Whether or not you believe every detail of Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury — it seems unlikely that Donald Trump would have no idea who John Boehner is, for example, considering that he has tweeted about the former House speaker several times — the general portrait is extremely believable: Few around Trump on the campaign expected him to win; no one around the president-elect was prepared for the transition (recall Chris Christie’s sudden replacement as head of the transition team); most of the early top White House staff had no governing experience and were forced to improvise with no plan and little direction from an erratic new president.
But the book’s most damning and consequential revelation lies in its depiction of a president who barely understands the office he occupies and isn’t interested in learning: “He didn’t process information in any conventional sense. He didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semi-literate. He trusted his own expertise — no matter how paltry or irrelevant — more than anyone else’s.” None of this seems implausible considering what we can see of Trump for ourselves: the statements that are disconnected from reality, the tweeting about the size of his nuclear button and knee-jerk furious reactions to comments about him on television, the rambling off-the-cuff public statements.
Does Trump deserve to be trusted with the powers of the presidency? The question is pretty much moot at the moment; he’s been in the job for a year and the earth has not yet crashed into the sun. In fact, things are going pretty well on a lot of fronts. A massive tax cut has been signed into law. Obamacare’s individual mandate has been repealed. A slew of regulations have been rescinded. The markets keep hitting new record highs, unemployment is low, and wages are up. The Islamic State is pretty much obliterated as a state. The federal judiciary is being filled with conservative all-stars. Illegal border crossings are down dramatically.
If you’re a conservative, this is . . . probably way better than you expected, particularly if you thought nominating Trump would turn the 2016 election into a mere formality for the reign of Hillary Clinton. If Trump is an ignorant, egomaniacal buffoon, he’s not enough of one to stop good policy from passing or the country’s condition from improving.
But there’s always that nagging fear, returning late at night, that the other shoe will drop. We’re no stranger to tensions with North Korea, but this particular paranoid dictator, who possesses functional nuclear weapons, makes the risk of miscalculation exceptionally high. The riot and death in Charlottesville demonstrated that Trump can take the easiest layup in American politics — denounce those marching under the Nazi banner! — and botch it completely. Trump’s approval rating is low, and Republicans’ outlook for the midterms is dark. And maybe Robert Mueller will return with evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors — if not collusion with the Russian government, then some sort of financial impropriety that preceded the campaign.
Perhaps the stakes of the Trump presidency require conservatives to confront the coming months and years with an unsentimental cost-benefit analysis. Applaud President Trump when he’s right, criticize him when he’s wrong, and ride the horse as far as he can take you — and the moment he can carry you no further, leave him behind. If Trump proves incapable of resisting temptation and irreparably sabotages his own presidency, conservatives shouldn’t strain any muscles to defend him.
Trump deserves credit for some of the good things that have happened since January 2017, but his worst wounds are self-inflicted and he refuses to change his ways.
Trump deserves credit for some of the good things that have happened since January 2017, but his worst wounds are self-inflicted and he refuses to change his ways. Don’t buy into the ex post facto justifications that his angry tweets are some irreplaceable communications tool, that his mercurial nature is strategic unpredictability, that his ignorance is feigned, and that he’s playing some secret seven-level chess, with plans within plans, all building up to some ultimate victory that’s just around the corner.
There is no secret master plan, no elaborate grand scheme with pieces slowly falling into place. Some days Trump just steps in it — publicly haranguing his own attorney general, entrusting Middle East policy to his son-in-law, endorsing Roy Moore, or rehashing long-forgotten and long-debunked conspiracy theories. You can’t save him from himself, and you shouldn’t put more effort into that endeavor than he’s willing to put in himself.
It’s not like what Trump has to do is a mystery. He has to calm down and stop worrying about what’s said about him on television. He has to pay attention in his briefings. He needs to tweet less — a lot less. He needs to think deeply about what his top legislative priority before the midterm elections ought to be, and once he’s decided on that, he needs to work tirelessly to build a majority of votes to pass it. One of Trump’s most popular moments of 2017 was his address to Congress, where he sounded downright normal for a Republican president. Perhaps what Americans want is just to wake up each morning and not have to worry, “What is the federal government going to try to do to me today?”
If Trump can just calm down, focus on governing, and stop acting like he’s hosting a twist-filled reality show, he will be a successful two-term president. But if he keeps indulging his worst impulses and living down to the frightening portrait presented in Wolff’s book, conservatives don’t need to stick with him.