Roundtable – Fire and Fury

The Roundtable is Torchlight staff’s discussion of news and events. The text has been lightly edited for clarity, and some links were added after the fact. This conversation happened on January 7, 2018.

Tom Rich, Editor-in-Chief

Welcome to the Roundtable, Torchlight’s weekly discussion of news and events. The big news in this first week of 2018 has been the release of Michael Wolff’s new and excitingly-titled book, Fire and Fury. Wolff spent the early days of the Trump administration in the White House, observing and conducting interviews, and the reactions to the book’s revelations have been energetic, to say the least. We should note that we haven’t finished the book yet, but have been following reviews and summaries avidly. So, to start us off: which revelation about the Trump White House stood out most to each of you?

 

Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor

First of all, nothing in the book is specifically new. We knew Trump had no attention span or ability for analytics, we knew the people around him were just as inexperienced and incompetent, and we knew that basically the entire thing was a shitshow. The book does reveal that they are somewhat more self-aware of everyone else’s failings, and also the factions that formed.

The thing that stood out to me was just how aggressively unprepared they were. Not only did they not expect to win, and so didn’t waste time preparing to actually be an administration, they also couldn’t make any decisions or get anything done after it. Now, a lot of this is because of the president, but ye gods!

 

Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Senior Managing Editor

My favorite revelation from this book, or possibly the entire Trump presidency, is the story of Trump obviously committing obvious obstruction of justice on Air Force One. He’s crafting the initial draft of the Comey firing letter, and unlike Rosenstein’s later draft, it spells out that Comey is being fired for not protecting Trump from the Russia collusion investigation. All of Trump’s senior advisers on the plane at the time decide they want no part of this absurdly incompetent, criminal attempt to cover up the campaign’s absurdly incompetent crimes… so they go to the room next door and while Trump writes his letter, they’re watching Fargo. I wonder if they were thinking, “I wish we were that good at crime.” I also wonder how long I have to wait until that’s a scene in a movie by the Coen brothers about this whole admin.

 

Tom

Those were definitely highlights to me, but the bit that caught my eye probably just did it because I’m an English teacher, and that’s that Trump just sort of doesn’t read, to the point where the book questions if he’s illiterate. We all knew he didn’t read much, but just… wow. It’s unfathomable to me that you can make it that far in life without being not just a reader, but a voracious reader.

 

Josh

Apparently inherited wealth is an even greater insulator than we thought.

 

Tom

So the book definitely has memorable moments in it, and a lot of raw red meat for those opposed to the Trump administration. But, when it comes down to the brass tacks of politicking and policymaking, is Fire and Fury meaningful, or is it just so much noise distracting us from other, more important things?

 

Christo

It isn’t meaningful in and of itself (it’s edited terribly, for one thing), but it is a distillation of everything we’ve heard about Trump and his people for more than a year. Instead of referring to a half dozen articles from different publications, we have a single source, with apparent access to everyone.

It also shows why some things are dealt with so terribly. Trump views everything as purely transactional, so when Puerto Rico still only has less than 70% of power restored after so long, it’s because the people at the top can’t or won’t care.

 

Josh

The political impact of the book is chiefly in two aspects. First, it’s put Bannon on the outs with Trump (reportedly he just apologized and tried to walk back some of the insults he’s quoted as throwing). It’s interesting to note that this is much like what happens in Putin’s Russia. There, if someone offends Putin, Putin need not do anything; the elite in Russia will have that man killed out of hope to win or keep Putin’s favor. Here, if someone offends Trump, he suffers economically from all right-wing quarters. Bannon’s base has turned on him, Bannon’s donors have dropped him, his position at Breitbart is imperiled–this is the price of any level of dissent against the administration and its idiot king. Small wonder few Republicans have the spine to disagree.

Second, it seems to have pissed Trump off something awful. He held a press conference this weekend to explain how smart and not egotistical he was. He denounced Bannon. He tried to stop the book from being published, which is some authoritarian shit. But I think there’s good reason for him to be upset, because this book seems to be having an impact on public opinion the way these same stories dripped out over a year in the NYT and WaPo haven’t. Perhaps because it’s all in one package, perhaps because Trump himself is inflating its importance via the Streisand effect. It remains to be seen whether these revelations will truly shift the conversation on Trump, but so far at least we’ve seen the mainstream media questioning his mental competency, which is a distinct change and a welcome one.

 

Tom

I tend to agree, Josh: much of any book’s importance comes from whether or not people talk about it, and people are definitely talking about this one.

 

Christo

Whether there is a sustained change remains to be seen, but what Trump is doing is not helping to bury it, and the publishers, at least, are good at their jobs. When Trump threatened lawsuits, they just accelerated the release to friday, and it is basically sold out everywhere.

 

Tom

So we’re in agreement that Fire and Fury isn’t a nothing story, but it’s certainly a DC political intrigue story, and there’s a whole lot of country and administration out there. Things were a little slow because of the holidays, but what news stories did you guys notice that seemed to go by a little more quietly than you might have expected this week?

 

Josh

It’s more like stories that won’t go away because nobody is fixing them. ICE is still terrible (recently deciding to deport the caregiver of a young, paralyzed child). Puerto Rico is still in crisis. The Voter Fraud Commission shut down after losing a transparency fight–only to be absorbed into DHS, which does not need to be transparent. The DACA deadline draws ever closer without a deal in place. Shit continues to be bullshit for a lot of Americans, especially people of color, and the admin’s current concerns are forcing the Wall down our throats and re-criminalizing marijuana. At least when Bannon was in the White House they sometimes did things.

 

Christo

The basic problem we have is that the executive office does not actually care about doing anything in any meaningful way.  Trump doesn’t care, because apparently he is physically and constitutionally unable to, and everyone is either so inexperienced and incompetent, or busy with their own standing that they aren’t actually accomplishing anything. In order for government to work, the people in government need to do work.  This may seem like a tautology, but it is an apparent surprise to the Republicans, and certainly to the Trumps and their people.

 

Tom

You know, I thought for sure I’d have a story to mention here, but after looking over Josh’s list I can’t think of one that jumps out. Which kind of loops right back around to Fire and Fury, and Christo’s point: because the administration is so incompetent and disinterested in governing, there aren’t a ton of things happening at the national level. Oddly hopeful, given that anything this admin tried to do would probably be upsetting at best, but certainly not good for the country.

Oh, there was the Virginia recount finishing up by drawing a name from a bowl. That was certainly a weird ending to a sorry saga.

 

Josh

Would you rather have an admin that was better at both the easy stuff (garnering goodwill by sending aid to PR for instance) and the big stuff (ACA repeal), or this one, which seems hopeless at both?

 

Christo

Put it this way, this administration was way more damaging to America than the W administration.

 

Josh

Also, the Virginia election is worth going into, because there’s more wrong here than a random victory (that was poorly randomized). After a historic Democratic swing in a deeply gerrymandered state, control of the normally Republican chamber came down to a single seat, and after a recount that seat came down to a single vote giving the Dem candidate the win. After that had been announced, a Republican vote counter suddenly remembered a single ballot they had (on the advice of the other vote counters) not counted because it was improperly filled out. The court determined that this ballot should be counted, making the race a tie and leading to the drawing (which Republicans said they would have appealed by demanding a new recount if the Dem had won). So the entire state legislature turns on these undemocratic methods, where the deck is heavily stacked in the right’s favor, and then they can still manage to steal a close race and maintain a stranglehold on power–resulting in a potentially blocked path for Virginia’s Medicaid expansion, which affects the health care of 400,000 people.

It goes to show that the GOP is morally bankrupt from the very top in DC to the very bottom in local races like this.

 

Christo

On the other hand, it also shows that the consequences we all predicted they would suffer from this strategy is happening. They are holding on by their fingernails and an unintended consequence of Trump’s election is that a lot of people are realizing that not voting and being indifferent are not actually viable options. The frontrunner to challenge the Ohio Democratic Senator just dropped, for example. It’s been said basically every election since Gingrich started actively trying to destroy government, but I think they can’t hold on for much longer. People are too engaged, and now they are winning, which helps even more participation. This was one of the great obstacles before, but I think Democrats winning in Alabama is going to be a rallying point we haven’t seen the end of.

 

Josh

Here’s hoping.

 

Christo

Yup.

 

Tom

It’s very important to keep in mind through all this the real and measurable damage that’s happening. I’m tempted to answer Josh’s earlier question with a preference for a government that’s villainous, but at least keeps the lights on and the programs running, but I’m also coming at that question from a position where my life will probably be fine one way or another. It’s a very vexing balance to strike, and I think a lot depends on just how bad the things the admin wants to do are. For this administration, I’ll take the incompetence on the little things to stave off some of the truly horrific big things. But that’s not universal.

That’s my final thought for the day; what do you folks have?

 

Christo

I mean, that was my thought as well: I’d prefer another Dubya administration to this. The American government is too central to global affairs (for some good reasons and some bad) to just not do anything. We have too much at stake, and everyone has too much stake in us. Governing requires governance, and no one in charge is interested in anything so plebeian as actual work.

 

Josh

We’re left in the same place we were after Trump’s victory: hoping that, despite its horrendous personal costs, accelerationism really does work–that, where the public failed to catch onto and defeat W. in 2004, we are more engaged and angry now at this administration and can actually succeed in turning the country around. If Fire and Fury does nothing more than remind people that a competent government is desirable, it’ll have done enough.

 

Tom

Accelerationism is a bad thing to hope for, but once you’re already there it’s a best of a bad situation sort of thing. That’s all the time we have for the Roundtable this week; thanks as always, everyone, for a lively conversation!

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