The Long-Term Impact of "Fire and Fury" and "Shithole Countries"

by Neil H. Buchanan

If someone had told me on New Year's Day that the first two big stories of 2018 would be the release of a book detailing the White House's dysfunction and Donald Trump causally denigrating more than a billion nonwhite people, I would not have been even a little bit surprised.  Looking at this mess barely two weeks later, only the details are somewhat unexpected, and even those details are not at all shocking.

It seems like an eternity has already passed since Michael Wolff's book became the talk of the town, but the first newspaper articles about Fire and Fury were actually published on January 3.  (The New York Times ran a Reuters piece that afternoon.)  The ensuing two weeks have seen the kind of nonstop screaming fest that has become all too familiar in the last year, and Trump's racist comments last week about immigration from poor countries simply added to the chaos.

What, if anything, will be the long-term impact of all of this hubbub?  Even at this early point, it appears that this is just another insane set of news cycles that will be quickly forgotten, with only the detritus lingering in the public's mind.  (The word "shithole" is now permanently part of the world's political lexicon.)

The only development of any lasting significance, I think, is the Wolff-caused epic blowup of the relationship between Steve Bannon and Donald Trump.  What is puzzling and surprising, as I explain below, is that it is currently possible to see how that crackup could turn out to be a win for almost anyone (except Bannon himself, of course), even though it cannot possibly end up being a win for everyone simultaneously.

In the end, however, I think the most likely effect of the latest events will be that Trump -- even without Bannon -- has turned every Republican into every Democrat's dream opponent.  The first half of January will have made it even easier to run against Trump's party of enablers in November.

To begin with Wolff's book, which no one seems to have read (including me), the most interesting aspect of the whole story is actually the least politically explosive.  Wolff managed to demonstrate an important and underappreciated aspect of good journalism even while demonstrating what happens when a second crucial requirement for good journalism is missing.  Allow me to explain.

Over the years that I have been writing opinion columns, I have unintentionally and unexpectedly become a rather frequent and unforgiving media critic.  My two primary areas of expertise, economics and tax law, both happen to be newsworthy and technical, and press coverage of both topics is notably bad, even in the major newspapers.

Among countless examples, I recently excoriated some New York Times reporters for their gullible reporting on the Republican Party's obsession with economic deregulation, and I spent large amounts of time in November describing how The Washington Post's reporters had misrepresented Republicans' tax plans.  The combination of accepting without question Republicans' talking points and often failing to understand the policies under discussion guarantees that such news stories will misinform readers.

The bigger problem, however, has been the press's widely derided habit of reporting what both sides have said without any sense of proportion (false equivalence) or factual grounding ("Democrats say that the climate is changing, while Republicans say that it is not").  The latter problem in particular can make journalism little more than stenography, and it goes far beyond the news stories on technical topics.

What I referred to above as the important and underappreciated aspect of journalism that Wolff's book demonstrates is the central role that skeptical sifting of evidence plays in good journalism.  In an appearance on Stephen Colbert's show, Wolff explained that he had interviewed dozens of people who were lying.  He knew that each of them was lying, because each of them had her or his own reasons to lie.

The proper response to that situation is not to say, "Well, no one is telling me the truth, so I guess we'll never know."  Instead, Wolff explained that it is possible to listen to a series of lies and figure out the truth.  This is not the "Rashomon" problem, in which each person's perspective is its own truth.  Wolff explained that by listening to a series of lies and liars, he could pull together the truth by looking for commonalities and figuring out when certain people would be motivated to tell parts of the truth in service of their own lies.

This truly is an important service to society, and it explains why Wolff is defensive about merely releasing his tape recordings.  There will necessarily be plenty of conflicting accounts among the interviews, and anyone who wants to attack Wolff's conclusions would have a field day pointing those out.  In the end, the value of good journalism lies in the reporter's ability to know what to ignore as much as what to report.

All of which brings us to what I described above as the second crucial requirement for good journalism, which is credibility.  As I also noted, that requirement is missing here, and it is missing because of Wolff's dodgy track record.  Once a journalist has a reputation for playing fast and loose with the facts, as Wolff apparently does, he loses his ability to say, "Trust me, I have used my best judgment here to distill the story to its truthful essence."

None of which is to say that this makes Wolff's book unbelievable.  Indeed, Wolff has said over and over that he worried that there was nothing new or revelatory in the book.  For example, he includes juicy quotes in which various Administration figures use synonyms for "stupid" to describe Trump, but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was long ago reported to have called Trump a "fucking moron."  Has the news coverage of the book actually suggested that it brought out any unexpected truths?

Even the lasting effect of the book -- Bannon's career suicide -- is based on things that any sentient person would find unsurprising.  Bannon is a particularly nasty sociopath, but he is not stupid.  He knows that what the Trump campaign was doing with the Russians was treasonous, and he knows that Trump's children are lightweights.  Wolff sat and listened while Bannon said so out loud.  That Bannon has subsequently groveled without actually denying anything that he said is the real news from the whole Wolff story.

The value of the book (and of Wolff's recordings of his interviews), then, is that he precipitated an earth-shaking scrambling of Republican power politics.  Bannon has demonstrated that the people who supported him do not need him.  Why would they need him when Trump has enthusiastically adopted the full range of racism, sexism, and xenophobia that they were using Bannon to promote?  (And by getting rid of Bannon they also get rid of any pesky bits of economic populism.)

As I noted above, this could end up being good for any number of people.  It could be good for Republicans because they might avoid more "Bannon specials" like the debacle in Alabama last year with Roy Moore.  Without an outsiders-against-the-establishment civil war, they will presumably have fewer embarrassing candidates to defend (or ignore).  That would bode well for their chances at limiting the damage in the upcoming mid-term elections.

But that brings us to the "shithole countries" controversy, which ties in here in a perhaps unexpected way.  What we have now witnessed in all its inglorious fullness is that Trump is his own Bannon, which was only partly obvious before now.  Certainly, plenty of people thought that Trump was Bannon's puppet who could be something different without Bannon pulling the strings.

Trump's willingness to blow up negotiations over crucial legislation by issuing racist comments has demonstrated that he can turn existing Republicans into Roy Moores without waiting for Bannon to find new ones.

Failed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie has already demonstrated what happens when a hard-right establishment type tries to become a Trumpian anti-immigrant xenophobe.  Now, Republicans who already hold office are falling all over themselves to stay in Trump's good graces.

Trump's attack on nonwhite immigration has resulted in unforced errors by Republican apologists for Trump.  There was the inane "shithole vs. shithouse" controversy, of course.  There was also the usual denial that Trump had said anything bad, quickly followed by acknowledgment that he had said something bad -- except that it is supposedly not so bad.

Republicans have tried to defuse the underlying problem by focusing on the vulgarity itself.  Reports show Fox News hosts saying that Trump merely meant to say that he does not want people coming to the U.S. from poor countries, so we should not be so puritanical about the language that he used.  I emphatically disagree with the notion that the vulgarity does not matter.  (Would you rather hear that you need to lose a few pounds or that you are a fat, disgusting pile of shit?  What would you think of two people, one of whom said the former while the other said the latter?)

But the issue is not what Trump said about the conditions in poor countries.  There are actually two larger issues.  One is that Trump and his enablers believe that they can gain political advantage by saying that "guys sitting at a bar in Wisconsin" think and talk this way all the time.  That is not only insulting and condescending to blue-collar workers, but it gives voters outside of Trump's white-grievance-infused base every reason to think that the negative stereotypes about Trump's voters are true.  Fox News proudly says so.

The second problem is that Trump did not merely say that there are some, shall we say, not very pleasant places in the world in which people live.  He said that people from those overwhelmingly nonwhite countries should not be allowed to come to this country simply because they currently live in those supposedly unpleasant places.

As The Los Angeles Times reported, even if we wanted to run our entire immigration based on so-called merit, "African immigrants are better educated than people born in the U.S. or the immigrant population as a whole."  There goes reality messing up another Republican talking point.

In the end, we now have prominent Republican senators embarrassing themselves (if they were only capable of embarrassment) and outright lying on Trump's behalf.  From the Democrats' perspective, who needs Roy Moore to run against when even a Bannon-less Trump is making every Republican look worse every day?