On the 'Open Secret'

President Trump with a black background
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday I argued that Michael Wolff’s revelations about Donald Trump, in his new book Fire and Fury, constituted an “open secret,” in the sense that term had been used after the revelations of sexual aggression by Harvey Weinstein and others.

That is: an unusually thorough work of investigative reporting, as in the NYT’s Weinstein coverage, or an unusually vivid set of anecdotes and quotes, as with Wolff, managed to focus attention on patterns that “everyone” already knew about, in some general sense, but that no one had bothered to correct.

Readers write in to respond. First, from a recent veteran of our long wars, who is worried about how a democratic system will cope with the unusual challenge that Trump presents:

I am a freedom-loving veteran who believes in America and our global leadership and institutions, I'm also a liberal, and I think Donald Trump is a threat to freedom around the world and at home. He endangers our republic and even before this book had proven himself incapable of leading us and needed to be removed from office.

My defense of Republicans is that the how matters—the ends don't justify the means, because the means will set precedents that are our future norms.

Trump was elected in accordance with the system laid out in our Constitution—the laws and norms of our republic gave him the presidency. Removing him is a major act. Yes, a plurality voted for his opponent and a majority voted against him. But overturning the effects of an election—and let's not kid ourselves, that is bluntly what impeachment is—will set a new precedent. [JF note: I’ll let the reader continue, but for the record let’s remember the recent history of impeachments. Less than 20 years ago, a Republican-controlled House of Representatives went through this exercise with a Democratic president who had been re-elected with 379 Electoral College votes, versus 304 for Donald Trump. More on the comparison, and the implications, after the reader’s note.]

[Back to the reader:] I won't deny that Republican are placing priorities on taxes and entitlements over Trump's fitness for the presidency. And you rightly point out Congress can (and should) protect Mueller's investigation, and demand information on the President's fitness and finances for public record. We should codify some norms into law. The public should know how Trump benefits from this tax plan….

Further, I think it is dangerous for our long term future for Democrats to be the party in charge when Trump is impeached. I fear impeachment will become a tool that every party uses when a President from the opposing party becomes unpopular….

Any actions to deal with Trump and his posse will be spun so that the next wave of Breitbart or Fox News radicals can demand every President be subject to special investigations. This doesn't mean no action should be taken. It certainly means that Newton's 3rd Law will apply to the politics….

To prevent norms from worsening, Republicans should install President Pence pronto.

Obviously I agree that the best solution would be for a Republican Congress to deal with a problematic Republican president. That was the point of the piece! For the record, modern evidence varies on what happens when it’s done the other way, with a Congress of one party impeaching a president from the other:

In 1974, Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate when they moved toward impeachment of Richard Nixon, a Republican. In retrospect almost no one views that as a narrowly partisan act. In 1998, Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate when they impeached (but did not convict) Bill Clinton, a Democrat. In retrospect many more people view this as narrowly partisan—and self-defeating as well, for House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other leaders of the impeachment drive.

I am not on the impeachment bandwagon. It’s a drastic step; it has ramifications; and as the reader points out, for now it would just intensify  partisan/tribal divisions. For now what I urge, and urgently ask and hope of the Republican majority, is accountability. Vote to protect Robert Mueller and his investigation. Vote to insist on financial transparency from Trump and his associates. Vote for subpoenas for the relevant officials. Vote to (try to) reassert now-vestigal Congressional controls over use of force. Vote country over party.


On the other hand, another reader argues that, blunderingly or not, Trump could be doing the world a service by challenging what “everyone” knows or assumes about world affairs:

What is even more remarkable is that while it all is an open secret, he is upending a foreign policy consensus (to take just one sphere).  Barring a nuclear exchange, the lives of millions on the Korean peninsula stand a good chance of actually getting better as that dialogue improves, to take one example.  South Korea is likely to come to terms—bilaterally—as a major trading partner with China as it falls out of the American orbit.

The eviscerating of the U.S. as a guarantor of European security is may well improve the lives of many more people in central and eastern Europe and could very well lead to a reduction of tension between Russia and its neighbors.  Gary Kasparov may not agree, but he represents a vanishingly small constituency.

If this all works out—and it has at least as good a chance as what the U.S. has done in terms of its death and destruction in the past quarter century—then for a lot of the world, this is a better arrangement.

And it will all put lie to the terrible fraud that the American foreign policy and establishment community has perpetrated.

And an ignorant man-child did it, however inadvertently.


Another reader, with an academic background, sees darker implications — one of many to draw the parallel he does:

The question –why so few [“responsible” Republicans] speak out—obsesses me, like many, in my case the comparison with Germany in the 30s. Major players who could have spoken out did not.

Why? They liked too much what Hitler was offering: mobilizing mass support for a government that would crack down on unions and political opposition, tear up Versailles, re arm, etc.

So a classic issue in politics:  do you defend procedure at the expense of policy. If you like the outcome do you complain about the process [is a] repeated theme in history.  Bismarck split the opposition to his authoritarian rule by giving people national unification, and national health care, among other things.

This is not a particularly new insight, everyone knows this: it seems oddly understated in many stories about what is going on.


On two points of nuance, from a reader with a long background as a Congressional staffer:

The cognitive issues explain a lot, but not all, about TrumpWorld. Everything makes sense when you account not only for that, but take account of the social milieu of Trump and his sycophants and henchmen: the NYC, borderline white-collar criminal milieu of Roy Cohn, Rudy Giuliani, the Mooch, Felix Sater, the legion of New York attorneys Trump has on retainer, et al. They treat the country and its governance the way they would treat Trump SoHo: as a cash cow to be milked to the last drop.

One small quibble: I would say that quite a few of the 1.5 million Jill Stein voters were not voting against Trump, they were voting for him, albeit in an indirect and deniable way.


On the role of the press:

History will record that it was the free press who saved our nation from full-on authoritarianism and kakocracy.

Likewise, it will record that the enablers and collaborators in public office that bear the greatest blame for keeping an unwilling and unstable man in office for their own cynical ambitions.


And, finally for today, on the role of Republican leadership — and the parallels, on which I  based my original piece, the Weinstein “open secret” and what we are learning now:

I think McConnell and Ryan are the Angelina Jolie, Gweneth Paltrow and Quentin Tarentino of the political establishment.

Weinstein needed the latter three for his success as much as they needed him.  Unlike the starlets he seduced who were starting careers, they had the collective power to go on (or off) record) to stop him, just as the majority in Congress could expose the open secrets in Washington.

There is zero appreciation in our society of honor, even chivalry, as a virtue.  Self degradation, anything-to-win are the anti-virtues of today, accepted as a way of life.   I am tired of hearing these politicians denounce lack of respect for Western tradition when they (and their Democratic brethren) dump garbage on individual integrity every minute of the day.

Thanks to these readers and others for their responses.