It’s nearly a year since Donald Trump’s inauguration and the good news is that we’re all still alive. The consensus is that his presidency is a moral outrage, but I still feel ambivalent. He didn’t come from nowhere: he isn’t a dictator. Trump was elected and is a symptom of the times and a political system that has slipped very, very far from its origins as a humble republic. Americans left the British Empire, so they said, to escape a mad king. Two-and-a-half centuries later, they have elected Trump.
Or so you’d believe from reading Michael Wolff’s history of Trump’s first year in office, Fire and Fury, which portrays him as a man who, eats cheeseburgers in bed and plasters whatever passes for his hair in Just for Men. Trump denies the allegations. He says that throughout his life his two greatest assets have been “mental stability” and “being, like, really smart”. Try saying that in your next job interview. Wolff’s book changes nothing: the polls haven’t moved, and why should they? The Americans who voted for Trump in 2016 were under no illusion.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and very obviously the source for much of Wolff’s book, has described Trump as a “blunt instrument” to smash a system that has been rotten for a very long time. When the American people were forced to choose between him and Hillary Clinton, they were bound to recall how ugly US politics was in the Nineties, when Hillary last ran the country. The nominal president, Bill Clinton, was accused of using state troopers for real estate corruption and adultery in the Oval Office. That these charges were absurd and false is a testament to the lengths to which America’s Right and Left will go to invalidate election results they don’t like, which indicates declining respect for the ballot box and a White House that is far too important.
Since the 1860s, power in the US has been concentrated in the hands of the president, who has been elevated to the status of a sovereign. Like a monarch, the office holder’s physical and mental state is a constitutional issue. Trump, say the haters, is too eccentric to be president. Obama, said Trump, maybe wasn’t born in America. Reagan was accused of senility. Weeks before the 1964 election, Barry Goldwater, a libertarian Republican, was labelled a madman. A magazine headline read: “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater is Unfit to be President!” Respondents to the survey called him a “chronic schizophrenic”, “grossly psychotic” and a “dangerous lunatic”. And when Goldwater’s team dreamt up the slogan “In your heart, you know he’s right”, his opponents replied with “In your guts, you know he’s nuts!”
In retrospect, Goldwater, who ran for president reluctantly and on a pledge to bring the office down to size, doesn’t look crazy at all. One warning contemporary conservatives got dead right was that a bad culture produces a bad politics. Trump’s greed and tiny attention span are common traits in 21st-century man. Wolff’s book tells us that the president watches TV avidly and tweets throughout the night. Well, who in the press corps doesn’t do the same? When entertainment and information are as confused as they are in contemporary society, it’s inevitable that celebrity will become part of politics and the ability to keep us glued to a screen a qualification for high office.
Devolution of power
Moreover, the conservative argument stands that the best solution to any abuse of power is the reduction of power. Devolve it. Put up checks to stop it. Some bits of the US constitution are coming alive against Trump: the courts are working overtime to stop his orders. The Congress, if it turns Democrat in the midterm elections, might get another shot at impeachment. And in reaction to this, Trump shows his true colours. He is not a disrupter in a conservative sense, like Goldwater, but the most imperious imperial president the country has seen for a long time.
Many of the most important roles in the administration have been taken over by ex-military staff. After a year in office, where is the change? Trump has signed a tax bill, yes; made some good moves on foreign policy, thank you very much. But the best weapon the Democrats have against Trump is not his bad diet but his undelivered promise of putting power in the hands of the people. That is what might unseat him in 2020, and Oprah Winfrey stands ready to take him on. In which case, the system will lurch from one celebrity sovereign to another, its fundamental, constitutional flaws unchanged. The president is a king; this king is a bit odd. I fear all the subjects can do is try to enjoy the show.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Tim Stanley is an English blogger, journalist and historian.