Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: the fallout from Michael Wolff’s White House tell-all, the fall of Steve Bannon, and the politics of the Golden Globes.
Michael Wolff’s publisher is rushing to print more copies of Fire and Fury even as a chorus of journalists, politicians, and pundits — including Wolff himself — call its details into question. Once the dust settles, will this book actually have any lasting effect?
The only effect anyone really cares about, of course, is the bottom line: Is there a chance in hell that this book will at long last be the catalyst for Trump’s demise? After all the other turning points that failed to fell Trump, from his ridicule of John McCain’s war record to the Access Hollywood tape to his pat on the head for neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, it would be foolhardy to say it will. But it may be a not-insignificant step on this president’s path to implosion.
First, it’s important to know what Fire and Fury will not accomplish.
It is not going to shake the loyalty of a single member of the Trump base, which, like it or not, accounts for roughly a third of Americans and the overwhelming majority of one of the nation’s two major political parties. Nor is it going to spur a revolt among Republicans in Congress. Indeed, the GOP senator who most questioned Trump’s fitness for office, the soon-to-retire Bob Corker, having sold out his ostensible fiscal principles on the budget-busting tax bill, is now back palling around with Trump on Air Force One. It remains a liberal wet dream that a GOP-controlled Congress would impeach Trump, or that members of his Cabinet would invoke the 25th Amendment to yank him out of the White House. (The notion of Ben Carson standing in judgment on anyone’s mental health may be clinically insane in its own right.)
The only way Trump leaves office absent a Democratic sweep in the 2018 midterms is if he does so of his own volition: poisoning himself with his binges of Big Macs and Diet Coke; making a deal to head off pending indictments of himself, his son, or son-in-law; or breaking down mentally to the point where he is so unhappy, angry, and unmoored that he’d rather declare victory and take his marbles home to Mar-a-Lago. Fire and Fury has moved the latter process along. That Trump would feel compelled to declare himself a “very stable genius” and turn this book into an epic best seller by (impotently) threatening legal action to suppress it suggests that Wolff has quite successfully gaslighted him. Though it’s Ivanka Trump whom Steve Bannon described as “dumb as a brick,” her father’s self-immolating actions from the moment New York posted its Fire and Fury excerpt is proof positive that the apple didn’t fall far from the orange tree.
Let me add one other point I never thought I’d make: a modest defense of Michael Wolff. I am one of many journalists who have been the target of insults and scurrilous speculation in a Wolff piece at some point or another. It’s entirely consistent with his career that he’s gotten some things wrong in this book. But not that many things wrong, and not the big things; the book confirms what many others have reported about this White House, and the specific refutations of most of the major new anecdotes have actually been quite few. Wolff also writes with more humor than is usual for the inside–the–Oval Office genre. Would those journalistic critics who are ostentatiously holding their noses as they read Fire and Fury prefer the Bob Woodward version instead? Woodward’s instant histories have their own strong points of view — usually favoring those sources who were most cooperative, and tilting toward the Washington Establishment’s received wisdom about any post-Nixon presidency — even if they are written in a deadpan, just-the-facts-ma’am tone. Wolff’s re-creations of scenes are no more or less plausible than Woodward’s, and Wolff should not be faulted for favoring direct editorialization over Woodward’s technique of encoding his judgments in subtext. People are reading and buying Fire and Fury because the story rings true. It would also be highly entertaining, as pure and utter farce, if only the fate of America and perhaps the world were not at stake.
The sudden fall of Steve Bannon has been entertaining in its own way, but in terms of the political equation in America right now it will have zero effect. Bannon didn’t create the angry Trump base and its signature cause of white nationalism. It grew out of Sarah Palin’s incendiary campaign on the 2008 GOP ticket and the tea-party insurrection, violent reactions to the prospect and then the reality of America’s first African-American president. Before Bannon glommed on to Trump, he’d toyed with hitching his star to both Palin and Michele Bachmann, two of the most prominent (and, for a while, successful) pre-Trump Trumpists. Trump and Trumpism will survive Bannon’s demise, and in 2018 there will still be Trumpian-Bannon candidates challenging the sort of Republicans favored by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. No sooner had Bannon stepped down, after all, than Joe Arpaio, as grotesque a representative of Trumpism as Roy Moore, announced his candidacy for the Senate seat being vacated by the retiring anti-Trump conservative Jeff Flake, in Arizona. Arpaio and his followers could care less about Bannon or who is running Breitbart.
If anything, Bannon’s absence may leave Trump more vulnerable to the rages of his base. As long as the two were seemingly in touch — as they continued to be after Bannon was ousted from the White House — the crazies could assume they were being heard in the Oval Office. No more. Witness Ann Coulter’s Twitter tantrum yesterday when Trump, in a desperate effort to prove his stability and genius, televised his faux bipartisan White House negotiating session over the fate of the immigrant Dreamers. Coulter’s response: “Nothing Michael Wolff could say about @realDonaldTrump has hurt him as much as the DACA lovefest right now.” And: “This DACA lovefest confirms a main thesis of Michael Wolff’s book: When Bannon left, liberal Dems Jared, Ivanka, Cohn & Goldman Sachs took over.” Be assured the base’s abuse of the White House’s so-called “liberal Dems” (an interesting way to categorize a list of names transparently scapegoated for their Jewishness, not their liberalism) has only just begun.
Since Sunday’s Golden Globes, politicians and pundits have spent a lot of time dissecting Oprah Winfrey’s speech trying to decide if she’d be a great candidate for president or a terrible one. They’re making little progress. What does this debate tell us about where things stand for the Democrats?
It tells us that Democrats don’t have a plan, and don’t have a candidate for 2020. (They don’t have to yet, by the way.) They are also far from united. Oprah’s sort of generalized liberalism, unburdened for the most part by having to take forceful or controversial stands on the issues that divide the party, is a salve for all wounds. With the possible exception of Jonathan Franzen, who doesn’t like Oprah? Such is life in the Age of Trump that even Bill Kristol has joined Meryl Streep on this bandwagon.
The fact that Oprah would be another celebrity candidate should not be held against her just because Trump is a celebrity. If we use Trump as a precedent, no man should ever be a president again either.
Nor should Oprah’s lack of a record in government be a deterrent; she won’t have to defend (as, say, Joe Biden would) a long and sometimes compromised Washington past that might include the undermining of the #MeToo testimony of Anita Hill or voting for the Iraq war. Oprah may have had her own embarrassments, but her cheerleading for the likes of Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil should not be confused with Vietnam.
That said, the coy speculation and hints (including from her partner, Stedman Graham) about whether she is seriously considering a run or not is already getting tedious, and, with time, could be a dagger pointed at the Democrats’ 2020 prospects. If the idea of her running remains seriously in play, say, a year from now, her stature will deprive other contenders of the political oxygen of both media attention and donors’ dollars. Having opened this door, Oprah now has the obligation to either walk through it or slam it shut on a responsible timeline.