Our inability to really grasp the phenomenon of Donald Trump confronts us as the ongoing threat to our nation’s mental well-being.
It is not just that Trump, in his unacknowledged electoral defeat, still dominates the Republican Party—or that, after all this, a Trump comeback cannot be ruled out. It is that offering up the very facts that in some halcyon time might have disqualified Trump from any office of trust, as they say, now has the perverse effect of solidifying his support.
This creates a huge challenge for determined chroniclers who might reasonably, if innocently, believe their work should move the body politic, or at least jolt it.
Two of the most determined are David Cay Johnston and Michael Wolff, who between them have now written at least six, and arguably eight, books about Trump (depending on which titles you include in the count).
They take very different approaches to their subject—or target, if you like. Wolff, whose latest, Too Famous: The Rich, the Powerful, the Wishful, the Notorious, the Damned, is out now, works from the inside, cozying up to sources that included the late Roger Ailes, Tucker Carlson, and Steve Bannon—individuals appalled by what they were watching even if they helped create it. Johnston, author of the upcoming The Big Cheat: How Donald Trump Fleeced America and Enriched Himself and His Family, is more intimate with tax returns and other filings, which in his reading document a Trump-family pattern of brazen self-dealing and hucksterism.
Between them Wolff and Johnston have given us most of what we need to know about this aberrational figure, even as our Great White Whale eludes them: Why don’t the obvious horrors they detail drive away his backers?
Told You So
Johnston has earned the right to say he tried to warn us about Trump. In the final installment of what he calls “my Trump trilogy,” he reminds us that long ago, in his 1992 book about the gambling industry, he “documented Trump’s incompetence, ignorance and dishonesty.”
That was, it turned out, a prequel, his trilogy being composed of his 2016 biography of Trump, a 2018 assessment of his first year in office, and, now, an investigation into the financial misdeeds of Trump and his family.
No reader of AIR MAIL will be stunned by Johnston’s conclusion that Trump is a liar (starting with his claim to be the modern Midas “even though there has never been verifiable evidence that he is worth even $1 billion”), a cheat (his campaign took a “dying man’s last $3,000” through deceptive fundraising), a bully (New York mayor Abe Beame once had cops use their batons to expel him from his office, he was that abusive), and a flimflam man (having endlessly promised to negotiate lower drug prices, he signed an order 16 days before the end of his term that undermined the new president’s leverage to achieve them).
He hates dogs, too, Johnston reports, although he chronicles no instance of Trump actually kicking one. (He did make Ivana’s poodle sleep on her side of the bed.)
Yet with Trump’s handlers (“enablers” is, perhaps, more apt?) said to be restraining him from announcing his plan for another presidential run too soon, there remains great urgency to Johnston’s project of chronicling Trump’s malfeasance—whether voters listen or not.
The Trump whisperers fear a formal presidential run would trigger campaign-finance rules and equal-time norms for TV (such as they are). But no doubt they also realize that every book and every investigation poses the danger that just enough of Trump’s Teflon will scrape off to endanger his narrow comeback path.
Michael Wolff works from the inside, cozying up to sources such as Roger Ailes, Tucker Carlson, and Steve Bannon.
In Too Famous, Wolff offers a glimmer of an answer to why damning Trump with facts has so little impact. Technically, this isn’t a book about Trump, unlike Wolff’s three previous ones, which detailed the madness of the Trump White House. Too Famous is a collection of previously published and original pieces on Wolff’s beat, the intersection of media and celebrity. No one, however, covets the light in that intersection more than Trump.
Wolff reminds readers of his conversation with Trump during the 2016 campaign, when Wolff asked what is usually a throwaway question: Why are you doing this?
Other candidates might have said their ambition was a chicken in every pot, or peace, prosperity, and no new taxes. Trump’s ambition? “To be the most famous man in the world.”
In other words, a global culture of celebrity, in which celebrity itself was the point, had now infected American electoral politics and brought to office a man with no larger purpose than the fame of being in office (plus, and here’s where Johnston comes in, the smaller purpose of profiteering off his office). Wolff gets at the truth about Trump, the narcissist for whom a three-ring circus would be anathema as distracting from his center ring.
“Trump was merely throwing pretense away and eliminating the need to perform for any reason other than attention itself,” Wolff writes. “He had arrived at a place that other equally as craven but not as shameless fellow attention seekers could only dream about.”
During the 2016 campaign, when Wolff asked Trump his ambition, he said, “To be the most famous man in the world.”
The question is not really any longer what Trump is—Johnston and Wolff have got us covered—but why we accept who he is (the “we” here being We, the People, divided approximately by two). Johnston and Wolff each tip their reportorial fedoras to Trump’s large, disaffected, mostly white, downwardly mobile following, and, as Wolff puts it, to Trump’s “uncanny powers of embodying whatever most represents anger and negativity.”
But it is Wolff, seeing politics through his lens of media analyst, who begins to get at the larger and frankly more frightening dysfunction. Trump will be gone, sooner or later. But what won’t go away without an intervention of some yet-to-be-envisioned sort is the utter emptiness of our politics—the meaninglessness that allowed Trump and his will to fame to conquer.
“The only thing politicians want to do is get on television,” Wolff observes at one point. “That’s their basic job.” Not to sound too much like the Federalist Papers, but, no, it isn’t actually their job.
TV is, to be sure, a crucial tool for politicians to do their job, which, Wolff rightly points out, is not something most of them are any good at. But the job of politicians is to help us work out our challenges. Overcome our differences, even. That is why we have politics. Believe it or not, it isn’t just to express our rage, exalt our identities, and diss our foes.
But this eighth-grade-civics view of the world is not to be expressed. “What we can’t do is talk about politics for its own sake,” Wolff writes in explaining how Fox News used politics as a metaphor for being left out. “It’s way too boring. It’s too disconnected—it’s too Al Gore.”
Gore being the politician who tried to warn us the sea was rising. We couldn’t listen, and, ultimately, got Donald Trump, who told us that coal was beautiful and that making him the most famous man on earth would be good for us.
Perhaps we’ll listen now?
Too Famous: The Rich, the Powerful, the Wishful, the Notorious, the Damned, by Michael Wolff, is out now from Henry Holt and Co. The Big Cheat: How Donald Trump Fleeced America and Enriched Himself and His Family, by David Cay Johnston, will be published next month by Simon & Schuster
Michael Oreskes was the first journalist to write that Donald J. Trump was thinking of running for president, a dubious distinction. That was in 1987