern and to win a second term? This remains a major mystery about the Trump presidency.

Unlike many books about presidencies written in real time, Frum’s will endure and provide an invaluable guide for understanding the calamity that struck the US and the world in 2016. It is also indispensable for comprehending the stakes of this year’s election, which are greater and subtler than many realize. Perhaps most important, it is essential reading for anyone who wants to know what it will take for the US to survive Trumpism – an outcome that is by no means certain.

Stuart Stevens, for one, is not sanguine. One of the most prominent Republican political consultants of recent decades, Stevens has managed five presidential campaigns (including those of Bob Dole and John McCain) and several for the Senate, as well as various foreign contests. He is currently part of the Lincoln Project, a group founded by Republicans in 2019 to defeat Trump and restore constitutional protections and the rule of law. The group, which includes George Conway (husband of Trump’s close adviser, Kellyanne Conway) and the eloquent Steve Schmidt, a longtime adviser to McCain, has been running stinging, powerful anti-Trump ads.

The Lincoln Project seems to be without precedent in US political history and reflects the absence of backbone among congressional Republicans in standing up to Trump. The group’s well-financed existence is one of the clearest signs yet of the lengths to which Trump has driven troubled party members.

In It Was All a Lie, Stevens looks back in anger at the Republican Party of the past 50 years – and repudiates it. He rejects the view that Trump hijacked the GOP, and he accuses the party and operatives like him of steering the party into Trump’s open arms.

If not Trump, Stevens writes, someone else would have taken advantage of what the party had become. Absent a coherent, principled philosophy, it bought into the nonsense that virtually any and all tax cuts would boost economic growth, and campaigned in one election after another with more than a touch of racism. Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens,” and the opening of his 1980 campaign in the small Mississippi town where three civil-rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964, foreshadowed a panicked Trump in 2020 warning of 1950s-like suburbs being overrun by black people.

Stevens isn’t optimistic that the Republican Party can emerge from Trumpism’s grip. Not mincing words, he writes that “the intellectual leaders of the Republican Party are the paranoids, kooks, know-nothings, and bigots who once could be heard only on late-night talk shows.” Lacking a “unifying theory of government,” he argues, a political party “ceases to function as a collective rooted in thought and becomes more like fans of a sports team” and “will default to being controlled by those who shout the loudest and are unhindered by any semblance of normalcy.”

In early April 2018, when John Bolton took over as Trump’s third national security adviser, one didn’t need deep knowledge of either man to anticipate that the arrangement wouldn’t end well. Both were bombastic characters – one knowledgeable, the other not at all – with rock-hard and essentially contradictory positions on foreign policy.

While Bolton is an eager proponent of using force against other countries or actors, Trump has been highly reluctant to deploy the US military in foreign conflicts. And while Bolton supports longstanding military alliances such as NATO, Trump has constantly undermined and threatened to withdraw from US alliances.

On some issues, though, Bolton and Trump were aligned, particularly when it came to Obama-negotiated agreements such as the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. Bolton opposed these arrangements because they seemed to him to be too fuzzy, whereas Trump did so because they had Obama’s name on them, and because he is always suspicious that foreign commitments are designed to take advantage of the US.

A schemer and tenacious bureaucratic infighter, Bolton had prospered in Washington, DC, before joining the Trump administration, because he possessed his own loyal constituency on the Republican right and in the right-wing media. Bolton had forged this base as a senior State Department official during George W. Bush’s presidency, which constrained what other figures, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, could do about him, even as he maneuvered to oust any official whom he regarded as too supportive of arms-control treaties.

Bolton’s book, The Room Where It Happened, borrows its title from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton (much to Miranda’s dismay). Owing to Bolton’s prodigious note taking while in the White House, the reader is taken on a fascinating tour d’horizon of the foreign-policy issues that arose during his year and a half of service to Trump. Of course, the true value of Bolton’s book lies beyond the headlines it produced.

Bolton confirms that Trump tried to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter. He reveals that Trump used trade negotiations and criminal investigations to try to get information on his political opponents from other countries as well. He reports that Trump tried to persuade China to help him in the election by purchasing more agricultural products from the US. And he reveals that Trump tried to use the Department of Justice to do a favor for Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

More broadly, Bolton corroborates what many had long suspected: Trump’s top advisers mock him behind his back, and he is so appallingly ignorant that he once asked if Finland is part of Russia. Trump, in Bolton’s portrayal, is a loose cannon who acts on gut instincts rather than relying on available information from intelligence agencies. None of this is terribly surprising, but it is dismaying to see it catalogued, one appalling case after another, in cold print.

More illuminating are Bolton’s accounts (assuming they are true, which I do) of lesser-known events. We learn a great deal about the atmosphere of the Trump White House. There are many occasions when Trump’s advisers tear their hair out over something he has done, or have been forced to hold their breath hoping that he wouldn’t do something else, such as ceding a sensitive negotiating position, or revealing classified information.

For example, we learn more about the late-night call with Erdoğan in which Trump sold out the Syrian Kurds, indispensable US allies in the fight against the Islamic State. According to Bolton, Trump told his aides, “I don’t like the Kurds. They ran from the Iraqis, they ran from the Turks.” In fact, the Kurds are famous for their bravery on the battlefield.

In reading Bolton’s book, it quickly becomes clear that most of Trump’s advisers, including the author, took a dim view of the president’s attempts to strike a nuclear deal with North Korea. Bolton was appalled when Trump crossed into the demilitarized zone for a photo op with Kim Jong-un, which he saw as a propaganda boon for the North Korean regime. “The whole thing made me ill,” Bolton reports.

Perhaps most important, Bolton, like most others in the president’s orbit, recognized immediately the calamity of Trump’s July 2018 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, when Trump publicly sided with Putin against the US intelligence community on the question of whether Russia had interfered in the 2016 election – a matter on which there is little reason for doubt.

Bolton writes, “[General John] Kelly (at the time Trump’s second of four chiefs of staff) and I, sitting next to each other in the audience, were almost frozen to our seats.” Later, Trump would brag publicly about imposing new sanctions on Russia in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in England, but he continued to complain about the move in private. Such behavior, Bolton laments, was emblematic of the “inconsistent views and decisions on Russia [that] made all our work complicated.”

Bolton and Trump’s disagreement about how to respond to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people stands out as yet another example of White House chaos. Bolton favored a robust reaction to create a deterrent. But, “ultimately, though Trump had said all week he wanted a significant response, he did not choose to make one.” Meanwhile, Bolton tells us that, “[Secretary of Defense James] Mattis pushed relentlessly for his innocuous options. While [Vice President Mike] Pence tried to help me out … [Secretary of the Treasury] Steven Mnuchin strongly backed Mattis, although he manifestly had no idea what he was talking about.”

On another occasion, Bolton favored the overthrow of the Iranian regime, but says that he was satisfied with what he saw as the first step toward that end: Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Later, Bolton devotes an entire chapter to such “dysfunctionality,” and includes a colorful description of Trump’s last-minute decision to call off missile strikes inside Iran in retaliation for the downing of an unmanned US drone.

Apparently, an aide, without consulting others, had rushed to the Oval Office to tell Trump that missile strikes would likely result in 150 dead Iranians, a figure Bolton calls “almost entirely conjectural.” Bolton concludes that, “In my government experience, this was the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any president do.”

It was after this episode, Bolton writes, that he began to think seriously about resigning. What was the point in working up a policy analysis if it was going to be treated in such a knee-jerk fashion?

In the event, the ultimate falling out came when Trump floated the idea of hosting a peace-making summit with the Taliban at Camp David. Soon after, Bolton was out – fired by Trump, though Bolton insists he resigned. In any case, this has been the pattern for the Trump administration: major ousted figures say they resigned, while Trump – with his bigger Twitter megaphone – insists that he fired them for being no good.

By that reasoning, the sheer frequency of White House departures raises obvious questions about Trump’s own judgment in people. But it doesn’t actually matter. Bolton’s defenestration was inevitable and by no means unusual.

The value of Bolton’s book is that it shows what others, like Frum, can only tell us about Trump’s presidency. He shows us Trump’s ignorance, his indecisiveness, his fuming over old grudges (for example, against US Senator John McCain, even after McCain had died), and his meandering trains of thought. Future historians will profitably mine Bolton’s nuggets.

But a caveat is in order. All of these stories are of course told from Bolton’s point of view, and he does not shy away from cattiness when describing his interactions with former colleagues. For example, he had little use for Mattis, whom he resents for having demonstrated skilled bureaucratic gamesmanship and a capacity for cultivating an attractive public image. Bolton also shares office gossip that Mnuchin was so eager to be included in White House meetings and presidential trips that Department of Treasury people hardly recognized him when he showed up there in person.

Bolton has written a valuable book, but he is no hero. He has been widely criticized for sitting on his manuscript’s disclosures instead of testifying to them before Congress during the impeachment proceedings earlier this year. But I rather doubt that any of his revelations would have made much difference. Congressional Republicans simply were not prepared to split with Trump, and the Democrats’ impeachment timeframe didn’t permit them to go through the long process of subpoenaing Bolton.

Still, what we are left with is a senior White House aide who took extensive notes in meetings and then published them in order to make money. For Bolton to be able to claim any higher moral purpose beyond that, he would have had to testify voluntarily at the impeachment hearings.

There is also the broader question of what this tell-all practice does for candor within the White House. Of course, if a president behaves honorably and inspires loyalty among his staff, the dangers posed by faithless former aides are minimal. I am not aware of a single critical book about Obama written by any former member of his White House staff – and certainly not while he was still in office.

Though Bolton’s book is the first behind-the-scenes look at the Trump White House by a former staffer, one will find a much fuller account of the same subject in A Very Stable Genius, by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, both outstanding Washington Post reporters. Rucker and Leonnig’s tour through the early days of the Trump presidency is so rich in detail and fresh disclosures that it reads like an entirely new account of the chaos within.

Many of the scenes that they present are astonishing, and some darkly comical. I particularly enjoyed their narrative retelling of White House lawyers poring over the Mueller report following the Russia investigation. The mood shifts quickly from fear to relief, and then to puzzlement over Mueller’s confusing logic.

Because the book was published early this year, it does not include the past six months, which represent the nadir (one hopes) of Trump’s presidency. From the botched mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic collapse to the inspiring movement against racism and police violence following the death of George Floyd at the hands (or knees) of a Minneapolis police officer, Trump lost any semblance of control.

In response to nationwide protests against police violence, and to change the subject from the virus, Trump resorted to campaigning on “law and order,” which makes one wish that Rucker and Leonnig were already at work on a sequel. I am told that they are not, but it is not too late for them to change their minds.

Too Much and Never Enough, by Trump’s niece, Mary L. Trump, is another insider account but of a different kind. With a PhD in clinical psychiatry, Mary shows in rich detail how a deeply dysfunctional family created Donald the dysfunctional president. (The word “dysfunctional” may need to be retired from politics once Trump is out of office – the sooner the better.)

Her mesmerizing book about her uncle and their family resonates strongly with the Trump presidency itself. She documents and confirms what most people had intuited about the needy, braggadocious, chronic liar who found his way to the White House: that he grew up utterly unloved. The book’s biggest flaw is that it does not appear to have been carefully edited, given what one would expect from a major publishing house. It has the feel of having been rushed.

Still, we read Mary Trump not for her literary skills but for her psychoanalytical expertise and firsthand knowledge. We learn that all five of the children born to Fred and Mary Trump (the president’s parents) grew up with a remote father who was far more interested in amassing wealth than he was in his children. Fred evidently had no interest at all in his two daughters, one of whom went on to become a US Federal Appeals Court judge (until she had to resign because of apparent financial mis-dealings along with her siblings), and their mother was often absent – ailing or hospitalized. “Whereas Mary was needy,” writes Mary Trump of her grandparents, “Fred seemed to have no emotional needs at all.”

Fred, the domineering father, is labeled a “high-functioning sociopath,” exhibiting the characteristics that we now recognize in his son: “a lack of empathy, a facility for lying, an indifference to right and wrong, abusive behavior, and a lack of interest in the rights of others.”

Donald, as the second-youngest child, was particularly vulnerable to neglect, because he was at the back of the line, so to speak, and therefore not regarded by the father as being particularly useful. But the oldest son, Freddy (Mary’s father), turned out to be a charming, fun-loving guy who preferred piloting planes and partying to pushing real-estate deals. When he proved incapable of fulfilling his father’s standards for a successor, he was treated with contempt. Meanwhile, Donald apparently relished humiliating his older brother about his string of failures. Mary’s father became an out-of-control drinker and died at the age of 42.

Donald moved quickly to exploit Freddy’s downfall and disgrace in their father’s eyes. But his behavior was not particularly different or worse than that of his siblings, writes Mary. They all failed to stand up for Freddy for fear of “their father’s wrath.” Everyone was on their own.

Between having an emotionally absent mother and a father who failed “to meet his needs” or “make him feel safe or loved, valued,” Mary writes, “Donald suffered deprivations that would scar him for life,” resulting in “displays of narcissism, bullying, [and] grandiosity.” Donald became adept at acting as if he had no emotional needs at all – an image he cultivated through “bullying, disrespect, aggressiveness.” In one of her most telling insights into the man’s character, Mary maintains that “Donald’s lying was primarily a mode of self-aggrandizement meant to convince other people he was better than he actually was.”

The irony is that his father, Fred, eventually noticed and came to value the very traits (grandiosity, bumptiousness) that Donald had developed to paper over his own lack of self-worth. As Mary points out, her uncle’s presidency began with him whining about being mistreated and issuing a whopping and silly lie about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. These early episodes were mere harbingers of what was to come. Trump’s lying has been so prodigious as to fill an entire book: Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth, by the fact-checking team at The Washington Post.

This compendium is more valuable than the lists of Trumpian lies that one finds circulating online, because it is sorted and analyzed to provide the context and, when possible, the apparent purpose behind each false utterance. The cumulative power of the presentation is frightening to behold. The book underscores how helpless and vulnerable the American body politic is under a president to whom the truth means nothing. Simply pointing out that Trump lies a lot does not come close to exposing the horror that his presidency represents for a system based on the consent of the governed.

Though Trump lacks empathy for others, his self-pity seems bottomless. One thing I’ve noticed in the press coverage of his presidency is the frequent use of the word “rage” to describe his moods or reactions. Mary Trump comes the closest to being able to explain these attributes.

Her book isn’t all analysis, though. It is also packed with tales of Trump family pompousness and tragedy – funny, sad, and harrowing all at once. The family she depicts is like something out of William Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy, perpetually bogged down in money-grubbing squabbles. Indeed, Mary’s relatives tried (and partly succeeded) to cut her and her brother out of their inheritance.

This important book, which no one else could write, leaves haunting questions about how someone so damaged, so limited in his range of human emotions, so disconnected from reality, could win the US presidency.

One does not have to look far for answers. Aside from the millions of discontented people who saw Trump as the vessel for their own grievances, many in the press, the Republican Party, and the business and lobbying community, saw him as a source of entertainment value, as a step on the ladder to their own success, or as a meal ticket for their own grifts. Some bought into the illusion that Trump was a successful businessman, simply because he contrived to play one on his long-running reality-TV show. All of these people – to say nothing of those still abetting Trump – have a lot to answer for.

John Bolton, The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, Simon & Schuster, 2020.

David Frum, Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy, Harper, 2020.
Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America, Penguin Press, 2020.
Stuart Stevens, It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump, Knopf, 2020.
Mary L. Trump, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, Simon & Schuster, 2020.
The Fact Checker Staff of The Washington Post, Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth, Scribner, 2020.

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