Book Review: On David Frum’s Trumpocracy


January 24, 2018

Book Review:  On David Frum’s Trumpocracy

As Donald Trump continues to make headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons, we analyse the latest book to put the American president in its crosshairs

 

It is chilling, edifying and ultimately uplifting, after Michael Wolff’s breathlessly gossipy Fire and Fury, to read David Frum’s trenchant new book.

Trumpocracy does not set out to examine the character of Donald Trump, although it does that better than almost any other book about the current occupant of the White House. Instead, the focus of Trumpocracy is relentlessly trained on the system that, having failed to stop Trump’s ascent to the presidency, sustains him in power.

Writing off Trump as a buffoon came effortlessly to an establishment hopelessly in thrall to the deadly cult of American exceptionalism. Trump’s string of victories in the Republican primaries, rather than alarm the Democrats, provoked frissons of excitement because they believed American democracy to be uniquely immune to the appeals of Trump-style populism. The “complacent optimism” that governed American politics, Frum writes, has been “upended by the political rise of Trump”.

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In 2016, Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic, travelled through Hungary and studied that once-promising democracy’s mutation, under Viktor Orban, into a quasi autocracy, arriving at the realisation that modern-day authoritarianism is animated not so much by ideology as it is by avarice.

“The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent,” a wise observer of Hungary told him in Budapest, and “more the power to protect the guilty”. (I must disclose here that David Frum and I have been good friends for a number of years.)

Frum makes the case for Trump as the American autocrat, a home-grown strongman who seeks to achieve “not the bold overthrow of the constitution, but the stealthy paralysis of governance; not the open defiance of law, but a covert disregard of law; not the deployment of state power to intimidate dissidents, but the incitement of private violence to radicalise supporters”.

For a man who seems so unstable on the outside, Trump has a remarkable talent to intuit “the weak points in the American political system and American political culture”. (This, after all, is the man who made Fox News bend to his will.)

The pro-Trump constituency is peopled overwhelmingly by voters whose growing sense of alienation and disempowerment was for too long neglected by the politicians and commentators who today decry Trump. Many of them once voted for Barack Obama. Would they have migrated to Trump had their grievances not been disregarded?

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Author David Frum previously worked for George W Bush. Getty

 

Frum, who has been warning about the consequences of rising disparities for more than a decade, examines with great empathy and sensitivity the frustrations of ordinary Americans who fell behind Trump – without ever extenuating any of their rage or bigotry. The tragedy is that they have placed their faith in a man notorious for his betrayals. The wall on the border with Mexico will probably never be built; if it is, Mexico will not pay for it. The pledge to stay out of foreign wars will not be honoured.

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Frum meticulously tabulates the United States government’s incapacitation by Trump, reminding us that some of the most vital organs of the state are still not properly staffed – and where they are, they are overseen by men and women from whom Trump has extracted pledges of personal loyalty. Cabinet meetings now begin with a round of panegyrics to Trump.

Between 2001 and 2002, Frum served as a speechwriter and special assistant to George W Bush. His bestselling memoir, The Right Man, detailed the inner workings of the Bush White House in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The presidency, he warns in Trumpocracy, is not restricted by the law but by traditions and norms – and Trump is driving a fist through them.

The Republican leadership in Congress has decided not only to ignore the accumulating allegations of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia but even to safeguard the president. Paul Ryan, the speaker, is an ideologue desperate to push through his ambitious legislative agenda while Republicans still have the power to do it. But those who believe they can use Trump to their advantage are delusional, Frum warns. More likely than not, they are the ones being exploited by Trump. This president has a squalid record of breaking and discarding people who abase themselves to appease him.

The US military, meanwhile, has gained unprecedented autonomy during Trump’s first year in office. The volatile disposition of the president – his casual threats to annihilate North Korea; his seemingly endless fulminations on Twitter – can give rise to relief that he is being defied by his subordinates. Frum views this as profoundly damaging to the US’s civil-military relations in the long run: generals who have learnt to undermine this president may not want to relinquish the habit once he has exited the White House.

Frum’s characteristically refulgent prose is backed with compelling evidence – and the overall effect is devastating. But after itemising the injuries inflicted by Trump on the institutions of American democracy, Frum concludes the book on a hopeful note. “A new spirit of citizen responsibility is waking” in response to the threat to American democracy, he writes.

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Trumpocracy is an essential book for our times – and not only for Americans. An incisive examination of creeping authoritarianism and an impassioned call to arms, it will resonate with readers in all the places – from Warsaw to Ankara and New Delhi to Manila – where democracy is in peril.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Mahathir’s Ketuanan Melayu– Malaysia’s Road to Secular Decline


January 17, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Mahathir’s Ketuanan Melayu– Malaysia’s Road to Secular Decline

by S. Thayaparan@www.malaysiakini.com

“The most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

― Steve Biko

AB Sulaiman “argues that the sacred cows of the Malay community have, in effect, destroyed individualism and created a community that is constantly questioning its relevancy in a changing world, as opposed to adapting to a changing world “.–S. Thayaparan

BOOK REVIEW | AB Sulaiman’s book, ‘Ketuanan Melayu: A Story of the Thinking Norm of the Malay Political Elite’, cogently defines the agendas of the establishment hegemon and also the pervasive group-think that defines mainstream Malay politics.

Image result for AB Sulaiman’s book, ‘Ketuanan Melayu: A Story of the Thinking Norm of the Malay Political Elite’

AB Sulaiman makes the distinction between “race” and “culture” and examines the “Malay” construct through the racial and religious politics of the day, paying attention to history and lamenting that dissenting voices in the community have always been marginalised.

What is interesting about this book is that AB Sulaiman passionately (as opposed to clinically) disables narratives around what it means to be “Malay”, viewing the Malay culture through an ethno-linguistic lens, among various other social and political philosophies and theories. Do not let this dampen your enthusiasm for the book because AB Sulaiman writes in an easy-going friendly manner, even when offering up political and philosophical “sensitive” issues, to which he devotes a whole chapter.

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The most important takeaway from this book is that AB Sulaiman does not make the same mistake that some writers make when discussing Ketuanan Melayu. The writer understands that this is not a tool to unify the Malay polity. Ketuanan Melayu is a tool to divide the Malay polity. The writer makes it clear that the latter purpose is the defining characteristic of this social-political, but most importantly, religious-political construct.

What does this mean in AB Sulaiman’s weltanschauung? This concept is a political tool used to not only marginalise dissenting voices in the Malay community but to monopolise narratives to ensure that the political hegemony of dominant Malay power structures becomes the mainstream narrative of what it means to be “Malay”. This, according to the writer, is why dissenting Malay voices are vilified as “traitors” to the Malay “race” and unIslamic.

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With their mindsets, is it any wonder we can never be another South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan or China? Race-based logic is down the road to perdition.

Now, some would argue that the beginning chapters of the book that define certain concepts of different modes of thinking, linguistic theories and concepts such as nation and statehood are superfluous, but I presume that the author needs those chapters to set the scene, so to speak, to explore the complex dynamics, historical, philosophical and otherwise, of Malay society.

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AB Sulaiman correctly points to the political elite who use this hegemonic tool – Ketuanan Melayu – as a means to not only divide the Malay community but also constrain the rights, responsibilities and aspirations of the non-Malay/Muslim communities. The writer argues that the sacred cows of the Malay community have, in effect, destroyed individualism and created a community that is constantly questioning its relevancy in a changing world, as opposed to adapting to a changing world.

What I like about this book is the fact that the author points to the diversity in Islam as beneficial to religious societies. He makes it clear that the monolithic idea of Islam, as propagated by the state, creates friction between those Malays who want to explore their religion and those who believe that their dogma entitles them to some sort of religious, and in the Malaysian context, racial superiority.

This is important because it reflects why the opposition in this country, for instance, is bound by certain narratives of what it means to be “Malay” instead of encouraging diverse narratives that would mean that the concept of what it means to be “Malay” is not defined by the state.

‘Paradise Lost’

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The Malay Wira makes it clear to us that the corruption of the Malay political elites lies buried beneath an agenda of Islamic dogma and racial supremacy.

There is a whole chapter in the beginning on the constitutional definition of “Malay”. This chapter is interesting not only because it slays sacred cows but because the author makes no bones of his scepticism of this definition, using scientific and historical counter-arguments to make his case, which is the antithesis of what the political elites do or encourage.

My favourite chapter in the book is ‘Paradise Lost’, a comparison between Malaysia and South Korea in which the author states his intentions clearly – “In this chapter, I want to cite one more result of Ketuanan Melayu leadership showing the link between thinking and patterns of behaviour.

“This time I take two countries, Malaysia and South Korea and compare their relative social, economic and political record of performance from the early 1960s to date. My purpose is simple, how does the Malaysian political entity run on the basis of religion, race and nationalism, compared over time with the South Korean based on democracy and secularism.”

The author makes it clear, though, that he believes that the establishment has deliberately strayed from not only the spirit of the constitution but also engineered a manufactured Islamic revival which is detrimental to the country, but more importantly, detrimental to the progress of the Malay community. He makes it clear that the corruption of the political elites is buried beneath an agenda of Islamic dogma and racial supremacy.

In the author’s words – “Such policies are contrary to the basic principles and tenets of the constitution. For one, the founding fathers like Tunku Abdul Rahman have put on record that Malaysia should be a secular country run on the model of the Westminster form of constitutional monarchy; present policies adopted are running away from these ideals.

“Secondly, such policies are also running away from the ideals of democracy and human rights. So why is Ketunan Melayu running away from historically sound premises of democracy and human rights in leading the nation?”  Why indeed? The answer, of course, is in AB Sulaiman’s book.

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

The Great Han — Race, Nationalism and Tradition in China Today–Kevin Carrico


January 16, 2018

Book Review

The Great Han — Race, Nationalism and Tradition in China Today–Kevin Carrico

https://www.asiasentinel.com/book-review/the-great-han-race-nationalism-and-tradition-in-china-today/

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“Make China Great Again” is officially now the agenda of President Xi Jinping. Can “Make the Han Great Again” be far behind? In this interesting if somewhat academic work, Australian China scholar Kevin Carrico has examined the rising influence of traditionalist, racially based sentiments within modern China, particularly through study of the Han Clothing Movement (Hanfu yundong) and associated ideas.

At one level, the movement, established in 2001, is a curiosity, seemingly on the fringe of a society rapidly modernizing and engaging with the world. Han clothing is the symbol of a wider commitment to belief in restoration of a largely imaginary era of Han greatness and cultural purity and rejection of foreign-influenced money obsession of China today. But it has important elements in common with the officially promoted emphasis on Confucian principles, and on long held beliefs in the genetic division between Han and the rest.

Nor does this merely appeal to aging traditionalists and those who hanker after a return to traditional script and other pre-Communist aspects of the nation. The book begins with a quote from a Han Clothing Movement supporter, an IT professional based in that hub of Chinese modernism, Shenzhen:

“You can’t have nationalism without race (minzu zhuyi). That’s what we want to do: promote Han racial nationalism (Han minzu zhuyi) …. The multiracial nationalism we have now in China, with 56 races as part of a larger “Chinese race” (Zhongua minzu) is a big scam. It was imposed upon us by the Manchus, forcing us Han, the core of China from the beginning of time, into submission. All that this nationalism has done is to weaken China.  You can’t just destroy the distinction between civilization and barbarism (Hua yi zhi bian), incorporate a bunch of barbarians into our nation and then expect a strong nation. All this talk of “wealth and power” (fuqiang) is empty and meaningless without Han nationalism.”

The principal villains, from this Han perspective, are not the western powers and Japan and the one hundred years of humiliation, they are the Manchus. The dynasty may have been overthrown in 1911, but Manchu ideas, customs and (allegedly) Manchu money continue to prevail. The queue may have gone but the Manchu qipao and magua – both designed originally for horse-riders –are is still viewed as the standard Chinese traditional dress, as for example provided to delegates to the APEC Summit in China in 2015.

The Han movement’s intent is to remove all such foreign impurities, which has also to include inter-marriage with inferior foreign genes, a problem which has supposedly been enhanced by the one child policy.

The movement shows up the uncertainty which often exists in China around the meaning of the word minzu. Does this simply connote a nation-state? Or does it imply a specific racial identity? Under the foreign Manchus, there was no problem as all the ethnicity came under a single political entity under a Manchu monarch. But are the 55 identified as non-Han equal nationalities or simply colorfully dressed dance groups for the amusement of tourists? At least according to Carrico’s Han Clothing advocates, they must be kept at apart – but under Han control. They are incapable of prospering on their own, but have become a drain on the Han.

Some of this may seem too extreme to be worth bothering much about. It is not too different from the racism and nativism which thrives among many – mostly Trump supporters – in the United States. Nonetheless it is relevant to China’s perception of its relations with the world in general, and its immediate neighbors in particular.

In his “The Discourse of Race in Modern China,” Frank Dikotter explored the history of the Chinese views of race and identity and their application today. It includes the concern with the whiteness of skin color. In particular this provides a crucial demarcation between Han Chinese and their mostly browner southeast Asian neighbors – let alone Indians and Africans.

The Han Clothing adherents of Carrico’s book indulge in rants against Africans in particular. But as residents of Hongkong and Singapore will be aware the color divide has more mundane manifestations – domestic helpers are only recruited from brown Asians, not Chinese.

It may be that as China becomes great again, it will become less concerned with ethnicity, more with being a benign empire accepting of all races and religions under its wing. But at least as likely is the prospect of Han chauvinism advancing in step with Chinese power.

Contemporary Indonesian Art: Artists, Art Spaces, and Collectors Yvonne Spielmann (NUS Press, Singapore, 2017)


January 14, 2018

Image result for Indonesian artist Arahmaiani Feisal at the Art Stage Singapore “Indonesia Pavilion” in 2013. (Photo: Tyler Rollins Fine Art)

Book Review:

Contemporary Indonesian Art: Artists, Art Spaces, and Collectors Yvonne Spielmann (NUS Press, Singapore, 2017)

Reviewed by Virginia Hooker

http://www.newmandala.org/book-review/contemporary-indonesian-art-artists-art-spaces-collectors/

In November 2017, The Australian newspaper’s Review featured “the launch of Indonesia’s first large-scale contemporary art museum”, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara.

Image result for Haryanto Adikoesoemo.MACAN’s Haryanto Adikoesoemo.

 

Known by its acronym, the Museum MACAN, it is hailed as the first gallery of its kind and is privately funded by Indonesian philanthropist Haryanto Adikoesoemo. The director appointed to lead this venture is Australian Aaron Seeto, who comes with experience as curatorial manager of Brisbane’s highly successful 2015 Asia-Pacific Triennial.

Seeto explained that Mr Adikoesoemo “understands this is a museum for all of Indonesia: that is why education is a big part of it…. We know that in a place like Indonesia that is multi-ethnic and multi-racial, art and culture help people to better understand their own societies and their histories.” The Museum MACAN project underlines the importance of Indonesia’s contemporary art to all Indonesians—and for others seeking to better understand Indonesia.

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Bung Karno Amidst The Revolutionary War (1966) by Dullah (Indonesia)–MACAN Museum

By coincidence a new book on Indonesian contemporary art, also acknowledging its importance to better understanding present day Indonesia, came out earlier in 2017. Dr Yvonne Spielmann’s Contemporary Indonesian Art: Artists, Art Spaces, and Collectors appeared first in German in 2015. With the support of the Nanyang Technical University Centre for Contemporary Art, Goethe-Institut Singapore, and Indonesian art collector Deddy Kusuma, it has been translated into English.[1] Dr Spielmann specialises in new media and intercultural communication and was Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. This put her close to the commercial centres of the regional art market represented by branches of international auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s in Singapore and Hong Kong. Her book begins with their contribution to the internationalisation of contemporary Indonesian art.

This review will describe Dr Spielmann’s presentation of ‘contemporary Indonesian art’ and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. It also takes her topic a little further by looking more closely at why Indonesian contemporary art is relevant to our understanding of Indonesian culture, society, and history.

Image result for Putu Satiwijaya’s paintings featuring the face of Soeharto (image via Indonesian National Gallery)

From the 1990s, Dr Spielmann writes, dealers, curators and collectors increasingly acquired works by Indonesian artists. By the mid-2000s, the international art market reflected this interest and in 2007 and 2009, paintings by two Indonesian artists Putu Sutawijaya and I Nyoman Masriadi sold for the record-breaking prices of US$90,000 and more than one million US dollars respectively. After a brief discussion of the two artists, Dr Spielmann takes her readers into the narrative with only a table of contents to guide them.

Dr Spielmann divides her book into three substantial chapters: “Contemporary Indonesian Art in the Southeast Asian Context”; “Positions in Modern and Contemporary Art”; and “Aesthetics of Reflection and Transformation”. Each chapter is self-contained and can be read independently of the others. Selective readers can use the index to go straight to the material that interests them but a reader who engages with the book as a whole will be irritated by the repetition of information already given in the previous chapters.

The first chapter, “Contemporary Art in the Southeast Asia Context”, moves from the investment value of works by well-known contemporary Indonesian artists to a section on what “contemporary Indonesian art” means. Dr Spielmann indicates the complexity of locating contemporary Indonesian art in its own context as well as the wider regional and global contexts. She supports the views of respected Indonesian artist and art critic/historian, Jim Supangkat, who argues for a definition that recognises diversity, experimental developments, and change as important characteristics of contemporary art.

In the sub-section, “Indonesian Circumstances”, Dr Spielmann explains the origins and orientations of Indonesia’s two state-sponsored tertiary art programs in Bandung and Yogyakarta. She emphasises that although a National Museum and, since 1998, a National Gallery exist as buildings, minimal state funding reaches them. As a result, it is difficult to provide appropriate storage for collections (obviously essential in a tropical climate) and conservation of artworks, let alone outreach or education activities. State-funded galleries also cannot afford to purchase many of Indonesian works auctioned on the international market. This leads to one of the book’s best argued points: that contemporary Indonesian art has been and continues to be nurtured by private collectors and galleries who identify and promote emerging artists, curate and show their works, and publish catalogues that position their works for national and international audiences. It is this private sector that attempts to bridge “the gap between private sponsorship and public neglect.” (p.27).

Chapter One also includes an overview of women artists charting their rise and the challenges they have faced. Several of them appear again in the following two chapters. There is a substantial section, “The Southeast Asia Context”, presenting a wider survey of contemporary art in the Asia-Pacific region. Here Dr Spielmann mentions the major biennials, triennials and art fairs that show contemporary works. These include the pioneering Fukuoka (Japan) Asian Art Triennale started in 1992 and Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia-Pacific Triennial first held in 1993. Dr Spielmann notes that the wider Southeast Asian region, represented by the member states of ASEAN, has shared experiences that are reflected in its contemporary art. She writes, “Much art in the region is critical of societal, economic, and political conditions; many artists put themselves on the line even in times of rigorous censorship and dictatorship. … [I]njustice, repression, inequality, and corruption became topics of discussion, for which purpose regionally and locally engaged artists privileged performance, installation, and video—not primarily as a reaction to the current genres on the commercial art market, but rather as an expression of direct connection with the public.” (pp.27-8). Dr Spielmann provides overviews of the history, styles, leading artists, major art events and galleries that characterise the art of each of the ASEAN member states. Although she lived in Singapore at the time of writing her German version of the book, she pulls no punches about the restrictions facing artists who work there. While acknowledging Singapore’s status as a role-model for arts infrastructure, she points out that it is not a democracy, criminalises criticism of the government, and “imposes restrictions on privacy and expressions of sexuality, nudity and homosexuality and censors artistic performances in the public space.” (p.38).[2]

Image result for Indonesian artist Arahmaiani Feisal at the Art Stage Singapore “Indonesia Pavilion” in 2013. (Photo: Tyler Rollins Fine Art)

There are weaknesses in this section on the regional context. Brunei Darussalam is not included and the information on Malaysia does not mention the many Malaysian artists whose art is inspired by Islam and expressed in a range of media including digital. There is also no mention of the very impressive Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia (opened 1998). The paintings of Malaysia’s highly respected and very gifted artist, the late Latiff Mohidin, are misunderstood and dismissed as “far removed from the country’s social and political problems.” (p.37).

Chapter One concludes with the section “Tradition and Identity in Contemporary Indonesian Art” and an appreciation of the pivotal position contemporary Indonesian artists play in the Southeast Asian region. Dr Spielmann quotes from Indonesian art scholar and curator, Rifky Effendy, who describes Indonesia’s emerging artists in the catalogue for Art Stage Singapore. 24–27 Jan 2013 as follows: “[they]… are moving towards conceptual painting, objects, and installations, photography and new media—with themes that focus on issues of identity, environment, religiosity and sociocultural issues, especially how artists respond to globalisation and the complexity of daily sociocultural life.” (p.43).

This quotation from Rifky summarises well the perspective and interests of Indonesia’s next generation of artists.

The middle chapter of the book provides a more detailed history of the pioneers of Indonesian modernism and the establishment and influence of Indonesia’s leading tertiary-level art academies in Bandung and Yogyakarta. To do this in just 20 pages means that Dr Spielmann uses broad-brush generalisations that can be misleading and are occasionally inaccurate. The language is often dense and hard to follow. Describing 1990s debates about the future of Indonesian art, for example, she writes:

A substantial potential for resistance to the “danger” of cooptation in the global postmodern discourse on contemporary art, which is exposed to the reproach of being a new universalism, can be explained, on the one hand, by the delayed beginning of the debate on Modernism and contemporary art in Asia and Indonesia. On the other hand, it aims at maintaining a difference, because the reference to an autonomous Indonesian Modernism, which must be critically appropriated, is still powerfully active and multi-layered. (p.55)

It is with relief that many readers will move from the first section of Chapter Two to its later sections where Dr Spielmann presents  beautifully illustrated overviews of Indonesia’s leading modernist artists and describes several stunning private collections. She also continues the descriptions of private galleries already mentioned in her first chapter and underlines their role in the development of contemporary art. She concludes Chapter Two with examples of the wide variety of “art spaces”, art fairs, informal venues, and artists’ collectives that emerge and provide places for “unknown” artists to create and often also distribute their works. Dr Spielmann emphasises the twin aspects of Indonesian art distribution: the privately sponsored, project-oriented independent initiatives and the “increased professionalization through commercial galleries, auction houses, and art fairs in Asia.”

In her third and final chapter, Dr Spielmann seems more comfortable presenting the works of artists she has interviewed and met personally. The chapter begins with another summary of what she terms the “de-Westernisation of aesthetics and discourse” in Indonesian art, material that has already appeared in the previous chapters. It continues with vignette presentations of thirteen artists whose works appear in international collections and exhibitions as well as in Indonesia. The well-placed colour plates allow readers to engage directly with the works and perhaps see in them elements that Dr Spielmann does not mention. Readers may not agree with all of her views, but they will feel they have been offered a diverse and generous selection of major works by Indonesia’s contemporary artists.

The cover image for Dr Spielmann’s book is a Pythonesque, eclectic, highly-detailed, pop-art version of a giant skateboard crammed with a bizarre mix of objects. Propelled by wheels and paddles, the skateboard’s cargo includes (among many other items) pieces of machinery and plumbing ducts, toys, logos, political symbols, a mosque loudspeaker, chainsaws, weapons and a selection of explosive devices. The “vehicle” may be under the control of a multipurpose robot seated at the rear. Entitled Makan Besar (The Big Meal) it is the work of graphic design and pop art duo the Indieguerillas (Mike Bawono and Santi Ariestyowanti), completed in 2014. As Dr Spielmann notes, they use a style powerfully charged with references. Makan Besar could also serve as a visual image for Dr Spielmann’s book, which like “The Big Meal” tries to balance too much on a limited base and overwhelms the message with an overabundance of detail. Let me briefly explain.

In just 178 pages (including bibliography and index), Dr Spielmann’s Contemporary Indonesian Art: Artists, Art Spaces, and Collectors seeks to present the history of Indonesia’s modern and contemporary art from the end of the colonial period to 2014. This is almost impossible and has, I suggest, been attempted at the expense of the subject. The “classic” account of the origins and development of contemporary art in Indonesia is Astri Wright’s Soul, Spirit, and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters (OUP, 1994). Wright’s narrative concludes two decades before 2014, when Dr Spielmann’s book ends, yet Wright’s book is more than double the size. It is based on research undertaken for a Cornell University dissertation, and Wright immersed herself in Indonesia’s art world between 1987 and 1989 to examine the works of over 200 painters. Dr Spielmann was not able to spend such an extended period of intensive contact with her subjects. She relies on secondary sources and personal interviews with only some of those mentioned in her work. She also does not come to her topic as well prepared as Astri Wright, who graduated from Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program. Nevertheless, a selective comparison of their works helps identify the strengths and weaknesses of Dr Spielmann’s book.

Firstly, as already mentioned, the book lacks an introduction that connects the author with her readers, explains her purpose and what inspired her to write it. Crucially, there is no explanation about the readership she is targeting nor an outline of the structure of the book to guide readers through its sections. Secondly, Astri Wright’s English style is direct, uncluttered and succinct, communicating easily with readers. Unfortunately the opposite is the case with Dr Spielmann’s style, or at least the style in which the English version of her book appears. Perhaps the original German communicates her meaning with greater clarity, but there are too many sentences in the English version that require several readings to extract their meaning. Thirdly, Wright anchors her approach in the metaphor of “the mountain” and that trope is sustained throughout the work and examined from different perspectives and through the diverse ways artists understand and interpret it. Dr Spielmann’s subtitle, “artists, art spaces, and collectors” is an accurate description of her book’s foci. She approaches Indonesia’s contemporary art through its physical manifestations: the artefacts/art works and their creators; the galleries that exhibit them; the commercial networks that buy and sell them; the collections that preserve them; and the teaching institutions that prepare the new generations of artists; and the informal networks that support “alternative” artists. This approach identifies and emphasises the “Indonesian gap” caused by the failure of the state to provide adequate infrastructure to support emerging artists and to exhibit iconic contemporary works. As Dr Spielmann points out, the infrastructure gap is filled by private collectors, galleries, and art spaces. The most recent example of this, opening too late to be included in the book, is the Museum MACAN, funded by an Indonesian philanthropist.

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Dr Spielmann’s focus on the material and the physical manifestations of contemporary art neglects the deep spirituality that inspires many of Indonesia’s contemporary artists, and is evident throughout Wright’s study. This perhaps explains at least one serious omission in Dr Spielmann’s book—art that is inspired by Islam.[3] This is a surprising omission because the leading Islam-inspired artists, Ahmad Sadali (1924–1987) and A.D. Pirous (1933–), were both Professors in the Fine Arts Department, Institute of Technology Bandung, an art academy mentioned several times in Spielmann’s book. Sadali is regarded as the father of abstract art in Indonesia and his works with those of Pirous are internationally known and fetch high prices at auctions. Edwin Rahardjo of Edwin’s Gallery (referred to several times in Dr Spielmann’s book) has an extensive collection of Sadali’s works. In 1997, Edwin organised a retrospective of Sadali’s paintings, for which Jim Supangkat wrote an excellent catalogue essay in English, entitled Hidden Works and Thoughts of Ahmad Sadali. Edwin has said that he learned to “see” art after spending hours looking at Sadali’s paintings.[4] In 2014, the National Gallery of Indonesia held a major retrospective celebrating Sadali as an Indonesian “Maestro” and showing his influence on the works of contemporary younger artists. A.D. Pirous’s works and philosophy have been deeply and sensitively analysed by Kenneth M. George, Picturing Islam: Art and Ethics in a Muslim Lifeworld (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Without reference to these major internationally respected artists, no survey of contemporary Indonesian art is complete.

 

It is also surprising that Dadang Christanto (1957–), again an internationally recognised Indonesian artist, is given only two cursory mentions in the book. His works, especially his installations, bear witness to the effects of violence and oppression in all forms and in all places, earning him the title “the artist of conscience.”[5] He is represented in major galleries through Southeast Asia and Australia, and his works are regularly selected for the Brisbane’s Asia-Pacific Triennials.

Any book seeking to engage with contemporary Indonesian art should be welcomed as a contribution to acknowledging the talent and creativity of Indonesia’s artists and the position they hold in Indonesian society. Most of them feel a responsibility to draw attention to corruption, hypocrisy, oppression, violations of human rights, and destruction of the environment. Dr Spielmann makes this point by quoting the words of Eko Nugroho, master artist and activist. In 2013 he said, “If you live in Indonesia, you will understand that it is impossible to exclude politics from everyday living. Nearly 90% of the art here is a response to or influenced by the socio-political conditions of our surroundings.” (p.153.)

Indonesia’s artists are its intellectuals of the visual. Acutely observant of the political as well as the social aspects of their society, they hone in on abuses of power and the suffering that results. These artists re-invent and play with “tradition” knowing their viewers will understand the innuendos and allusions, using earthy humour and lyrical grace with all shades in between, to exquisitely express their subjects. When censorship, intimidation or even violence is used against them, they are not silenced and continue to create their art. This is why Indonesia’s contemporary art matters.

The book has its weaknesses and it could have been better. Returning to the image of the “Big Meal”, we suggest that some of the items piled on the over-laden skateboard could be jettisoned (especially the duplicates—and here a good editor could lend a hand). The cargo could then be re-packed in better order (with less detail and jargon) and basic art information such as the dimensions and media of each work supplied. And the driver should not begin the journey without telling passengers where they are going and what route they will be taking. Now that the Museum MACAN is open, Indonesians and overseas visitors can see permanent displays of Indonesia’s vibrant contemporary art with their own eyes and also visit Edwin’s Gallery nearby, the oldest private gallery in Jakarta.

 

Virginia Matheson Hooker is Professor Emeritus and Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. She retired as Professor of Indonesian and Malay in January 2007. Her research has focused on Islam in Southeast Asia, literature and social change in Malaysia and Indonesia, and Indonesian political culture. Her most recent book, co-edited with Dr Greg Fealy, is an award-winning sourcebook on contemporary Islam in Southeast Asia.

[1] Mitch Cohen is the translator and the 2017 English translation is an expanded and updated version of the German. Without comparing his work with the original it is not possible to say whether the sometimes stilted and opaque style reflects the original German or whether it is the result of infelicitous translation. It may be a combination of both.
[2] Dr Spielmann also notes that art is viewed through an economic lens in Singapore and the success of local artists is gauged by their ability to find employment in creative industries or education (p.39).
[3] The works of artists inspired by Islam are included in Wright 1994.
[4] Edwin Rahardjo, Edwin’s Gallery, 2 November, 2017 in conversation with Virginia Hooker.
[5] Caroline Turner has published extensively on Dadang Christanto, see for example her ‘Wounds in our hearts’ in Kathryn Robinson (ed.) Asian and Pacific Cosmopolitans: Self and Subject in Motion, London, 2007.

 

The NY Times Book Review: Max Boot’s The Road not Taken


January 9, 2018

The NY Times Book Review: Max Boot’s The Road not Taken

by Fredrik Logevall

 THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam

By Max Boot
Illustrated 715 pp. Liveright. $35.
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Could it have turned out differently? Even before the guns fell silent in Vietnam, Americans began debating whether an alternate strategy might have brought success in the war. For some revisionist analysts, the path to victory would have involved more firepower from an earlier point on more parts of enemy territory. In this interpretation, overcautious civilians compelled the United States military to fight “with one arm tied behind its back.”

Never mind that this ostensibly “limited” war saw eight million tons of bombs dropped by American and allied aircraft on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1962 and 1973, killing many hundreds of thousands of civilians, or that the United States sprayed some 19 million gallons of defoliants on South Vietnam in an attempt to deny enemy forces jungle cover and food. Never mind that the American troop commitment at its height reached more than half a million men, or that more than 58,000 of them never made it back alive.

The more interesting and at first glance attractive argument is the opposite one: that the answer in Vietnam was to deploy less military force, not more. Washington planners, this perspective holds, erred in seeing the struggle principally as a conventional military conflict when what really mattered was the human dimension. They forgot that in a war of this kind it was not enough to be against Communism; one had to be for something. The key to victory lay in meeting the needs of people where they lived, in responding to their aspirations, in winning, as the saying went, their “hearts and minds.”

Max Boot’s latest book, The Road Not Taken, discusses his contention that the Vietnam War could have been avoided if American leaders had listened to a visionary CIA Agent, Edward Lansdale, who called for a focus on hearts and minds, not bombs and body counts. Come hear a fascinating tale of spy craft, bureaucracy and combat.

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Note: Boot is a military historian and foreign policy analyst who has been called one of the “world’s leading authorities on armed conflict” by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He’s a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and the Los Angeles Times, a columnist for Foreign Policy, and a regular contributor to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

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Boot served as an adviser to U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was also a senior foreign policy adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2007–08, a defense policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2011–12, and the head of the counterterrorism working group for Marco Rubio’s campaign in 2015-16. Boot was born in Moscow and grew up in Los Angeles. He holds a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in history from Yale University.–https://www.eventbrite.com

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One man personified this outlook more than perhaps anyone else: Edward Lansdale, the larger-than-life intelligence operative of America’s Cold War who is the subject of Max Boot’s judicious and absorbing, if not fully convincing, new book, “The Road Not Taken.” A dashing champion of counterinsurgency who helped thwart a rebellion in the Philippines and plotted to oust Fidel Castro, Lansdale was present at the creation of South Vietnam in 1954 as an important adviser to Prime Minister (and later President) Ngo Dinh Diem. His influence would fade, but not his belief that the struggle for Vietnam had to be won — and could be, provided American strategists employed the right combination of political and military measures.

Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, brings solid credentials to this enterprise, having written well-received histories of guerrilla warfare and America’s “small wars.” Here he draws on a range of material, official and personal, including a stash of love letters between Lansdale and his Filipino mistress. The narrative dispenses briskly and effectively with the details of Lansdale’s early life, including his college years at U.C.L.A. and his successful entry into the advertising industry, where he learned strategies of psychological manipulation that he later applied as a covert warrior in Southeast Asia. A stint as an intelligence officer under “Wild Bill” Donovan in the wartime Office of Strategic Services convinced him that this work should be his life’s career.

What emerges is a picture of a man who from an early point possessed an unusual ability to relate to other people, a stereotypically American can-do optimism, an impatience with bureaucracy and a fascination with psychological warfare. All these qualities were on display in Lansdale’s first major postwar posting, in the newly independent Philippines, where on behalf of the C.I.A. he helped suppress the left-wing Hukbalahap insurgency in the early 1950s.

But it was in Vietnam that Lansdale would achieve his greatest renown — and frustration. Neil Sheehan’s assertion, in “A Bright Shining Lie,” that “South Vietnam, it can truly be said, was the creation of Edward Lansdale,” is surely an exaggeration, but it speaks to Lansdale’s fundamental importance. Beginning in mid-1954 he ran a covert intelligence operation that sent sabotage teams to North Vietnam and helped facilitate the flow of refugees from north to south.

More consequentially, Lansdale was from the start the closest American adviser to Ngo Dinh Diem, his car often parked outside the Saigon leader’s residence deep into the night. When in early 1955 the regime faced violent challenges to its rule from sects within South Vietnam, Lansdale persuaded the Eisenhower administration to stand firm with Diem, a critical move that in all likelihood preserved Diem’s hold on power.

This proved to be the high point of Lansdale’s influence in Saigon — and, for that matter, Washington. Diem grew tired of the American upbraiding him for undemocratic moves like closing opposition newspapers. “Do you think that’s the right thing for ‘the father of his country’ to do?” Lansdale asked, to which Diem replied, “Stop calling me papa!”

Even as his clout diminished and his worries grew over the regime’s coercive actions, Lansdale extolled Diem’s achievements and urged continued American support. No other plausible leader existed who could take the fight to the Vietcong. For Lansdale, as for Boot, Diem’s ouster and murder in a coup d’état in late 1963 backed by the United States was a watershed moment, a calamitous development from which the war effort never fully recovered.

There’s something to this argument — it required about four years for the politics in South Vietnam to settle, and the Communists took advantage of the turmoil — but it misses how bleak and unsustainable the situation was with Diem. Communist forces were already gaining momentum in the countryside after 1962, which is partly why the South Vietnamese military had grown so disgruntled and why the Kennedy administration wanted a change. With his shallow conception of leadership and easy resort to repression, Diem, a Roman Catholic, had long since alienated powerful segments of South Vietnamese society, including the leaders of the Buddhist majority, and his regime enjoyed scant support among the peasantry. The coup against him was enormously popular. It’s hard to see Diem surviving in power for long regardless of what John F. Kennedy did in the fall of 1963.

To his credit, Lansdale always emphasized the need to focus on developments within South Vietnam. More than many American officials, he understood that even if one somehow stopped the flow of men and matériel from the North, the southern insurgency would remain a formidable threat to the Saigon regime. Bombing North Vietnam was therefore no solution. Unshakable in his conviction that the American way was right for everyone, Lansdale nevertheless insisted on the need to show empathy for local values and practices, to spend time with villagers, and he perceived — to a degree at least — the dilemma at the heart of American strategy: What do you do when the destruction deemed necessary to defeat an insurgency alienates the very population you seek to bring over to the government’s side?

Many of Lansdale’s ideas, however, were kooky: He advocated distributing counterfeit official documents in North Vietnam to sow confusion and fear, providing the Vietcong with booby-trapped ammunition intended to blow up in their faces and having Saigon leaders give “fireside chats” à la Franklin D. Roosevelt — and he understood Vietnamese society and politics less well than this admiring book suggests. His well-founded concern about the problems posed by pervasive South Vietnamese official corruption (grasped, contrary to Boot’s claim, by virtually every American intelligence analyst after 1965) did not keep him from championing the unscrupulous, impetuous and flamboyant Nguyen Cao Ky for Saigon’s leadership — he of the aviator sunglasses, purple silk scarf and pearl-handled revolver. Ky’s embrace of American largess made him the very symbol of corruption in the eyes of a great many Vietnamese (and he once told stunned journalists that his only hero was Adolf Hitler).

There is power in Boot’s conclusion that Lansdale “never wanted to see half a million American troops thrashing around Vietnam, suffering and inflicting heavy casualties. His approach, successful or not, would have been more humane and less costly.” In this sense, the Lansdale way was indeed “the road not taken.” Whether that road would have led to the destination he so wanted to reach, however, is doubtful. As much as this irrepressible Cold Warrior might have thought otherwise, Vietnam for the United States was destined to be what it had always been: a riddle beyond American solution.

Fredrik Logevall, a professor of history and international affairs at Harvard, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam.”

A version of this review appears in print on January 14, 2018, on Page BR9 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Losing Hearts and Minds.

 

Withering Portrait of President Donald Trump


January 5, 2018

Michael Wolff’s Withering Portrait of President Donald Trump

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Michael Wolff, the author of the new book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” extracts from which set the Internet ablaze on Wednesday, is an experienced magazine journalist. Among the publications on his résumé are New York, Vanity Fair, and the Hollywood Reporter. A chronicler of media, power, and wealth, Wolff is also willing to dish the dirt, as he demonstrated in a gossipy tome about Rupert Murdoch, which was published in 2008. After that book came out, there was an inquest inside Murdoch’s News Corporation into who had granted Wolff access. Fingers were pointed at Gary Ginsberg, a former Clinton Administration official who served for years as Murdoch’s political adviser, confidant, and fixer. Ginsberg subsequently lost his job, and now works at Time Warner. But, as Wolff noted in a foreword to the paperback edition of the book, Murdoch was the person primarily responsible for the access he gained. The press baron “not only was (mostly) a patient and convivial interviewee but also opened every door I asked him to open,” Wolff wrote.

If there was a similar inquest at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue about Wolff’s new book, it didn’t take long to identify a culprit. On Wednesday afternoon, the White House press office put out a statement in Trump’s name. “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency,” it said. “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind . . . . Steve pretends to be at war with the media, which he calls the opposition party, yet he spent his time at the White House leaking false information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he was. It is the only thing he does well.” The statement goes on,“Steve was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had influence to fool a few people with no access and no clue, whom he helped write phony books.”

The reason for Trump’s animus was obvious. “Fire and Fury” quotes Bannon, Trump’s former senior political adviser, as having described the June, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and a group of people connected to Russia as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic,” and as saying that the meeting should have been reported to the F.B.I. The book contains myriad other damning comments about Trump and his family from Bannon and other Trump advisers.

There can be no doubt that Wolff relied on Bannon heavily. The book, a copy of which I obtained from the publisher, Henry Holt, on Wednesday, starts with the rumpled former investment banker having dinner with Roger Ailes, the late head of Fox News, in early January, 2017, and ends with Bannon standing outside the headquarters of Breitbart, the conservative news organization to which he returned after being ousted from the White House, in August. In the index, Bannon’s entry is considerably longer than anybody else’s except Trump’s.

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Bannon wasn’t Wolff’s only source, though. The book is based on “conversations that took place over a period of eighteen months with the president, with most members of his senior staff—some of whom talked to me dozens of times—and with many people who they in turn spoke to,” Wolff writes in the author’s note. His original idea, he says, was to write a fly-on-the-wall account of Trump’s first hundred days. “The president himself encouraged this idea. But given the many fiefdoms in the White House that came into open conflict from the first days of the administration, there seemed no one person able to make this happen. Equally, there was no one to say ‘Go away.’ Hence I became more a constant interloper than an invited guest.”

Wolff’s methods will doubtless attract more scrutiny. In some places, he re-creates entire scenes, complete with dialogue, without explicitly identifying his sources. In others, he attributes withering comments about Trump to some of his current and former aides: “For Steve Mnuchin and Reince Priebus, the president was an ‘idiot.’ For Gary Cohn, he was ‘dumb as shit.’ For H.R. McMaster he was a ‘dope.’ The list went on.” On Wednesday, two people quoted in the book, Tom Barrack, a longtime friend of Trump, and Katie Walsh, a former White House aide, denied having made the negative comments about Trump that Wolff attributed to them. “We know the book has a lot of things, so far that we’ve seen, that are completely untrue,” the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said.

Still, the over-all portrait that Wolff draws of a dysfunctional, bitterly divided White House in the first six months of Trump’s Presidency, before the appointment of John Kelly as chief of staff and the subsequent firing of Bannon, has the whiff of authenticity about it—and it echoes news coverage at the time. Other details are impossible to confirm but damning if true. Such was the animosity between Bannon and “Jarvanka”—Bannon’s dismissive term for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner—Wolff reports, that, during one Oval Office meeting, Bannon called Ivanka “a fucking liar,” to which Trump responded,“I told you this is a tough town, baby.” Wolff also quotes Bannon commenting gleefully after Trump decided to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, a decision that Ivanka opposed: “Score. The bitch is dead.”

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Donald Trump seen with Michael Flynn and Ideologue Steve Bannon

Equally plausible is Wolff’s portrait of Trump as a one-dimensional figure who had no conception that he could win the 2016 election; little clue what to do after he did emerge victorious from the campaign trail; and virtually no interest in, or aptitude for, acquiring the skills and information needed to fulfill the role of President. “Here was, arguably, the central issue of the Trump presidency,” Wolff writes. The Commander-in-Chief “didn’t process information in any conventional sense—or, in a way, he didn’t process it at all.” He continues,

Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate  . . . . Some thought him dyslexic; certainly his comprehension was limited. Others concluded that he didn’t read because he didn’t have to, and that in fact this was one of his key attributes as a populist. He was postliterate—total television.

But not only didn’t he read, he didn’t listen. He preferred to be the person talking. And he trusted his own expertise—no matter how paltry or irrelevant—more than anyone else’s. What’s more, he had an extremely short attention span, even when he thought you were worthy of attention.

Confirming long-running news accounts, Wolff reports that Trump often retires in the early evening to his bedroom, where he has three television screens, and interrupts his viewing only to converse by telephone with his friends and cronies, some of them fellow-billionaires. There are revealing, unconfirmed new anecdotes, too, about Trump’s sexism and narcissism. In one meeting, Wolff says, the President referred to Hope Hicks, his communications director, as “a piece of tail.” In another meeting, he described Sally Yates, the former acting Attorney General, whom he fired early in his term, after she refused to defend his original travel ban, as “such a cunt.”

As Wolff tells it, Trump is, ultimately, a self-fixated performer rather than a politician, and his primary goal is to monopolize public attention. (“This man never takes a break from being Donald Trump,” Wolff quotes Bannon as saying.) This depiction probably understates Trump’s devotion to making money, as well as his racism and nativism, both of which go back decades. But, in any case, even performer-Presidents have to make some decisions, and Wolff devotes a good deal of space to the most fateful call Trump has made so far: the firing of the F.B.I. director James Comey, last May. Whether Trump’s firing of Comey amounts to obstruction of justice is a central focus of the investigation being conducted by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, into the President’s behavior.

In Wolff’s account, the battle lines inside the White House were clearly drawn. Bannon, Reince Priebus, who served as chief of staff before Kelly, and Donald McGahn, the White House counsel, were adamantly opposed to firing Comey. “McGahn tried to explain that in fact Comey himself was not running the Russia investigation, that without Comey the investigation would proceed anyway,” Wolff writes. In an Oval Office meeting, Bannon told Trump, “This Russian story is a third-tier story, but you fire Comey and it’ll be the biggest story in the world.”

Ranged on the other side of the issue, according to Wolff, were some of Trump’s cronies outside the White House, including Chris Christie and Rudolph Giuliani, who “encouraged him to take the view that the DOJ was resolved against him; it was all part of a holdover Obama plot.” Even more important, Wolff goes on, was the concern of Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, “channeled through his son and daughter-in-law, that the Kushner family [business] dealings were getting wrapped up in the pursuit of Trump.” As the President considered whether to get rid of Comey, Jared and Ivanka “encouraged him, arguing the once possibly charmable Comey was now a dangerous and uncontrollable player whose profit would inevitably be their loss.”

But “Fire and Fury” also stresses that the prime mover in the firing of Comey was Trump himself. In the end, the President cut almost all of his advisers out of his final decision-making process:

Jared and Ivanka were urging the president on, but even they did not know that the axe would shortly fall. Hope Hicks . . . didn’t know. Steven Bannon, however much he worried that the president might blow, didn’t know. His chief of staff didn’t know. And his press secretary didn’t know. The president, on the verge of starting a war with the FBI, the DOJ, and many in Congress, was going rogue.

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Can Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump Survive the White House? | Vanity Fair

Eight days after Trump fired Comey, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller to take over the Russia investigation. Although the findings of Mueller’s probe aren’t yet known, and Trump’s lawyers insist that the probe will clear the President of any wrongdoing, Wolff was surely right to stress the momentousness of the decision to get rid of the “rat”— Trump’s term for Comey. Wolff recounts near the end of the book that, five months after Comey’s firing, Bannon was predicting the collapse of Trump’s Presidency. Speaking in Breitbart’s headquarters, which Bannon refers to as the Breitbart Embassy, Bannon told people there was a 33.3-per-cent chance that the Mueller investigation would lead to Trump’s impeachment, a 33.3-per-cent chance that Trump would resign, “perhaps in the wake of a threat by the cabinet to act on the Twenty-Fifth Amendment,” and a 33.3-per-cent chance that he would “limp to the end of his term. In any event, there would certainly not be a second term, or even an attempt at one. ‘He’s not going to make it,’ said Bannon at the Breitbart Embassy. ‘He’s lost his stuff.’ ”