Excerpt From 'Fruits of Chaos'
The following excerpt comes from Fruits of Chaos, an essay collection of the same name available now through most e-book vendors. Here's a link to the book's Amazon listing.
On an early evening in mid-May, 2017, I entered the locker room of a private club in the Washington, D.C. area to find then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer standing near the sink. Spicer is not a tall man, with a stout build and low center of gravity that lend him a munchkin aesthetic, like a well-fed and weather-beaten old carny. He glanced up at me with the furtive eyes of a cornered animal, weaved around me and made for the exit.
Spicer and I aren’t acquainted and we said nothing to one another, but I felt a twinge of pity for the man. He seemed thoroughly stricken—exactly as I would have imagined in those uncertain, chaotic days after his boss, President Donald Trump, fired FBI Director James Comey and precipitated a mini constitutional crisis.
At the time, Spicer was under siege from many sides—from Trump, who made no effort to hide his displeasure that Spicer was being caricatured on Saturday Night Live by a woman (Melissa McCarthy, who was a closer fit for Spicer’s body type than I would have guessed), from other White House staffers, who acted as conduits for the president’s unpredictable grudges, and from the media, who were then ridiculing him for supposedly “hiding in the bushes” rather than face questions after Comey was fired. Later that evening, I chuckled when I saw Spicer off to the side of the club’s front driveway talking excitedly, or angrily, into a cell phone while shouldered up to a hedge.
The reality show presidency that began like “The Bachelorette”, as Trump staffed up his White House and potential suitors trotted before the cameras to kiss the ring and woo the celebrity-cum-president, was beginning to look more like “Survivor”. With the combativeness and unrelenting state of crisis in the Trump White House, it seemed a foregone conclusion that many of the people staffing the place wouldn’t last the customary respectable minimum of a year. And not, as so many in the left-wing media spun it, because the rats were fleeing a sinking ship, but simply because the human body has limits. Working under the microscope of the White House led by a man as cruel as he was capricious was simply an impossible task, or so it looked from the outside at least. As one White House staffer after the next resigned or was fired, Trump’s orbit seemed an increasingly precarious place to be.
Trump’s antics and the palace intrigue at his White House had been driving wild news cycles day in and day out for more than a year, but the pandemonium of the summer of 2017 felt, somehow, especially dizzying. To anyone following the news, it looked like a White House roiling in chaos thanks largely to one man, whose resignation in August 2017 was a watershed moment after which the Trump White House began its decisive turn into a slightly more professional, disciplined operation: Steve Bannon.
A self-proclaimed populist, economic nationalist and revolutionary bent on overthrowing the political establishment, Bannon—who spoke often and candidly to Wolff, on the record, and has never disavowed his quotes in the book—was, in many ways, the real hero of Fire and Fury. In Wolff’s telling, the chaos of the Trump administration’s first months was a feature not a bug, and Bannon was its chief architect.
Bannon’s style mirrored the early Silicon Valley ethos encapsulated in Facebook’s longtime motto, “Move fast and break things,” and he made his intentions clear from the outset. During the inaugural parade, Wolff reports, Bannon and the new deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh peeled off from the retinue to go inspect their new digs. As Trump’s new chief strategist, Bannon was, in a non-traditional arrangement, to be coequal with the chief of staff, but he was the first senior administration official to enter the White House after the inauguration. He immediately laid claim to an office across from the chief of staff’s suite just down the hall from the Oval Office, removed the furniture so no one could get comfortable in a meeting, and set up the famed whiteboard on which he would plot out the incoming administration’s urgent policy agenda.
Bannon pursued his policy goals at a pace designed to be destabilizing. He was in triangular combat with Jared/Ivanka and Priebus, but for Bannon, more than defeating the others, the conflict and disorder were themselves the goal—strategically speaking, his means were his ends. If half-formed proposals ran rough shod over custom, tradition and statute, making the administration look like political neophytes, or worse, so much the better. As deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh put it, “Chaos was Steve’s strategy.”
But what were the fruits of this strategy? If Bannon intended to cultivate bedlam and help Trump do the same during those eight months he spent in the White House then he certainly succeeded. What, then, through Trump’s chaos did Bannon accomplish?
The consensus in most of the mainstream press throughout Trump’s first year was that Trump’s chaos accomplished very little. In fact, Trump’s chaos accomplished quite a lot.
* * *
“The most important thing to remember right now is that Donald Trump is not yet the president.”
The immigrant rights activist spoke Spanish in a calm reassuring tone to the crowd of 100 or so undocumented immigrations and relatives of the undocumented assembled on a warm November night at Immaculate Conception Church in the working class West Bank of New Orleans. The crowd (entirely hispanic except for one organizer and a journalist, me) was not solemn but it was tense and pensive. There were people of all kinds: families with young children, the elderly, young couples and men and women who had come to the meeting alone. Donald Trump may not have been president yet but across the country the shock of his stunning, historic victory three days earlier still rumbled hour by hour, electrifying every interaction between people, as millions across the country struggled to accept this new reality and to grasp its full meaning. The country felt especially combustible in those days, with leftist activists in many cities—New Orleans among them—on the streets marching and in some cases rioting. But the Spanish-speaking people gathered at Immaculate Conception Church that night had no time for spontaneous outpourings of puerile rage.
Trump’s victory signaled more than a coming crackdown on illegal immigration. Indeed, the Obama administration had inherited a robust immigration enforcement regime from his predecessor, and under Obama, forced removals (the technical term for what we generally think of when we hear the word deportation) of undocumented immigrants increased sharply. Over the same period recidivism fell by half, thanks to added measures designed to ensure that deportations, as the Migration Policy Institute put it, “have a lasting legal consequence.” The crackdown on illegal immigration had already happened.
The fear in the faces of the people at church that night had less to do with what Trump had promised (more deportations and a border wall) than how he had promised it: by stoking fear and racial resentment and painting Latino immigrants as criminal undesirables. On social media, stories spread of white, everyday Americans in the wake of Trump’s election attacking brown-skinned people, or celebrating with ominous ambiguity that they had finally taken their country back. The people at the packed church that night had come not because they knew what precisely to be afraid of, but—other than a generalized anxiety over what this new administration would mean for their lives—because they didn’t.
The young man speaking near the pulpit reassured the crowd with a simple lesson in American politics 101—though the election had just happened, Obama would still be the president until Inauguration Day on January 20. That gave them some time to get their affairs in order, and to get a better handle on what the Trump era would mean. There was no cause for panic. But yes, there was cause for alarm.
“Remember,” he said, turning now to more practical matters, like what to do if Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers come to your house, “unless they have a deportation order for a person in the house you don’t have to let them in.” He handed out wallet-sized cards with a script in English that could be read to a deportation officer through a closed door.
“If they have your name, you have to go with them,” he said, soberly. “You have to.”
Trump was not yet president and would not be for nearly three months. In his wafty, half-literate speeches he’d been less than clear about what exactly he intended to do once in office, or how he would do it. But his campaign rhetoric had been absolutely clear about one thing: whatever was coming, for immigrants it didn’t look good.
On January 27, without consulting lawyers, congress or even the agencies expected to carry out the directive, Trump signed an executive order crafted by Steve Bannon and White House advisor Stephen Miller that barred entry into the United States of people from seven Muslim-majority countries. The sweeping, extraordinary order took immediate effect, leaving hundreds of people in airport limbo, splitting up families and sowing not unjustified panic in affected communities. Civil rights lawyers and protestors mobbed airports across America. When even White House staff wondered aloud why the administration had done this so hastily and on a Friday—a peak travel day when the most travelers would be affected and the most protestors were sure to hit the streets—Bannon’s response, in Michael Wolff’s telling, was ice cold.
“That’s why,” he said. “So the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot.”
Steve Bannon’s assertion that the United States is “a nation with a culture” is, if not quite the unambiguous call for a white-identity America he’s sometimes accused of endorsing, a plainspoken rejection of multiculturalism. Above all his other fights, Bannon is engaged in a culture war. And in that fight, words and tone matter. Symbolism matters. Obama signaled that the country was cosmopolitan, urbane and comfortably multi-racial by inviting Beyoncé and Jay Z to the White House, and the symbolism of Bannon’s travel ban, implemented with calculated recklessness, was no less potent. The fact that the first ban didn’t hold up in court hardly matters. In his war to define the United States as an English-speaking, mostly Anglo-Saxon (i.e. white) country with a culture based on so-called Judeo-Christian values, Steve Bannon won that round the moment it began.
The power of Trump’s words was borne out in his first year in office, as illegal border crossings fell to their lowest level since 2000. This, experts say, happened faster than can be accounted for by the impact of policy changes. Almost half (40 %) of U.S. colleges saw a decline in enrollment of international students by February 2017. In November 2017, president of the U.S. Travel Association, Roger Dow, raised the alarm about the drop in international tourism to the United States under Trump, a trend he called “deeply concerning not just to our industry, but to anyone who cares about the economic well-being of the United States.” Data released by the Commerce Department a few months later painted a picture even more dire—a 4% decline in inbound tourism to the U.S since Trump’s election, resulting in 3.3% less spending by visitors, which, according to the U.S. Travel Association, translated to a loss of $4.6 billion to the U.S. economy and 40,000 jobs.
“In a complete break from a long standing general bipartisan consensus,” the Migration Policy Institute says in its year-end report, “the White House is framing immigrants, legal and unauthorized alike, as a threat to Americans’ economic and national security, and is embracing deep cuts to legal immigration.”
The Trump administration did eventually increase deportations of illegal immigrants, slow or eliminate opportunities for legal immigration (severely tightening scrutiny of H1-B visas for skilled workers, for example), and put in place a more carefully crafted travel ban. But the examples above illustrate the far-reaching effects that anti-immigrant rhetoric and a climate of uncertainty have had on American society all by themselves. Trump’s chaos, to put it plainly, is simply scaring people away.