Like every journalist in Washington, I’m enthralled by the new Michael Wolff book, Fire and Fury, which depicts Donald Trump as a president in steep mental decline, derided and despised by his entire entourage, family included. I read with perhaps special attention because I have a book of my own about the Trump phenomenon being released on 16 January, just over a week after Wolff’s. The experience is a little like being the next presenter at the Golden Globes immediately after Oprah Winfrey’s speech. Wolff is interested in personalities, not politics. But while Trump may be stupid or crazy, the people enabling him are neither of those things. The lucky-bounce election of Trump by a freak of the Electoral College offered US Republicans an unexpected opportunity to enact a deeply unpopular agenda. In return, Trump has demanded that they protect him — and attack his enemies. On the very day before the ‘very stable genius’ tweets, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee ordered the Department of Justice to open a criminal investigation of Christopher Steele, compiler of the famous dossier of Trump’s activities in Russia. They didn’t consult or even inform committee Democrats, a sharp breach of Senate practice. Trump wanted it, so they did it. What the world needs to understand is not Trump’s complex hairdo, but his self-serving system of power. That’s my story anyway.
But while we’re talking about personalities, here’s an aspect of Donald Trump’s that I’ve never got past: his hatred of dogs. When Trump tweeted on 5 January that his former aide Steve Bannon had been ‘dumped like a dog’, he recycled an insult he has hurled more than a dozen times since declaring for president, according to the indispensable TrumpTwitterArchive.com. After the 2016 election, a wealthy Trump supporter offered the new First Family a gift of an especially adorable Goldendoodle. On a visit to Mar-a-Lago, the supporter showed a photo of the dog to Trump. The President-elect asked her to show the photo to his then ten-year-old son, Barron. ‘Barron will fall in love with him,’ Trump said. ‘Barron will want him.’ That’s just what happened. As the supporter told the Washington Post: ‘This big smile came over [Barron’s face], it just brought tears to his eyes.’ Trump never did permit his son to accept the promised dog. That’s something, say, US allies might want to keep in mind before relying on any of Trump’s commitments to them.
The Trump presidency has been a disorienting moment in American political life. Imagine a time traveller starting in the year 1990. He steps forward 25 years to 2015. Who are the leading candidates for president? Bush and Clinton — again! What are the top issues? Iraq and healthcare — again! Now step backwards 25 years from 1965. The most powerful men in Washington are the head of the AFL-CIO, a federation of 55 unions across the US, and J. Edgar Hoover. There’s a draft and a telephone monopoly and urban riots and liberal Republicans. It’s a different world. I sometimes feel that what Trump has done is restore motion to a political system that froze in place when the baby-boomers reached middle age. What’s coming next? Something radically different. The baby-boomers will keep ageing, and their dependence on government will grow. Trump discovered and confirmed that ethnocultural resentment mobilises conservative voters better than economic issues ever did. The Republicans seem to be heading for heavy losses in this year’s elections — making Trump even more important as a single remaining focal point for party identity and party loyalty. Voters who cannot stomach Trump, especially college-educated women, are quitting the GOP. What will be left is a party that no longer commands a national voting majority. Only one Republican has done that since 1988 — George W. Bush in 2004 — and then only barely. But what Republicans are also discovering is that with sufficiently ruthless methods, a national voting majority may not be needed to wield national power. That’s part of the meaning of Trumpocracy, and it’s more disturbing than Trump’s fast-food diet.
David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic and author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic (Harper Collins).