Because of President Trump’s absence of downward loyalty, his elevation of the morally impaired and his encouragement of staff factionalism, his administration will produce any number of damaging memoirs and leak-filled exposes. Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” is the latest in this genre, but surely not the last.
Yet what is most striking about Wolff’s book is its superfluity. We do not require a behind-the-scenes look at Trump’s instability, childishness and narcissism, because he provides revelations about his fragile state of mind nearly every day. Trump is damaged most, not by sabotage, but by self-revelation.
If many of the statements Trump has made publicly in the last few weeks were contained in a tell-all, we would suspect the author of malicious exaggeration. The president has recently taunted FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe for “racing the clock to retire with full benefits,” attacked the “Deep State Justice Department,” taken credit for the lack of commercial airline crashes, urged “Jail!” for former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, called for the sacking of two journalists, claimed the news media will eventually “let me win” re-election to keep up their ratings, displayed a sputtering inability to describe his own health reform plan, claimed that a cold snap disproves global warming, boasted of having “a much bigger & more powerful” nuclear button than Kim Jong Un, tried to prevent the publication of Wolff’s book and insisted he is “like, really smart” and “a very stable genius.”
The intimacy of Twitter — providing daily and sometimes hourly updates on the state of Trump’s mind — has encouraged a question: Is the president reaching some kind of psychological breaking point? That is difficult to diagnose from afar. More likely, Trump is exhibiting a set of compulsions and delusions that have characterized his entire adult life. You can’t have declining judgment that never existed. You can’t lose a grasp on reality you never possessed. What is most striking is not Trump’s disintegration but his utter consistency.
We have almost too much information in assessing Trump’s stability and fitness for high office. His combination of transgression and transparency is numbing. If the secret tape of a president threatening a private citizen with jail were leaked, it would be a scandal. With Trump, it is just part of his shtick. Even the most easily alarmed among us have come to discount outlandish and offensive things.
But what if we took this seriously? What should we learn from the tell-all that Trump himself has authored?
The president’s defenders, in perpetual pursuit of the bright side, argue for the value of unpredictability in political leadership — which is true enough. But Trump is not unpredictable. He is predictable in ways that make him vulnerable to exploitation. He is easy to flatter, easy to provoke and thus easy to manipulate. The Chinese have made an art of this — ushering Trump toward regional irrelevance on a red carpet. “I like very much President Xi,” Trump has said. “He treated me better than anybody’s ever been treated in the history of China.” Contrast this to Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has treated Trump like an adult with arguments and criticism. Big mistake.
In addition, Trump has revealed a thick streak of authoritarianism. “I have [an] absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” he insists. “Libel laws are very weak in this country,” he argues. Rivals are not only to be defeated; they should be imprisoned. Critics are not to be refuted; they should be fired. Investigations are not to be answered; they should be shut down.
Trump’s defenders point to the absence of oppression as proof that these concerns are overblown. But protecting legal and political institutions from executive assault has been the constant vigil of the last year — as it will be for the next three. And we are depending on the strength of those institutions, not the self-restraint of the president, to safeguard democracy.
All this presents a particular problem for elected Republicans. At the beginning, they could engage in wishful thinking about Trump’s fitness. Now they must know he is not emotionally equipped to be president. Yet they also know this can’t be admitted, lest they be accused of letting down their partisan team. So GOP leaders are engaged in an intentional deception, pretending the president is a normal and capable leader. I empathize with their political dilemma. But they will, eventually, be exposed. And by then the country may not be in a forgiving mood.