Trumpocracy and Fire and Fury

By David Frum

By Michael Wolff

During the 2016 presidential elections CBS CEO Les Moonves made waves when he boasted of the boost Donald Trump’s candidacy had given to his network’s ratings. “It may not be good for America,” he said, “but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Despite not being a reader himself, Trump has been damn good for publishers too. After a slew of post mortems published last year trying to explain the election and how we got here, readers can now look forward to what is sure to be a flood of books offering insider and expert analysis of the Trump presidency. For journalists, historians, psychologists, political scientists, and even novelists and literary critics, Donald J. Trump is going to be the gift that keeps on giving.

The only problem will be keeping pace. It wasn’t so long ago that you’d hear complaints about how cable news had accelerated political reporting to the rhythms of a 24-hour news cycle. With the advent of social media this has been reduced even further, leaving a technology as resolutely old-fashioned as the book at a clear disadvantage when faced with daily Twitterstorms.

The prominent Canadian-American political pundit David Frum recognizes the problem of writing from within the whirlwind of current events. But, seeing as this is a moment of crisis, he also feels that “if it’s embarrassing to speak too soon, it can also be dangerous to wait too long.” And so we have Trumpocracy: an angry assessment by a die-hard “Never Trumper” of what Trump’s use and abuse of power is doing to America’s political culture.

There is much to pick over in the analysis, with many valuable insights and observations. Foremost among these is the role played by “those who enable, support, and collaborate with Donald Trump.” Why have so many people in positions of responsibility and authority caved in so quickly and completely to Trumpism? Frum’s answer is institutional: they didn’t want to alienate the angry and resentful Republican base and they needed Trump to rubber-stamp their agenda. Since Trump has almost no interest in policy, all that was required was that he “have enough working digits to sign their bills into law.” In exchange, a cynical and opportunist Congress would protect him. We’ve yet to see how far they will go in this.

If Frum’s book is more concerned with the big picture, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury goes in the other direction. Here are all the juicy scoops and gossipy revelations that have been feeding the media mills for the past week, propelling Fire and Fury to the top of the bestseller lists. Trump wanted his presidency to be a reality TV program, judged not by its accomplishments but by its ratings. He has succeeded beyond all imagining.

Though hard to put down, Wolff’s breathless tell-all in fact tells us little we didn’t already know about the character of Trump himself. Nearly everyone around him considers him to be a moron. He is needy, paranoid, and narcissistic. He doesn’t “process information” well, has no attention span, and tends to ramble repetitively, boring listeners to tears. Universally described as child-like, he struts upon the stage like a spoiled, petulant bully. None of this is news.

Then there is the presidential court, headlined by the dark whisperer Steve Bannon (who even likens the White House to the court of the Tudors), prevaricating establishment Republicans and generals, and a glossy brood of spoiled but dim children, inheritors of the Trump brand.

In the mutual contempt of warring power bases, and with a near total leadership vacuum at the top, dysfunction has followed: what one outgoing high-ranking staffer characterizes as “bitter rivalries joined to vast incompetence and an uncertain mission” and another more succinctly as “an idiot surrounded by clowns.” The resulting chaos is criticized by both authors. Frum calls the White House “a mess of careless slobs” while for Wolff it becomes the “scene of a daily Trump clusterfuck.”

In the face of all this late-night stand-up material, the frequently heard warnings of a slide toward fascism may be overdrawn. However, after reading Frum and Wolff my own mind kept turning back to the epilogue to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s classic account of The Last Days of Hitler. In his summary of the Nazi regime as a “monkey house” of “flatterers and toadies” Trevor-Roper saw not totalitarianism, indeed not a government at all, “but a court – a court as negligible in its power of ruling, as incalculable in its capacity for intrigue, as any oriental sultanate.”

The tragedy is that the Trump Show, or Trumpocracy, is only one symptom of a deeper rot. In Trevor-Roper’s analysis, what led to Hitler’s court was “the despair of politics.” The same despair has brought forth the strange fruit surveyed in these two books, and it’s only going to deepen.

Review first published in the Toronto Star January 12, 2018.


Only the Devil Is Here

Only the Devil Is Here
Stephen Michell

A blighted natural landscape being traversed by a man and boy has become a popular motif in contemporary fiction, informing such novels as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and John Jantunen’s A Desolate Splendour. Stephen Michell enters this same terrain with his debut novel, and once again we have the stoic, mysterious father figure (here named Rook) protecting the boy (Evan) from the many dangers of the road. It’s all very archetypal as well as apocalyptic, but Michell shows that he’s a capable writer with this kind of material in several cinematic sequences. The theological message, however, left me a bit confused with its inversion of the traditional hierarchies of darkness of light. I’ve nothing against radical re-imaginings of Christian mythology, but think in this case it might have been better to leave the more familiar religious elements out of the mix. One gets the sense that this is a world the Father has ceased to take much of an interest in.

Censored 2018

Censored 2018
Ed. by Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff with Project Censored

The subtitle for this yearbook of the top censored stories and media analysis of 2016-2017 refers to a “post-truth” world, making apt use of Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year. Post-truth was a popular coinage in the dawning Age of Trump, along with “alternative facts” and “fake news,” giving some idea of the evolving nature of the media landscape surveyed in this, the first Censored volume since Trump’s election. And if, as is suggested, “the real threat to a civilized society is stupidity,” then another word to keep in mind may be “agnotology” (the study of the deliberate creation of ignorance by the merchants of doubt).

Of course, the news media have always had difficulties with truth and reporting facts, but with Trump there has been a more open embrace of the disinformation-and-propaganda model by power elites. Nevertheless, important if inconvenient truths are still out there, beginning with this year’s top underreported story on widespread lead contamination of the water supply in the U.S. Apparently the disaster in Flint was just the tip of an infrastructure iceberg.

Censored 2018 is one of the slimmer entries in this series, but punches above its weight with a solid line-up of top censored stories, many of which alert us to significant threats to health, democracy, and the environment. Also included is a selection of interesting commmentary, including an essay by Edward Herman on the media model put forward in Manufacturing Consent at thirty (spoiler alert: things are actually getting worse). If you’re a regular reader of these volumes then you’re likely not going to be surprised by any of this. You can, however, always be better informed.

The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew
Thomas Frank

There’s an understandable tendency to view books on current political affairs as having a short shelf date. Once this expires, these matters leave the field of reportage and enter the domain of the historian. You can be sure all the current bestsellers on Donald Trump will soon disappear and leave not a wrack behind.

It would be a mistake to so neglect Thomas Frank’s The Wrecking Crew. His analysis of the conservative campaign to ruin government is as vital today as it was ten years ago, writing at the moment of the subprime mortgage crisis. Looking around the shattered landscape of 2008 Frank saw that conservatism’s “economic theories had been badly discredited and its political fortunes lay in ruins.” That wasn’t the case, not by a long shot, but this makes an understanding of the ideology of the wreckers (or “wingers,” as they’re also labeled here) all the more relevant to the current situation. In 2018 the right is riding high, with even more extreme plans for dismantling the so-called “deep state” and dragging the United States back to the nineteenth century (or the neoliberal paradises of Saipan and post-war Iraq). So it’s a book that’s not only as timely as ever but, given all that’s happening, even more depressing.

Freud: The Making of an Illusion

By Frederick Crews

I think a lot of us have a complicated relationship with Freud. On the one hand he’s a wonderful writer who created an entire mythology of the mind that has endured for over a century, helping to shape and inform a great deal of modern culture.

It’s terrific stuff, but of course (and we’re moving to the other hand now) it’s all nonsense. That much was obvious to me after just the first few pages of The Interpretation of Dreams (and things tended to go downhill from there). Where, I had to ask myself, was Freud getting all this?

Well, according to Frederick Crews in this thorough examination of Freud’s discovery/invention of psychoanalysis (basically covering the years from 1880 to 1900), the short answer is that he just made it up.

Freud’s theories weren’t grounded in any clinical case work or statistical analysis. He had no success with the former and seems to have been totally uninterested in the latter. He wasn’t much of a doctor or a scientist, and indeed in later life Crews describes a man who had “become an outright antiscientist.” In modern parlance, he was a quack.

His basic assumption, which he maintained in the absence of any evidence, was that what was true for him – and by that I mean what he felt or even dreamed to be true – must also be true for everyone else. His only real test subject was himself. He liked using cocaine and so prescribed it to others, claiming tremendous results despite tragic outcomes. Various foundations of psychoanalysis (the Oedipal complex, castration anxiety) were outgrowths of his own mental morbidity, discovered through sheer introspection, which he then generalized “under the misapprehension that all men were similarly warped.” He then created a library of case fictions that projected his fears onto others, giving them a spurious validity.

That Freud made things up is the easy part. Why he made things up is where the story gets not complicated but ugly. Again there is a short answer: Freud wanted to be rich and famous. He couldn’t become rich and famous as a doctor because he wasn’t a good doctor. So instead he became a writer of popular entertainments. As he explained to a friend:

I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador – an adventurer if you want it translated – with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort.

Crews calls this a damning and “definitive self-assessment,” but doesn’t draw attention to the cruelty of the historical conquistadors, or their overweening lust for gold. One wonders if this was an unconscious slip on Freud’s part.

But then, one is left to wonder quite a bit about the extent of Freud’s belief in the new faith he had created. Crews chooses an odd second epigraph for his book in a line from Seinfeld’s George Costanza: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” Is this meant to imply some basic level of bona fides on Freud’s part? Given the thoroughness of Crews’s indictment I don’t think I’d want to give him that large a benefit of doubt.

But we are left with an even larger question, one that Laura Miller flagged in her review of Freud:

These narratives have endured for so long because so many people prefer them to the truth. Why? That’s a question Crews touches on in Freud, but only lightly. If the book fails, it is not in pressing its cause so fiercely but in mistaking who deserves the lion’s share of his scorn. The best hatchet jobs don’t just assail an author or thinker for shoddy or disingenuous work. They also indict the rest of us for buying in.

Just keeping with Freud’s immediate posterity, why did so many others “buy in” or go along with the charade of psychoanalysis? The cult of personality must have played some role, and the institutional strength of the Freud circle, which was remarkably strict and disciplined and remained so even after his death (Freud was a bully, and like all bullies he passed it down). Also the very real benefits that accrue to any member of a court, the operations of which always appears disgusting to outsiders. And, finally, let’s grant that there was something in the Freudian mythology that has had a general resonance with much of modern life. That doesn’t excuse his enablers, but it does provide some defence for the rest of us.

Review first published online January 20, 2018.

Swearing Is Good For You

By Emma Byrne

You might expect a book on the science of swearing to take a lot of the fun out of the subject. Talking about taboo language is sort of like explaining a joke; subjecting the f-bomb to critical analysis defuses its impact.

Nevertheless, given how significant a role swearing plays in our lives it deserves a closer, clinical look. And Dr. Emma Byrne, a scientist and a journalist who has done research in the field, is well qualified to be our guide.

For Byrne, swearing isn’t just vulgar invective and angry ejaculations but a use of language that is “intelligent and powerful” as well as socially and psychologically essential. A “complex social signal that is laden with emotional and cultural significance,” swearing has meaning and utility in many surprising ways that go beyond the merely communicative.

For example, studies have shown that swearing can have an analgesic effect, so that we experience less pain when indulging in some expletives. And in the workplace swearing can become something like a tribal language, leading to increased social bonding.

In informal and off-colour prose Byrne looks at the science of swearing from the different angles research has taken. There’s a chapter on the structure of the brain and swearing, one on swearing and pain, on why a discussion of Tourette’s syndrome doesn’t really belong in such a book (though this is one of the longest chapters), on gender and swearing, workplace swearing, primate swearing, and swearing in different culture and languages.

Along the way we learn many interesting factoids. For example, by consulting a language database that’s charmingly known as the Lancaster Corpus of Abuse we can see that women’s use of the f-bomb has increased greatly in the last few decades while men’s use of the same has actually gone down, at least in Britain. Byrne views this as progress: “If women and men want to communicate as equals, we need to be equals in the ways in which we are allowed to express ourselves.”

It’s in ways like this that swearing continues to evolve. But despite its ever-changing vocabulary and levels of acceptance it’s safe to say that in one form or another it will always be with us just because it’s so useful. And, yes, good for us too.

Review first published in the Toronto Star November 24, 2017.

The Truth About Trump

The Truth About Trump
Michael D’Antonio

Does Donald Trump really care that much about having people talking about him, all the time? Yes. And, according to Michael D’Antonio, there is nothing new in this. Trump’s craving for attention, as well as his manner and method in attracting it, have been consistent for years. Indeed Trump claims to be “basically the same” person now as he was when he was eight years old. It’s that consistency that is the remarkable thing. By 2016, our familiarity with his particular brand of celebrity should have bred a greater contempt.

This isn’t to say his shtick hasn’t worn thin. Trump was widely despised even before running for office. But he was possessed of money and fame, which made him, by all our current standards of reckoning, a success. In addition, his media-fueled narcissism, viciously cynical world view, and post-truth attitude toward reality made him, D’Antonio concludes, a representative figure: “truly a man of our time, the ultimate expression of certain aspects of the American spirit in the twenty-first century.”

Fame, Trump has affirmed, is a drug. And what we are witnessing now are the degenerate years of a lifelong addict who has been handed an unlimited supply of the purest junk. In this respect, at least, his consistency of character may take on a darker meaning. Like anyone under the influence, Trump won’t change but will only become a more exaggerated version of what he already is. Buckle up.