The Media and the Zombie Presidency: A Love Story
It seems that there is always more to learn about 45's slow and hideous collapse--even though we already know it
Honestly, sometimes I wonder what will ever put an end to the soap opera formerly called the Trump Administration. When will it cease to turn a profit? When will Americans start to find the future more interesting than the most sordid aspects of our past? Where will the lawsuits end? Can the damage ever be undone? Is it possible to understand what is going on if you did not watch shows like “Dallas”, “Falcon Crest”, and “Dynasty” in the 20th century? Below is a summary of today’s state of play. As usual, if you know an interested reader who is not already part of our community, please:
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I do my best to keep up with Trump books. It can be exhausting, but I do it for you, dear readers. But even I have to pick and choose. In December 2020, The New York Timespegged the number of books that had come out about Trump at “over a thousand.”
Needless to say, there is a lot of repetition, particularly since the latest books are about how he lost the election. (Hint: all you have to do is read one, and you will ask: how could her anyone have ever imagined that such a terrible campaign would succeed?)
So, while new books about the Trump administration often have new information, they tend to specialize in recycling old information from different, potentially more plausible, perspectives. Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man (Simon and Schuster, 2020) is packed with endless details about the emotionally miserly family culture run by the soulless Fred Trump. However, perhaps you will be shocked to learn that what the president’s niece has to say about her uncle is genuinely interesting and illuminating. My advice? Listen to it as an audio book—having Mary Trump (who is an excellent writer and story-teller)—relate the story of her own father’s collapse, and the scheming Donald’s collaboration in destroying Fred Trump, Jr., is a pleasantly intimate and revealing experience.
Yet every book that delivers new insights into Trump’s twisted and shallow mind, no matter how well written and illuminating, inevitably invokes the “so what?” factor.
Does knowing more about how Fred Trump made Donald into a relentless bully help us understand why legions of people who are not related to the Former Guy let him bully them too? Does understanding, to the extent that we can, the mind of a once and future demagogue help us dismantle the destructive nationalist movement he created and continues to fuel?
Not really. Nor does blaming the catastrophe of Trump’s four years in office on a Bad Daddy and the Mommy Who Let Him Do It explain much about how a family system, in which the patriarch always gets to set the rules and dole out the punishments, perpetuated itself to a whole political party. The most urgent questions have not yet been answered, and will not be for some time. They include: how have so many people been serially sucked into the corrupt world Trump created? What did they hope to gain from it? And why were they so confident they would never be exposed?
Much of what you will learn from any new Trump book has already been in the news. But what is startling is that the loop is closing: what is in the news has already been in the books! For example, the final chapters in Mary Trump’s book detail how, in 2001, she and her brother, having sued for their full inheritance from Fred Trump’s will, accepted under pressure what little Donald and the surviving siblings were willing to dole out. But almost two decades later, Mary then made common cause with the New York Times team investigating Trump’s taxes. She sifted through the many boxes of discovery in her lawyer’s office for the financial information her lawsuit had uncovered, and turned over a couple dozen boxes if it to reporters who exposed decades of tax fraud.
That story won a Pulitzer in 2019: today, Trump’s attorneys (where does he find lawyers who will still work for him?) announced that he is suing Mary and The New York Times for $100 million. Interestingly, the civil suit avoids the question of whether Mary Trump’s allegations, and the Times story, are true. Instead, it accuses the newspaper of conspiring with Mary to breach her 2001 confidentiality agreement, which she almost certainly did, since the Times team would never have seen the documents without her assistance, and they knew it. My guess is that the paper will argue that everything they sourced form the document dump is public information that they would have had access to had the Trump administration not blocked government agencies from giving it to them.
But this isn’t the only Trump story today! The second is that by November 19, 2020, as every prior attempt to steal the election had failed, a group of true loonies—Mike Lindell (the My Pillow Guy), Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis, and Rudy Giuliani—had infiltrated the Oval Office with conspiracy theories hatched online. White House aides knew that the Dominion voting machine conspiracy this group and their rightwing media allies were pushing was fake, but they let Trump disseminate it anyway without any public pushback.
As Alan Feuer of The New York Times writes:
Two weeks after the 2020 election, a team of lawyers closely allied with Donald J. Trump held a widely watched news conference at the Republican Party’s headquarters in Washington. At the event, they laid out a bizarre conspiracy theory claiming that a voting machine company had worked with an election software firm, the financier George Soros and Venezuela to steal the presidential contest from Mr. Trump.
But there was a problem for the Trump team, according to court documents released on Monday evening.
By the time the news conference occurred on Nov. 19, Mr. Trump’s campaign had already prepared an internal memo on many of the outlandish claims about the company, Dominion Voting Systems, and the separate software company, Smartmatic. The memo had determined that those allegations were untrue.
Again, the outlines of this story previously emerged from two recent Trump books, Michael Wolff’s Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency (MacMillan, 2021) and Michael C. Bender’s “Frankly, We Did Win This Election”: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost (12 Books, 2021). Both of these authors reported much of their books from the West Wing itself (Bender for the Wall Street Journal, Wolff apparently just issued a press badge because Trump likes the publicity.) Even as the Trump administration was disintegrating, these writers seemed to have had free reign to talk to anyone, although by November 19, a lot of people in the West Wing had simply stopped coming to work.
The common theme in both books is a level of administrative chaos that permitted the worst Trump dynamics to play themselves out in an even more heightened way after November 3. This chaos evidenced itself in two ways: the first was Trump’s need to have his own craziest impulses validated, a need that—as things fell apart—could only be satiated by people who were as, or more, crazy than he was: Giuliani, Ellis, Powell and Lindell qualified.
But a reasonable person might also ask: how did four people wearing tin foil hats get into the Oval Office at all? Who was responsible for that? And the answer is: everybody, up to and including Mark Meadows, Trump’s Chief of Staff. Trump’s Oval had always been a sieve. People came and went at will, presented their pet grievances and theories to Trump without any filter, and the White House staff (including family members) were relentless toadies who allowed it to happen. This meant that the response to knowing the President was pushing a dangerous and false conspiracy theory ranged from high-level staffers saying “WTF!!!??!!”—but only to each other—to simply leaving town, as Jared and Ivanka had more or less done by November 19.
Many of Trump’s other closest staff also seemed to believe that the Former Guy’s legendarily short attention span meant that his mania would burn itself out some time before January 6, when the election would be certified. Why they believed this was unclear. Worse, they made this decision without any attention to what the armed conspiracists around the nation who were mobilizing in response to the “rigged” election would respond to Trump encouraging them to fight back.
So what we got in return was not just J6, but a permanent resistance to democratic rule that has taken root across the country, and that has infected politics at the state and local level as other ambitious and unscrupulous politicians draft off of Trump’s determination to be the president-in-exile.
In case you missed it, there’s a third story this week that implicates 45: a big federal indictment just came down that expands our sense of the skunkery surrounding Trumpville. “Two veteran Republican campaign operatives,” write Politico’s Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney, “including one who got a pardon from then-President Donald Trump one month before he left office — are charged in a new federal indictment with funneling $25,000 from a Russian national into the Trump campaign in 2016.” (September 20, 2021) You can read the full indictment, which features an alleged pay-to-play meetup with the Former Guy, here. (H/T Just Security.)
A new Monmouth University poll reveals that significant majorities in both parties still support Roe v. Wade. As importantly, they hate the enforcement provisions of the new Texas law. “Seven in ten Americans (70%) disapprove of allowing private citizens to use lawsuits to enforce this law rather than having government prosecutors handle these cases,” the report notes. “Additionally, 8 in 10 Americans (81%) disapprove of giving $10,000 to private citizens who successfully file suits against those who perform or assist a woman with getting an abortion.” (September 20, 2021; via Charlie Sykes.)
Benji Backer, the founder of the American Conservative Coalition, makes the case for why conservatives should be on board for far-reaching programs that address climate change. “Everyone wants clean air and fewer emissions,” Backer notes about the failure to consult local communities invested in the energy economy about the transition away from fossil fuels. “The debate should center on the optimal avenues to get there. Conservatives can do just that — and accurately represent these left-behind communities in the process.” (Deseret News, September 20, 2021)