Digital

Exclusive online content

Sturm und Drang

By: Claude R. Marx
March 14, 2018

ne year into his first term, “Disrupter-in-Chief” is a frequently used and seemingly apt moniker for President Trump, but the reality is much more complicated. While he’s shattered some traditions, in other ways he’s been a conventionally conservative president.

Because Trump’s presidency is a work in progress, it is hard to take a retrospective look at his accomplishments, but two recent books—Trump’s First Year, by Rhodes College political science professor Michael Nelson, and Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff—attempt just that, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Michael Nelson’s Trump’s First Year presents an effective thumbnail sketch of the momentous events of the last year. For Nelson, most of Trump’s most lauded accomplishments, including appointing a record number of conservative judges and senior administration officials and using executive orders to reverse many of President Barack Obama’s policies, are not unique to him. Had any of the other GOP candidates won, they would have carried out the same policies. That’s a fair assessment and does reinforce the clichéd, but apt, phrase that elections have consequences.

In his eloquent and tightly written book, however, Nelson argues that Trump’s personality flaws and management style have made him less effective than he otherwise could be: “The challenges of administrative management are different in government than in the business world, especially the sort of personal operation that Trump was able to micromanage with a handful of family members and loyal retainers,’’ he writes.

Nelson is optimistic, however, that the system can withstand any one individual’s shortcomings: “Fortunately for the country, flawed as Trump is by aberrant personality defects –overweening self-centeredness, an inadequate attention span, an inability to deal with criticism except in the angriest terms—not everything hinges on the president.”

By creating a system of checks and balances, the founders made sure that if one branch of the government fails to function or overreaches, the other branches can step in. The decision by several lower courts to strike down Trump’s immigration policies and Congress’ refusal to repeal the Affordable Care Act are obvious examples of this.

In assessing Trump’s presidency, Nelson reminds us that his larger-than-life persona and his personality flaws are hardly unprecedented in the Oval Office. President Theodore Roosevelt, for example, had a manic personality and his self-centeredness prompted his daughter Alice to quip that he “had to be the baby at every christening, the groom at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.”  It didn’t prevent him from being an effective and beloved chief executive.

President Richard Nixon was paranoid and depressed and this affected his actions during Watergate. As a result, he was nearly impeached by Congress and he ultimately resigned. Those tragic flaws overshadowed his considerable achievements at home and abroad.

 President Bill Clinton’s self-centeredness and addictions set the stage for a series of events that culminated in his lying to a grand jury about an extramarital affair, which of course resulted in his impeachment by the House. This eclipsed some of his significant presidential accomplishments, especially in domestic policy.

It is of course too early to tell how Trump’s brash and boisterous personality—something of a cross between a real estate developer from the outer boroughs of New York City and the know-it-all who has imbibed too much at a family dinner—will affect his presidency’s overall success.

At the very least, it has resulted in media coverage that focuses on the sizzle, rather than the steak. Many members of the media just don’t know quite what to make of this reality television star turned president, and many who do are horrified.

Nowhere is that bafflement more in evidence than in Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the best-selling narrative by journalist Michael Wolff. The author’s love-hate relationship with his subject is well known and one of the most damning quotes comes from Trump who brags that: “I’ve made stuff up forever, and they [newspapers and magazines] always print it.”

Wolff believes that Trump is unfit to be president and has run his administration dishonestly. But his methodology for reaching these conclusions is suspect.

As is now well known, Wolff had considerable access to key officials during the first nine months of Trump’s presidency. Unfortunately, the result is a book with lots of interesting anecdotes presented in a choppy style.  Even worse, Wolff admits that he isn’t certain of the veracity of some of his claims because of the clashing views of some staff members.

“Those conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book,’’ he writes in the introduction. Often, when dealing with conflicting versions of a story, Wolff tells readers he will allow “the players offer their versions, in turn allowing the reader to judge them.”

When recounting other stories, he is selective and incomplete. In describing the efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Wolff doesn’t mention Sen. John McCain’s key role in defeating the bill. The enmity between McCain and Trump—stemming largely from Trump’s disparaging remarks about McCain’s  service as a POW—was a key player in that defeat and Wolff ought to have discussed it.

Sometimes his descriptions are appealing, but some stories are, as some have quipped, “too good to check.’’ His background as a gossip columnist shines through and the result is a book filled with high-calorie items with minimal nutritional value. As tasty is at is, one cannot live on chocolate alone and Wolff is feeding us the journalistic equivalent of it. One is reminded of the song made famous by the great jazz singer Peggy Lee: “Is That All There Is?”

Beyond that, he makes numerous factual errors that lessen the book’s credibility, including describing former Rep. Dick Armey as having served as speaker when he was actually House Majority Leader; claiming that Trump did not know who former House Speaker John Boehner was despite their history of golfing together; and that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly found out about his appointment via Twitter.

Wolff’s knowledge of political history is also lacking, though that particular shortcoming is also evident in other analyses of the Trump administration.

The frequent references to the unprecedented nature of Trump’s presidency ignore several other chief executives who ran and governed as outsiders, most notably Andrew Jackson and Jimmy Carter.

For years, liberals loved Jackson for having brought an anti-elitist tone to government, populist economic policies and for his ability to rile the establishment. President Harry Truman cited him as his favorite president. Liberal historian and former Kennedy aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. launched his career with a book-length homage to Jackson that suggested he be a Democratic role model.

Carter also ran an effective outsiders’ campaign, though the results of his presidency were mixed. He at times seemed overwhelmed by the office but made some important progress in energy policy and in brokering peace between Israel and Egypt. When I recently had the chance to hear Carter teach Sunday school at his church in Plains, Georgia, I was reminded of his fundamental decency—not a bad trait for a president.

Carter was less effective than he might have been because he angered the political establishment, including leaders of his party in Congress. That’s a lesson Trump might want to take to heart.

Trump’s First Year and Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House remind us that the last 12 months have been a wild political ride. But if the past is indeed prologue, the biggest excitement may well be yet to come.