Perhaps the defining moment of the Trump presidency occurred before it had even begun, two days after his election. Since May 2016, Chris Christie, then governor of New Jersey, had been head of the transition team planning for the takeover of power if Trump won in November. Given the candidate’s complete lack of experience in public office, this process was even more important than usual. Trump himself, however, did not think so. In his self-pitying memoir Let Me Finish, a title that soon becomes the reader’s prayer, Christie records that “as far back as Labor Day,” the prospective president told him, “Chris, you and I are so smart, and we’ve known each other for so long, we could do the whole transition together if we just leave the victory party two hours early!” But Christie plowed on, and two days after that party, he arrived at Trump Tower to present a “carefully crafted, thirty-volume transition plan.” His team of 140 people had spent nearly six months designing for Trump “an entire federal government in his image and likeness.” It included shortlists of pre-vetted candidates for all the top jobs in the administration, as well as timetables for action on Trump’s signature policies and the drafts of executive orders.
What followed seems, on Trump’s part, gleefully sadistic. Christie was a big figure in the Trump campaign: the first serving senior officeholder to endorse and legitimize his candidacy. His star had fallen since his stunning landslide reelection in New Jersey in 2013, but he was still, as the Republican governor of a deep blue state, a figure of real political substance. He also imagined that Trump had been a close personal friend since 2002. Yet when he arrived at Trump Tower to present his thirty binders of plans for the new administration, he was met by Steve Bannon. Bannon told Christie that he was being fired with immediate effect, “and we do not want you to be in the building anymore.” His painstaking work was literally trashed: “All thirty binders were tossed in a Trump Tower dumpster, never to be seen again.” Are they, one wonders, now rotting away gently somewhere in the wastelands of New Jersey, like the bodies of disposable characters in The Sopranos?
How are we to understand this extraordinary episode? Is it an act of unalloyed personal malice, the emasculation of a Trump-lite wannabe by the real silverback? Or is it a primarily political act, the trashing of the transition plans as a prelude to the trashing of government itself under Trump?1 To ask such questions is to forget that the one thing Trump shares with the feminist movement is the belief that the personal is political—and in his case very much vice versa. Poor John Adams may have imagined that he and his fellow American revolutionaries were founding a government of laws, not of men, but Trump’s ideal is a government not even of men, but of a man—his own unprecedented and astonishing self.
Trump’s declaration in February of a national emergency to allow him to build his border wall regardless of the views of Congress was consistent with his obvious desire for monarchial powers. The organization of his White House, as his acolyte and former presidential assistant Cliff Sims describes in his memoir, Team of Vipers, is not that of a managerial hierarchy, with clear lines of responsibility and reporting. It is that of a royal court in which everything revolves around the person of the monarch: “The real org chart…was basically Trump in the middle and everyone he personally knew connected to him—like a hub and its spokes.” As Sims puts it, “Everything was personal to Trump—everything.”
The most pitiful recurring motif in Christie’s inadvertently comic tale of self-delusion is the repeated insistence that he and “my friend Donald” are personal equals. What he wants us to believe is that “my unique kinship with the president” was the mutual regard of the twin titans of what the subtitle of his memoir calls “in-your-face politics.” He himself was “a genuine national force”; so was Donald. He would, he strongly implies, have become president had Trump not blocked his path. (He claims, for example, that “if he hadn’t been there…I would have won New Hampshire,” even though he finished sixth, with 7 percent of the vote.) Even after Trump destroyed him in the primaries and Christie threw in his lot with his conqueror, the campaign was, in his eyes, a joint enterprise: “being his peer was a key part of the role that I played”; “this was a peer relationship.”
In truth, Christie comes across in Let Me Finish more like a naive ingenue being trifled with by a cynical lothario, a Cécile to Trump’s Valmont who still, after being cruelly exploited and abandoned, does not understand the nature of his dangerous liaison. It would, to inflate Oscar Wilde’s claim about the death of Little Nell, take a heart of stone not to howl with laughter at some of his lines about Trump: “He told me he loved me.” “We’ve got to be together, you and me,” Donald reassures him, and later, “You know how I feel about you.” The lovestruck Chris responds, “I could help him, and he needed me.” He is promised diamonds—the vice-presidency and then the office of attorney general—and eventually settles for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. When Trump sends a minion, Reince Priebus, to tell him that he’s not getting that either, Christie’s account of his own response is a full-on teenage flounce: “Whatever, I shrugged as Reince practically sprinted to Donald’s office.”
So, indeed, the trashing of Christie’s transition plan was personal. It takes a heroic lack of self-awareness on Christie’s part not to see that he functioned purely as a test of Trump’s absolute power—this guy is a two-time governor but I can humiliate him time and again and he will come back for more, still convinced that I really love him. Yet this abusive relationship is also deeply political. In an authoritarian regime, Christie’s delusion that he could be a peer of the Trump realm had to be crushed. The great leader has no peers.
The personal and the political meet in the quality at the heart of Trump’s presidency: unpredictability. Christie’s original sin, the reason why he had to be banished from the Eden of Trump Tower and his thirty binders filed in the dumpster, is that he threatened to erase Trump’s most precious quality. He had the temerity to think he could make what he calls the “unpredictable celebrity businessman” into a predictable president: “I could help to organize a government for Donald.” To organize a government would be to take away impulsiveness, volatility, capriciousness—and where would Trump be without them? Christie’s plan would have placed qualified people in senior government jobs, where they might have applied experience and expertise instead of obeying the will of the leader. But it would also have made the presidency predictable: “We had a day-one plan and a 100-day plan once the administration started. We had a 200-day plan after that.” This was even more delusional than the belief that Donald loved him.
Trump cannot function as a dictator—there are still too many constitutional and civic constraints on him—but he thinks and behaves like one. And this contradiction of an authoritarian in a democratic system turns upside down one of the central qualities of dictatorship: the monopoly on predictability. Eric Hoffer wrote that “when a Stalin or a Hitler can predict the future because he has the power to make his predictions come true, the life of the average man becomes unpredictable. It is with prediction as it is with wealth: there is so much of it in a society, and when one person has most of it there is little left for others.”2 In a true dictatorship, the leader owns all the predictability—while he knows his orders will be carried out, those subject to the orders have to live in a radically capricious world.
Trump undoubtedly craves those powers. In his sycophantic but surprisingly astute, well-written, and often illuminating account of his work on Trump’s campaign and then in the White House, Sims sums up Trump’s agenda for his second year in office as “looking for more opportunities to take executive actions wherever he felt inclined.” But those inclinations are too often frustrated. He has the manner and the attitudes of the dictator but not the powers. So he has to turn this particular quality of authoritarian government on its head. The great dictators create a monopoly on predictability. Trump seeks a more modest monopoly on unpredictability.
Central to Trump’s claim to a monopoly on unpredictability is his belief in the primacy of instinct over intelligence. In his 1987 best seller The Art of the Deal, written for him by Tony Schwartz, he insists that
more than anything else, I think deal-making is an ability you’re born with. It’s in the genes. I don’t say that egotistically. It’s not about being brilliant. It does take a certain intelligence, but mostly it’s about instincts. You can take the smartest kid at Wharton, the one who gets straight A’s and has a 170 IQ, and if he doesn’t have the instincts, he’ll never be a successful entrepreneur.
Sarah Sanders was widely mocked in January when she told the Christian Broadcasting Network that God “wanted Donald Trump to become president, and that’s why he’s there.” But she was accurately reflecting her boss’s self-image, albeit in religious rather than pseudobiological terms. Trump really does believe that the genetic inheritance of extraordinary instincts is what has made so him uniquely qualified to intuit the truth about any subject on earth. In October 2018 he told the Associated Press that he understood climate change because “my uncle was a great professor at MIT for many years. Dr. John Trump. And I didn’t talk to him about this particular subject, but I have a natural instinct for science.”
This belief in Trump’s own version of predestination is the fundamental basis for his presidency. Sims writes that Trump “operated almost entirely off of gut instinct” and hence that “no one knew what he would say, not even the staff.” He notes his “general lack of interest in the minutiae of…pretty much everything”—instinct does not require evidence. Peter Navarro, whom Trump brought into the White House in 2017 as his adviser on trade policy, told Bob Woodward that the president’s intuition on trade is “always right” and that the job of the people around him is thus to “provide the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition.” Sims uses a very similar phrase, writing of how Trump’s chief courtiers “built the intellectual framework that turned Trump’s raw, gut instincts into actual policy positions.” He admits that he himself fed Trump newspaper articles “for one reason only: to tell him he had been right about something…. I’d print it out, write a little note on it that said, ‘You were right about this.’” Instinct first, supporting evidence later.
This is as clear a statement as one could want of the nature of the administration, especially as Trump has reshaped it over time by ditching those who did not understand that their job, first and last, was to confirm the instincts of the infallible leader. They must practice a sycophancy that is not just political but biological. When his physician (and failed nominee as secretary for veterans’ affairs) Ronny Jackson announced after Trump’s physical examination in 2018 that “he has incredibly good genes, and it’s just the way God made him,” he was not merely engaging in pseudomedical hyperbole. He was reciting the first article of faith in the Trump apostle’s creed: Trump is genetically superior, and this superiority manifests itself in his intuitions.
It does not seem incidental that this is one of the reasons why religious conservatives are so comfortable serving Trump: sinner though he may be, he is a source of revealed truth. It is striking that in both Christie’s and Sims’s accounts, the emergence of the Access Hollywood tape of Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women is seen as the testing ground for true loyalty. Both men make much of their religious faith, Catholic in Christie’s case, evangelical in Sims’s, and of their happy marriages. Here, Trump’s true “instincts” were fully audible—feral, misogynistic, and adulterous. Yet for both men there is a pride in having shown unwavering loyalty to the boss while others were deserting him.
Christie recounts the episode as a crisis in which he himself showed a cool head. There is no moral anxiety. Sims does wonder about the campaign surrogates who went on air to speak up for Trump: “How could people go on TV, night after night, and defend things they knew in their heart were indefensible?” Yet he then compares himself to the persecuted Christians of Egypt and likens his own loyalty to Trump to the agonizing compromises they have to make with their dictatorial president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Such moral evasions, he seems to acknowledge, were “the things I needed to tell myself in order to keep going on this campaign.” They were also the things those who worked for Trump would keep telling themselves in the White House: that Trump’s uniqueness places him above ordinary morality.
The gut is a tyrant. Intuition is both inherently unpredictable and, as a basis for public policy, inherently anti-democratic. It does not have to account for itself—any more than divine inspiration can be questioned by believers. It is not open to contradiction because it is entirely personal—the insight is unique to the president. Trump declared in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in 2016, having evoked an apocalyptic vision of a broken America, “I alone can fix it.” This “I” is all gut and no brain. Everything in government must flow from the instincts of the singular leader. Trump was being entirely consistent when he spoke of his admiration for the way North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un exerted authority: “He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.” If, as he later claimed, this was a joke, it was nonetheless a highly revelatory jest.
It does not matter that Trump’s oracular speech is hardly delphic. As Sims puts it, “Trump talked like other people breathed. It was like a form of exercise for him—an endless exertion of words, phrases, asides, and observations. Sometimes he’d start a sentence and figure out the point he wanted to make along the way.” Yet this logorrhea is—for himself and his acolytes—the expression of infallible instincts. The spontaneous overflow of Trump’s momentary emotions is the sole source of America’s salvation. The job of his underlings is not—as Christie among others mistakenly thought—to hold them back or to organize them, but to channel them. Confirmation bias in this administration is not an epistemological failing. It is the primary principle of governance: first, confirm Trump’s biases.
Since he alone can access his infallible gut, and since instincts are immune to consistency, Trump’s subordinates must accommodate themselves to his unpredictability. In a wartime broadcast for the BBC, George Orwell reflected on the totalitarianisms of the 1930s and 1940s. He noted that they differed from the controlling ideologies of the past precisely in their embrace of the idea that infallible truths can change with the leader’s desires:
The orthodoxies of the past didn’t change, or at least didn’t change rapidly. In mediaeval Europe the Church dictated what you could believe, but at least it allowed you to retain the same beliefs from birth to death. It didn’t tell you to believe one thing on Monday and another on Tuesday…. In a sense, [the believer’s] thoughts are circumscribed, but he passes his whole life within the same framework of thought. His emotions aren’t tampered with. Now, with totalitarianism exactly the opposite is true. The peculiarity of the totalitarian state is that though it controls thought, it doesn’t fix it. It sets up unquestionable dogmas…because it needs absolute obedience from its subjects, but it can’t avoid the changes, which are dictated by the needs of power politics. It declares itself infallible, and at the same time it attacks the very concept of objective truth.3
This is very Trumpian. He replaces objective truth with subjective truth but insists that his followers recognize it nonetheless as objectively infallible. While his core political program has now reduced itself to a single item—build that wall—everything else can change. The admiring Sims writes that Trump has “strong opinions, weakly held.” And this opens the way to the most pleasing performance of power. One great mark of power is that, to your followers, you are equally infallible when you proclaim opposite truths. Thus, “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz had his sins washed clean in October 2018 when Trump rebaptized him “Beautiful Ted.” (The new nickname has not stuck.) Or, in a matter of rather more moment, Kim Jong-un can be transformed from the Little Rocket Man on whom Trump would unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” to “Chairman Kim” with whom, in his own words, he “fell in love.” The Trump who threatened apocalyptic war on the Korean peninsula becomes the heroic peacemaker of the 2019 State of the Union address who singlehandedly saved Korea from the terrible war he himself had portended. The gut instincts that told him to rattle his saber then told him to scatter rose petals at Kim’s feet.
And the pleasure in this is that his followers, like Communists of old desperately tacking to the shifting winds of the Moscow line, must agree that Trump’s opposites are equally right. If and when Trump decides that the Chinese are not, as he called them at a rally in 2011, “motherfuckers” but the greatest allies the US has ever had, that is what they will be.
In international relations, predictability is founded on the principle that treaty obligations assumed under one regime will not be discarded by its successor. Trump has overturned this principle by withdrawing or threatening to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, UNESCO, the multilateral nuclear accord with Iran, NAFTA, the Universal Postal Agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Korean–United States Free Trade Agreement, and the World Trade Organization. All international treaties are, to Trump, the equivalents of Christie’s doomed transition plan, threats to his monopoly on unpredictability. Sims records a conversation in the Oval Office in which the president boasted to him of having made the US even more unpredictable than North Korea: “Now they don’t know what to make of me…. They don’t have any idea. No one does. And that’s a good thing. That’s how it should be.”
The problem for Trump’s enablers is not just that his intuitions are innately unpredictable and that this reduces the governing process, in Sims’s description, to holding “the thin line between controlled chaos and total anarchy.” It is that Trump’s real political instincts are not for governing but for campaigning. In this, he is surely the first president for whom the office itself is a let-down, the rather dreary destination after a thrilling journey. As Sims astutely notes, “nothing about being President has ever reached the high of becoming President.” But the one high he can still reach is the buzz of one-way loyalty.
In The Art of the Deal, Trump makes it clear that by far the highest human value is personal loyalty. Beyond his own family, the one individual for whom he seems to feel something like love is his mentor, the notorious Roy Cohn. He acknowledges that, as his lawyer, Cohn could be brilliant but “could also be a disaster.” He even admits, in essence, that Cohn was a crook who “once told me that he’d spent more than two thirds of his adult life under indictment on one charge or another.” But none of this matters because of Cohn’s unshakable loyalty to Trump:
Just compare that with all the hundreds of “respectable” guys who make careers out of boasting about their uncompromising integrity but have absolutely no loyalty. They think only about what’s best for them and don’t think twice about stabbing a friend in the back if the friend becomes a problem. What I liked most about Roy Cohn was that he would do just the opposite. Roy was the sort of guy who’d be there at your hospital bed, long after everyone else had bailed out, literally standing by you to the death.
Loyalty is, of course, the lowest of the virtues. It is honor among thieves, the operating code of every mafia. Trump evoked it in precisely these terms on December 16 when, after Michael Cohen, Cohn’s rather anemic descendant as consigliere, cut a deal with prosecutors, he tweeted that “Michael Cohen…became a ‘Rat.’” In this at least we might see a consistency with the ideals set out in The Art of the Deal: uncompromising integrity ranks way below “literally standing by you to the death.” Cohen, like all the other potential rats trapped by Robert Mueller’s terriers, should honor the code of loyalty, take the rap, and keep his mouth shut. But there is a twist. Loyalty is supposed to go both ways. As so many of his enablers have discovered, Trump demands it but does not return it.
The point of loyalty is mutual predictability. It is an assurance of how another person will behave toward you, even in difficult circumstances. And this is where Trump’s cultivation of unpredictability finally works against him. When you are predictably unpredictable, you are also predictably disloyal. Christie and Sims are both utterly medieval in their complaints about how they were betrayed. Their books are like cahiers de doléances from the ancien régime, in which it was permissible to report one’s sufferings so long as they were blamed on the royal advisers, but never, ever on the monarch. Christie was done in by Jared Kushner, whose father Christie had put in jail when he was US attorney for New Jersey, but Donald, he believes, still loves him. Sims was undone by the jealousies of people around the former chief of staff John Kelly, but he still loves his master. Yet Sims, who has infinitely more insight than Christie, does realize, when he is eventually shafted, that his beloved Trump “hadn’t lifted a finger for countless loyal aides before me, and I’m sure he wouldn’t for countless loyal aides to come.” One would hope that reading these books would transform any loyal aide into a rat. The consequences might be more unpredictable than even Trump could handle.
See my “Saboteur in Chief,” The New York Review, December 6, 2018. ↩
Reflections on the Human Condition (Hopewell, 2006), p. 64. ↩
The Complete Works of George Orwell (London: Secker and Warburg, 1998), Vol. 12, p. 504. ↩