Fear

FEAR: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE
By Bob Woodward

It’s a testament to the power of his name that the publication of Bob Woodward’s Fear had such an immediate impact. Though it dominated a week of news, Woodward’s reporting uncovered nothing surprising or new, or added any nuance to what we already know of Donald Trump.

That’s not to say Fear is a bad book, or not worth reading. The dysfunction it describes in the White House is both important to have a record of and entertaining in its own right. But when it came out it was heralded as somehow carrying more weight than similar accounts such as Michael Woolf’s Fire and Fury and Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged, which were both dismissed in official quarters as being sensational or gossipy. Both Woolf and Newman, however, had their own sources, and the story they told is one very much on all fours with Woodward’s. I suspect the Trump White House is just a sleazy, tabloid sort of environment. Serious reporting and journalistic standards can’t do anything to clean it up.

So, just to recap what by now is an overwhelming pile of evidence (much of it provided by the president himself): Donald Trump is a boastful narcissist and a bully with an extremely primitive world view that sees everyone as either strong or weak, a winner or a loser. Being strong, or a winner, is the only thing that matters. Or at least being perceived as strong, which comes to the same thing since perception is reality. While he may or may not be a total moron, it’s clear that Trump knows absolutely nothing about how government works, foreign affairs, or how the economy functions (what may be the funniest anecdote in the book has Trump suggest the government simply print money to pay off the nation’s debt). What’s more, Trump isn’t interested in finding out about any of these things. He can’t process information that contradicts his own views, immediately dismissing contrary opinions as bullshit. “I know I’m right,” he would tell advisors warning him of his actions on tariffs. “If you disagree with me, you’re wrong.”

His inner court can best be described as sycophants and handlers. Trump brooks no contradiction, but is very susceptible to flattery and luckily has no attention span (which means that bad decisions can be delayed, sometimes only for a matter of hours, until he has forgotten about them entirely). In perhaps the book’s biggest revelation, his own lawyers have to convince him not to be questioned by the Mueller inquiry because he’s a “fucking liar.” So much so that he can’t stop himself.

Again, this is something we knew already from his various Tweets and speeches. Still, Woodward’s dramatization of just how deep the rot goes has value. We need to feel shocked by all this, so that, perhaps, we won’t come to see it as normal.

There is one point, however, where Woodward steps way out of line. This comes in his account of James Comey’s briefing of the president on the matter of the Steele dossier, where, almost as an afterthought, Comey mentioned the business of the golden showers in a Moscow hotel room. Woodward thinks he shouldn’t have said anything about this because it somehow cheapened or polluted the rest of his presentation about Russia’s election interference. I don’t see why it would have. Comey thought it made “complete sense” since it was part of the dossier and Trump was going to hear about it anyway.

Woodward can’t get his head around this, and bizarrely tries to compare what Comey did to his own writing of a story for the Washington Post, which is a completely different kettle of fish.

In any event, climbing on to his high horse and telling the reader that he would never have done what Comey did is both irrelevant and something no historian or journalist should do. One suspects Woodward is engaging in a bit of damage control of his own here, since he later declared the Steele dossier to be a “garbage document.” Since he had no way of knowing if the contents of the document were true this was an astounding claim, and one quickly held up by Trump as exculpatory. “I was not delighted to appear to have taken sides,” Woodward writes. But he did.

One benefit of this, however, is to make Fear seem less partisan. While damning, this is far from being a hatchet job on the Trump presidency. Matters like his problems with porn stars and the ongoing Russian investigation are barely touched on at all. Instead there is only the spectacle of a vulgar buffoon surrounded by the usual circle of courtiers going through a daily series of empty rituals. Where will this end? With more books, of course. It’s one sure way of making money out of a train wreck.

Notes:
Review first published online September 25, 2018. The meaning of the title is obscure, at least to me. It seems to have been drawn from a (typically) vague utterance of Trump’s where he says that “real power is . . . fear.” I take it this is related to the idea that it is better to be feared than to be loved. However, in context, the line has to do with fighting back against accusations of wrongdoing coming from women, where it seems as though his fear is what is driving Trump’s own need to appear to be strong. That’s more like paranoia than power.

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The Great Leveler

The Great Leveler
Walter Schiedel

What a disappointment. The thesis sounds interesting, but Walter Schiedel is a dull, academic writer, making the exposition nearly unreadable. Despite all the charts and graphs, I also found the point being made rather vague. Only violent events lead to significant reductions in inequality. On the one hand that’s obvious – power is rarely relinquished voluntarily. As John Kenneth Galbraith put it, drawing on the example of the French Revolution, it’s a “firm rule” that “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.”

But Schiedel stretches this across too wide a swath of history (“from the stone age to the twenty-first century”) for it to mean very much. War, revolution, state collapse, plague: why render all these as “violence”? What is meant, I think, is more along the lines of collapse. In any event, the question then becomes what it will take for our own unbalanced, dysfunctional society to correct its course. As a more complex and advanced civilization, will we require a bigger bang, or a smaller? I suspect something smaller, but leading to even greater consequences. Interesting times ahead!

The Death of Truth

The Death of Truth
Michiko Kakutani

As the chief book reviewer for the New York Times for many years Michiko Kakutani had one of the most prominent platforms in the English-speaking world for her literary opinions. Despite this, I never found her reviews very original or insightful, and even referred to them as book reports on occasion. The Death of Truth is very much more of the same, reading like a summary of the vast and ever increasing field of Trumpology. Judged on its own it’s just another piece of wood on the pile, offering up an anthology of observations made by other authors, all saying similar things in different words, with little attempt at any deeper analysis or explanation.

Kakutani, who seems to have at least skimmed a lot of books, suffers from the curse of student writing, which is to quote a source or authority for everything she says, no matter how obvious or banal an observation it may be. Her conclusion, that truth is important for the proper functioning of democracy, is important, but a platitude. What we’re left with feels more like a research paper or review of the literature than a rallying cry.

How Democracy Ends

HOW DEMOCRACY ENDS
By David Runciman

The election of Donald Trump and the rise of nationalist/populist movements in Europe are phenomena that have led many to question the health of Western politics. In particular, there has been much hand-wringing over political polarization and authoritarian threats to democracy. Are we in the grip of a “democratic recession”?

Discords are not healed. Representative Assemblies, and so-called democratic governments, have fallen into contempt. Disappointment with ‘popular government’ shows itself in the growth of ‘direct action,’ in reversions to autocracy, and the like.

That is a judgment that could have come from any number of recently published books, such as How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder, or How Democracy Ends by David Runciman.

In fact, it’s taken from a chapbook my grandfather wrote that was published by Ryerson Press in 1933, titled Is Democracy Doomed?

In other words, the alarm has been sounding for a long time.

The direst warnings heard today draw comparisons between what’s happening now and the rise of tyrants like Hitler and Stalin. For Runciman, however, such analogies are overdrawn. In his eyes our situation is a far cry from what it was in the 1930s. Instead, what we are experiencing is a more prosperous, well-established democracy beset by a mid-life crisis.

He does admit there’s a problem. “Contemporary representative democracy is tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy and frequently ineffectual. Much of the time it is living on past glories. This sorry state of affairs reflects what we have become.”

The good news is that we can change. The great strength of democracy has always been its ability to adapt to various crises. Indeed, Runciman argues that it performs best when under pressure (an optimism not shared by Levitsky and Ziblatt, who think Trump’s ability to exploit a crisis represents the greatest danger facing American democracy today).

With an eye to the near future, Runciman identifies three challenges that could take democracy down: coup, catastrophe, and technology. Of these he is most concerned with the third, describing Mark Zuckerberg as a bigger threat to democracy than Donald Trump, and Facebook as the new Leviathan or digital overlord. Timothy Snyder also sees social media as danger, though he casts Vladimir Putin in the role of puppet master.

Whatever the threat, we need to keep our finger on the pulse of our politics. As Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, democracy is more likely to die not with a bang but a whimper: undone by incremental steps that may be imperceptible until, like the frog in the pot being brought to a boil, we don’t realize what’s happening until we’re cooked.

This “mindlessness” is a major theme in How Democracy Ends. For Runciman the election of Trump in 2016 is evidence that people felt overly secure, to the point that they believed anyone could be elected president and it wouldn’t make a difference. This is a false sense of comfort, and it underlines Runciman’s main concern: that we take democracy too much for granted. Snyder addresses something similar in The Road to Unfreedom, alerting us to authoritarian forms of politics that turn us into zombies and our elections into empty rituals. “Democracies die when people cease to believe that voting matters.” Hence the need for books such as these to keep us on our toes.

Of course democracy is a continually evolving experiment, and part of the problem in identifying threats to it lies in defining what core principles we think need to be protected. Looking around the world at the different political systems calling themselves democratic we see a wide variety of hybrid forms, not all of which stand for the same things.

Even granted a baseline of free votes in a fair election there is a wide latitude for disagreement. Is the party system democratic? My grandfather didn’t think so. Which electoral system is best for democracy: proportional representation or first-past-the-post? What do we mean by “populism” anyway? Is it an excess of democracy, or just democracy we don’t like?
“Mature, Western democracy is over the hill,” Runciman concludes. “Its prime is past.” Though unlikely to end or die anytime soon, we might expect it to change into something different. In navigating that change we still have some degree of choice. These books aren’t epitaphs so much as guidebooks to where we’ve been and where we may be going.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star June 22, 2018.

The Locomotive of War

The Locomotive of War
Peter Clarke

Why the “locomotive of war”? The expression is attributed to Trotsky and refers to the way war provides an engine for social change or revolution. Peter Clarke begins by invoking it ironically, seeing the First World War as having had more progressive results than Trotsky envisioned, at least in the English-speaking world. Aside from that initial reference, however, it’s not clear how the image fits with any larger argument Clarke is making.

Instead, this is less a book with a theme than a series of historical-biographical sketches of some of the leading British and American personalities of the period: Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, and John Maynard Keynes. There seems to be a point Clarke wants to make about the moralistic bent of Anglo-American policy, with later politicians taking the grand old man Gladstone as a model, but this is not very well developed. One suspects Clarke didn’t want to be seen as only writing another centenary book on the First World War, but that’s pretty much what he got.

The Only Average Guy

THE ONLY AVERAGE GUY: INSIDE THE UNCOMMON WORLD OF ROB FORD
By John Filion

Part of the immediate fallout from the election of Donald Trump as president was a tsunami of books looking to explain what happened. They all took this same question as their starting point, so much so that I even began flagging it in my notes as “the question” or just “Q.” When Hillary Clinton came to write her own account it was a natural title, with the absence of a question mark indicating that she was now able to provide an answer.

She didn’t, but the general outlines of an answer have now been pretty thoroughly sketched. Before Trump’s election, however, the same question had been asked of a very similar figure. In John Filion’s memoir of the Ford phenomenon (Filion had been a member of Toronto City Council at the time) it comes up again and again. When discussing Ford with lawyer Clayton Rub Filion gets various insights into Ford’s character, but when it comes to “the question” Ruby has to throw up his hands: “Who the hell knows how that happened?” Chris Caple, who became active in the anti-Ford movement is even more exasperated:

“The guy just staggers me. He still staggers me. If there was a Rob Ford out there working in a car wash, okay, fine, whatever. But for a person like that to ascent to a high level of political power – it’s mind-blowing. How the hell did that happen? How did that happen? There are countless lessons to be learned here. I’m going to be grappling with them for years, because I’m horribly fascinated.”

Yes, the horrible fascination. We’ve come to know that well too.

Filion trots out the usual explanations for Ford, ones that sound very familiar after all of the Trump analyses, but something remains inexplicable.

Political observers trying to make sense of Ford’s 2010 victory often point to three factors: lingering discontent over the forced 1998 amalgamation of Toronto and its former suburbs; the stench hanging over from the summer garbage strike of 2009; a pendulum swing to the ultra-right Ford from the left-leaning previous mayor David Miller. Add to this the inept campaign of each of his rivals and an anti-gay bias that Ford passively exploited, particularly among some of Toronto’s older ethnic residents. Ford’s main rival, George Smitherman, was not only openly gay, he and his partner had adopted a child near the start of the campaign.

Still, all these factors combined can’t fully explain how a man like Rob Ford became mayor of a city like Toronto, or why the Ford brand still attracted one out of three voters in the 2014 election – after his catastrophic mayoralty.

As I say, very familiar. Down to the remarkably resilient attraction of the brand even after the demonstration of Ford’s manifest incompetence. Then, after Rob Ford’s death his brother Doug would take over the family brand and become Ontario’s premier in 2018. And again we would ask what happened.

“This was a mayor like none before him – perhaps anywhere, at any time, in any major city.” Three years later Conrad Black’s Trump bio would be subtitled “A President Like No Other.” It seems they were both unique in the same way.

Were they that similar? Evidence suggests certain commonalities. Both ran as right-wing populists. Both were the sons of successful businessmen they couldn’t measure up to. Both were buffoons with limited attention spans. Take the following account from one bureaucrat who had to deal with Ford: “I started realizing, ‘Okay, I have to really dumb this thing down. No big words. Very, very simple.’ . . . I had to be able to summarize the problem and the solution within one sentence. If I don’t do that, he can’t pay attention long enough. He gets frustrated, and that frustration builds so he doesn’t want to do what you are asking him to do.” The same could, and has, been said about meeting with Trump.

All of which leaves us with the question of what the attraction was. What happened? What conscious or unconscious needs or anxieties were such figures tapping into?

In so far as I’ve been able to come up with an answer it has to do with a deepening anger against government. This is what unites support from both corporate elites mainly looking to get rid of public oversight and regulation and the common man who feels betrayed by out-of-touch pols who have done nothing to help him. What these people want is not just to shrink but to destroy the government — something they are quite open about, as Thomas Frank accounts in great detail in his essential book The Wrecking Crew. And here’s Steve Bannon explaining his political philosophy five years after The Wrecking Crew: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

This spirit of anti-government nihilism, whether opportunistic or despairing, has made every modern politician run as an anti-politician, an outsider, someone against the establishment or politics-as-usual. For some reason Hillary Clinton couldn’t see this. Characters such as the Ford brothers, or Trump, didn’t have to understand it because they felt it in their bones. They shared this hatred of government. Here’s Filion’s account of Doug Ford overcoming his father’s resistance to getting involved in provincial politics:

“He’s so anti-politician,” Doug said, explaining his father’s reluctance. “Oh yeah. He’s like me. I can’t stand politicians.”

I suggested to Doug that it was unusual that the Fords wanted to run the city, the province – the country even – when they are fundamentally against government and mistrustful of politicians.

“It’s crazy,” he agreed. “We’re anti-politician. But that’s just the way it is. It’s weird. I can’t figure it out. It just is.”

The thing about such anti-politician politicians is that it doesn’t matter how bad they are at their job. They have been elected to tear things down, blow things up, “destroy all of today’s establishment.” If they are incompetent, destructive clowns that isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s a good thing (and it helps even more if they can put on an entertaining show). The disbelief felt by observers at how someone like Trump sustains high poll numbers among his base stems from their inability to understand this.

It’s horribly fascinating stuff.

Notes:
Review first published online August 20, 2018. See here for my initial review of this book. For more on Ford (Rob) see my review of Robyn Doolittle’s Crazy Town. Reading that review now it seems to belong to a much more innocent time.

The Great Class War

The Great Class War 1914-1918
Jacques R. Pauwels

So much has been and continues to be written about the First World War that it’s hard for any general history to stand out. The Great Class War does stand out for the directness of its thesis: that European elites deliberately planned the war, looking for imperial gain in the form of colonies abroad and attempting to roll back the growing threat of democratization and revolution at home.

Pauwels insists that we see the First World War as having two fronts: consisting of a horizontal war between nations and a vertical war between classes. Needless to say this is painting history with a broad brush, but there’s enough in the record to give such a thesis some validity. I think things were a lot more complicated than Pauwels makes them out to be, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.