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Maybe the word “Trump,” a century from now, will no longer designate a man — or even a presidential administration.
Perhaps it will be the name of an epoch. A decisive period in human history when the United States suffered a near-death experience and did or didn’t regain its cognitive faculties.
As one of history’s speediest first-drafters, the journalist Michael Wolff has been narrating the Trump epoch from the start. Now he has a new book that clinches his case: Donald Trump hit the nation like a wrecking ball, and it will be a long, long time before we recover.
“Landslide” is the third in a remarkable trilogy of Wolff White House potboilers. The first, “Fire and Fury,” was published in 2018. “Siege” came out in 2019. This new one, subtitled “The Final Days of the Trump Presidency,” is out this month.
I’m calling it a trilogy, optimistically, because who knows where this thing ends? Maybe we will someday see an omnibus from Wolff, with new titles like “Phoenix: Trump from the Ashes,” “King: Trump Enthroned” and “Afterlife: Trump Reigns from the Grave.”
But even if the future is not that bleak, epochs don’t have “hard outs,” as the executives say, and if the former president has shown us anything, it’s that he can’t ever, ever, ever manage the disappearing act implied by a hard out.
Or even a soft one.
“Landslide,” in fact, is a chronicle of Trump’s hysterical inability to leave. It takes its title from Trump’s groundless insistence that he triumphed in an election that he in fact lost.
But it also implies an avalanche of another sort: one that started when Trump’s psychological convulsions triggered a rolling collapse of the linchpins of the U.S. government.
Wolff is a hustler with a high tolerance for general venality, vulgar locker-room talk, and the company of armpit sources like dark-arts master Steve Bannon and lawyer Rudy Giuliani, now unlicensed in New York and Washington. But his patience with carnies allows him astonishing access. He’s great at picking up insider images, too, as when Bannon describes Giuliani, in his aphasic periods, as in the “mumble tank.”
Wolff also has a hard-won thesis. Donald Trump, he argues, is not crazy like a fox. He’s just crazy, a madman in want of a straitjacket. He’s not playing chess or even checkers; he’s covering pages with Sharpie Xs and calling it tic-tac-toe.
Worse yet, Trump insists the law should turn his scrawls into winning legal briefs and triumph over all. A motif of the book is how much Trump despises all his lawyers. It’s only their incompetence, in his view, that is keeping him from his rightful role as America’s forever president.
If you want to relive it, the book covers the throes of the 2020 presidential election and the Trump campaign falling into splinters.
Trump refused to come up with a platform, admit the scope of the pandemic or wear a mask. He got COVID-19.
An overhyped rally in Tulsa, Okla., was met with banks of empty seats. The Republican Party put on a Spinal Tap-caliber convention starring Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend screaming.
Brad Parscale, the president’s campaign manager, had what Wolff calls a “psychotic break.” He was carted away by police.
Trump seethed and glowered in debates. He encouraged the neofascist Proud Boys.
But somehow, according to Wolff’s sources, Trump remained convinced Joe Biden couldn’t beat him. Trump declared defeat unimaginable, which allowed his brain to seize on an imaginary victory.
The scrum of Trump’s bootlickers features prominently in “Landslide” — concentric circles that include the plausibly OK (then chief of staff Mark Meadows, campaign spokesman Jason Miller) to the floridly not OK (MyPillow magnate Mike Lindell, Kraken lawyer Sidney Powell). The scrum’s election-night competition to see who could “yes Trump” the loudest set the stage for the Big Lie and the attempted coup/insurrection of Jan. 6.
But this down-is-up position was ultimately unsustainable for at least some Trump’s stalwarts. In Wolff’s telling, Rupert Murdoch deliberately gave Trump the middle finger by having Fox News call Arizona early for Biden.
Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner vanished; Mitch McConnell, then the Senate majority leader, and Atty. Gen William Barr acknowledged Biden’s clean victory.
Wolff represents those who stuck it out with Trump as groveling desperados, their wits dulled by the Trump treatment — oily flattery and savage cruelty. At the vanguard: Powell, Giuliani and another lawyer of questionable ethics, Jenna Ellis. Also, these "Star Wars” barflies: Republican Reps. Jim Jordan, Louie Gohmert, Matt Gaetz and Paul Gosar.
The whole story plays out like a Greek tragedy because we know where it’s going — the desecration of the Capitol and U.S. democracy. Here and there, in passing moments of half-clarity, it seems Trump might be deterred from inciting violence, but it doesn’t happen.
The book wraps with a spontaneous interview Trump gives Wolff. In a lightning round, Trump slags McConnell, Mike Pence, Karl Rove, Chris Christie, Kevin McCarthy and Brett M. Kavanaugh.
But Wolff can’t leave it there. And neither can Trump. The former president hints at a comeback, and Wolff ends on a nauseating cliffhanger. Clearly, as long as this low, dishonest epoch persists, Wolff will be there to chronicle it.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.