“I can handle things. I’m smart! Not like everybody says, like dumb. I’m smart and I want respect!”
This morning’s presidential Twitter outburst recalls those words of Fredo Corleone’s in one of the most famous scenes from The Godfather series. Trump tweeted that his “two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart,” and in a subsequent tweet called himself a “very stable genius.”
Trump may imagine that he’s Michael Corleone, the tough and canny rightful heir—or even Sonny Corleone, the terrifyingly violent but at least powerful heir apparent—but after today he is Fredo forever.
There’s a key difference between film and reality, though: The Corleone family had the awareness and vigilance to exclude Fredo from power. The American political system did not do so well.
Michael Wolff’s scathing new book about the Trump White House has sent President Trump spiraling into the most publicly visible meltdown of his presidency. Until now, Trump’s worst moments have occurred behind closed doors, and have become known to the public only second-hand, leaked by worried officials, aides, and advisers. Yesterday and today, we have seen a Trump temper tantrum in real time on Twitter, extended over hours, punctuated only by stretch of fitful presidential sleep. Trump’s tweets yesterday focused largely on the blockbuster Wolff book, Fire and Fury.
It may not be the newsiest—arguably it is the least newsy—but the most important moment in Wolff’s book are words attributed at second or third-hand to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the time of Donald Trump’s election. “He will sign anything we put in front of him.”
Who and what Donald Trump is has been known to everyone and anyone who cared to know for years and decades. Before he was president, he was the country’s leading racist conspiracy theorist. Before he was the country’s leading racist conspiracy theorist, he was a celebrity gameshow host. Before he was a celebrity gameshow host, he was the multi-bankrupt least trusted name in real estate. Before he was the multi-bankrupt least trusted name in real estate, he was the protege of Roy Cohn’s repeatedly accused of ties to organized crime. From the start, Donald Trump was a man of many secrets, but no mysteries. Inscribed indelibly on the public record were the reasons for responsible people to do everything in their power to bar him from the presidency.
Instead, since he announced his candidacy in mid-2015, Donald Trump has been enabled and protected.
The enabling and protecting not only continues. It accelerates.
Before the Saturday morning tweets, what should have been the biggest story of the week was Trump’s success at mobilizing the Senate and the FBI to deploy criminal prosecution as a weapon against Trump critics. The Senate Judiciary committee—the Senate Judiciary Committee! The committee that oversees the proper enforcement of the law!—formally filed a criminal referral with the Department of Justice against Christopher Steele, the author of the infamous dossier about Trump’s Russia connections. The referral was signed by the committee’s chairman, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, without even notice to Democrats on the committee, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said; a startling abuse of majority status and a sharp departure from the norms of the Senate, especially a 51-49 Senate.
The Department of Justice can ignore such a referral. It’s ominous, however, that on the very same day, the FBI obeyed Trump’s repeated demands and reopened a long-closed criminal investigation into the Clinton Foundation. The FBI has come under relentless abuse from Trump, who complains about its refusal to do his will. Is it now yielding?
We also learned this week from The New York Times that aides to the attorney general sought damaging information on Capitol Hill about FBI Director Comey, indicating close cooperation between the White House and Main Justice to exert political control over the country’s chief law-enforcement agency.
Michael Wolff has drawn the most indelible picture yet of Donald Trump, the man. But the important thing about Trump is not the man; it’s the system of power surrounding the man.
In 2016, there were voters who genuinely, in good faith, believed that Donald Trump was a capable business leader, moderate on social issues, who cared about the troubles of working class white America—and would do something to help. There may well still be some people who believe this—but nowhere near enough to sustain a presidency.
What sustains Trump now is the support of people who know what he is, but back him anyway. Republican political elites who know him for what he is, but who back him because they believe they can control and use him; conservative-media elites who sense what he is, but who delight in the culture wars he provokes; rank-and-file conservatives who care more about their grievances and hatreds than the governance of the country.
After the Trump pardon of Sheriff Arpaio for obstruction of justice, a popular conservative blogger tweeted this justification of the president’s shocking attack on the rule of law: “The main reason for President Trump to pardon Sheriff Joe was fuck you, leftists. The new rules, bitches. 😎 ”
However crazy Trump may be, in one way he is indeed the “very stable genius” he claims to be: Trump understands how to mobilize hatred and resentment to his own advantage and profit. He has risen higher than Joe McCarthy or Charles Lindbergh or Theodore Bilbo—and he has lasted already nearly a full year in office, holding the approval of one-third of the country, more than sufficient to keep him there for a full term.
Michael Wolff has done a crucial service, showing more intimately than any reporter yet the true nature of the man at the center of the American system. But without the complicity of other power-holders, Trump would drop from his central position like a tooth from a rotten gum. What we need to do now is widen the camera angle beyond Fredo Trump to the hard-faced men and women over his shoulders. Those are the people who put Trump where he is, and keep him there, corrupting the institutions of American democracy and troubling the peace and security of the world.