A review of Anonymous, A Warning, Little, Brown (2019), £14.99, and Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, A Very Stable Genius: Donald J Trump’s Testing of America, Bloomsbury (2020), £20.
No president of the United States has had more written about him while still in office than Donald Trump. Books about him and his presidency appear week after week. Most, but certainly not all, are hostile. Why is this? At least part of the answer seems to be that he is what can be best described as a celebrity president: someone more interested in being in the limelight than in actually governing, someone who regards the presidency as some sort of reality TV show with ratings as the measure of success rather than any concrete policy achievements. He has spent more time campaigning for his brand since he was elected than he has spent contributing to the actual running of the US federal government. This is something new and when combined with his peculiar character, with the fact that he is quite openly and unashamedly a corrupt, lying, bullying, whining, racist, xenophobic, sexist, misogynistic, profoundly ignorant, narcissistic conman, convinced of his own genius, has proven irresistible to author after author and to their many readers. Nearly every book written about Trump by someone who is not one of his devoted supporters (astonishingly, these are usually evangelical Christians) has had an element of “you won’t fucking believe this” about it. How much have these volumes contributed to our understanding of Trump, his presidency and of the Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement that stands behind him? And how much do they contribute to the struggle to defeat him and what he stands for?
The first book reviewed here, A Warning, was written by a senior figure in the Trump administration—someone determined to fight Trump from the inside, doing his best to minimise the damage he does to the interests of US capitalism at home and abroad. The author, who has (so far) successfully maintained their anonymity, first went public with an article that appeared in the New York Times in 2018, announcing to the world that inside Trump’s administration there were people in senior positions doing their very best to keep him under control, to thwart his worst policy interventions and to hold to a conventional right-wing conservative agenda. They did at one point apparently consider an en masse resignation in an attempt to bring him down, but in the end decided to remain working on the inside. Indeed, initially they had more success than one might have expected but only because of Trump’s limited attention span, his general stupidity and ignorance, and his lack of sustained interest in anything other than his personal celebrity status. “Anonymous” has now expanded the famous article into a book, prompted, so we are told, by the death of the right-wing militarist Senator John McCain in August 2018 and Trump’s contemptible response to the passing of this truly great “American hero”.1 Trump’s refusal to honour McCain, who be absolutely hated, left his staff “dumbfounded”.2 This was one of a number of final breaking points and as the author concedes, while they had hoped to prevent the situation getting worse, it “got worse anyway”.3
Anonymous describes this internal opposition as “the stewards of what I call the ‘steady state’” and records how they soon realised that Trump was like no one they had ever encountered before.4 When dealing with “the most powerful person on earth” in regard to “sometimes life-and-death matters” they learned that there was no point giving Trump “lengthy documents. Trump wouldn’t read them.” Summaries were no good either. Instead, PowerPoint “was preferred because he is a visual learner.” Even with PowerPoint, he “couldn’t digest too many slides. He needed more images—and fewer words.” In fact, the best thing was to only make three points, they concluded, but this proved too difficult for Trump to master, so instead the practice became “one main point and repeat it – over and over again…until he gets it…ONE point. Just that one point.” Anything more complex and it was “like speaking Aramaic to Trump through a pillow”.5 He was particularly susceptible if the point could be made by means of a picture of some kind. And, of course, he could just as easily be persuaded towards some course of action by Fox News, by the likes of Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, as by the briefings of the Central Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency.
One way his staff developed to deal with all this was actually encouraging him to hold as many campaign rallies as possible, which both gave him “something ‘fun’ to do” and spared them at least for a while from “the rollercoaster of presidential whims”.6 According to Anonymous, descriptions by insiders of Trump as an “idiot” and a “moron” were, in fact, “the tamest descriptions used internally to express exasperation with the commander-in-chief.” Most people “normally tack a string of expletives onto the front and back ends of their assessments.” He recalls one shocked high-level aide complaining to him about “how alarmingly uninformed the president was”, that he was a “wreck” with “a juvenile view of complex subjects…all over the map…unfocused…about serious issues.” He “assured him that this was the general experience”.7 After one security briefing, an appalled official exclaimed that Trump had “no fucking clue what we were talking about”.8 He compares working for Trump to turning up at the care home only to find your uncle “running pantsless across the courtyard…as worried attendants try to catch him.” The trouble was that this was how Trump behaved “every single day”.9
There has never been anything like this before. There have certainly been ignorant, lazy, lying, stupid, corrupt, criminal presidents before, but never one with all of these character flaws simultaneously and as exaggerated as they are in Trump. And at the same time, he is convinced that he is a genius who knows better than everyone else about everything. The “steady state” people were having to confront a problem that was once thought to be the preserve of hereditary monarchies: the succession of an opinionated, lazy, unbalanced, completely unfit heir to the throne. Impeachment has not worked and one is tempted to suggest the Edward II solution, but perhaps not.
But what is this “steady state”? When we examine the idea close up, what it reveals is a longstanding division within the US capitalist class between those who realise most of their profits globally and those who realise most of their profits nationally. The so-called “globalists” regard a powerful US international presence as vital for the safeguarding of their interests, while the “nationalists” regard US bases abroad, international alliances such as NATO and the United Nations, and indeed just about the whole post-1945 “Pax Americana”, as an unnecessary expense, as a tax on their profits that does not actually protect their interests, and which rather even puts them at risk. Trump’s election has brought this “nationalist” interest into the White House for the first time since the 1920s. The last time a movement comparable to Trump’s MAGA following seriously challenged for power in the US was Charles Lindbergh’s America First Committee, which campaigned against the New Deal and to keep the US out of the Second World War and aligned with Nazi Germany. Lindbergh was, of course, another celebrity politician who welcomed the support of domestic racists and fascists.
Why then do the “steady state” people submit to the indignity of working for such a man? Anonymous does concede that despite his “toxic combination of amorality and indifference”, Trump has “a number of real accomplishments”.10 Obviously the massive tax cuts for the rich and super-rich occupy pride of place here, closely followed by his administration’s roll back of state regulation, whether environmental, industrial or financial. But Trump is also “the king of big government”, running up a massive government deficit that mainstream Republican conservatives regard with horror.11 On immigration, he was truly unbalanced. It was his “hot-button” issue and he brought it into just about every discussion of every question. How could the issue be used to attack immigrants? Anonymous recounts how, on one occasion, Trump actually proposed treating illegal immigrants as “enemy combatants” and imprisoning them at Guantanamo Bay. As one State Department official eloquently put it in private: “Are you fucking kidding me?”, before going on to describe Trump’s proposal as “completely batshit”.12 When it came to dissuading him from this course, no appeal to decency, morality, or even legality was considered worth making. He was persuaded to drop the idea because of the expense. And there are also his liking for, indeed envy of, dictators and autocrats, his casual alienation of many of America’s closest allies, which “put the United States at risk”, and his hostility to free trade.13
His response to the fascist “Unite the Right” marches in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 and the killing of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer, and his refusal to unequivocally condemn the neo-Nazis and white supremacists, according to Anonymous, absolutely showed Trump’s true character. He records widespread dismay within the administration at Trump’s stance. This was dismay that he shared, but even so he stayed on board. Why? The answer he gives is that it was to minimise the damage that Trump could do. This is his excuse. He will certainly be more accurately judged as one of Trump’s enablers rather than as one of his opponents, even one of his conservative “globalist” opponents. And now, he is terrified that Trump might be re-elected in 2020 and would inevitably be even more out of control than he has been in his first term. One last point: Anonymous is only grateful that during Trump’s first term he was not confronted with any sort of “monumental international crisis” that would have absolutely exposed his incompetence and been disastrous for the American people.14 This was, of course, written before the coronavirus pandemic and the unnecessary and avoidable loss of tens of thousands of lives, overwhelmingly working class, old and black people.
A very stable genius
Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, the authors of A Very Stable Genius, are two Washington Post reporters. Their book, chronicling the “dizzying journey” that has been Trump’s presidency, is based on hundreds of hours of interviews “with more than 200 sources, including Trump administration officials, friends and outside advisers to the president as well as other witnesses”.15 They have interviewed both kinds of Trump’s officials, both “those who thought Trump was saving the world” and those “who thought the world needed to be saved from Trump.” Their sympathies are very much with the latter. What they chronicle is the process of attrition that saw the so-called “adults in the room” either sacked by Trump or resigning in despair at a president “who nursed petty grievances, was addicted to watching cable television news coverage of himself, elevated sycophants, and lied with abandon.” Trump, as he often boasted, was “a president like no other”.16
One of the things their account highlights is Trump’s astonishing ignorance. Both secretary of defence James Mattis and secretary of state Rex Tillerson were increasingly alarmed during the early months of his presidency “by gaping holes in the president’s knowledge of history and of the alliances forged in the wake of the Second World War that served as the foundation of America’s strength in the world”.17 Indeed, he was not just ignorant, but was astonishingly ignorant. On a visit to Hawaii, when visiting the USS Arizona memorial, he actually asked his chief of staff, General John Kelly, what had happened at Pearl Harbor. Kelly patiently explained that “the stealth Japanese attack here had devastated the US Pacific Fleet and prompted the country’s entrance into the Second World War, eventually leading the US to drop atom bombs on Japan”.18 On another occasion, when visiting India and listening to prime minister Narendra Modi talking about the threat from China, Trump reassured him by remarking that, “it’s not like you’ve got China on your border.” Modi’s “eyes bulged in surprise”, but he did not correct Trump’s elementary ignorance of geography for fear of offending him. Instead, he just exchanged knowing glances with Rex Tillerson, and politely listened as Trump continued “droning on”.19
Attempts to educate Trump regarding the geostrategic interests of US imperialism and convince him of the “globalist” case were a disaster. On 20 July 2017, at a conference in the Pentagon, Mattis, Tillerson and the director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn, tried to explain what the US military, intelligence, business and foreign policy establishments saw as America’s vital interests. They tried to put it in terms that he would hopefully understand. Mattis began the meeting “with a slideshow, sprinkled with charts and maps and punctuated by lots of dollar signs.” This, he hoped, would help a president “schooled in real estate” understand “the value of US investment abroad. He sought to explain why US troops were deployed in so many regions and why America’s safety hinged on a complex web of alliances, trade deals and bases across the globe”.20 They briefed Trump for over two hours, but his response was to summarily dismiss the value of NATO and to insist that South Korea had to pay for US bases on their territory. They tried to explain that these bases were not there as some sort of charitable defence of South Korea, but in order to protect vital US strategic interests. But Trump was totally unconvinced and told them that as far as he was concerned the US was being ripped off by its supposed allies and that if his generals had been running businesses, they would have bankrupted them long ago. His attitude was that, “we should make money off of everything”.21 And as for free trade, it was a rip-off. At this point it is worth comparing the respective backgrounds of Trump and Tillerson. Trump was someone who claimed to be a billionaire, but whose business career had been marked by bankruptcy, bad debt and money laundering and who had won the presidency more through his status as a TV celebrity, through his “brand”, than anything else. He regarded politics and diplomacy as crooked real estate deals by other means and, given his stable genius, every opposing view was stupid and of no account. Tillerson, however, was a leading member of the “globalist” wing of the US ruling class. He had headed up ExxonMobil, a business with revenues of over $250 billion a year. And now Trump of all people was telling him how to make money and what was in the best interests of US capitalism.
Trump went on to make clear he wanted the Iran nuclear deal ended regardless of the consequences. And he wanted to know from the generals why the “loser war” in Afghanistan had not been won. Indeed, according to Rucker and Leonnig, “Trump by now was in one of his rages. All morning he had been coarse and cavalier, but the next several things he bellowed went beyond that description. They stunned nearly everyone in the room.” He told the assembled senior military officers that they were “a bunch of dopes and babies” and that he “wouldn’t go to war with you people.” They did not know how to “win wars anymore.” Tillerson tried to come to the assembled generals’ defence, but Trump walked out. Once he had gone, Tillerson sealed his own fate by dismissing him as “a fucking moron”.22 Presumably the irony of this man, who had got out of fighting in Vietnam by means of a concocted story about bone spurs in his heels, insulting the US military in this way did not go unappreciated. And on other occasions, including on a visit to Iraq, Trump even criticised and insulted the generals when addressing the troops, something else that was without precedent. At one such meeting he also told the assembled troops that they had not had a pay rise for ten years—until, that is, he authorised a 10 percent pay rise. In fact, the troops had received a pay rise every year for decades and the pay rise that he authorised was only 2.6 percent. Despite his barefaced lying, they queued up for him to sign MAGA caps. This man is the US commander-in-chief.
There is much more of interest in A Very Stable Genius. For example, how Trump was “genuinely frightened” by the special investigation conducted by Richard Mueller into Russian involvement in his 2016 presidential campaign. Indeed, he became obsessed with the notion that he could pardon himself for any crimes he might have committed—not that he had committed any, of course.23 They look at his relations with Putin and their altogether unprecedented character with him actually keeping details of their discussions secret from both the State Department and US intelligence agencies. There is an account of the problems with the security clearance of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor: he had “the classic profile of someone who would be rejected for a national security clearance.” The US intelligence agencies “had intercepted private conversations of leaders in China, Israel, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates that talked about the ease with which they could manipulate Kushner.” And Kushner’s close relations with the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, had also worried the CIA.24 In the end, Trump once again unprecedentedly overrode these objections and personally gave “Kushner permission to see the country’s most carefully guarded secrets”.25
The book also explores Trump’s relations with Kim Jong-un, going from the threatened obliteration of North Korea to singing the praises of the brutal mass murdering dictator in the most fulsome way. After meeting Kim, Trump called him “very talented” and “very smart”. He even claimed personal credit for staving off a North Korean nuclear attack on Seoul and had a short film made to commemorate the success of their meeting. It celebrated North Korea “as some kind of paradise, with gleaming high-rises, time-lapsed sunrises, high-speed trains, majestic horses running through water, and children merrily skipping through a city square.” The film “included a montage of images of Kim and Trump waving their hands and flashing thumbs up.” It was shown to “flabbergasted” journalists with Trump telling them how much Kim had liked it when he watched it. Later on, Trump was to speak with “apparent envy” of Kim’s rule. He admired how the North Korean people “sit up at attention” when their dictator speaks and even joked about how North Korean television news was even more sycophantic about Kim than “Fox News hosts were of Trump”.26 His turning of supposed disarmament negotiations with Kim into an empty celebrity stunt took place despite the opposition of his secretary of state Mike Pompeo, his national security adviser John Bolton and his White House chief of staff General Kelly. He ignored them all, replacing diplomatic and strategic concerns with the politics of celebrity. Ratings were more important than disarming North Korea.
By the beginning of 2019, according to Rucker and Leonnig, all those trying to keep Trump under control had gone and he was “a president unchained”.27 This is certainly true regarding the fate of individuals such as Tillerson, Mattis, Kelly and others. However, the fact remains that for all Trump’s rejection of America’s “global” interests and the international alliances and institutions that had been created to protect and advance them, his administration has not been as successful in dismantling them once and for all. The military, intelligence and diplomatic establishments are still “globalist” in sympathy, as are the most powerful of US capitalists. And there are still important voices defending at least aspects of the “globalist” settlement at Trump’s court, most notably Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
Beyond Trump’s court
The problem with both these books, as with many of the other books critical of Trump, is that they focus too much on his character and on his court. Certainly, exposing the man’s ignorance and stupidity is necessary, and chronicling his lies and crimes is useful, but it is necessary to look beyond his court. The division within the US capitalist class, between the “globalists” and “nationalists”, needs considerably more exploration and discussion. But this is just the starting point. What Trump did when he entered the contest for the presidency was to successfully put himself at the head of the overlapping Tea Party movement and Christian Right. Both these were certainly financed by elements of the “nationalist” faction within the capitalist class, but they also embodied the hostility of white middle-class, and also some white working-class, Americans towards the costs of “globalism”.28 He gave voice to their belief that free trade had wrecked businesses, cost jobs and driven down wages and conditions—and that immigration was part of that process and moreover was intended to make it permanent by forever changing the character of the US. The politics of celebrity allowed a crooked supposed billionaire with a long history of cheating his employees and subcontractors and employing illegal immigrants, to put himself at the head of a movement, what became the MAGA movement, protesting against the costs of “globalism” and effectively capturing control of the Republican Party. But this was not just about the politics of celebrity. The basis of Trump’s MAGA movement has from the very first been racism, xenophobia and hostility to immigrants.
Trump champions a white America. But not just a white America. He champions a white Christian America. The way that the leaders of the evangelical churches have rallied to Trump, a man who is without any doubt the least Christian president in US history, is astonishing. They have apologised for and made light of behaviour that would have led them to condemn a Democrat president, and to call for his removal from office. In this respect, they are without shame. This stance is partly a function of the so-called “prosperity gospel”: many evangelical leaders are themselves really just crooked businessmen making money out of the exploitation of superstition. They are wholeheartedly in favour of Trump’s pro-rich agenda because many of them are themselves extremely rich religious entrepreneurs. But he has also promised to forward their culture wars agenda and, more than any previous Republican president, has actually lived up to this promise. His vice president Mike Pence is one of their number, and without him as his running mate in 2016, Trump would never have been elected. His administration is full of born again Christians. More important, he is installing them in the federal judiciary all the way up to the Supreme Court, from where they will be able to roll back women’s rights, gay rights, abortion rights and environmental protections, as well as championing the rights of big business and the rich.
When it comes to fighting Trump, his administration and his MAGA movement, the fight against racism, xenophobia and hostility to immigrants has to be a central concern. Without any doubt, Trump, with the support of Fox News, will try to cover up his administration’s incompetence in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic by scapegoating China and immigrants. This has started already. The other problem is that with Joe Biden becoming the Democratic Party’s candidate for the presidency this year, the choice is between the candidate of the “globalist” wing of the capitalist class, Biden, and the candidate of the “nationalist” wing, Trump. Only struggles from below can change the terms of the debate.
John Newsinger is the author of several books, the latest of which is Chosen by God: Donald Trump, the Christian Right and American Capitalism (Bookmarks, forthcoming).
1 Anonymous, 2019, p2.
2 Anonymous, 2019, p4.
3 Anonymous, 2019, p2.
4 Anonymous, 2019, p6.
5 Anonymous, 2019, pp29-30.
6 Anonymous, 2019, p33.
7 Anonymous, 2019, pp63-64.
8 Anonymous, 2019, p31.
9 Anonymous, 2019, pp90-91.
10 Anonymous, 2019, p8.
11 Anonymous, 2019, p99.
12 Anonymous, 2019, p42.
13 Anonymous, 2019, p179.
14 Anonymous, 2019, p244.
15 Rucker and Leonnig, 2020, pxi.
16 Rucker and Leonnig, 2020, p3.
17 Rucker and Leonnig, 2020, p130.
18 Rucker and Leonnig, 2020, p169.
19 Rucker and Leonnig, 2020, p163.
20 Rucker and Leonnig, 2020, p132.
21 Rucker and Leonnig, 2020, p137.
22 Rucker and Leonnig, 2020, pp137-139.
23 Rucker and Leonnig, 2020, p71.
24 Rucker and Leonnig, 2020, p207.
25 Rucker and Leonnig, 2020, p252.
26 Rucker and Leonnig, 2020, pp262-263.
27 Rucker and Leonnig, 2020, p355.
28 See my account of the Christian Right in a previous edition of International Socialism—Newsinger, 2020.