One thing that cannot be denied is that the presidency of Donald Trump is unlike anything the American people have ever seen before. Is it madness or is it the fulfilling of a campaign promise to “drain the swamp”? As a kid, I could not understand for the life of me how or why my father—a man I admire even more now than I did then—could take interest in the daily news or politics. We had the Muppets, comic books, and video games. News and presidential elections were boring and stupid. Flash forward to me at 40 and it’s just, “ctrl C, ctrl V.”
I’m hardly alone though. Millions of people across the world are infatuated with American news and politics right now. I’ll touch upon that more later, but in keeping with that fascination in to our current political climate, today I’m reviewing two very popular and controversial books orbiting Donald Trump. I should be clear and upfront here; I am not a fan of Donald Trump. The man confounds and enrages me and I cannot fathom how so many seem to write off his behavior as mere idiosyncrasies. That being said, he is the president of the United States. That means he is my president, and like it or lump it, if you’re an American citizen, he’s your president too. I do not want to see the failure of an American president. The failure of the commander in chief is the failure of our nation. That has not stopped me, and should not stop any free–thinking American, the right to criticize or support the president. I’ve drawn Mr. Trump more than any other US president before! So while I try my best to write these reviews from a fair standpoint, they will undoubtedly lean heavily to the left.
Fire and Fury by Michael Wolf
A vast majority of Fire and Fury simply goes in to roughly the first year of the president’s term and is largely comprised of what has already been reported in the news. The controversial introduction which covers the (supposedly off the record) dinner conversation between Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon is the most intimate look at an insider‘s point of view closely followed by Bannon‘s commentary on Session’s testimony regarding the Russian investigation and the president’s scripted and unscripted reaction to the events in Charlottesville. The rest of the book deals with the media frenzy and inherent chaos surrounding the Trump White House and the internal fighting between Steve Bannon and Ivanka & (especially) Jared Kushner.
Author Michael Wolf’s primary source is Bannon himself. I will admit to developing a bit of a forced admiration towards Bannon through all of this, if for no other reason than his very focused, hardline, black and white stance, and determination on policy. Admittedly, to me he was not much more than a dark and shadowy figure looming behind the president prior to reading this book. I didn’t really know anything about him. Let me just clarify: reading about him has not made me like him, it has simply made me respect his influence and ingenuity within the political machine. He’s still a dark, shadowy and even villainous type of guy.
The proof of this comes with Bannon’s (and therefore Trump’s) stance on strongly separating the right from the left. All that rhetoric, vicious verbal assault, staunch nationalism, and ant-altruistic banter is intentionally designed to enrage and infuriate the Democratic Party and left leaning constituents. In other words, polarization of the country was never a byproduct of Trump’s speeches and actions, it’s the main export.
What does that mean and why? Essentially, it is designed to strengthen the small percentage of people that will support the president no matter what and ultimately break down the Republican Party (which Trump and his close affiliates have openly derided) so that it can reform itself as a nationalist and anti-globalist party—eradicating the Tea Party as well as any liberal minded republicans.
Trump‘s approval ratings will most likely never fall below the 35% mark (give or take a few points and depending on which polls you follow). Which means—surprise surprise—if you support Trump, there is practically nothing he can do to change your mind. Conversely, if you hate Trump, there’s nothing he can do to improve his standing with you, and that’s the whole point. That 35% is often bolstered by the outrageous and outlandish things he says and does. That is why, on paper, Trump as the president makes a lot of sense: he’s not part of the political machine, he knows how to create media buzz around him, and he speaks as blatantly and off-the-cuff as do most people making him surprisingly relatable on a very basic level.
The book goes on to point out how the media that surrounds Trump is what makes his presidency so infuriating to most and so delightful to the rest. As Wolf points out: usually, the president’s term in office as well as what the American government is able to accomplish or fail at is determined over the course of history. Policy, law making, scandal, reform, civil rights advancements, or any number of historical drama plays out over a lengthy period of time and is only truly understood or appreciated in hindsight. Trump’s practically daily spikes in the news create drama immediately, and that’s what currently feeds American pop culture. We live in a society dominated by social media where if it happened immediately, it’s already old news. In that regard, Trump truly is the standard for what our society demands in a political figure.
That’s what also makes him such a powerful tool of conversation. As I alluded to in my opening of this blog post, you no longer need to have any political insight, understanding of government, or understanding of law and practices to discuss the president; primarily because he has none of these things. You can have a well-informed and even insightful discussion about politics because the stories surrounding Trump and his administration touch on a much more personal front. You may not have any understanding of how an executive order can be signed and then almost immediately banned by a federal judge, but you can certainly discuss whether or not you believe the president is racist as well as your personal thoughts on how immigration affects your daily life.
In conclusion, if you are not a fan of the president and are looking to find something that supports those feelings and helps convince you that you actually aren’t crazy, then I highly recommend this book. If you do support the president and wish to condemn Michael Wolf as a hanger-on who was not as “inside” as he claimed to be, nor did he properly verify which conversations were on the record or not; consider that his main source is Steve Bannon: a man that is arguably responsible for many of the president’s original executive orders and actions if not a major part of his brain trust. A man who has only denied making a single line in the book which was actually misconstrued and one that he has not apologized for.
A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey
James Comey has lived a fascinating life that is worthy of this book in and of itself. An horrific face to face encounter with the Ramsey Rapist as a teenager and his career and its involvement with the mob, Martha Stuart, and domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency paint a very vibrant picture of a man who is "the real deal." He has very credible and extensive life experience and really comes across as the guy you assumed as a kid should work in government: honest, hard working, a team player, noble, and open minded to new ideas he hadn't considered.
Much of this can sometimes come across as pretentious, especially in our increasingly cynical and pessimistic society. Comey faces the reader's observation to this head on, and goes in to fantastic detail explaining his life choices, which he admits aren't always clean and well intentioned. Now it also becomes very clear early on he is framing these life experiences in a way as to them leading up to his infamous interactions with Trump. In a way, he uses this device a little too conveniently, but in context, they serve his narrative well. In his defense, he is very open to admitting his short comings, just as he is keen to do in interviews, only here they serve a purpose. In general, I found that I really liked who James Comey was. I even cried when I read about the death of his infant son, Colin. What connected me to him most though was his genuine work ethic and the way he spoke of his staff and various individuals he had privilege to work with. I don't hold a position of leadership at my job, but my dad did, and the way Mr. Comey talked about his contemporaries and subordinates reminded me a lot of the way my dad interacted with and talked about his. I don't believe you can fake that type of leadership mentality. I've seen my dad use similar techniques and they not only worked well, but the people that worked with my dad loved and really respected him.
Comey's meeting and following interactions with Trump do not happen well until the final quarter of the book. Here, the book takes a very dramatic change in tone and it is done ominously well. Comey shows a very stark comparison between the Trump and Obama White House. What strikes me the most that the author both directly and subliminally puts forward is that the behaviors of Donald Trump are those of an American president; a highly respected global leader. He asks the reader to consider the words and actions Donald Trump has delivered to the American people and how they would be interpreted coming from the likes of Hillary Clinton or Barrack Obama? I believe he does a good and formidable job unbiasedly pointing out the problem with bipartisan ethics and how quickly each side is willing to shift their vantage point depending on how it views the justice system. Specifically he notes how the Republicans called the investigation of Lewis "Scooter" Libby for the leak of the covert identity of a Central Intelligence Agency officer back in 2005 as a witch hunt where previously they demanded the investigation of Bill Clinton’s sex scandal as an assault on the Justice System—the Democrats taking similar stances on opposite ends during both investigations.
Comey's full story really does hold a lot of value and details that really need to be taken completely in and considered as to how and why he has acted in the public eye the way he's done. Sound bites are too convenient and make for an uniformed opinion of him. Of course, the most easily debatable and controversial section of the book actually surrounds the reopening of Hillary Clinton's email scandal just days before the election. Now men and women far smarter than I could ever hope to be point out this point in history as a key moment where Comey's actions as the FBI Director come in to question and his critics use this to spin everything back on him. While Comey puts forth a very strong case as to why he did what he did back then, this is where you can see the lawyer in him come out. In an interview with John Dickerson, Stephen Colbert noted that Comey had set a (moral and ethical) bar for himself, and doesn’t clear it. Dickerson who originated the thought that Mr. Comey fell short of his own leadership standard questioned if readers would see A Higher Loyalty as a call to higher standards or simply “get written down as more weaponry in a partisan fight”, which he then postulated would actually reduce “our belief in those standards that he says should be above politics.”
In the end, because the American public has yet to learn if the conversations between the president and former director were actually recorded; as is the case with everyone who interacts with the Donald, this book is a case of "he said, she said." I would not write this off as such however, and would ask you to keep 3 things in mind:
- Number one, James Comey is a personality who has constantly put his career on the foundation of his honesty. With exceptions to things he cannot discuss due to matters of classified information, he has been consistently transparent, honest, humble, respectful, and even open to different ideas and perspectives of the decisions he has made.
- Number two, James Comey (like most Bureau officials) leans to the right. He did not vote for president Obama and was shocked when the president selected him as the new FBI director. He has consistently upheld that the FBI (despite being under the Executive branch) is a separate, non–partisan, independent institution.
- Number three, James Comey is another in a long line of high ranking officials that has come out against Donald Trump and his comfort at lying. The list of smart, well–respected, and important people that continue to join this group is staggering. How many more and of what stature will finally be enough to make us stand united again?
As someone who keeps a regular journal himself, I am greatly impressed at Mr. Comey's instinct to document every meeting with Trump and I've no doubt that the credibility of these documents, this book, and former director Comey's statements will play a very important part in Robert Mueller's investigation.
Okay, so that's admittedly a lot to take in. These books are both monster collections that require a lot of time to digest. The question is, do we have that time? What is Donald Trump really doing for this country? People claim partisan polarization is what's really the problem, and I agree with that. But what does that mean?
I recently had a conversation with a good friend who is a conservative. I like him a lot and the feeling is mutual. We joked about me watching CNN and him watching Fox, noting our differences in "the enemy's point of view." Wait a minute, the enemy? Since when are otherwise law–abiding American citizens our enemies? A different point of view shouldn't be considered a threat to our way of life, it should be an enhancement. Now granted, our friendly back–and–fourth was just that: friendly, but that language extends to those we don't know, and that can be dangerous.
In Trump's first State of the Union address on January 30, he said, "Tonight, I call on all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people. This is really the key." The man who is constantly making up defaming names for his constituents, delegitimizing the media for reporting on exactly what he said, and bullying absolutely anyone that says even the slightest word against him can't see the irony in calling for unity? As I mentioned before though, this is our president. He's the one calling the shots. But I believe that if he can't fulfill the responsibilities of a true leader and unite the American people, then we have to be. Change starts within. So I don't have to agree with your politics and you don't have to agree with mine, but I sure would like to hear what you believe and why, and I'd hope you'd afford me the same time and attention. Then I can get back to fully enjoying the Muppets, comic books, and video games. Thanks for reading!