150 Books Show How the Trump Era Has Warped Our Brains
COVID-19 craziness. Toddler tantrums. Unnerved staffers. What the lunacy in the Trump White House reveals about the degradation of America’s democratic values.
I blame Michael Wolff.
Not just for the typos and minor errors littering Fire and Fury, his early-2018 best seller on the chaos coursing through the Trump White House. Not only for the dubious renditions of reality his book offers. (“If it rings true, it is true,” Wolff said in an MSNBC interview about the book, a standard as journalistically appalling as it is perversely apropos of the times.) Not even for the unsupported suggestion—which the author casually drops into his epilogue—that Donald Trump and then–United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley were carrying on an affair. Haley had become a “particular focus of Trump’s attention, and he of hers,” Wolff writes, adding that the two had been spending “a notable amount of private time” together aboard Air Force One. (When not enough people picked up on the hint, Wolff drew attention to the supposed liaison in a television interview: “Now that I’ve told you, when you hit that paragraph, you’re going to say, ‘Bingo.’”)
No, I blame Wolff above all for setting a template for so many Trump books to follow—a template that former White House aides, administration officials, and even journalists far superior to Wolff have emulated to varying degrees, consciously or not. Fire and Fury featured so many stunning moments from the first nine months of the Trump presidency that even meticulously reported accounts of this White House in the years since have devolved into a contest for the most explosive, chyron-ready anecdotes—anecdotes that, while shocking in their specifics, have grown entirely commonplace in their regularity.
Since 2015, as a book critic for The Washington Post, I’ve pored over some 150 books on the Trump era, trying to keep pace with the intellectuals, journalists, insiders, partisans, and activists grappling with the turmoil it has wrought. Among all the dissections of the white working class, debates over immigration, and polemics on the fate of American democracy, perhaps the most popular subgenre has been the Chaos Chronicles—those books that document the actions of the president and his aides, and reconstruct the major controversies of the Trump White House.
Reading through the Chaos Chronicles, we learn that Trump and a White House staffer sat in the president’s study and compiled a list of enemies serving in his administration. We discover that Trump mused about building a moat with alligators at the southern border to fend off immigrants. (Yes, alligators. And yes, a moat.) We realize that senior aides steal sensitive documents off the president’s desk, hoping he will forget about them (which he does). We are told that multiple senior officials almost quit at the same time (but didn’t). We learn that Trump and the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, exchanged letters so gushing that a reporter deemed them “almost romantic” in their prose. (“I’m the only one he smiles with,” Trump told Bob Woodward of his pen pal, in Rage.) And we watch as the president struggles to read portions of the Constitution out loud, stumbling over the words and complaining that they sound—metaphor alert!—like a foreign language to him.
I believe it. I believe all of it and more. That’s the trouble with writing about the Trump White House, and reading about it too: The lunacy is appalling yet unsurprising, wholly unpresidential yet entirely on-brand. The president’s COVID-19 diagnosis and hospitalization last weekend are a perfect distillation of Trumpian chaos, packed with misinformation and contradiction, national-security risks and constitutional implications, and all with the man himself commanding every last speck of attention. When he needs oxygen, so do we. When his temperature rises, the nation’s does too.
The authors of the Chaos Chronicles strive for memorable imagery to distill the events they’re recounting: It’s a devil’s bargain! A team of vipers! It’s a nervous breakdown! It’s the White House as a pinball machine, or as an Etch A Sketch—no, wait, as a Tilt-A-Whirl! Yes, the mayhem is integral to the Trump story, and the deployment of outlandish symbolism is understandable when one is describing an administration that gives off a reality-show vibe, that feeling, as James Poniewozik puts it in Audience of One, “that you were watching a thing that you were not supposed to be able to see on TV—and yet here it was.”
Trump, of course, has loathed the Chaos Chronicles since the beginning. “I turn on the TV, open the newspapers, and I see stories of chaos—chaos,” the president complained during a White House news conference less than a month into his term. “Yet it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.” No, it is the exact opposite of the exact opposite; on this score, the scribes of the Trump era are more credible than the president. So Trump goes on Twitter tirades about these books, only boosting their sales and confirming their narratives. For publishers, a Trump tweetstorm is a key marketing objective.
Yet White House chaos is not the full story, and it should certainly not be the main story. While well-sourced reports and insider memoirs provide a vital historical record, the books that tell us what the chaos means and why it matters are most needed, even if not always the most memorable. When the fire dies out and the fury subsides, what is the true American carnage wrought by and in the Trump White House? If these volumes are any indication, it is the decline of America’s preparedness for truly complex crises—ones that can’t be intimidated on Twitter, wished away as “fake news,” or redrawn with a Sharpie. It is the remaking, to lasting detriment, of the limits and powers of the American presidency, and the degrading of our expectations for—and devotion to—public service. And it is the erosion not of personal decorum or policy process, though there is plenty of that, but of the democratic values to which the country should aspire.
In the Chaos Chronicles calendar, July 20, 2017, is circled in red. That morning was the infamous briefing in “the Tank,” a high-level Pentagon affair with Cabinet secretaries, top White House advisers, and the commander in chief himself, the most dramatized and dissected meeting of the Trump presidency. Think of President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Committee sessions during the Cuban missile crisis—but instead of worrying about Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, the assembled advisers are freaking out about their own guy.
At this gathering, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and the economic adviser Gary Cohn—some of Trump’s so-called adults in the room, all long since departed from the administration—hope to tutor the president on the benefits of international alliances and military deployments. The attempt backfires spectacularly, not because their arguments are invalid but because Trump’s beliefs about how the world works have been set for decades, and winning the White House by campaigning on them did little to change his mind.
Some of the best-known and best-selling books on the Trump White House, such as Woodward’s Fear and Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s A Very Stable Genius, capture the scene with cinematic sweep and detail. Woodward devotes nine pages to the Pentagon meeting; Rucker and Leonnig go to 11. The former Mattis speechwriter Guy Snodgrass, who witnessed the briefing from an adjoining room, spends more than a chapter on it in Holding the Line. In his memoir, Team of Vipers, the former Trump communications aide Cliff Sims describes the president’s mood when he returned to the White House that day. (Spoiler: Trump was psyched.) The day’s meeting provided the kind of scene that strokes the erogenous zones of every political junkie. Generals! The president! Cursing! A clash of worldviews!
“There is no more sacred military space than room 2E924 of the Pentagon,” Rucker and Leonnig write. The Tank is a windowless, secure conference room where the Joint Chiefs of Staff discuss classified materials, a place for serious deliberations over war and peace. “Uniformed officers think of the Tank a bit like a church,” Rucker and Leonnig explain. “Inside its walls, flag officers observe a reverence and decorum for the wrenching decisions that have been made here.” This time, it was not about making a decision but about staging an intervention, one for a president with no reverence for the long-held assumptions of U.S. national-security policies. And as in most interventions, the person at the center of it did not believe he had a problem.
Mattis and Tillerson felt “incredible pressure to educate the president,” Snodgrass writes, and so they couched their arguments in terms that they thought would appeal to him, playing to Trump’s business background (by noting the strong “return on invested capital” of U.S. diplomatic and military efforts) and to his reflexive disdain for his predecessor (by emphasizing that Barack Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq had led to ISIS). And they tossed in sports terminology, explaining that stationing forces abroad means not having to protect America “on the one-yard line.”
But on the day of the meeting, Trump has none of it. “Our trade agreements are criminal,” the president complains, stressing that he is ready for a trade war with China. He also fixates on a Bastille Day–style parade in Washington, with troops marching and tanks rolling and patriotism pulsing. “Mattis began to shut down,” Snodgrass writes, “sitting back in his chair with a distant, defeated look on his face.”
Together, the various accounts offer an almost running transcript of the briefing. Trump derides NATO as worthless, free trade as a scam, and Afghanistan as a “loser war,” Rucker and Leonnig report. “You’re all losers. You don’t know how to win anymore,” he tells the assembled officials, who include the four-star Mattis and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I wouldn’t go to war with you people,” Trump adds. Tillerson is the only official who comes off well in this scene in A Very Stable Genius, challenging the president’s suggestion that U.S. troops should defend allies only if those countries pay up. (After the meeting, the secretary of state delivers the sound bite heard round the world, dismissing Trump as a “fucking moron.”) Woodward recounts how the president both trashes the notion of a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan (“You don’t need a strategy to kill people,” Trump reasons) and counters Cohn’s point that trade deficits can be good for the economy (“I don’t want to hear that. It’s all bullshit!”).
In Fear, the meeting is summed up in classic Woodwardian style, with a written summary by an unnamed official who spoke with people in attendance: “It seems clear that many of the president’s senior advisers, especially those in the national security realm, are extremely concerned with his erratic nature, his relative ignorance, his inability to learn, as well as what they consider his dangerous views.”
In other words, they feared what they already knew: They feared the very habits and impulses that had prompted them to hold the briefing in the first place. Trump is who they thought he was.
Multiple other people attended the meeting, including Vice President Mike Pence and the senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, and the accounts reflect various sources and perspectives. Even so, many of the Chaos Chronicles showcase the point of view of Steve Bannon, the ex–Breitbart News honcho who served as chief executive of the Trump campaign, the candidate’s nationalist muse, and, later, White House strategist. Bannon’s inner monologue sets up key moments in the meeting and helps guide the story. In Woodward’s account: “This is going to be fun, Bannon thought, as Mattis made the case that the organizing principles of the past were still workable and necessary.” When Tillerson argues that postwar alliances have kept international peace for decades, readers of Fear learn that “it was more of the old world order to Bannon: expensive, limitless engagements.” In A Very Stable Genius, Bannon’s musings are saucier: “Oh, baby, this is going to be fucking wild,” he thinks as the festivities kick off.
When Trump returns to the White House, he and Bannon exult over their performance. “Steve, Steve, that was spectacular,” the president says, according to Sims’s Team of Vipers. “We had them on the ropes. Rex didn’t have any idea what to say.” Bannon dismisses Tillerson as “totally establishment in his thinking,” and the president latches onto the phrase, as though it is some brilliant new formulation. “That’s the perfect way to put it: completely and totally establishment,” Trump responds. That moment showed Bannon “at the height of his power,” Sims writes.
The next month, Bannon would be out, fired by the new White House chief of staff, John Kelly. But much of the most dramatic material in the Chaos Chronicles transpires when Bannon still held sway with both the president and the journalists covering him. Far more than in any other volume, Bannon is the spirit animal of Wolff’s Fire and Fury, which cites him so often that the book has a “by Steve Bannon, as told to Michael Wolff” vibe. (One irony: Wolff whiffs on the Tank meeting, even writing about inconsequential happenings on the same day.) “Interactions with Bannon often had an almost cinematic quality to them, as if he were playing out a part for a camera in the corner capturing his every utterance,” Sims writes in Team of Vipers. He’s right. Books need stories, and Bannon may have been the most influential narrator of the early Trump era.
The trope of the genius campaign adviser is ingrained in Washington journalism, Joshua Green notes in Devil’s Bargain, his best seller on the Trump-Bannon relationship that came out in the summer of 2017, when Bannon’s star was at its brightest. Bannon deliberately cultivated the image of a big thinker, Green writes, one who was “able to make sense of the world and divine where it was heading.” In addition, he was a talented storyteller “in the Irish comic tradition,” Green notes, and candidate Trump fell for the grift. “He loved how Bannon, an avid reader of history and military biographies, fitted Trump’s outsider campaign into the broader sweep of history.”
The bargain at the heart of Green’s account is that Bannon’s hard-right nationalism and Breitbart hordes would ally with Trump’s grievance politics to win the White House—at which point the new administration would enact an anti-trade, anti-immigrant, anti-interventionist agenda. (In a delightful aside, Woodward notes that when Bannon instructed the future president on populism, his student was enthusiastic, if a bit hazy on the specifics: “That’s what I am, a popularist,” Trump responded.) Yet Bannon’s nationalist revolution was inseparable from his own exalted self-perception. “Bannon thought he was an action figure who had been stuck in a hermetically sealed package for decades until Trump finally freed him and brought him to life,” Sims writes. “I couldn’t help but appreciate anyone who had the stones to be that grandiose.”
In Washington, all you need to do is quote or tote some weighty books (Bannon made sure to be spotted with The Best and the Brightest, Wolff points out) for journalists to start calling you a “student of history.” Bannon longed to see himself featured in the pageant of Washington power brokers, Wolff explains, and so he offered running commentary on his own influence and on the unseriousness of everyone else in the White House. This commentary is well reflected in the Chaos Chronicles. Bannon’s influence surpasses his formal tenure with Team Trump because he shaped the way the Trump story is told and remembered, serving, as Wolff puts it, as “everybody’s Deep Throat.”
That metaphor is wrong, of course: Speaking with countless reporters on the record, on background, or on the condition of easily recognizable anonymity is the opposite of what Mark Felt did with Woodward during Watergate. Felt denied rumors of his role for decades; Bannon basks in his notoriety, aggrandizing his influence whenever possible. He’s no Deep Throat.
But, hey, it rings true, doesn’t it? Bingo.
Another Deep Throat candidate for the Trump era is the “senior administration official” who wrote an anonymous New York Times op-ed in the fall of 2018, describing an internal resistance against the president. For all the speculation it generated, the essay yielded few identifying details. The author, who as of this writing remains anonymous, claimed to be part of a coterie of like-minded bureaucrats fighting to protect America’s democratic institutions by “thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses.” Readers did not learn anything about the work the writer had done or which impulses, if any, had been thwarted. The article’s generic op-ed-speak—its comforts were cold and its divides bitter, its observers were astute and its heroes unsung—also made it hard to identify the author. It could’ve been anyone, short of a decent speechwriter.
A year later, the same official published A Warning, a 259-page book promising to “cut through the noise” of this presidency and contending that Trump “still lacks the guiding principles needed to govern our nation.” The still is quite a tell. Anonymous informs us that Trump is “reckless” and his management style is “erratic.” As if we did not know. The president, we are told, suffers from “inattentiveness” and “intellectual laziness.” As if we did not know. Trump displays misogynistic behavior, embraces conspiracies, bullies his subordinates, abuses his power, disregards briefings, and equates criticism to treason. As if we did not know. Anonymous also concedes that the thesis of the original op-ed—that the alleged adults in the room could curb Trump’s worst instincts—had proved false. “Americans should not expect that his advisors can fix the situation,” Anonymous acknowledges. As if we ever did.
Part of the challenge here is the author’s continued anonymity. A Warning reads like a longer—much longer—version of the op-ed, purposely vague and avoiding major disclosures to preserve the writer’s secret. Anonymity, usually granted to obtain more information, here justifies giving less. Absent hard facts, the author barrages readers with similes. Trump is “like a twelve-year-old in an air traffic control tower, pushing the buttons of government indiscriminately,” we are told. He treats the U.S. military “like it’s part of a big game of Battleship.” Most vivid, working for Trump is “like showing up at the nursing home at daybreak to find your elderly uncle running pantsless across the courtyard and cursing loudly about the cafeteria food, as worried attendants try to catch him.”
Rather than offering many instances of underlings proactively curbing presidential misconduct, A Warning provides an endless encore of officials expressing concern: “We all watched with a sense of doom.” “We were all unnerved.” “This place is so fucked up.” “It was jaw-dropping.” “There is literally no one in charge here.”
In A Warning, actions are not taken; they are almost taken. In an especially dire circumstance, several top Trump officials consider resigning en masse, a “midnight self-massacre” that would draw public attention to the president’s ineptitude. The move is deemed too risky, Anonymous explains, because it would “shake public confidence”—as if the eroding public confidence were not the very reason they had pondered the move. Throughout A Warning, at least a handful of top aides are always “on the brink” of quitting. (The brink is a popular hangout for Trump officials.) Anonymous also wonders if Trump’s response to the Charlottesville, Virginia, protests in 2017, when the president drew a moral equivalence between white nationalists and those Americans protesting against them, would have been the time for such a gesture. “Maybe that was a lost moment, when a rush to the exits would have meant something.”
It’s like Profiles in Thinking About Courage.
Several contributors to the Chaos Chronicles offer one overriding concept to explain the president—a single analytic lens through which his actions are explained and magnified. It is a reductionist exercise, often more clever than useful. But it is useful when it uncovers patterns in Trump’s behavior. Trump the mobster. Trump the tantrum-throwing toddler.
James Comey, the former FBI director and author of A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, will forever be a central character of this time. He certainly deserves it. Comey was the first to inform Trump of the existence of the sketchy Russia dossier. (The president-elect responded by asking, rhetorically, if he seemed like the kind of guy who needs to hire prostitutes.) Comey’s sacking led to the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russia’s election interference. And thanks to the lawman’s compulsion to write memos on his conversations with Trump, Comey’s private exchanges with the president are legend. (I’m surprised that I Need Loyalty is not the title of yet another Chaos Chronicle.) The new Showtime miniseries The Comey Rule, starring Jeff Daniels in the title role and based on Comey’s memoir, doesn’t hurt either.
A Higher Loyalty can be exceedingly pompous, even self-deluding. Comey tells readers that he never cut in line at the FBI cafeteria, because “it was very important to show people that I’m not better than anyone else.” He is the kind of writer who doesn’t just quote Shakespeare but quotes himself quoting Shakespeare. And, somehow, he still hopes that his momentous decisions in 2016—to openly chastise Hillary Clinton for being “extremely careless” in handling classified materials, and to briefly reopen the investigation into her emails with just days left in the campaign—did not influence the election.
While Comey echoes standard criticisms of Trump—he is “unethical, untethered to truth and institutional values,” and his leadership is “transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty”—his views are rooted not just in his own dealings with the president but in his memories of his years battling Mafia families as the U.S. attorney in Manhattan. “As I found myself thrust into the Trump orbit, I once again was having flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the Mob,” he explains. “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things.” Ethical leaders, Comey argues, don’t need to yell, inspire fear, or issue threats. “Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty. Those leading through fear—like a Cosa Nostra boss—require personal loyalty.” Others closer to the president, such as his disgraced former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, succumbed to Trump’s demands for loyalty even while understanding the manipulation involved. Trump “talks like a mob boss,” Cohen writes in Disloyal, “using language carefully calibrated to convey his desires and demands, while at the same time employing deliberate indirection to insulate himself.” Cohen, who likens his teen years to those of the young Henry Hill character in the wise-guys classic Goodfellas, enjoyed no such insulation, which is why he wrote parts of his memoir from prison.
Daniel W. Drezner sees Trump not as a mobster but as a toddler, a comparison that is more amusing but also more alarming. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, is best known in the Trump years as the keeper of a Twitter thread noting every time a Trump official or ally is cited in the press likening the president to a child. (As of this writing, he has passed 1,800 instances.)
It may be the funniest of the Chaos Chronicles, but The Toddler in Chief also outlines the risks of having a president with childlike traits, such as poor impulse control, defiant ignorance, a short attention span, temper tantrums, and a constant need for more screen time. Opportunistic advisers exploit his emotions to their advantage. He doubles down on mistakes just to avoid admitting them. He makes major decisions—withdrawing forces from Syria, shutting down the government—largely on impulse. Officials briefing him on key issues are hesitant to present findings that contradict Trump’s off-the-cuff positions. The result is a president “operating the executive branch like a bumper car, without any sense of peril,” Drezner writes. “The driver is not getting any better at his job. He is just getting more confident that there is no risk to what he is doing.”
That sense of peril may have been heightened in recent days, when not just the president and first lady but also multiple White House staffers, Republican senators, and even Trump’s campaign manager tested positive for COVID-19, just days after Trump mocked former Vice President Joe Biden in their debate for wearing his mask so often. But anyone anticipating that Trump’s public downplaying of the coronavirus will shift should remember that toddlers hate to admit they were ever wrong. The Toddler in Chief was completed before the outbreak went global, but Drezner still manages to anticipate something like it, even fleetingly. “Based on Trump’s behavior as cataloged in this book,” he writes, “the idea of Trump coping with a true crisis—a terrorist attack, a global pandemic, a great power clash with China—is truly frightening.”
Even more frightening? Such crises are not mutually exclusive.
For all the president’s blather about a nefarious deep state, his contempt for the deep-seated expertise of the federal government could prove most damaging. “If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems,” Michael Lewis explains in The Fifth Risk, published in 2018.
That may be one of the most urgent books of the Trump years. Reading it in the middle of a presidency obsessed with alleged bureaucratic machinations feels subversive, almost countercultural; in the middle of a pandemic, the book feels downright prophetic. Lewis has written a love letter to America’s federal workforce, the researchers and the scientists and the data geeks too easily ignored until a crisis proves their value. “We don’t really celebrate the accomplishments of government employees,” Lewis writes. “They exist in our society to take the blame.” He wants to give them credit.
The Fifth Risk recounts the disastrous transition between the 2016 election and Trump’s inauguration. An outgoing administration is required by law to help the new crew prepare to run things, so Obama officials spent months readying detailed briefings for their successors, whomever they would be. Except Trump was not interested in such planning. “You and I are so smart that we can leave the victory party two hours early and do the transition ourselves,” he told former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was originally tasked with the nominal transition effort.
Lewis took it upon himself to do what so many Trump officials didn’t: He interviewed former Obama officials from the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Energy and asked what they would have told their successors if they’d had the chance. What he found is a government that manages risks so large that no one person or company could ever handle them. The former chief risk officer at the Department of Energy ticks down the five problems that keep him up at night: a nuclear-weapons accident. North Korea. Iran. The vulnerability of the electrical grid. And fifth is faulty “project management,” what Lewis describes as the dangerous habit of patching up long-term problems with short-term solutions. Imagine The Big Short, but instead of Wall Street, it’s Washington.
Lewis lists some of the fast-moving, inevitable dangers that any president must consider, including pandemics, hurricanes, and terrorist attacks. (Yes, pandemics are first on his list.) But many risks are longer-term and therefore easily ignored. “It is delaying repairs to a tunnel filled with lethal waste until, one day, it collapses,” Lewis cautions. “It is the aging workforce of the DOE—which is no longer attracting young people, as it once did—that one day loses track of a nuclear bomb. It is the ceding of technical and scientific leadership to China. It is the innovation that never occurs, and the knowledge that is never created, because you have ceased to lay the groundwork for it. It is what you never learned that might have saved you.”
In Lewis’s telling, such risks are not just a matter of laziness or ineptitude, but deliberate neglect and avoidance. “There is an upside to ignorance, and a downside to knowledge,” Lewis writes, explaining Trump’s approach. “Knowledge makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview.”
As the Chaos Chronicles make clear, a global health and economic crisis such as the pandemic only magnifies Trump’s shortcomings. It demands that a leader rely on science and data, work across bureaucracies and agencies, communicate clearly and credibly with the public, and demonstrate basic empathy with Americans, who suffer regardless of their party, the color of their state, or the words on their hats. Instead, the president behaves as he always does, and believes what he wants to believe, whether on the origins and duration of the pandemic or the proper means to fight it. In Fear, an exasperated Gary Cohn asks the president about his beliefs on tariffs and trade. “Why do you have these views?” the economic adviser demands. Trump’s answer: “I just do. I’ve had these views for 30 years.” Similarly, Trump instinctively regarded the virus as a border-security problem, an immigration problem, a China problem, a messaging problem. He shrinks the world to a worldview.
“The office of the presidency depends on a measure of civic virtue,” Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes argue in Unmaking the Presidency, published early this year. Traditionally, presidents are expected to promote shared values, serve as role models, and put service to the nation above service to self. They are expected to follow the law, or at least to speak and act as if they mean to. In Trump, the authors write, America instead has a leader whose life and presidency embody “an ongoing rejection of civic virtue.” Trump has made his presidency an extension of his campaign rallies, “a presidency that elevates the expressive and personal dimensions of the office over everything else.” It is the presidency as vanity plate, as zinger, as pinned tweet.
This notion of the “expressive presidency” is at the heart of Hennessey and Wittes’s book. In chapter after chapter, the authors contrast the norms that have grown around U.S. presidential behavior over the centuries—involving ethics, honesty, organization, rhetoric, and deference to the rule of law—with Trump’s gleeful violations of them. The president directs policy, hires and fires officials, and addresses the nation all with one eye on his own interests and the other on the passions of his core supporters. The result is a presidency “in which the institutional office and the personality of its occupant are almost entirely merged—merged in their interests, in their impulses, in their finances, and in their public character,” Hennessey and Wittes write. This reminds me of a moment in Disloyal, when Cohen is walking with Trump through the atrium of Trump Tower, and they’re suddenly mobbed by gawking tourists seeking photographs, autographs, and thrills. Trump winks at Cohen and whispers, “This is what Trump is all about.”
And it is what this presidency has been all about too. All the traditional functions of the office, its management roles, the execution of laws, and the “expectation of ethical conduct, truthfulness, and service,” as Hennessey and Wittes put it, have been downgraded, subsumed into spectacle surrounding the man. And Trump basically dares Congress, the courts, and the voters to do anything about it.
His musings about not respecting the outcome of the November election are another instance of the expressive presidency in action; he talks as though the legitimacy of the election is up to him, as if, in our system, it is his choice to make. “The ideas are mine,” Trump tells Woodward in Rage, when the reporter asks him how he decides on particular policies or positions. “Want to know something? Everything’s mine. You know, everything is mine.”
The irony is that governing in this way undercuts the effectiveness of the chief executive. Trump pays a price for announcing the withdrawal of forces from Syria so precipitously; for a travel ban that cannot pass muster in the courts; for simply tweeting out, without consultation, his decision that transgender Americans cannot serve in the armed forces. And the nation pays a dear price when Trump treats the pandemic as another opportunity for personal expression, misleading the public about the risks (“We have it totally under control”), the availability of testing (“Anybody that needs a test, gets a test”), the likely duration (“One day, it’s like a miracle—it will disappear”), and its true impact (“It affects virtually nobody”). His decisions on when and how to reopen the economy seem guided more by electoral concerns than public-health considerations, and his outlandish televised briefings early in the crisis—a mix of wish fulfillment, untruth, and score-settling—seemed to embody the expressive presidency.
That is the point: Coherence and effectiveness don’t matter. Trump appears captivated by the theatrical, made-for-TV aspects of his job, such as press confrontations and campaign rallies. In Rage, when Woodward asks him for insight into his 2018 summit with Kim Jong Un, Trump cannot get past his obsession with the media throng. “You know, it was the most cameras … They had a thing set up for the media the likes of which you have never seen.” He constantly manufactures high-ratings moments, sometimes with disastrous consequences, as when police and National Guard members violently cleared anti-racism protesters out of Washington’s Lafayette Square just so Trump could stroll from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church and hold aloft a Bible for the cameras. In Trump’s vision, “the presidency is emphatically not about the successful management of bureaucracies or the implementation of policy objectives,” Hennessey and Wittes explain. “It is about the showmanship and flamboyance of the person and about entertaining and captivating audiences.”
Unmaking the Presidency and The Fifth Risk help put the other Chaos Chronicles in proper context; they get at the meaning and consequences of the disorder the others detail. These two books are also in conversation with a third one: Elaine Kamarck’s Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again, a slim volume published in the thick of the 2016 campaign and deserving of wider notice. Kamarck argues that presidents frequently succumb to the illusion that with just the right speech, they can overcome any hurdle. “The obsession with communication—presidential talking and messaging—is a dangerous mirage of the media age,” she writes, “a delusion that inevitably comes crashing down in the face of governmental failure.” Presidents struggle to oversee the immense bureaucracy at their disposal, or they simply avoid trying to, even when that very bureaucracy could prevent crises, manage them, and in various ways save presidents from themselves. The early warnings that Trump received about the impending spread of the coronavirus to the United States—which the president ignored or downplayed—provide a tragic example.
“Modern presidents,” Kamarck writes, “are so distant from the government they manage that, on a regular basis, they ignore the flashing lights or fail to realize that they are even flashing.”
What many of the Chaos Chronicles share is a preoccupation with the man at the middle of it all, an obsessive focus that probably appeals to this most self-centered of chief executives. No surprise that many books of the Trump era borrow his phrases for their title—Fire and Fury, A Very Stable Genius, American Carnage, and more. (I’m waiting for a book on Trump’s rhetoric called The Best Words.) So much else is happening in this administration that gets lost in the Trump glare, material that is scattered throughout the Chaos Chronicles themselves.
One constant running through several of these books, for instance, is the astounding mix of arrogance and misjudgment displayed by Jared Kushner—on immigration policy, Comey’s firing, the government shutdown, and much more. His misfires in the White House, including his inexplicable efforts to manage the response to the pandemic, merit book-length investigations. And Steve Bannon, too, could prove far less noteworthy for his nationalist huff-and-puff than for his calls to “deconstruct the administrative state,” as he liked to put it, just before the country, battling for its life and livelihood, would require the services of a competent and agile state more than ever. Woodward’s Fear and Rage both serve as indictments of the adults-in-the-room argument, the illusion that some of the experienced hands serving in the Trump administration—whether Gary Cohn, Dan Coats, or James Mattis—could settle him down. John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, written by one ostensible adult, reads like an exercise in score-settling, particularly aimed at Mattis. By coming off less as a national security adviser and more as a caustic observer of the lesser minds surrounding him, Bolton also undercuts the adults-in-the-room narrative. He was, at most, adulting in the room.
There is one more entry in the Chaos Chronicles, one that, despite its appendixes and footnotes, its legalese and double negatives, and its river of black-ink redactions, has become a unique cultural artifact of our time, spawning T-shirts and buttons and memes and podcasts and poetry and graphic-novel editions: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
It has its own made-for-television moments. “This is the end of my presidency,” Trump moans when he learns of Mueller’s appointment. “I’m fucked.” There’s the contrast between the president’s public bluster, evident in his Twitter rants, and his private diffidence, embodied in Trump’s lawyerly written responses to Mueller’s queries, full of “I do not recall” and “I have no recollection.” There is the inevitable Nixonian reference, as when White House Counsel Don McGahn refuses the president’s request to instruct the deputy attorney general to dismiss Mueller, because McGahn worries about unleashing a new Saturday Night Massacre.
In its portrayal of the Trump campaign and White House, the Mueller report reminds me of several of the Chaos Chronicles. The incompetence, disorganization, and self-interest evoke Fire and Fury. The Mob-like mentality of the Trump team, with the president delegating dirty assignments to outside players, is reminiscent of Comey’s and Cohen’s accounts. And the Mueller report almost feels like a dozen anonymous New York Times op-eds from the internal White House resistance strung together, except far more detailed, and signed.
In Rage, Woodward rightly criticizes the report’s most memorable and controversial passage—“While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Mueller & Co. wrote—calling it “one of the most confusing lines in the history of high-profile investigations.” Yet even its formal and stilted writing can be effective. “An improper motive can render an actor’s conduct criminal even when the conduct would otherwise be lawful and within the actor’s authority,” the report explains, an understated but powerful refutation of the argument that the president can do whatever he wants and for whatever reason as long as he technically has the right to do it. The report recognizes Trump’s habit of committing wildly inappropriate acts—such as discouraging the cooperation of witnesses—right out in the open, a tendency that has perplexed journalists used to revealing misdeeds that lurk in the shadows. “That circumstance is unusual, but no principle of law excludes public acts from the reach of the obstruction laws,” the report explains. “If the likely effect of public acts is to influence witnesses or alter their testimony, the harm to the justice system’s integrity is the same.” It might even be worse, because the openness of the offense seems to excuse its occurrence. If it’s out in the open, how bad can it be?
Of course, the report’s authority and scope have limits. The report documents Russia’s “sweeping and systematic” interference in the 2016 election, for instance, but does not really reveal the impact of that interference. An omniscient narrator—“the Office”—is an essential player, but the special counsel’s own actions and impressions are largely absent. And though the report offers a devastating, point-by-point portrayal of the president’s efforts to interfere in the investigation against him, Mueller does stop short of declaring criminality. Not because, as the attorney general initially implied, he was simply unable to make up his mind. Part of his reasoning, Mueller explains in the report, was that “a federal criminal accusation against a sitting President would place burdens on the President’s capacity to govern and potentially preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct.” Constitutional processes. That’s a nice euphemism for the impeachment remedy. There are multiple ironies in the fate of the Mueller report. First is that, after so much investigation and expectation, after a damning 448-page trail of bread crumbs showing a path forward for Congress, the ultimate articles of impeachment against President Trump reflected none of the report’s findings or efforts. Second, as the Chaos Chronicles show, is that those “burdens on the President’s capacity to govern” have been overwhelmingly self-imposed. And third is that several recent entries in the Chaos Chronicles have come together in a backlash against the special counsel, one in which Mueller’s sense of honor, rectitude, and restraint are held against him.
In Trumpocalypse, the Atlantic writer David Frum criticizes the “upright and conservative Mueller” for always doing things by the book, even if “the book contained no chapter describing anything like a Trump presidency.” In A Very Stable Genius, Rucker and Leonnig conclude that Mueller “fumbled the moment,” in particular when his team inexplicably declined the opportunity to weigh in preemptively on Attorney General William Barr’s public characterization of the investigation’s findings. In True Crimes and Misdemeanors, Jeffrey Toobin writes that Mueller’s “code of personal honor … was both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness,” and that “to enforce the law, [Mueller] felt he had to comply with it—in a manner consistent with his own fastidious values.”
When he was first appointed to the role, Mueller was hailed as a man of integrity, a dedicated lawman who would ferret out the truth. The expectations of him were enormous, especially from those who imagined that he would provide clear evidence of the president’s malfeasance. But when Mueller did not meet those expectations, his personal and professional qualities were suddenly deemed passé, relics of a “vanishing world,” Toobin writes. Mueller, he explains, “had come of age in a different era in American justice and American life, when modesty and self-effacement were ascendant values.”
There is no clearer or sadder affirmation of our new civic ethos. Narcissism and self-aggrandizement are now ascendant, integrity is old-fashioned, and chaos and crisis are the new standard—not a hindrance to power but its purpose and protection.
That is what Trump is all about too.
This article is adapted from Carlos Lozada’s new book What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.