Donald Trump’s standard operating procedure of conflict, insults, reversals and dismissals — fire and fury, if you will — is still reported by the news media with breathless surprise. The most obvious man on Earth is yet, to the media, always astonishing. Whose fault is that? Covering a train wreck requires different skills from covering politics. But political reporters continue to apply the hyper-rationality of political life and its heightened sense of cause and effect to Trump and his White House. Power, in this view, necessarily has logic and purpose.
Earlier this year, The New York Times broke a story about how, in June, Trump tried to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. True enough — except that the Times story implied the culmination of a decision-making process and certain calculated intent. In fact, for most of June, Trump, in wounded-beast fashion, demanded every day that Mueller be fired. The difference, not at all fine, is between being in control and out of control, between a plan, however wicked, and a meltdown. Similarly, The Washington Post recently tried to explain Trump’s legal team’s worry about his testimony before the special counsel as having to do with “lack of precision in his speech and penchant for hyperbole.” That’s a significantly more comforting interpretation than that he has no ability to adapt to any standard measure of language and reality.
By insisting that Trump merely refuses to conform or doesn’t care to conform, the media misses the far more novel and alarming point: that he can’t conform.
“What is looking like unhinged chaos is actually him in a place of comfort,” tweeted Maggie Haberman of the Times. Haberman, who likes to assert a stubborn ownership of the Trump story, implies something approximating presidential strategy and point of view.
Recently, Hope Hicks, the media’s most reliable conduit to the president, left her job as White House communications director, with many reporters treating her departure as the loss of a senior staffer who exerted restraint and organizational acumen in the West Wing. In fact, having no experience in government — before the Trump campaign, she was a PR aide for Ivanka Trump’s clothing line — and in some cultish thrall to the president and his family, 29-year-old Hicks’ role in the White House was more accurately as a key enabler of Trump’s constant caprice. With her bad choice of Trump’s bad men — first Corey Lewandowski, who roughed up a female reporter on the campaign trail, then Rob Porter, fired for domestic abuse against two wives — as well as hapless participation in the president’s harebrained impulses and daily fecklessness, Hicks, despite the media’s courtesy brush, has been quite an emblematic character of the dysfunction.
In Washington, a small number of news organizations (ever fewer as the media constricts), each competing with the other but all, lemming-like, mindful of the parameters of the game set by one another, dominate the form and sensibility of political coverage. While we see this as “journalism” — often with the criticism that it’s weighted to liberal journalism — we might as much see it as another kind of bureaucracy, weighted to protecting its own interests.
Not part of that bureaucracy — indeed without an employer — I slipped into the White House this past year and got a close-up look at a West Wing operating at historic levels of managerial and intellectual impairment. The book I wrote — seeing West Wing staffers not so much as part of a predictable political ecosystem but as people caught in an aberrant situation beyond their control and even grasp — was resonant with readers but was held in suspicious regard by various members of the Washington media.
For much of the modern media age, institutional media has existed side by side with freelance media — a wide circle of independent writers portraying events in a different style, tone and sensibility from that of the official news media. One effect of the demise of so many of the magazines supporting this sort of writing is that the only careers left in news are institutional ones, with a need to conform to house rules and assumptions. The center of gravity inevitably takes you, if you are to make a journalism career, to The New York Times or The Washington Post or CNN or Bloomberg or a handful of others, with a clubbable admonishment not to wander too far afield of their sensitivities even before you get there (right-wing media has its own standards and practices). More and more, we assume that the bureaucratic news style — a committee product of managers, producers, digital teams and lawyers as well as reporters — is the way it is done, and must be done.
One recent evening, I heard CNN’s Jake Tapper taking aim at my perceived deviations from journalistic form, saying that if the Trump White House was not going to uphold standards, then “we” had to. Who, I wondered, was “we”? That is, what did I have in common, other than the subject of Trump, with Jake Tapper? Tapper is a television news personality who works for a top-down organization ever self-conscious about its complex agendas. I’m a writer who works entirely on my own.
I did an end-run around the system, catching the journalism apparatus as well as the White House unaware. Various defenders of bureaucratic journalism have charged that I somehow misrepresented my intent — that I was an actor pretending to be complicit or sympathetic with the White House; and that, having received confidences from top government officials, I then broke off-the-record agreements and reported these secret griefs. I did not — or did not have to. This White House was that porous and chaotic. But, really, so what if I had, if that is the way to the real story? Doing that, or, if many did that, it might undermine the interests of institutional journalists — those who need to return each day. Fair enough. But I’m not on that team. And who, outside of the journalism bureaucracy and government officials, thinks we are better served by keeping those confidences?
And then there is a different sort of issue, having to do not just with method, or function, but temperament. Very few people in the Washington journalism bureaucracy are good writers — few would even consider their primary function to be writers, or good writing itself to be a valuable end (that was journalism of a different era). They are researchers, investigators, forensic specialists, data accountants, policy wonks, issue advocates, digital entrepreneurs, ambitious news executives, would-be politicians themselves and media superstars, but they are not writers — language dies in their hands. Suffice to say, my telling of the Trump story upended the daily drip-drip of Trump news by making the Trump White House seem truer and realer than the drip-drip makes it seem. And doing so, accomplishing my creative incursion into the White House and returning with a juicy tale — not to mention doing big numbers with a book in this digital-news age — seems to have made many on journalism’s Mount Olympus batshit crazy.
And then there is the money.
Donald Trump, for the media, is the golden goose.
And he may be a zero-sum golden goose. What one of us takes, the other loses.
When Donald Trump passes from the White House, and I feel sure that will be sooner rather than later, the media — cable, the Times and WaPo, social media — will fall into torpor and depression. Politico, BuzzFeed, Axios — in extremis. The Times‘ vaunted subscriber numbers in freefall. Mike Pence, whatever you might think about his politics, is the world’s most boring man and will have a Trumpian revenge on the news industry by flattening it.
So get as much as you can while you can. Fox News has embraced absurdity because it recognizes this is probably its last act. It would be difficult to imagine anything MSNBC’s Joe and Mika — once loopy Trump supporters, now his loopy assassins — would not do to grab a Trump headline and live another Trump day. CNN’s Jeff Zucker will, if AT&T prevails in its merger bid or if another opportunity appears, gratefully be out of Dodge when Trump comes tumbling down. Indeed, be mindful of a coming media subtext not to kill the president off too quickly: He’s crazy, but don’t underestimate him!
Understanding Trump, how this happened, what he means and what he is, will be the intellectual and creative battleground of the next generation. But now, as we race to his end, everybody is desperate for their piece of him — the opportunity is now! In Trump world, with all due irony, a book — offering even more Trump than that offered by the all-Trump-all-the-time Trump media — can create a global fuss. My book, with its trove of Trump, became no longer a mere book but a seismic political event. I am now often confronted with a question about what I meant to accomplish. The assumption being that I set out to accomplish something beyond describing what I saw. I did not. But I do believe I have offered a better description than has so far been provided.
Politics, as most often portrayed by political reporters, is about a level of pretense. Politicians, no matter their perfidy, are seen as acutely attentive to cause and effect: They know what they are doing. They do what they do for a reason, honorable or otherwise. That semi-fantasy maintains Washington and democracy. Trump’s election might seem to have fatally undermined that artifice. But the political media, picking itself up, built a new business-as-usual reality, if against a lower baseline of expectations. Donald Trump, however shallow his experience might be and peculiar his behavior seemed and limited his intellectual abilities obviously are, yet commands the power of the executive branch toward specific goals. Hence, politics as we know it. Immigration, tax reform, North Korea — you might not like what he’s doing, but he’s doing it, however extremely and oddly.
Against this, I’ve offered a portrait of something more like total turmoil and disorder, a grand failure of impulse and control, something actually quite comic, if it weren’t so repellent and frightening. A White House without purpose or abilities, not just incompetent but incoherent in thought and utterance, a place where everyone in it is openly contemptuous of it, more fearful perhaps for their careers than the country, but — with more selflessness than you might expect — pretty fearful on the country’s behalf too.
This is the portrait that many readers seem to have found more believable than the one that has strongman Donald Trump exerting his dramatic and quixotic will. A new baseline, wherein lunacy is the given, and Trump’s own wreckage the inevitable result, is what I’d like to think I’ve helped establish.
This story also appears in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.