The New York magazine adaptation of the book, whose publication was moved up to Jan. 5, went online on Wednesday. And its most damning paragraph (to me, anyway) involves a brutal assessment of the president’s abilities, incorporating details from former deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh.
As soon as the campaign team had stepped into the White House, Walsh saw, it had gone from managing Trump to the expectation of being managed by him. Yet the president, while proposing the most radical departure from governing and policy norms in several generations, had few specific ideas about how to turn his themes and vitriol into policy. And making suggestions to him was deeply complicated. Here, arguably, was the central issue of the Trump presidency, informing every aspect of Trumpian policy and leadership: 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. He was often confident, but he was just as often paralyzed, less a savant than a figure of sputtering and dangerous insecurities, whose instinctive response was to lash out and behave as if his gut, however confused, was in fact in some clear and forceful way telling him what to do. It was, said Walsh, “like trying to figure out what a child wants.”
That is one of the less salacious details Wolff delivers. The knock-down-drag-out fight between Stephen K. Bannon and Ivanka Trump in the Oval Office took my breath away in its Shakespearean cruelty. But that startling “what a child wants” appraisal of the president took me back to the blistering benediction at the conclusion of an interfaith service I attended last month in San Francisco with the Faith and Politics Institute.
At the outset, Michael Pappas, executive director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council, told the gathered that their custom was free and open expression. That there were no limits on what the assembled clergy could or should say. Amos C. Brown, president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP and pastor of the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco since 1976, embodied that custom with every word of his sermon.
Brown recounted the sermon he heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver in the City by the Bay decades ago. It was a variation of what would become his famous “I Have a Dream” oration. From that day forward, Brown said, he walked in King’s footsteps, followed his example of “inclusion, fairness, justice and peace.” But Brown was troubled about his country.
“I must say to you I cannot leave this podium with much hope,” he said. “I am disturbed about America. I am disturbed about my native land.” Brown turned to the words of H.L. Mencken to thunder blunt judgment upon Trump without mentioning his name. “Celebrated journalist H.L. Mencken … said, as democracy evolves and the common people get their desires, the day will come when the White House will be adorned with the presence of a moron as president.”
This was a paraphrasing of Mencken’s oft-cited quote from a 1920 column, “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
Invoking Trump’s name only once, Brown lamented the state of the nation — its leadership and its people. “I pray as we go down from this place that you will be like me, disturbed about America,” he said in the Presidio Chapel. “We’ve come to a time and a point when people call right wrong and wrong right. We’ve come to a point when there is no integrity in the White House. Nobody seems to be very disturbed.
“We’ve come to the point that we have adopted the mind and the manner and the mystique of that moron that’s at 1600 [Pennsylvania] Avenue now when we have refused, refused to hold Donald Trump accountable for his abusiveness, his ignorance, his disrespect for the office and, more importantly, to put this nation in harm’s way with his zany behavior,” Brown continued. “So I pray, I hope and I trust that you, too, will be disturbed about America. We ought to be disturbed.”
Brown ended his remarks by citing “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” written in the 18th century by famed historian Edward Gibbon. “For Gibbon said, a long time ago, that a nation falls when she refuses to take care of her infrastructure, when leadership is immoral and when there is division in the land,” Brown noted. “We now have all three and it’s time for the good folks to get up, roll up their sleeves and in a peaceful, intelligent, loving and persistent way, stand for justice.”
Brown’s harsh words last month reflected the anxiety of America then. The Wolff book presents harrowing details that will deepen the concern of the American people. In a piece for the Hollywood Reporter, where he is a columnist, Wolff concludes that “100 percent” of the Trump staffers he talked to in the administration’s first year, “came to believe he was incapable of functioning in his job.”
For nearly a year, we have been at the mercy of a man who uses Twitter to bully critics, exhaust the nation and freak out the world. We have seen him degrade the moral authority of the presidency and America’s standing in the world. And now we know that the folks slapping smiley faces on Trump and the administration are doing so in full knowledge of the terror they are living in and inflicting on the rest of us.
We ought to be disturbed.