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Fire and Fury #2 - Trump never intended to win the election

Note: Please also see the 2020 Books Are Our Superpower article about this book.

In Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff argues that Donald Trump never intended to win the 2016 presidential election.

Wolff contends that Trump thought that Clinton had the better campaign ("They’ve got the best and we’ve got the worst") and that he never wanted to be president so his campaign "was not designed to win anything." He only wanted to become "the most famous man in the world" and possibly have his own cable network featuring Kellyanne Conway, which he could easily achieve by losing. The Republican Party establishment could then revert to business as usual and Steve Bannon could lead the Tea Party. He promised his wife Melania that he would not win, a prospect she feared would disrupt her personal life. Victory, in fact, would raise liabilities: Mike Flynn had accepted a $45,000 speaking fee from Russians while campaigning for Trump, and Trump's campaign manager Paul Manafort had also historically had income that raised questions. (Update: Manafort was convicted of felonies in August 2018. Flynn's case remains contentious as of 2020.) Trump had to be persuaded to loan his own campaign $10 million (for him, a small sum). Trump explained to Roger Ailes that losing the election "isn’t losing. We’ve totally won." When his aide Sam Nunberg asked “But do you want to be president?,” Trump seemed to believe that "there didn’t need to be an answer because he wasn’t going to be president," as Wolff summarizes it. Unfortunately for Trump and for the country, "They were not ready to win." He cleverly says that they "had, perhaps less than inadvertently, replicated the scheme from Mel Brooks’s The Producers."

Immediately after winning, it seemed that Trump was "perhaps not yet appreciating the difference between becoming president and elevating his social standing". Unfortunately, "[t]he transmogrification of Trump from joke candidate, to whisperer for a disaffected demographic, to risible nominee, to rent-in-the-fabric-of-time president-elect, did not inspire in him any larger sense of sober reflection."

Nunberg, unwilling to call Trump "good," "intelligent," or "capable," would say only that "he’s a star." As Wolff put it, he was unable to "parse factions of support and opprobrium" which limited his political ability, but he had at least one talent: "He was a force of personality. He could make you believe." One powerful colleague found he needed "to adjust his view of a man who, for more than a generation, had been at best a clown prince among the rich and famous."

Yet he was made vulnerable by his accidental success. "In early February, an Obama administration lawyer friendly with Sally Yates remarked with some relish and considerable accuracy: 'It certainly is an odd circumstance if you live your life without regard for being elected and then get elected — and quite an opportunity for your enemies'." Trump became paranoid. He “would sour in the evening after several hours of cable television. Then he would get on the phone, and in unguarded ramblings to friends and others, conversations that would routinely last for thirty or forty minutes, and could go much longer, he would vent, largely at the media and his staff. In what was termed by some of the self-appointed Trump experts around him — and everyone was a Trump expert — he seemed intent on 'poisoning the well,' in which he created a loop of suspicion, disgruntlement, and blame heaped on others.”

Bannon spoke of the problems with Trump’s anti-establishment approach. As Wolff phrased it, “In the course of the campaign, Donald Trump had threatened virtually every institution in American political life.” The president had believed “that one man could be bigger than the system. This analysis presupposed that the institutions of political life were as responsive as those in the commercial life that Trump was from — and that they yearned to meet the market and find the Zeitgeist.” The Washington institutions, by contrast, seemed more resistant to change. Bannon said: "Trump is a man against institutions, and the institutions know it. How do you think that goes down?" In short, Trump had campaigned on an anti-establishment promise but he never intended to win and had no plan for taking down the establishment.

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