Thoughts on the insanity in the White House
“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington
This past week we have been vividly reminded of what we long have known: that the man currently occupying the office of President of the United States, the Chief Executive and Commander in Chief of what is still the most powerful country in the world, is impulsive, incompetent, malevolent, and unhinged.
Bob Woodward is justifiably regarded as a hero for his work — with Carl Bernstein, who I always liked better, in part because of Dustin Hoffman, in part because of Nora Efron — in breaking the news of the Watergate burglary and coverup. At the same time, his work over the years has received much valid criticism, especially for the way he trades on insider connections and avoids the challenging work of critical analysis, preferring instead to reconstruct dramatic backstage conversations and events based on the testimony of unnamed sources (The classic critique, “The Deferential Spirit,” was penned by Joan Didion and published in the New York Review of Books in 1996. Back in 2006, Paul McLeary offered a more judicious discussion in the Columbia Journalism Review). I find Woodward’s self-importance grating and his lionization by the media unfortunate. But there is no doubt that he works hard, and typically gains unprecedented access to those in the inner sanctum of power, and that in broad terms the stories that he reports seem true. And while Fear, his new book about the Trump White House, has yet to be released, advance copies have been widely distributed, and the book’s contents are already well known. And it would seem that Woodward presents a truly frightened and frightening account of the disarray that has seized the White House and the mind, such as it is, of the narcissist who lives there.
If the first news of the revelations contained in Woodward’s book was not enough, the week also saw something unprecedented: the publication of an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times bearing this heading: “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration: I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
The media has been abuzz, speculating on the author, identified by the Times only as “a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure”; on the ethical issues raised by the piece itself, by the stories of Trump’s malfeasance and of his underlings’ disobedience, and by its anonymous publication; and on its implications for the short-term and long-term futures of American politics.
These are all important questions. And I will confess that I was exceptionally pleased by the way in which they were raised by none other than Barack Obama in his fiery campaign speech last Friday, which articulated many of the issues around which the November election, and the one to follow in 2020, will be fought.
At the same time, the important issues here are political, not moral. And the op-ed, and the stories contained in the Woodward book, and in the Omarosa Manigault Newman and Michael Wolf books before it, and in the regular reporting in the Times and the Washington Post and CNN and MSNBC, tell us nothing that we did not already know: by any standards, Trump is not simply a bad President, or a reactionary one — he is both of those things — but an unprecedently uninformed, disorganized, decompensating and thus dangerous President.
I thus fully agree with Jennifer Rubin when she writes, in the Washington Post: “Stop Looking for the anonymous writer. Start looking at Trump.” And with Peter Beinart, writing in the Atlantic: “Congressional Republicans are the Real Authors of the Anonymous Op Ed.” Indeed, Susan B. Glasser beautifully sums up the past week in the New Yorker: “Crazy Town: A Bob Woodward Book, an Anonymous New York Times Op-Ed, and a Growing Crisis for the Trump Presidency.”
The criticisms that have been leveled at Anonymous, and by implication at all of those who serve with her or him in the White House, are entirely on target, and have been well summarized by Michelle Goldberg writing in the Times: “The Corrupt Bargain of the Adults in the Room: They’re not restraining Trump; they’re making him more powerful.” The most brilliant piece written on this is Matthew Dessem’s satire in Slate: “I am Part of the Police Department Inside this Bank Robbery.” For as Susan B. Glasser explains, Anonymous represents “the quintessence of the Trump-enabling Republican. He or she purports to be standing between us and the calamities that our ignorant and unstable president could unleash, while complaining, in the very same op-ed , that the media doesn’t give the White House enough credit. This person wants the administration to thrive because it has advanced Republican policy objectives, even as he or she argues that the administration is so dangerous that it must be contained by unprecedented internal sabotage.”
What the entire situation makes clear is that we confront not a simple crisis but an overdetermined one involving institutions, parties, and a uniquely unhinged individual.
At a deep level, we face a situation where all three branches of the national government, and a great many state governments as well, are controlled by a Republican party in the grip of reaction. This party is intent on reversing virtually all of the policy gains of the past five decades with regard to civil rights, gender and sexual equality, environmental regulation, and social citizenship. It is also committed to curtailing important features of constitutional democracy itself: the impartial administration of justice; the accountability of police to the rule of law; the right of all residents, regardless of citizenship status, to due process under the law; and, perhaps most importantly, the rights of all citizens to vote, to peaceably assemble and associate, and to challenge the government, via elections and via freedom of the press. Trump has brought Republican hostility toward these things to the fore, and it was Trump, by virtue of the enormous reservoirs of resentment he was able to mobilize and the extraordinary amounts of media attention he was able to command, who was able to turn this extremely reactionary agenda into a governing agenda. But make no mistake. This agenda is not simply Trump’s; it is also the agenda of Mike Pence, and of Betsey DeVos, and most importantly of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, who has done more than anyone else in the past year to advance the agenda. And it is an agenda that has made great headway, both in broad public discourse and through the administrative actions taken by the Administration, especially at the Departments of Justice and Labor. And while the above-mentioned miscreants are the chief ideological allies of Trump, the commitments in question have become the overriding commitments of the entire Republican Party, both in its Congressional leadership and among its base. Absent these commitments, there is no Republican party. And those associated with this party who have even the slightest reservations about aspects of these commitments have resigned, retired, or simply faded away.
The current steamrolling of the Brett Kavanagh Supreme Court nomination is a case in point. A few self-important Republican Senators, such as pre-pubescent Ben Sasse and the always-pontificating Jeff Flake, have sometimes summoned the faux courage to expatiate about Trump’s erratic behavior. But all have offered their support to Trump whenever it has mattered, and all will support Kavanaugh’s confirmation, because while Trump’s garishness might offend their sensibilities — or while they might at least derive advantage from acting as if it offends their sensibilities — Trump’s agenda is by and large their agenda. It is the agenda of reaction. Kavanaugh is indeed their perfect nominee. For not only has he long been in league with some of the most reactionary forces within the Republican elite — as David Brock’s new piece makes clear. He is a strong supporter of a maximalist conception of executive power, and is sure to give maximum leeway to Trump and his entire administration to do that thing they do — destroy everything of value that has been achieved politically in the last fifty years.
This is the deep crisis we confront. It is not a crisis of “the deep state,” but it is a crisis of the post-New Deal, post-civil rights “welfare state,” and of the weakening of this state by a Republican right that has long been ascendant, and that has found in Trump not simply a weakener of but an attacker on this state.
At a more surface level is the crisis of Trump himself. Here I mean both his own obvious psychological decompensation — and it matters little whether this is neurological, or clinical, or simply “merely” an extreme form of narcissism — and the crisis that his distinctive dispositional extremism intensifies on a daily basis. It’s true, many Republicans might wish that Trump would simply go away; now that he has elevated their agenda to power, it would be more convenient for them to proceed without him. At the same time, they will do nothing to make him go away, and indeed it is his popularity among the highly aggrieved Republican base that now sustains them politically. And so they both recognize his dangerous instability, and to the extent that they are troubled, they proceed in the manner of Anonymous, or in the manner of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, who indeed stand by their names, but have in every other sense long ago given up their minds and their souls to Trumpism and thus to Trump himself.
And so in the past week we have been forced to contend not simply with the Republican agenda, and with Kavanaugh and the corrupt process of his inevitable confirmation, but also with Trump denouncing Anonymous as a “traitor,” and declaring that he perhaps supports the death penalty for such “traitors” (we already know that he adores Rodrigo Duterte, idolizes Vladimir Putin, and has developed something of a man-crush on Kim Jong Il), and calling on the Justice Department to commence investigations of both the “leak” and the New York Times for publishing the op-ed, and observing that he just doesn’t understand why the government puts up with protest. Trump is unhinged. And his minions are the handymen and handywomen, tools in hand, determined to prevent him, and his government, from flying completely off the handle (if this is a mixed metaphor, then make the most of it!).
Trump might be the “superstructure” to the broader and deeper Republican party’s “base.” He might represent the apotheosis of a Republican reaction that began with Goldwater and Reagan and has festered and strengthened ever since. But in the past three years, Trump has captured this Republicanism and made it his own, with his own unique brand of paranoia and malevolence and World Wrestling Federation fakery, and his own distinctive form of kleptocratic narcissism. There is now a profound synergy, and co-dependency, between Trump and Republicanism, and the name for this synergy is Trumpism. Trumpism is about more than Trump. It is about the peculiar aspirational fascism that Trump represents, and brings to the fore, and feeds. This is Trump’s historical contribution to the narrative of “America.” It is poisonous, and harmful, and it will remain, as something with which we must contend, long after he has left the scene.
As many have noted, the “resistance” described and enacted in theTimes op-ed is not real resistance at all. It iscomplicity.
And it is precisely for this reason that those who have spoken with outrage and moral indignation about a “soft coup” in the White House — see especially recent pieces by David Frum and by David Graham in the Atlantic — are so wrong. For, however critical of Trump such commentators wish to be, and however much they might be motivated by a desire that Anonymous, and Woodward’s anonymous sources, would go public against the President, their very response in fact strengthens Trump, and in two ways.
First, by using the language of “coup,” they give credence to Trump’s long-standing demagogic and absurd claim that he (and he alone) authentically represents “the will of the people” and that he is being obstructed by a range of “enemies of the people” that includes “deep state” operatives in league with a malevolent press corps epitomized by the New York Times.
And second, because the language of “coup” is utterly misleading. What is going on is not a “coup.” What Anonymous describes is the President’s own appointees using their discretion, and getting away with it, because the President is an out-to-lunch, self-absorbed lunatic who spends his time watching TV and Tweeting and eating cheeseburgers and being wheeled around on golf courses, and does not read or listen or pay attention to any serious aspect of his job. What Anonymous says plainly is plainly true: these guys are sincere Republicans, i.e., reactionaries, who were appointed by the President to do reactionary jobs, and who are simply trying to do these jobs. This is not a “coup” because at any time the President can actually start taking the duties of his office seriously, and learning about the policies, and paying attention to what the government actually does, and holding his appointees accountable. And it is not a coup because these appointees are not in any way at odds with the Administration. They are simply trying to realize the goals of their addled, attention-deficient Leader.
Now, it is surely legitimate to point out that if these appointees were serious about the Constitution or about democracy then they might behave differently, through the 25th Amendment or whatever. But indeed, pointing this out simply exposes the unpleasant truth that these people basically share the same view of the Constitution and of democracy as that of Their Leader, but simply hold this view in a more consistent and rational way, and have mastered forms of impulse control that elude their petulant Chief. Perhaps some of them have thought about the 25th Amendment. And perhaps they do not wish to so disrupt the always-entertaining political performance that gives them cover. Trump does give them agita. It’s not easy being a Trumpist. But they are basically doing just fine. To place this all at risk for a lackluster Tribune of the People like Pence or Sessions just seems too foolish. Let Trump be Trump. Contain the damage. And proceed with the business of making the U.S. a much less perfect union.
This is no coup. Or, if it is a coup, the coup took place on January 20, 2017, when Trump — with the assistance of Trey Gowdy and his Bengazi witchhunt, and McConnell and Manafort and Flynn and Cohen and Putin and Wikileaks — was able to convert a deficit of 3 million votes into a Presidency.
Our system of constitutional democracy was in decay long before this event took place. And it has continued to decay, at a rapid and frightening pace, every day since.
Trump in the White House is a clear and present danger to freedom, human rights, constitutional democracy, and elemental well-being for the entire planet.
His enablers there are doing their best to keep him in check so that they can more effectively realize the Trumpist agenda — an agenda that threatens freedom, human rights, constitutional democracy, and the fate of the earth.
His enablers in Congress, say what they will, are doing their best to keep him in power, surrounded by sober and reliable ideological allies — Kelly, Kavanaugh, Kellyanne among them — capable of restraining some of his excesses, or humoring him, or helping him stay on track in the common Republican effort to Realize Reaction.
And what hangs in the balance is liberal democracy, and social democracy, and indeed any meaningful sense of democracy beyond the noxious combination of xenophobia, racism, masculinism, and unfettered capitalism dressed in the garb of Vox Populii, that is Trumpism.
Susan B. Glasser, again, says it well: “For twenty months, Washington has been asking, Is this the crisis? Is this finally the constitutional confrontation we have been waiting for? The Trump Presidency, to those closely watching it, and to many of those participating in it, has always seemed unsustainable. And yet it has gone on, and will keep going on, until and unless something seismic happens in our politics — and our Congress — to change it. We don’t need to wonder when the crisis will hit; it already has. Every day since January 20, 2017, has been the crisis.”
The entire situation is terrifying. And, in every sense, twisted.
And yet, as Duke Ellington teaches, just when we feel most like pouting, we can turn to the blues.
And so I share with you a jazz standard that is surely one of the most widely known blues tunes: “Twisted.”
The most famous version of the tune was recorded in 1960 by the great vocal group Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, with lyrics written by the great Annie Ross, who first recorded her vocal version by herself in 1952):
The tune was also popularized for a younger American audience by Joni Mitchell, who recorded it on her 1974 album “Court and Spark”:
The story of how the tune both came to be and came to be a classic is an interesting one that goes back to the story of Wardell Gray, a brilliant and influential tenor saxophonist of the 1940’s who played an important role in the birth of both bebop and “west coast jazz.” Gray toured and recorded with a wide range of jazz greats. He died, under mysterious circumstances, in 1955 at the age of 34, his body found, neck broken, in an abandoned car in the desert on the outskirts of Las Vegas.
In 1949 Gray first recorded “Twisted” as an instrumental blues. This recording, including Gray’s solo, became the basis of Annie Ross’s more famous version.
Victor Schermer, in a fine piece entitled “Why the World Should Remember Wardell Gray,” describes Gray’s importance:
In the jazz cosmos, Wardell Gray was like a comet streaking across the heavens and, if you were fortunate enough to be the right place at the right time, you might have witnessed his musical light. Some still know the name of the comet, and a few “astronomers” have studied its trajectory. Gray graced the jazz scene for a few years, played the tenor saxophone (and occasionally alto and baritone) in inimitable style, and had all the earmarks of becoming a star. He performed with and was admired and appreciated by a galaxy of greats such as Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Erroll Garner, Hampton Hawes, Benny Carter, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Art Farmer, Clark Terry, Dexter Gordon, Al Haig, Howard McGhee, and Charlie Parker. He died prematurely in 1955 at the age of 34 under tragic and partly unexplained circumstances. Even though Gray appeared on a substantial number of recordings and was revered by his peers, he vanished into relative oblivion after his death.
I have always been fascinated by Gray’s story. Schermer’s words put me in mind of the writing of Hannah Arendt, who was fascinated, following her friend Walter Benjamin, with the power, resonance, and renascence of episodes of greatness and especially episodes of political “greatness,” which she associated with the upsurge of citizen activism in the modern world. There was a strong tragic dimension to Arendt’s political thinking. At the same time, she retained a hopefulness, borne of experience and of her understanding of the human condition, that rebellious moments can arise and at least briefly flourish, and that when they do they can draw from the remembrance of past moments of rebelliousness. In her 1963 classic On Revolution, she described such initiatives as “islands in a sea or . . . oases in a desert.” The sea surrounds islands, and always threatens to engulf them (something much more obvious to us than it was when Arendt wrote). The desert surrounds oases, and always encroaches. Resistance to tyranny is a rare, precious, and precarious thing. It sometimes arises, and bears fruit. And invariably fades into the background if not into oblivion. But the legacies of such resistance live. And they sometimes furnish illumination, and inspiration.
We live in a dark and twisted time.
Trumpism is a dark and twisted force that seeks to destroy the most important achievements of post-WWII U.S. history, the achievements of the New Deal, and of the civil rights and welfare rights and feminist and sexual liberation and environmental and peace movements. This is a complex history, and it is not reducible to a neat story of progress or liberty and justice for all. All the same, if we are to defeat Trump and Trumpism, and to address the serious problems that helped give rise to Trump and to Trumpism, then we will need to revisit this history, to take inspiration from it, and to create new narratives that can empower a renascent democratic left and a rebirth of democracy itself.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.