I am trying to write a book, but I keep getting diverted by events in my hometown. The latest is the furor over Michael Wolff’s portrayal of Donald Trump and Trump’s break with his former aide Steve Bannon. I have three marginal reflections about this that have to do with Trump’s physical and mental state and with the way he governs.
The most damaging and also questionable anecdote in the New York excerpt of Wolff’s book is when, according to Wolff, Trump, in response to Roger Ailes’ post-election recommendation of John Boehner as chief of staff, says, “Who’s that?” The suggestion is that Trump didn’t even know who Boehner was.
In the Washington Post, Paul Fahri points to prior tweets that Trump had made about Boehner, which certainly cast doubt on Wolff’s anecdote. Here without any reporting is my speculative interpretation of what actually happened: Ailes did recommend Boehner, and then Trump, who, it turns out, is hard of hearing – he has complained several times about not hearing or mishearing reporters’ questions – asked “Who?” not “Who’s that?” As someone who is hard of hearing, I am often asking “Who?” to people. But I broke down and got hearing aids. I strongly suspect Trump is too vain to admit he needs them.
If I am right about this, then it explains a) what really happened and b) much of Trump’s completely one-sided conversational interactions with people, which Wolff also cites in his story. He doesn’t listen because he often can’t entirely hear.
My second thought is about Trump and Bannon and the story going around that the Mercers are mad with Bannon because Bannon insinuated that they would fund his, Bannon’s, presidential campaign. What’s interesting about that is that if it’s true, it shows how daffy Bannon is. You had two men. Trump and Bannon, each of whose view of the universe is skewed, converging briefly in their vision like someone wearing stereoscopic lens, but who now no longer, so to speak, see eye to eye.
And that brings me to thought number three: about Trump and Reagan. In California in the late ‘60s, we leftists believed Reagan was a complete dimwit who would destroy himself first in the gubernatorial campaign and then in the governorship. We were wrong. And people in DC thought that Reagan would also nosedive in his 1980 campaign and then in his presidency – and for the same reasons. Wrong again. (And I am not saying I agreed with what Reagan did, only that he largely succeeded in what he set out to do.)
I don’t actually think Reagan was dumb or that Trump is. Neither man is particularly reflective nor tolerant of details. But Reagan surrounded himself with some exceptional people – I am thinking particularly of James Baker – and listened to their advice without losing control of his presidency. He began to lose it in his second term – probably as his advanced age set in – but in his first term, he wielded authority very effectively. Trump does not. And it’s one thing that is scary about his presidency. And part of that has to do with the kind of person he is and Reagan was.
When I went through William F. Buckley’s papers, I discovered that Reagan was a very private, and even introverted, man. Even good friends like Buckley had trouble getting a word out of him. Buckley often had to correspond with Reagan through his wife Nancy. Reagan only came alive on stage and on the hustings. Trump, by contrast, appears to live only in and for the public – a stance that encourages chaos in his life and administration. The show is always going on. What should be his private emotions are constantly on display. And it’s coming out now as he conducts a third grader’s feud with Bannon and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un.