January 18, 2018
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Fire and Fury aside, what can you read to understand Trump?

by Peter Finn and Robert Ledger


Few books on American politics have ever dominated the news cycle like Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s tell-all book about Donald Trump, his presidential campaign and first year in the White House. In the book itself, as well as in Trump’s response (sample tweet): “Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book”), historians now have an unexpected bounty of material to pick over for years to come.

With Trump himself weighing in so loudly, it’s easy to miss the signal in the noise. Without wanting to give too much credence to any potential strategy of the Trump administration, it pays to think about what students of the US presidency can and cannot learn from existing theories on the presidency, when applied to the current office holder – if nothing else, to help weigh up how the administration’s actions might affect Trump’s chances of re-election.

For many, the foundational text that tried to theorise the US executive is Richard Neustadt’s book Presidential Power and the Modern President, originally published in 1960. Neustadt argued that thanks to the structure of the US government, the power of presidents is measured mainly by their ability to “persuade” others. According to 1950s commentator Robert Donovan, this feature of the office infuriated the 34th president, veteran General Dwight D. Eisenhower: “In the face of the continuing dissonance and disunity, the president sometimes simply exploded with exasperation.”

Given the Trump administration has failed to score any significant legislative victories despite holding majorities in both houses of Congress – aside from a highly controversial and regressive tax bill – Neustadt’s work seems as resonant as ever. And if the Republicans lose control of either or both chambers of Congress in November’s midterm elections, Trump will need more than ever to develop his ability to persuade those he disagrees with rather than simply pummelling them.

Reign of the mad man

While the social media broadside is Trump’s preferred way to communicate with the American people, that doesn’t make him unique; Theodore Roosevelt for one made no secret of his belief that the presidency could be used as a bully pulpit. But historians usually think of Roosevelt as a president who strived to clearly articulate a moral agenda by using what Neustadt called the “status and authority inherent in his office”. Judging by Fire and Fury and other accounts, it’s not clear that Trump is capable of this, or that he even has a vision beyond the nebulous slogan “America First”.

Thirteen years after Neustadt’s tome was published, Arthur Schlesinger proffered what is still the most famous of all theories on the US executive: The Imperial Presidency. Influenced by the twin nightmares of Watergate and Vietnam, Schlesinger set out a dystopian vision of an office corrupted by war-making powers assigned to presidents by the US Constitution, and identified just how much the judicious (or otherwise) use of the Imperial Presidency depended on the character of its incumbent.

Richard Nixon, for instance, sought to force concessions on his adversaries abroad by invoking the so-called Mad Man Theory – a strategy to convince his adversaries he was so unpredictable and virulently anti-communist that American power under his watch was a force to be both respected and feared. Perhaps this was the thinking behind Trump’s infamous “my button is bigger” tweet railing at Kim Jong-un on January 2 2017.

During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan pursued a not-too-dissimilar strategy. At the end of that decade, Coral Bell described the Reagan Paradox: a style that blended aggressive ideological rhetoric designed to cow the Soviet Union and the communist world with a more pragmatic, conciliatory “operational policy”.

But again, all the work done to make sense of previous presidencies seems of little use today. From what we currently know about the Trump administration, it is difficult to imagine this president or those around him operating with enough self-reflection to frame a rationale, however reckless or dangerous, that can compare with Nixon’s or Reagan’s.

Stirring them up

For many Trump supporters and what remains of the Tea Party movement, a better point of reference is G. Calvin Mackenzie’s 2016 work The Imperiled Presidency. As Mackenzie sees it, the office of the president is by its very nature “imperiled” because it’s too weak and bureaucratically constricted to properly exert influence over a federal government that’s too big and out of control.

This condones the familiar idea that Washington is a “swamp” overrun by lobbyists trying to extract money and special treatment from a corrupt system. Many Trump supporters argue that this is where “their” president can offer a fresh approach as a political outsider ostensibly accustomed to “getting things done”.

It may be that Trump can keep mobilising his supporters from the bully pulpit, a Rooseveltian Persuader-in-Chief operating via Twitter. He could also continue to project his rhetoric overseas in ways reminiscent of Nixon or Reagan. But post-Fire and Fury in particular, it seems more likely that future historians will need a new category altogether to make sense of Trump.

As Politico’s Jack Shafer noted, Fire and Fury has cemented Trump’s reputation “as a shallow, narcissistic, dim, post-literate, impulsive, temperamental and doddering buffoon who blusters and lurches from crisis to crisis”. Of all Trump’s 44 predecessors, none comes close to fitting that description.

Regardless, the furore over Wolff’s book will also reinforce many Trump supporters’ most distinctive view: that the “elite” is hostile to both the insurgent president and those who voted for him. Perhaps this will make them even more likely to vote for him in 2020 – providing years of baffling material for future thinkers to try and make sense of.


Originally published in The Conversation | Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/cc

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