Skip to main content

British political analyst Tim Shipman recently wrote that Prime Minister Theresa May possessed no "second gear" because of her innocuous style. Across the Atlantic in the United States, however, President Donald Trump possesses only fourth gear – or overdrive.

Now, with the outbreak of a range war between Mr. Trump and his apostate adviser Stephen Bannon and the publication of a damaging insider look at the Trump White House, all of American politics is being conducted in overdrive.

As Mr. Trump approaches the one-year anniversary of his inauguration, he more than ever defies established norms of presidential comportment – and his administration, which critics hoped would transform chaos into conventional behaviour, is mired in fresh contention and confusion.

Story continues below advertisement

Other presidents have had rocky first years: Abraham Lincoln with a secession threat that led to civil war; Franklin Roosevelt with a debilitating depression; Harry Truman with a two-front world war and a critical nuclear-weapon decision looming; Lyndon Johnson facing a grief-stricken country soon to be convulsed in civil-rights turmoil.

But the difference as Year One of the Trump era ends is that the tumult comes from inside the White House, not from uncontrollable events outside the executive mansion.

"It is not driven by international or national events," said Bruce Bartlett, a domestic-policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. "But what is remarkable is that there are no external forces that are particularly driving policy or White House activity."

Some of what Mr. Trump has done, fomented, proposed or proclaimed is ephemeral. He is a President accomplished in the art of the tweet but whose impulsive messages often have the effect of a Snapchat photo, short-lived in impact and then disappearing, overtaken by the next one.

But the publication of Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House has the potential of creating a permanent record of the early months of the Trump era and adding new questions about the President's acuity. And it fundamentally changes the focus of presidential antagonism.

For much of the first year, Mr. Trump aimed his antagonisms on outside forces and figures. Like Mr. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, he harnessed the new technology of the time, especially social media, and transformed it into a formidable political force.

But the contrast between Mr. Trump and his celebrated presidential predecessors is instructive.

Story continues below advertisement

The difference between Mr. Roosevelt's use of radio and Mr. Kennedy's of television on the one hand, and Trump's mastery of Twitter on the other, is that the 45th President has used the breakthrough medium of communication more for insults than for insights, often criticizing Washington governmental agencies.

Two weeks ago, he proclaimed it was "a shame what happened to the FBI" – even as he took on various national institutions and continued to demonize former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, his 2016 opponent. Mr. Roosevelt as president did not use radio to criticize Herbert Hoover, his 1932 opponent, and Mr. Kennedy in the White House never spoke on television, or indeed publicly at all, about Richard Nixon, whom he defeated in a close 1960 campaign.

Now, in the new year, Mr. Trump is training his fire on his putative allies, and in a furious fusillade of criticism sought to diminish Mr. Bannon and to discredit his remarks, which raised new questions about the President's involvement with Russians during the 2016 campaign. The focus in the White House is moving from the offensive to the defensive – a fundamental change reflecting the fresh threat posed by various congressional investigations of the Russian relationship and the separate, and perhaps more perilous, Russia investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Mr. Wolff will be an easy target for the Trump media machine, which has made the term "fake news" part of the North American political lexicon; the author of the new book was vulnerable to being characterized as something of a purveyor of fake news before the phrase became a part of Washington political conflict. The Washington Post described Mr. Wolff as a "provocateur and media polemicist," a phrase that Mr. Wolff himself, and Mr. Trump's many critics, might have employed to describe the President.

Even so, the Wolff book inevitably will offer some focus to the Mueller investigation, if not a road map for the former FBI director who is the target of so much conservative opprobrium. It will also surely be a libretto for Mr. Trump's liberal critics. By 10 a.m. Thursday, the book was the No. 1 seller on amazon.com; it goes on sale Friday morning, its publication date having been moved up four days.

But before the book is even put in the post, cease-and-desist orders were already being delivered, a barrage of presidential tweets (17 in one day's remarkable production) were flying across social media, and one potentially critical lawsuit was being filed to limit Mr. Mueller's remit in his Russia investigations.

Story continues below advertisement

It is a commonplace in Washington to recognize that special counsels and special investigators begin with one discrete purpose and swiftly broaden their reach to other presidential indiscretions; it was this phenomenon that prompted Kenneth Starr to begin his inquiry into the relationship between Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

A similar expansion – direction unknown at present – could change the political calculus.

But the divorce between Mr. Trump and Mr. Bannon already has changed the calculus. This episode, combined with the Republican debacle in the Alabama special Senate election, means that Mr. Trump surely no longer will follow the Bannon script in the midterm congressional elections. The outsider President may find himself as more of a Republican insider, and vulnerable GOP candidates might face fewer formidable challenges from inside their own party as the November elections approach. So much for the expectations.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons or for abuse. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies