In life, I have but one skill: I am able to find, analyze, and summarize big chunks of complex information and do it quickly and efficiently. I’ve spent thirty-plus years doing just that. It’s my job.
So I'm using my one skill to help during this time of national crisis. I plan to post weekly links to and commentary on “what the fuck is going on.” This won't be junk.
This first edition is long. It contains two parts:
First, a summary of what I've learned about what's going on in the White House. This of this as Big Picture context. Second, links to specific topics.
I've spent the past two months reading up on the new administration. Again, I aimed for solid, researched sources. Here's what I've learned.
Trump is precisely what he appears to be: A con artist of a very high caliber. His entire career, and his wealth, have been constructed by persuading the gullible to part with their money. He is untrustworthy, and proud of it. He lies regularly and that’s part of his modus operandi. (I’ve read many excerpts from his Art of the Deal.)
He is a provincial, shallow man. Because he's a New Yorker to the core. Now how do I know that? Because NYC has been a part of my life for 45 years. I've spent a lot of time there, a year at one point. This I know: New Yorkers can be incredibly provincial, and most provincial of all are those folks cocooned in midtown and Upper East Side Manhattan.
Donald Trump is one of those. He also has the worst (in my opinion) possible personality combination: Huge ego, hugely insecure.
Moreover, Trump has complete control over his kingdom; 24/7. Unless he must do so, he stays in one of his towers. There, he exercise total control. He's not used to compromise, to yielding.
Finally, he is profoundly ignorant about anything other than deal-making. He has zero grasp of how our government and constitution work. Add to that his lack of any notion of “service” or duty to country … and, well, not a great mix.
The first 48 hours after inauguration made me dizzy. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Everything connected to the White House seemed … chaotic. And that didn’t sound like Trump. He’s not one to blow an opportunity.
I wondered who was in charge. How were decisions being made? Is there a plan?
So I spent hours digging deep. Plowed through reams of words and spent time watching interviews (for body language).
I believe I understand both the internal power structure in the White House and the plan being carried out by that power structure. It was kind of like decoding a cipher or something: Once I got the basics, all the confusion made sense.
Again, it took me several days of hard reading to decode the cipher. This administration really isn’t like any other we’ve had in our history. (To scholars of, say, Roman history, it's obvious what's going on. To scholars who study authoritarian governments, it's obvious. But it took me awhile.)
What follows, then, is what I learned from my recent deep dive into trumpdom. And again, the focus is big picture, rather than specific details. Many links follow.
The White House has an overarching goal: To amass power so that the world will operate according to Trump.
Yes, that sounds hyperbolic. But humans are humans. There’s a reason the Greek tragedies and Shakespeare and Homer have lasted: They are about essence: Power and human frailty. And ego and selfishness. That’s what’s playing out.
In this country, however, it’s also unprecedented at the presidential level. The last time we had such a self-serving, ego-driven president was James Buchanan. Fortunately, he didn’t last long.
Until how, we’ve enjoyed the luxury of chief executives whorespected the constitution and the republic. Donald Trump does not. He doesn’t understand it. It’s not part of his worldview. His worldview is a combination entrepreneur and madman: How can I make money? How can I gain power, whether over a market or a nation?
But he’s not crazy. Indeed, he’s a fucking genius when it comes to plotting and planning. A genius. Which is why he scares the crap out of me.
He has a two-pronged plan and it’s being implemented with surprising ease.
1. Lie, repeatedly, about anything and everything. Lying/obfuscation is central to the administration. Why? It’s an extraordinarily efficient way to sow confusion. It’s working.
2. Under cover of the ensuing confusion, use executive orders to alter the balance of powers and authority in federal government. To skirt the constitution without the appearance of doing so.
You may have noticed, for example, that since the election, there’s been almost zero interaction between WH and Capitol Hill. No one on the latter is being included in White House decisions. Trump is governing independently of Congress and the Courts.
The evidence? That flood of executive orders DT is signing. As chief executive, any president may issue an executive order (EO).
But — and this is a BIG caveat: Those orders must be legal. A president can order, but he/she must order within the limits of the law and the constitution.
Trump’s orders are not being vetted for legality. Nor have they been seen or discussed with the departments and agencies that will be affected. There’s a reason a judge stayed this weekend’s executive order: The illegalities are obvious.
The net result is — confusion. Congress has essentially been immobilized by confusion. The lower courts will respond as they can — but once Trump names his court appointee, the odds of stopping any of these illegal orders is slim. (No, I don’t have a lot of faith in our current Supreme Court.)
Nothing does more to reveal what the fuck’s going on that the above. It’s clear, too, that Steve Bannon is the guy constructing the executive orders.
Indeed, Steve Bannon is central to all of this. You may make your own decisions about him and his virtutes (see links below). What's undeniable is that he is driven entirely driven by an ideology. He is an avowed “nationalist,” which he defines in economic terms.
Bannon also has no interest in the Constitution or the republic. Indeed, he’s made it clear that he regards destruction as necessary in order to secure the nationalist economy he’s seeking. The difference between SB and DT is that Bannon understands the machinery and how to manipulate it.
Again: Not hyperbole. Bannon is driven entirely and only by ideology. He’s also a shrewd, talented entrepreneur. But that’s attached to a nationalist zealotry.
Bannon is the brains behind the executive orders. As near as I can tell, he's functioning as co-President. He’s the ideology; Trump is the front man.
For example, one of DT’s executive orders this weekend placed Bannon on the National Security Committee. SB is now front-and-center in making decisions about “foreign” policy and all matters related to intelligence, war, etc.
This is unheard of. Presidents keep politics out of military matters. (Because the republic comes first.) Trump, however, prides himself on being a radical. So he had broken with convention and made Bannon central to his relations with and decisions about how to manage foreign relations, including military clout.
(Side note: DT’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is the formal foreign policy guy: The front guy. But Bannon is the game-shaper behind him. )
As for Congress: Again: Trump/Bannon are masters at forcing hands. Mitch McConnell, one of the most powerful people in the country, has been blind-sided. McConnell's power lies with the Senate. If he sides publicly with SB/DT, he risks fucking up his powerbase. If he does nothing, he essentially cedes power to Bannon/Trump. Which is where he's at now.
Paul Ryan: He, too, sees the danger of losing his footing. Unlike McConnell, he's decided to be intentional about doing nothing. He supports, for example, the immigration ban, at least publicly. Mostly what he does is avoid any comment or committment, explaining that he's just a "policy" guy.
The Democrats have no power. And so, in the space of a week, Bannon/Trump have effectively neutralized Congress. Not bad.
Here's a kind of reader's digest for various topics.
THE IMMIGRATION EOs and BANNON:
The hoo-ha over "voter fraud" is a perfect example of the Bannon/Trump strategy: There's zero evidence of voter fraud. None. But that doesn't matter. (See above about lies.) It's part of the plan.
Trump, the front man, rants about “fraud,” cheating, scandal, etc. Yes, that distracts the press, who expend energy explaining the obvious lies. It also forces Congress to support an “investigation" into something that's not real.
So what's the goal: To use the investigation to impose voter restrictions.
For an example of how this is done, see North Carolina. During the recent election, it became obvious how successful state Republicans had been at preventing people from voting.
Again, there’s zero evidence of voter fraud. But that doesn't matter. Bannon’s objective is to control elections. This is a powerful way to do just that. (Again, see North Carolina.) See this short piece for what that means for "democracy."
Remember a few weeks ago when all the blather was about Russia? That issue won't go away. In terms of power, especially geographically, Putin can't be dismissed lightly. Not least, I might add, because while we Americans have dither and argued, he's used his dictatorial power to improve, significantly, Russia's cybercapabilities. Putin's not a good guy.
Anyway: For a long view of Putin's plan, I recommend two essays from Molly McKew. She is a consultant and lobbyist who specializes in working with eastern European governments (the ones trying to stay out of Putin’s way). Not sure about her academic background, but am guessing degrees in history and/or political science.
Way down at the bottom of this is the text of a Bannon profile written just after the election. It's from one of the editors at the Wall Street Journal. It is, by design, "conservative" in its take. I can't link because it's behind a paywall (and I had a hell of a time getting around it). (I refuse to give Rupert Murdoch money.)
Random but useful short takes from a variety of perspectives. And so you won't go away thinking, Oh, that Maureen. She's crazy.
Here is an example of the Trump genius at work. Killed me! The link leads to a tweet. First read the application. Then scroll down to her numbered tweeted points explaining why this seemingly trivial piece of information matters.
Here's the short take: Within hours of the inauguration, Bannon/Trump filed notice to run again in 2020. Trivial, right? Not so much. By stating intent now, SB/DT can legally “campaign,” which allows them to interact with institutions, businesses in ways that they could not as “president.” Being a president is one thing. Being a candidate is, legally, another.
This from Eliot Cohen. I didn't know anything about him prior to the election. Smart guy. Conservative. Worked for Condalezza Rice at State.
Yes, the idea that the republic may collapse is, well, hard to wrap the cells around. But it’s happened throughout history. It can happen here. This essay is the single best piece I’ve read about how to understand authoritarian behavior. And face up to it. If you don't read anything else, read it.
From a green-card journalist working in New York City. She does not attribute her source, but I've read enough from other experts to know that this is accurate. Good advice. Click her tweet to enlarge the text.
TEXT OF THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ARTICLE MENTIONED EARLIER:
Steve Bannon on Politics as War; The Trump adviser talks about the winning campaign and says the political attacks against him and Breitbart News are 'just nonsense.'
Kimberley A. Strassel, Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2016.
It's hard to think of Steve Bannon as a low-profile guy. He has garnered about as many headlines over the past week as Donald Trump--no small feat. He is the executive chairman of the hard-right Breitbart News, among the most aggressive voices online, its website an attack machine against Democrats and "establishment" conservatives. President-elect Trump chose Mr. Bannon this week as his chief strategist and senior counselor, a slot usually filled by someone eager to play a presidential surrogate on TV.
Yet Mr. Bannon--who joined the Trump campaign in mid-August to propel its thunderbolt victory--professes no interest in being the story. "It's not important to be known," he says in a telephone interview Thursday night, among his first public comments since the election. "It was Lao Tzu who said that with the best leaders, when the work is accomplished, the people will say 'We have done this ourselves.' That's how I've led."
Nor does he profess to care that Democrats and the media are portraying him as a "cloven-hoofed devil," as he puts it. "I pride myself in doing things that matter. What mattered in the campaign was winning. We did. What matters now is pulling together the single best team we can to implement President-elect Trump's vision.
He continues: "How can you take anything seriously from a media apparatus--paid the amount of money you people are paid--that systematically missed something that was so obvious, that missed Brexit, that missed the Trump revolution? You'd have thought they'd have learned their lesson on November 8."
Slight pause. "They clearly haven't."
Here are a few things you've likely read about Steve Bannon this week: He's a white supremacist, a bigot and anti-Semite. He's a self-described Leninist who wants to "destroy the state." He's associated with the "alt-right," a movement that, according to the New York Times, delights in "harassing Jews, Muslims and other vulnerable groups by spewing shocking insults on social media."
You'll have seen some of Breitbart's more offensive headlines, which refer to "renegade" Jews and the "dangerous faggot tour." You maybe heard that Breitbart is gearing up to be a Pravda-like state organ for the Trump administration.
Mr. Bannon is an aggressive political scrapper, unabashed in his views, but he says those views bear no relation to the media's description. Over 70 minutes, he describes himself as a "conservative," a "populist" and an "economic nationalist." He's a talker, but unexcitable, speaking in measured tones. A former naval officer, he thinks in military terms and likes to quote philosophers and generals. He's contemptuous of the media, proud of Breitbart, protective of the "deplorables," and--at least at the moment--eager to work with everyone from soon-to-be White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to House Speaker Paul Ryan.
At first Mr. Bannon insists that he has no interest in "wasting time" addressing the accusations against him. Yet he's soon ticking off the reasons they are "just nonsense."
Anti-Semitic? "Breitbart is the most pro-Israel site in the United States of America. I have Breitbart Jerusalem, which I have Aaron Klein run with about 10 reporters there. We've been leaders in stopping this BDS movement"--meaning boycott, divestment and sanctions--"in the United States; we're a leader in the reporting of young Jewish students being harassed on American campuses; we've been a leader on reporting on the terrible plight of the Jews in Europe." He adds that given his many Jewish partners and writers, "guys like Joel Pollak, these claims of anti-Semitism just aren't serious. It's a joke."
He blames the attacks on a lazy media, noting for instance that the "renegade Jew" line wasn't Breitbart's. Conservative activist David Horowitz (also Jewish) has taken responsibility for writing the headline himself, in a piece about Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.
The Lenin anecdote came from an article in the Daily Beast by a writer who claimed to have spoken with Mr. Bannon in 2013: "So a guy I've never heard of in my life claims he met me at a party, and then claims I said something about Lenin, and this is taken as gospel truth, with nobody checking it."
What about the charge of white supremacism? "I'm an economic nationalist. I am an America first guy. And I have admired nationalist movements throughout the world, have said repeatedly strong nations make great neighbors. I've also said repeatedly that the ethno-nationalist movement, prominent in Europe, will change over time. I've never been a supporter of ethno-nationalism."
Mr. Bannon says the accusations miss that "the black working and middle class and the Hispanic working and middle class, just like whites, have been severely hurt by the policies of globalism." He adds that he urged candidate Trump to reach out in his campaigning. "I was the one who said we are going to Flint, Michigan, we are going to black churches in Cleveland, because the thrust of this movement is that we are going to bring capitalism to the inner cities."
Why does he think that leftists are so fixated on him? "They were ready to coronate Hillary Clinton. That didn't happen, and I'm one of the reasons why. So, by the way, I wear these attacks as an emblem of pride."
Mr. Bannon is fiercely proud of the bomb-throwing Breitbart News, too. He credits it with "catching and understanding this populist movement" as far back as 2013, narrating the rise of the UK Independence Party in Britain, the exit movement for Scotland, and ultimately Brexit. "We were on to this change years before Donald Trump came on the scene," he says.
He acknowledges that the site is "edgy" but insists it is "vibrant." He offers his own definition of the alt-right movement and explains how he sees it fitting into Breitbart. "Our definition of the alt-right is younger people who are anti-globalists, very nationalist, terribly anti-establishment."
But he says Breitbart is also a platform for "libertarians," Zionists, "the conservative gay community," "proponents of restrictions on gay marriage," "economic nationalism" and "populism" and "the anti-establishment." In other words, the site hosts many views. "We provide an outlet for 10 or 12 or 15 lines of thought--we set it up that way" and the alt-right is "a tiny part of that." Yes, he concedes, the alt-right has "some racial and anti-Semitic overtones." He makes clear he has zero tolerance for such views.
All this said, Mr. Bannon explains he's on sabbatical from Breitbart and has had "nothing to do with the site since August 15," when he joined the Trump campaign. Now he will take an "extended leave of absence and cut all association with the site while I'm working at the pleasure of the president." He adds that Breitbart "didn't get a scoop from the campaign from the minute I took over; they've had to scramble like everybody else."
Yet given its loyalty to Messrs. Bannon and Trump, won't Breitbart serve as an attack dog against Republicans who defy the new president? Mr. Bannon says he believes the site will "call it as it sees it" and that even the Trump administration will be open for criticism if it doesn't "stay true to its vision." He adds: "If we don't, I assume they will hammer us."
As for how Breitbart will treat other Republicans: "Do I see them jumping in and backing Paul Ryan? Probably not. But I have no control over that. I'm sure if you look at some of the names being rumored for positions, walking through Trump tower, folks like [South Carolina Gov.] Nikki Haley, and you look at the comments section of Breitbart, I'm sure they aren't exactly high-fiving. But that's fantastic. The reason that Breitbart has gotten so big is because it has spirit."
Mr. Bannon's role in the Trump campaign was never made clear, though fellow adviser Kellyanne Conway called him the campaign's "general" and a "brilliant tactician." Mr. Bannon describes a close alliance of himself, Ms. Conway and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who developed a very "tight strategy" that relied on targeted speeches, rallies and social media. They envisioned two possible paths to the White House: one that hinged on Nevada and New Hampshire; the other that "leveraged Ohio" and rolled up Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin. By the last week they saw the latter plan coming together.
The claim that the Trump campaign was chaotic in the final months is wrong, Mr. Bannon says. It benefited from "excellent data" furnished by the Republican National Committee and an operation in San Antonio set up by Mr. Kushner. The campaign was looking closely at "rural communities and the hinterlands that held a lot of votes," which the Clinton campaign had "basically ceded" to Republicans. Mrs. Clinton also made the mistake of trying to "close the deal on a coalition" (minorities, millennials) that "she'd never closed on before."
Mrs. Clinton aside, the reason Mr. Trump won, he says, "is not all that complicated. The data was overwhelming: This is a change election. People weren't happy with the direction of the country. So all you had to do was to give people permission to vote for Donald Trump as an agent of change, make sure he articulated that message." That, and paint Mrs. Clinton as "the guardian of a corrupt and incompetent elite and status quo." Mr. Bannon believes Mr. Trump to be uniquely suited to make the case, as "one of the best political orators in American history, rated with William Jennings Bryan."
Now it's a new world, and given his reputation it is interesting to hear Mr. Bannon talk about what he is "most proud of." One thing is that "you see nothing but unity on the Republican side. I like saying that, having been a very anti-establishment leader of a very anti-establishment movement, that we were able to come together with people like Reince Priebus, to overcome our differences in a coalition. To have this great victory and realize that if we are going to put the policies of a President Trump into effect, we've got to continue to work as a coalition."
His affinity for Mr. Priebus ("a terrific partner") seems real, and he says bluntly that the Trump victory "would not have been possible without the RNC"--though he adds with a rare chuckle that the RNC "was a little anxious at times." Mr. Bannon brushes off concerns that there will be a White House power struggle between him and Mr. Priebus, given that Mr. Trump says the two men will be "equal partners."
"Listen, this is not Bush 41 or Bush 43 or Mitt Romney. This is a President-elect who gets information directly. He works in concentric circles."
Mr. Bannon has confidence about passing big reforms. "Does Paul Ryan think that everything Breitbart stands for, Steve Bannon stands for, is great? No. Do I think that everything he stands for--in particular his omnibus [spending bill]--is great? No. Can we work together to implement Donald Trump's vision for America? Can we do that? Oh yeah."
He concedes that "there are going to be times when we really, really disagree." But those are "in the future" and for now the priorities (tax reform, ObamaCare) "that we're working 24 hours a day on here with Vice President-elect Pence, who is going to be our connection to Capitol Hill," are energizing everyone.
He's proud of the "broad scope of people" they are bringing in for talks: Ms. Haley, Mitt Romney. He's proud that the first job offer--to former Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn for national security adviser--went to a "registered Democrat," and that the country is going to see "a lot of interesting choices." Mr. Trump "knows how to mix and match, get the best out of people, and I think it says something about what a historic figure he could be."
As for Mr. Bannon, don't expect to see him on cable. "People say get out there. But I see no purpose in trying to convince a bunch of media elites who only ever talk to themselves. I never went on TV one time during the campaign. Not once. You know why? Because politics is war. General Sherman would never have gone on TV to tell everyone his plans. I'd never tip my hand to the other side. And right now we've got work to do."
Ms. Strassel is a member of the Journal editorial board and writes the Potomac Watch column.