Mein Trumpf, or Through a Cracked Crystal Ball Darkly
Mitch Wolfe, Trump: How He Captured the Trump White House (2016).
I found Mitch Wolfe on Facebook (FB), lurking around the “news feed” of Canadian novelist Susan Swan, sort of like a child molester hanging out at the edge of an elementary school playground. Actually, considering the age of the participants in this tale, maybe I should say, “like a gerontopath flasher stalking an old people’s home.”
Swan, the author of a half-dozen well-regarded novels (starting with The Biggest Modern Woman in the World, 1983), is, like many of the rest of us these days, caught up in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. To that end, she innocently posted a link on FB to the well-known polling aggregator website, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, recommending it “for the most savvy American news” on the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (Susan Swan, Facebook, Oct. 6, 2016.)
Immediately, Mitch Wolfe — a writer-blogger, I soon learned, for the right-wing online website The Rebel — chimed in to inform Swan that election prognosticator Silver “has been wrong all along about Trump. Silver fails to realize that the polls badly underestimate Trump’s support. Trump will crush Hillary like Reagan crushed Carter in 1980 and the pollsters missed it then as they will miss it this time.” (I’ll come back to this hyperbolic remark in due course.)
At which point, veteran journalist Jane O’Hara (a former writer for Maclean’s and the Toronto Sun), joined the conversation with a succinct proposition: “Want to put a little money on this, Mitch Wolfe?”
Mr. Wolfe temporarily retired to ponder his options while the conversational thread unspooled in the usual desultory FB fashion. Writer Mark Bourrie, author most recently of The Killing Game: Martyrdom, Murder, and the Lure of ISIS (2016), leaned in to semi-agree with Wolfe. “I am not saying I would vote for [Trump]. I am saying I have been around politics 35 years, follow voting patterns carefully, have written books on politics, polling and political communication, and believe Trump’s turnout will likely make some difference, possibly including a win for him.” Jane O’Hara piped up again: “Want to put some money on this, Mark Bourrie?” She suggested a $1,000 wager, with Swan holding the “dosh” for safekeeping.
About 50 or so comments later, Susan Swan, wearing her heart on her sleeve, confessed, “I want Hillary to win and show the world that men like Trump who indulge in misogynist crap don’t cut it in the 21st century.” (Swan is so good-natured and hopeful-sounding on FB, that I can’t imagine how she manages to write novels.)
This comment apparently inspired Mr. Wolfe to return to the fray. “Susan Swan, I respect your pro Hillary sympathies and your antagonism towards Trump. But it is a fact her husband Bill sexually abused, allegedly raped, sexually assaulted… [many women, and] Hillary in each case tried to publicly humiliate them and crucify them,” recited Wolfe from that day’s talking points from the Trump campaign. After a bit more sexual gossip chit-chat among various other commenters, Wolfe was back once more to tug at Swan’s sleeve.
“I hate to bust your liberal mainstream bubble,” he told Swan, assuring her that “Trump’s support extends to blacks, Hispanics and Bernie bros. … All of these groups have been dissed by Hillary and as a result there is a tidal wave of protest, dissent and anger against the arrogance of Hillary and the political elites. Trump will not crush Hillary, the people… will crush Hillary. I argue and discuss all this in my recently published book now sold through Amazon, boldly entitled, Trump: How He Captured the Trump White House. See the Amazon link. It is also the funniest, most provocative, prescient and politically incorrect book out in America.”
Aha! I should’ve guessed. It’s not mere conversation we’re engaged in here. It’s SSP. Shameless Self-Promotion. All along, Mr. Wolfe was simply looking for an opportunity to plug his book. Time to offer a contribution to the burgeoning discourse, I figured. So, I pointed out that “Mitch Wolfe started this thread about 50 comments ago, only to reveal at the end that he’s actually trying to peddle what sounds like another bad book,” I said. “Just a humble huckster. I’d be more impressed if Mr. Wolfe put his money where his mouth is and took up Jane O’Hara’s generous offer to let him earn more from an election bet than he’s likely to make in royalties on his ‘boldly-entitled’ book (what the heck was it called again?). And, oh yes, I’d be happy to hold Ms. O’Hara’s jacket (at no charge) while she’s engaged in this duel.”
Yes, I knew exactly what I was getting into. “To some narrow-minded, clueless, and myopic liberals,” Wolfe replied to me (adding parenthetically, “Stan, I have always liked your work…”),” it may sound like another bad book. But don’t judge a book by its cover, my friend, ha ha. I think one should actually read the book before criticizing it. At least that is what we do on the conservative side…” and so on and so forth, each post getting a bit longer. There was even a whining anecdote about how Margaret Atwood snubbed Wolfe the other night when he tried to press his book upon her (“she recoiled in horror,” claimed Wolfe; “smart lady,” I thought). Mitch’s mode is, I think, what’s known as “passive-aggressive” in the psych trade (“clueless, myopic liberals” adjoined to “I have always liked your work”).
Anyway, that’s how we got here. I advised Wolfe it would be pointless to send a PDF of the e-edition of his tome to Jane O’Hara, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly – I, alas, do – and that he might as well cyber-ship it to me, so that I could savage it for one of the most widely-read online literary sites in the land. Along with shipment of the digital copy, Wolfe reassured me that he was “the most hard-skinned writer you have ever encountered. So go for it. Pull no punches. Like Trump, I believe even bad publicity is good publicity.”
I’d always been mildly curious about this strange sub-genre of right-wing political books that consist of unrelieved (often ranting) polemics for or against some candidate, policy, ideology. There’s a whole sub-culture and institutional network promoting this partisan perspective – Rush Limbaugh, Mark Steyn, and books like Peter Schweizer’s Clinton Cash (2015) or Dinesh D’Souza’s agitprop documentary, Hillary’s America (2016) are names and titles that quickly come to mind. Somehow, I’d never gotten around to reading one of these rancorous texts. Here was my chance.
First, let me dispel any suspense there might be. No, Wolfe’s Trump did not turn out to be a pleasant surprise, full of erudition, wit, and prescient political insight. It was as bad as I expected – poorly written, barely organized, filled with wacky prognostications produced from a cracked crystal ball, and lots of Trump-style self-aggrandizement. So, if you’re checking out this review to determine whether there’s anything of redeeming value in this particular example from the right-wing partisan polemic sub-culture, the answer is, no, save your money.
But for readers interested in the mindset that produces this kind of wildly over-extended pamphletino, here’s some Q.E.D. for you.
Naturally, I wasn’t judging Mr. Wolfe’s book by its cover, which is, in fact, quite innocuous. I was pre-judging it by its title. As soon as I heard it, it sounded distinctly clunky: Trump: How He Captured the Trump White House. Why, in the sub-title, does Wolfe repeat Trump’s name, and why does he call it “the Trump White House”? Even if Wolfe is emphasizing his predictive powers, why not just “Trump: How He Captured the White House”? There’s something tinny-sounding right off the bat that turns out to be symptomatic of the whole text.
The same signs appeared in the sample of reasoning Wolfe offered in his FB posting. There, he started off by attacking poll interpreter Nate Silver, and by implication, all the other prominent pollsters and polling-crunchers – the New York Times, Real Clear Politics, Princeton Election Consortium, Larry Sabato, the Cook Report, Huff Post and the rest. Yes, it’s true that Silver and others had been slow in recognizing the Trump phenomenon during the Republican primary season. But, in due course, Silvers candidly admitted his initial failure, discussed it in detail, and provided all the nerdy facts and numbers to make sense of his earlier oversight.
But further, according to Wolfe, Silver also “fails to realize that the polls badly underestimate Trump’s support.” Again, there’s a grain of half-truth in this remark. Pollsters have indeed discussed, publicly and among themselves, whether Trump’s support is “badly underestimated.” It’s a possibility, especially in a culture where 40-50 per cent of eligible voters don’t exercise their franchise, but I haven’t been able to find any specific evidence that it’s true, nor does Wolfe present any. Soberer folks, like writer Mark Bourrie (cited above), also suspect that there might be an underestimation – maybe as much as 2 or 3 percentage points, which, in a really close election might make all the difference. The underestimation thesis is really a mixture of gut hunch and a considerable amount of wishful thinking. At the time of Wolfe’s claim that the pollsters were all wrong, they were saying that there was a 60-70 per cent chance that Clinton would secure the 270 Electoral College votes necessary for victory. (Since then, as of mid-October, the figure has risen to 85-95 per cent, according to the major polling aggregators.) By the way, in the sports-betting outlets, where people really do put their money where their mouths are, the current odds are 85-15 in favour of Clinton.
Despite all this, Wolfe, making his extrapolation on the basis of selective information and magical thinking, declares with bold certainty that “Trump will crush Hillary like Reagan crushed Carter in 1980 and the pollsters missed it then as they will miss it this time.” The link between the prediction and the evidence is pretty threadbare, while the thinking behind this particular claim is fairly typical of the wonky logic found in Wolfe’s book.
In Wolfe’s intro and bio note, he provides some biographical information about himself as the late-blooming author of this debut book, and yet his checkered past remains oddly murky. The main things we learn are that Wolfe is a Canadian (born and raised in the Westmount section of Montreal); that he went to prestigious Harvard University (c. 1970); and although he doesn’t state his age, he’s likely to be a 60-something senior. He tells us he’s been a political operative in many electoral campaigns, and that at one point in his life, he spent a stretch of time in the business-end of Hollywood productions (which would help explain his quirky habit of peppering his text with, of all things, film reviews – which he invariably claims have something to do with the election). And, oh, I almost forgot. Wolfe proudly proclaims himself, in the opening chapter, a friend and admirer of the late Rob Ford, the notorious crack-smoking former mayor of Toronto. Wolfe suggests that Trump and Ford share some populist and dramatic affinities – this is one of the first and last claims made by Wolfe with which I’m in agreement.
What it adds up to is a man whose vocation is, at best, unstable. I guess he can be described as a “freelance writer,” a catch-all category one step up from registered sex offender. All in all, the bio-bits don’t inspire a lot of confidence that we’re in the presence of a reliable narrator, and Wolfe’s repeated citing of his Harvard school days some four decades and more ago as proof of his bona fides is, well, a bit pathetic.
Wolfe admits right off that his book is pretty much a collection of diary-like columns and blog-bits, although, oddly, he doesn’t provide any biblio info that I could find about where and when they were published. I recognized some of the material as having first appeared, as I noted, on The Rebel website, an “alt-right” publication of which I’m not a devoted reader. If you’re hoping for a charming narrative on the order of Theodore White’s The Making of the President series, you had better curb your expectations. Indeed, there’s not much of a narrative here at all. Nor is there any real journalism, or any serious analysis of policy, morality, or history. Instead, Wolfe presents a fan’s notes and a cheering section for Trump’s primary campaign that assumes the reader is thoroughly familiar with all the events and the players. He also has a bit of a penchant for the insults and name-calling that mark Trump’s own performances.
Since Wolfe is trying to cash in on his predictive powers (i.e., that Trump will win the White House), the story is only taken up through the respective party conventions, which means that the crucial question about the extent of Trump’s appeal, is never addressed. Once it became clear that Trump would win the Republican nomination, the question was whether Trump could extend his support beyond his hard-core “base.” Even the size of that base was unclear, despite the claim that Trump had discovered a motherlode of heretofore non-participant potential voters – most of whom happened to be middle-aged and elderly Caucasian males with limited educations. Could Trump’s successful populist appeal to that base hold up in a general election campaign involving a more sophisticated cross-section of the electorate? Unfortunately, that discussion isn’t part of Wolfe’s remit, given that he has to get his book into circulation well before the actual election.
Much of the attempted verve of the book has to do with the predictions, and the self-promotion that goes with, “I was the first to call it.” The style is meant to be breezy and boasty. It sounds like this:
“Who would have thought that Donald Trump, a thrice-married, white 70-something New Yorker, multi-billion dollar real estate developer / investor and popular reality TV celebrity with no political or public service experience – nada, zilch, zero, gornicht – would be a few months away from capturing the American presidency… ?
“Truth be told, I did.
“I sensed … that he was going to crush all his Republican opponents and that he would ultimately and decisively defeat the Democrats’ chosen flag bearer, Hillary Clinton.
“Simply, Trump is the American people’s revolutionary and populist reaction to the pathetically weak, politically correct reign of the Emperor King Barack (Barry) Hussein Obama II, the Chosen One. Chosen by and crowned by the LA/Chicago/Washington/New York liberal establishment political/finance/entertainment elites.”
At times it’s not quite clear if Wolfe is attempting to merely describe the Trump phenomenon and draw from it a contrarian prediction that “the dark horse [candidate] with the unique hairstyle and youngish third wife” will become the next U.S. president, or if he actually endorses Trump’s views. I’m afraid it’s both.
This is not one of those works that requires chapter-and-verse citation and analysis. A couple of examples will do. So, in an Aug. 17, 2015 piece, shortly after the first Republican candidates TV debate, Wolfe reports that already Trump is comfortably leading the pack. The prose, fairly representative of Wolfe’s tone, goes like this:
“Leave it to Trump to turn lemons into lemonade. His weaknesses into political virtues.
“Trump has no political experience and he is boastful of that lack of experience.
“He brags that he is not a traditional politician. Because he creates jobs.
“There is a certain populist logic to that statement.
“In fact, Trump prides himself on being the political outsider, the only candidate truly running against the establishment.
“Trump is running a very negative grievance campaign and it is apparently working.”
Apart from Wolfe’s advocacy of the baby-size one-line paragraph, and an equally idiosyncratic idea of the sentence, the striking thing about this piece (and I could provide dozens of similar examples) is the vacuousness of the content. The reader learns almost nothing about what was said at the debate, apart from an indirect reprisal of Trump’s views; Trump’s opponents are barely identified and their views aren’t quoted; and if you weren’t a close follower of the process, you’d have no idea of what Wolfe is leaving out.
As it happened, one of the main outcomes of that particular debate was candidate Trump’s dust-up with debate co-host, Fox TV’s Megyn Kelly. It was reported everywhere. Wolfe doesn’t so much as mention it. Kelly pressed Trump about sexist comments he made in the past, such as calling some women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” Trump slammed Kelly for “ridiculous” and “off-base” questions, and the next day in an interview with CNN, Trump said about Kelly, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” The reference to female menstruation was understood by most viewers, and marked the beginning of what would turn into a lengthy discussion of Trump’s deep-seated misogyny. But in Wolfe’s book, it never happened.
This is characteristic of how Wolfe handles most of Trump’s more controversial statements and proposals. Unlike the Megyn Kelly matter, which is simply erased, Wolfe usually offers a glancing mention of Trump’s more outrageous remarks. For example, reporting on Trump’s electoral launch a month earlier, there’s a listing of Trump’s “simple, but very powerful” points. Wolfe notes Trump’s claim that “Mexico is sending America its illegal dregs of society. Among them are criminals and rapists.” And that’s it, as far as Wolfe is concerned. No discussion of whether any of this is true; no discussion of the feasibility of Trump’s proposal to build a giant wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and “make Mexico pay for it”; no analysis of whether this tarring of Mexicans as criminals, drug-dealers and rapists might be considered by some observers (including Mexicans) as out-and-out racism.
There’s also a good deal of boastful crystal ball gazing, and a certain amount of plain old really ugly analysis of Trump’s Democratic opponents. For example, on Mar. 6, 2016, the ever-bold author of Trump declares, “My prediction is that, for the first time since 1984 (with Reagan vs. Mondale), a Republican presidential candidate – some unknown non-politico named Donald Trump – will beat Hillary in her own home state of New York.” Well, no equivocation there, and Wolfe is to be congratulated for how early he got this prediction out. As of mid-October 2016, three weeks or so before the vote, pollsters report that Trump is trailing Clinton in New York state by a mere 22 percentage points. I guess Wolfe is really counting on that drastic “under-estimation” of Trump’s support.
As for the “ugly” in Wolfe’s version of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, his writing about the June 2016 massacre of 49 people in an Orlando, Florida gay nightclub, Pulse, by an Islamic terrorist-homophobe-possibly mentally-ill loner, Wolfe rises to histrionic heights. I won’t belabour this stretch of toxic writing: it’s enough to note that Wolfe blames Obama for this tragedy because of the president’s refusal to recognize the danger of “radical Islamic terrorism” and his unwillingness to even utter the phrase. (The debate about terminology to describe terrorist acts in the U.S. is one of the Republican Party’s campaign fundamentals.)
Predictably, there’s no discussion in Wolfe of other acts of mass-murder terrorism by, say, white supremacists or deranged schoolchildren, or any recognition that the extraordinary availability of guns in the U.S. might have something to do with mass-murder shootings, nor is there the slightest possibility of Wolfe providing a more balanced estimation of the number and character of Islamist-inspired terrorist acts that have occurred in the U.S. over the past 15 years since Sept. 11, 2001. I’ve no doubt that an argument that the Obama administration has done a reasonably conscientious job in protecting the public against terrorism would be regarded as pure devil-worship political heresy by Trump supporters, including people like Wolfe, whose view of American reality depends on a wildly exaggerated, almost apocalyptically dark, hyperbolic notion of conditions in the U.S.
I’m not the first person to notice this. New York Times’ columnist Paul Krugman remarks that “on the right … you increasingly find prominent figures describing our society as a nightmarish dystopia.” This is true for Trump who, says Krugman, “views the world through blood-colored glasses. In his vision of America – clearly derived from white supremacist and neo-Nazi sources – crime is running wild, inner cities are war zones, and hordes of violent immigrants are pouring across our open border. In reality, murder is at a historic low, we’re seeing a major urban revival and net immigration from Mexico is negative.” Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and professor at CUNY (City University of New York), naturally provides hyper-text reference links to all of his fact-based claims. (Paul Krugman, “Their Dark Fantasies,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 2016.)
Another Times columnist, Roger Cohen, makes similar observations about this “wildest political season in the history of the United States.” Cohen notes that Donald Trump is now suggesting that Hillary Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty, in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends, and her donors.” The only word not uttered in this rant that leads Trump critics to describe him as “unhinged” is “Jew.” This recent Trump utterance is straight out of the international-Jewish-conspiracy playbook. Wolfe doesn’t spend a lot of time noticing that Trump has thrown in his lot with full-blown wingnut conspiracy theorists. (Roger Cohen, “How Dictatorships Are Born,” New York Times, Oct. 14, 2016.)
But, sources like this are just part of the “media conspiracy” against Trump, claim the Trump backers, and anyway, don’t trust the scheming “MSM” (mainstream media) when you can follow the most bizarre forms of minorstream media — and this distrust of generally reliable news sources is shared by an astonishing range of otherwise seemingly sensible people (as many of whom are on the left as on the Trumpian far right).
Okay, it’s hopeless trying to argue with either Trump hard-core supporters and/or right-wing Trump-backing “intellectuals” like Mitch Wolfe. I admit it. Still, I dutifully read his book, which is what critics are supposed to do. I learned, without shock or surprise, that Trump: How He Captured the Trump White House is as badly written and organized as I intuited it might be, but worse, it’s an extended display of inchoate, ignorant thinking that resembles more than anything, one of Donald Trump’s own frothing-at-the-mouth, middle-of-the-night, Twitter shitstorms. Insofar as I took on this review as a kind of adventures-in-criticism experiment, I’m obliged to report, as have other scientists, that the experiment is a failure.
Whether Wolfe turns out to be right or outlandishly wrong about his sure-fire vision of a Trump victory in the election less than a month from now may matter to Mr. Wolfe’s fortunes, both fiscally and in terms of reputation. The election matters, of course, since we will have to live with its results. But books like Wolfe’s will likely (or should I say, hopefully?) turn out to be mere detritus in an election that, among other things, has demonstrated the declining level of available political discourse.