Dear Partners in thought,
I know that going from Madeleine Albright to Omarosa Manigault may be a steep shift (I did not say decline) though her book “Unhinged” is very interesting (how British of me) at many levels. It could be a memoir of a colourful TV reality star turned political activist but it is not. It is a rehabilitation attempt book cum preemptive Trumpian shield from a loyalist who either grew genuinely disappointed and/or sought revenge for her ultimate Trumpland treatment, which makes it valuable to read if one focuses on why she says what she says and how she does it. It is actually quite an enjoyable read and I dare say, against all expectations, actually well crafted and rather fluid. To be sure, O’s book is not about policies (beyond those related to the African-American community she focused on) but more about DT’s (or DJT’s as she would write) style and behaviour which are defining features of his presidency and clearly as a way to get back at him for having been disappointed and/or dismissed. O’s book is in the high critical tradition started with journalist Michael Wolff and followed by insiders like Jim Comey and now Sean Spicer. As she stayed in the Trump WH before being pushed out, it is hard to know whether she really objected with so many of DT’s wrong features as described in her book or she was mad at being dismissed, hence the tell all book.
While O tells us about her very poor background in the “projects” – something that is also meant to offset the image of the nasty TV reality star we know (well, those who watch this type of entertainment) – she focuses on various key periods which are her early and long – 12+ year – Trump history mainly with “The Apprentice”, the 2016 campaign and the White House up until her forced exit by Chief of Staff John Kelly assisted by the WH legal team on rather dubious grounds (if we believe O – as she would have transgressed WH car transportation rules). She clearly wants to portray herself as a good person, who just seized the American dream to propel herself out of poverty to the riches and of course with a clear focus on improving the plight of all African-Americans on the way. And she now decided to tell the world how her former mentor was a terrible person.
Interestingly we learn that O was very involved in White House matters way, way earlier having worked there in the last year of Bill Clinton (describing her role as “mid-level staff” which is to the say the least “remarkable” at age 25 then!) and then joining Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000. O is actually a registered Democrat (interestingly at the time so was DT). Apparently, many accounts say she was not very good at any of the roles she had for Bill and Al, something she does not mention in the book (having said this, these accounts may be DT-driven too so one should be cautious in our age of easy news). The fun part on the political angle of things is that O worked hard to being part of the Hillary campaign in 2015 but was forgotten for another lady out of doing a favour for a congressman close to HC, making O ultimately rooting for her old boss and against the “swampy” manoeuvring she felt victim of. She tells us that she also joined his campaign team all the more easily as she felt DT was a lost cause with no hope of winning, which looks a bit too rearview mirror easy even if the odds were long at the time.
In 2003, she found in DT a father she lost too early and while making a great TV career with national reach, joined a cult where loyalty was the key driver, making her a very faithful cheerleader and, as time went by, a partner of DT, never questioning his shortcomings. She saw many objectionable traits of DT, notably in relation to women over the years that she never, admittedly, challenged as he was just “like that” (his relationship with Ivanka made her very unsettled, with DT’s wandering hands and claims he would date her should she not be his daughter, though apparently O tells us the first daughter was playing on that trait to manage or control her father). It is clear that O fills her book with the bad aspects of DT that she otherwise clearly found very manageable over fifteen years, creating a terrible image of the President. Faithful no more…
She was the only African-American on the presidential campaign team that was led by white men (and Kellyanne Conway at some point) and in charge of the African- American outreach. Her goal was for DT to do better than Mitt Romney in 2012 who had attracted 6% of the African-American vote (in the end, DT got 8% while HC got far less than Obama had achieved). She wanted to run the Office of Public Liaison (OPL) part of the Executive Office but Reince Priebus who had run the Republican National Committee (wanting DT “out” after the Hollywood tapes, something that would stick) and now, as Chief of Staff (we almost forgot) in charge of “roles” in the early DT White House did not think she made the cut so gave her a communications role at the OPL (focused on African-Americans), which she finally accepted (she really wanted in). O describes her daily schedule of meetings in the Reince galaxy at the WH including all the tenors from the times including Ivanka, Jared, Bannon, Kellyanne Conway (a future nemesis she always likes to beat hard on) and the A team. She sees DT two to three scheduled times a day and in fact many more times due to his Trump Organisation’s legacy of the open door policy and “his need to fight loneliness and to see familiar faces”.
That section on the WH is part O’s memoir, part attacks on DT (which would never had been aired before her dismissal). We learn that DT does not read and he is “just side of the functionally literate”. O stresses unequivocally that DT “has never read from beginning to end any piece of legislation, policies even some executive orders that he has signed” or that advisers “spoon feed” him five to ten bullet points notes about legislations, forgoing any discussion of their complexities. There is little doubt that even if true these statements are there to hurt or to show what could come next, like with the famous tapes including the N word and many other things (as an aside and regardless of DT, that O would tape these meetings and conversations is also educational about her true personality for whom the loyalty she talks so much about may have been purely tactical). DT would “struggle with complex documents or complex briefings” and the senior WH team knowing he is the messenger, not the writer of the message would rely on his charisma and make excuses for his faults in true cult fashion. O gradually seemed to have felt that she was not considered core as she was asked to take the blame supposedly for mistakes of others like Kellyanne Conway, “the chameleon”, who becomes one of the chief villains in O’s book (a status not hard to achieve when seeing her in action, but a common feature of many in the Trump WH if one is to believe O). She goes at length about DT’s lack of impulse control and the team’s problems to control and tally his tweets, which have become the stuff of legend and start losing their impact even if they help change the level of the acceptable political discourse and hence general civility (based on a number of live experiences, I believe DT’s poor communication style has had an impact on how many Americans feel they can behave and communicate in society). We learn that one of the erratic aspects of DT would be when he would correct one of his most terrible earlier tweets as his team would work on managing its fallout though without telling the team. We also learn that not one – “not a single one” – top person in the WH agreed with DT’s firing of FBI Director Comey on loyalty grounds. She insists upon DT’s mental decline which she says she was able to notice as having known him for years and noticing his many lapses in the WH (also lambasting the WH doctor Ronny Jackson “who would go on to declare an obviously obese, sleep-deprived man in excellent health”). She also dwells on the Don Corleone loyalty expected by DT from all his staff while he treats them as he wishes. She tells us about DT’s dismissive, critical and mocking behaviour toward some of the staff, especially with Sean Spicer, the first Trump WH press secretary and communications director nicknamed “the spokesman from Men’s Warehouse. Cheap and tacky”. There are some expected savoury tidbits as when Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci having just been fired after only a few days in the job goes into a cubicle and starts crying “like a girl” (again if we believe O).
It is clear that her race and the fact she was the only senior black woman in the Trump WH was a key issue for O, making us know that she felt like being the “token black” in Trumpland (even if there was Ben Carson as HUD Secretary). Certainly the “token black lady”. It would appear that she genuinely worked hard to ensure better race relations and improve the conditions of black students, particularly at black colleges (she received a Master’s degree from Howard in DC, a beacon of “black college” education which she is deservedly very proud of). That latter mission where she tried working with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (Blackwater’s Erik Prince’s sister en passant) and her for-profit education mission seems to have rattled O. In addition the dramatic events in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017 are reported by O with a personal angle and clearly shook her to the core as an African-American and the official in charge of OPL communications in relation to African-American matters – one feels that this event may have dampened her loyalty to DT given his response to the tragedy (as an aside and more generally O seems to have been conflicted between her image of the “strong black woman” – her words – which served her well in reality TV and also drove her to the WH and her perceived continuous offenses in private on the part of most senior white male staffers dealing with a senior African-American woman though knowing that she could not defend herself adequately lest she passed for an “angry black woman”).
It is really difficult to know whether O is a genuine person, so much she is a TV reality one and whether she really believes in the causes she advances in her book. She was, given her background, the odd duck in the WH team but then there have been many others, who if they had a more formal, elitist education and background, would not be considered top tier among civil servants or politicians, as if the word “expert” was definitely out, allowing for other “managers” to come in and work as if beliefs were facts. Her account of her time with DT, during the campaign and at the WH is definitely interesting if only from a sociology point but smells of revenge and unwittingly depicts a shark tank, well beyond the usual norms of politics. That a faithful TV reality star and partner got a role at the WH says everything about the nature of the Trump WH. That she, unwittingly or not, took what looks like her revenge the way she did, adding to what most observers would know and have read from others “leavers”, does not add much to our understanding of the current workings of the WH but reinforces the feeling we have for this WH. That she accepted to work for DT while being so offended by so many aspects of his presidential style and stayed does not show great spine but is what one would expect – she really enjoyed working at the WH and would have probably stayed much longer if not pushed out. If anything the book is an extension of TV reality and O is indeed very good at it. When all is said and done, the prevailing feeling is that it is indeed a book about revenge and as DT would say, accurately for once, also about betrayal if we accept that Trump made O as she writes herself.
If I may say, I am not dedicating this book to anyone out of fear of offending but it does not mean it should not be read. I was hesitant to add to O’s royalties but decided that it is always educational to do such an exercise and trying to understand what goes in their minds. As Ed Luce wrote in the FT recently, 90% of Republican voters (not the independents) still support DT in spite of “all” we know about him. This is the true enigma. Why do good people – and most Republicans certainly are – still support DT after all we have read from a variety of people, his lack of dignity for the role, style, behaviour, tweets, not to mention erratic, ill-thought policies and lately the McCain flag controversy that says it all? This is the baffling point which the current state of the economy, unemployment level and stock market cannot explain given the harm done at so many levels and the future at stake.
Serge Desprat- 29th August, 2018 (Prague)