The bestseller Fire and Fury not only confirms the worst we suspected about the Trump White House, but it also puts the fights within the US ruling elite on display. Doug Henwood analyses the book (pt. 1 of 2)
GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. The tell-all book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff has become an instant best seller. The original print run of 150,000 copies sold out almost immediately and the next print run will be 1.4 million according to a recent report. For those who haven’t heard, the book provides all kinds of intimate details about the inner workings, or failures to work, of the Trump administration and his staff. But what does the book tell us that we don’t, on some level, already know? Joining me to discuss this aspect of the book is Doug Henwood. Doug is the editor of the Left Business Observer, the host of the radio program Behind the News, and author of My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency. Thanks for joining me today, Doug.
DOUG HENWOOD: Thanks for having me.
GREGORY WILPERT: First of all, what would you say can we learn from Fire and Fury that we didn’t already know on some level?
DOUG HENWOOD: Well, I think there’s a value to having confirmed things we thought we knew. There’s an awful lot of rumor that floats around or supposition or extrapolations. As I was reading the book, every page I thought “Well, I sort of knew this but it’s actually worse than I thought.” The President’s profound ignorance, psychological immaturity, the volatility. And then the infighting among his aids, the incoherence of everything that goes on around him is just, it’s absolutely stunning. I thought I was hard to shock but there are pages where I’d say, “Oh my god, I can’t really believe what I just read.”
But the big story, I guess, is that behind all that chaos, Trump does have some people. Wolff doesn’t really go into this unfortunately, but behind all the chaos, Trump does have people like Scott Pruitt at the EPA who are really doing what Bannon wanted to do, dismantle the administrative state, and deregulating everything. We’re seeing the wholesale undoing of decades of environmental regulations. We’re gonna see workplace safety regulations undone and a revolting and intense war on immigrants. All this is going on while all this nonsense that’s going on around the Oval Office. So, on one hand, you see this picture of absolute paralysis and dysfunction, but on the other hand, under the surface, which is something that Wolff unfortunately doesn’t go into, you do have a very aggressive agenda.
One of the things that struck me as I was reading this is that there’s such a vacuum at the top that Trump kind of outsources policy. He didn’t come into office as some sort of hardcore right-winger with a right wing agenda but that’s the kind of administration he’s running. I don’t think anybody expected he was going to be so friendly with the Koch brothers’ agenda but he clearly is that. There’s some passages where, like for example, Trump, he talks about how Trump, where Wolff talks about how Trump came to sign over fiscal policy and the Obamacare repeal to Paul Ryan. And Paul Ryan hardly, in any sense, a legislative genius or a policy genius, but Trump didn’t know how to handle Congress, doesn’t have the first idea how anything works. So, he had a meeting with Paul Ryan one afternoon, Ryan impressed him somehow and Trump said, “Okay, you take care of that.” The way Wolff explains this is like this is something that Trump didn’t have to think about anymore. Ryan was going to handle everything.
So, that’s how we’re going to get tax policy by Ryan, the Obamacare repeal, which turned out to be a failure but only at least in that dramatic moment, they’re chipping away at it gradually. But that’s how Ryan came to be such a driver of the domestic agenda. It’s that vacuum, the intellectual policy vacuum, that the right wing, which has a prefabricated off-the-shelf agenda, they’ve moved in very successfully while Trump-
GREGORY WILPERT: That’s … sorry.
DOUG HENWOOD: … is off golfing.
GREGORY WILPERT: That’s one of the things I was wondering about is that, I mean, Wolff, at one point, describes Trump as being a vehicle of sorts for other people. There’s one quote, let me just read it. He says, quote, and he’s referring to Roger Ailes. That’s way in the beginning, I think, in the introduction. “Ailes had been observing politicians for decades. In his long career, he had witnessed just about every type and style of oddity and confection and cravenness and mania. Operatives like himself and now like Bannon, worked with all kinds. It was their ultimate symbiotic and codependent relationship, politicians were frontmen in a complex organizational effort. Operatives knew the game and so did most candidates and office-holders, but Ailes was pretty sure Trump did not. Trump was undisciplined. He had no capacity for any game plan. He could not be part of any organization nor was he likely to subscribe to any program or principle. In Ailes’ view, he was a rebel without a cause. He was simply Donald, as though nothing more needed to be said.” If Trump was a vehicle, why have such an incompetent one at that?
DOUG HENWOOD: I don’t think anybody attempted to have Trump be the vehicle. He was very unpopular with the parties’ money people, the professional politicians. He was just seen as a bomb-thrower. To the professionals, that’s the last thing you want in office is a bomb-thrower but that’s what won him the Republican nomination. That’s eventually what won him the presidency. I don’t think any ruling elites, there are very few members that are ruling elite who supported Trump in any sense. They’ve come around now to some degree. All he had to do is dangle tax cuts and deregulation in front of Wall Street and the Fortune 500 and they become loyal puppies to him.
But people, any people, anybody in Washington with any kind of serious notion of governance or policy, I think is still appalled by the guy. He’s not really a vehicle for much of anything except by default. I mean, this vacuum that he represents was occupied then by reactionary politicians like Paul Ryan and puppets of the Koch brothers. You got Koch brothers people all over the administration now and they’re doing what they wanted to do, which is discard all environmental regulation, all labor regulation and frack and drill with abandon. That’s pretty much their agenda, and pay no taxes. I mean, that’s the Koch brothers’ agenda and that is pretty much the agenda of the people who are running Trump ’cause he has no idea what he’s doing.
GREGORY WILPERT: Well, it seems like they’ve settled on some kind of agenda because, I mean now, but in the beginning that wasn’t really the case. That’s what a large part of the book seems to be also about, the infighting that was going on, particularly between Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and then what Wolff calls Jarvanka, which is the combination of Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump. And that each one of these representated a different faction in this political, basically in the right of the US. But now that Bannon and Priebus have left, could it be that they’ve come together in some way?
I mean, let me just read another quote, which, well, there’s one part which certainly illustrates also of course what you were saying earlier about the ruling class or the ruling elites coming together behind Trump to some extent. Let me just read this part where he says, referring to Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News et cetera, “Murdoch was hardly the only billionaire who had been dismissive of Trump. In the years before the election, Carl Icahn, whose friendship Trump often cited and who Trump had suggested he’d appoint to high office, openly ridiculed his fellow billionaire. Few people who knew Trump had illusions about him. That was almost his appeal, he was what he was, twinkle in his eye, larceny in his soul.”
Eventually, they come around. But one of the things that I thought was interesting is how they also come around that, as Trump himself seems to become more oriented toward a particular sector, so to speak, of the elites, where there was one…At first, he had this meeting, there was an anecdote. It’s too long, I won’t read it now, but where he had this meeting with Silicon Valley executives and then afterwards spoke to Murdoch, who said, hat’s when he referred to him as an idiot because he was enamored by the Silicon Valley executives.
But later on, then he had this council where the council says, “Most people … ” this is, again, I’m quoting from Wolff’s book, “But most of the people on the council other than Elon Musk, the investor, were not from media or tech companies with their Liberal bent from old line when America was great enterprises. They were Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, Ginni Rometty of IBM, Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, Jim McNerney, the former CEO of Boeing, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo. If the new right had elected Trump, it was the older Fortune 100 executives who most pleased him.” How real would you say are these divisions, both within the White House and within the larger economy? I mean, would you agree with that, that this is the, they seem to be settling on this kind of older sector of corporate America?
DOUG HENWOOD: Well, first, that Murdoch anecdote is interesting because Trump, having just met with the Silicon Valley people thought that he was going to offer relief to Silicon Valley because he thought they were suffering under Obama. Murdoch told him Silicon Valley loved Obama. They had him in their pockets, and Trump had no idea of that. I mean, the guy just really knew nothing about what the Obama administration did or stood for or what it’s relations to this crucial segment of American business were.
But what struck me, even going back into the campaign, that Trump is so backward-looking for an American politician. American politics is usually about all these hopes and dreams for the future. I remember Richard Nixon, I think his acceptance speech in 1968 talked about the lift of a driving dream. It was all, and Bill Clinton, the Bridge to the 21st Century. It was all about endless possibilities ahead of us. Trump ran on such an intensely, first of all, bitter, the emotional content of his campaign was just so bitter and angry. It was just kind of unusual in a lot of American presidential politics but also very oriented towards these old industries, primary and secondary sector industries and not the industries of the future like Silicon Valley artificial intelligence.
He’s obviously contemptuous of anything like clean energy. I think windmills are for pansies in Trump world. He’s all about drilling, and I think a lot of, and coal. I mean, coal is dying on its own. It’s not like, there’s no war on coal. Coal is a very dirty and inefficient form of energy and it’s just becoming uneconomical in the real world without any kind of assistance from tree-hugging Liberals. But Trump doesn’t really seem to understand that. He wants to go back to oil and coal. He’s in love with carbon but also steel mills and all these symbols of like mid-20th Century American industrial power. That was an appeal to certainly a lot of the voters in the American Heartland who’ve been very damaged by the decay of that old industrial power but it’s not a prescription for the future.
People like Trump are contemptuous of all this talk of a green New Deal, of having an economic stimulus, job creation programs based around new forms of energy and other clean ways of doing business. He’s not the least bit interested in that sort of thing. It’s all about going back to the industries of yesterday. Making America great again, which is those kinds of Fortune 100 companies, GM, US Steel, those sorts of things you’d think of as the old corporate elite of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s strange to see that kind of appeal to yesteryear in American politics.
There are many things that have made me think that this country has really seen it’s best days and that it’s slowly rotting. But the Trump administration, the election of Trump and then his actual attempts at governing this country convinced me that the rot has accelerated. There’s just no optimism, no orientation towards the future, no thought of how to make things better. It’s all this bitter, exclusionary, reactionary in the truest sense, approach to political economy.
GREGORY WILPERT: This concludes part one of our discussion with Doug Henwood about the book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff. Join us for part two of our discussion.