We all know that people in power deploy distraction as a professional skill, much as magicians do. We are used to it. In every act of political communication, “Look at this” is always the explicit obverse of an implicit “Don’t look at that.” But Trump confounds us by using as distractions the very things that other politicians want to distract us from. In democracy as we think we have known it, the art of governance is, in part, the skill with which our attention is diverted from the sordid, the shameful, the thuggish. Yet these same qualities are the gaudiest floats in Trump’s daily parade of grotesqueries. This is his strange, and in its own way brilliant, reversal: instead of distracting us from the lurid and the sensational, Trump is using them to distract us from the slow, boring, apparently mundane but deeply insidious sabotaging of government. He is the blaring noise that drowns out the low signal of subversion.
There is, surely, a reason why books that give us Trump in all his outlandish tawdriness—like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House—cannot, however appalling their accounts may be, do him any harm. They are exercises in “looking straight at him to learn the truth about him,” an act that seems entirely right by any traditional political and journalistic standard but that misses the specificity of Trump’s performance. If you look straight at such a glaring object, you are blinded.
Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk is a much shorter, simpler book, with no great drama and no real claims to be comprehensive or definitive. But it does something both brave and highly intelligent: it looks at Trump not straight but crooked. He is hardly in the book at all and yet it tells us more than Wolff or Woodward about the long-term damage he is doing. For while they give us an aberrant buffoon whose incompetence must surely doom him, allowing the normal business of government to resume, Lewis points toward a much deeper assault on government itself. [Continue reading…]