[This book review was published in the Summer 2017 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 273-283.]
The Making of the President 2016: How Donald Trump Orchestrated a Revolution
Skyhorse Publishing, 2017
This book is about arguably the roughest but most consequential presidential election in American history. Its readers might well visualize a prize fight in which the author, Roger Stone, is the second sitting in a corner of the ring ministering to a heavy-weight slugger who incongruously mixes brute strength with finesse and comes back to the corner after each round bloodied but eager to press on. The fight is indeed an epic battle, pitting a man of indomitable energy against a hydra-headed opponent representing several Establishments capable of showering him with blows in a slugfest that continues long after the bout is officially over. (In this analogy, Hillary Clinton is “hydra-headed” when seen in combination with the vast and varied forces Donald Trump challenged.)
Even though Stone’s champion won the first bout by winning the 2016 presidential election, the conflict will continue without interruption, seemingly as a matter of politics and personalities, but fundamentally because so much is at stake. What Donald Trump has set out to do is nothing less than change the direction of a civilization. His giant themes – stopping the uncontrolled immigration, rebuilding an economy that had been hollowed out of its jobs and industry, desisting from interventions that try to make an intractable world over into America’s image, speaking up against the thousand taboos of “politically correct” ideological conformity, and bringing attention to how little credence the mainstream press deserves – called up a well-spring of support from millions of Americans who have long remained quiet as a “silent majority,” but also threw down the gauntlet to forces of incalculable strength.
[One hundred days of Trump’s presidency have now passed since this review was written, and some of his strongest supporters have become disturbed over his apparent deviation from the positions he took during the campaign on the giant themes referred to above, especially in the areas of a non-interventionist foreign policy and the question of mass illegal immigration. The situation can change rapidly, but for a time Trump’s supporters are in something of “suspended animation” as they wait to see whether the deviations are more apparent than real—and whether, in any event, it is possible for him to lead the way and act on his themes in a context in which he receives almost no cooperation. Whether Trump “changes the civilization” or whether he and his challenge to it melt away without having changed very much will perhaps become clearer by the time this review is published.]
Perhaps the most formidable of the Establishments Trump opposes is one that is so universal and dominant that it, like the air we breathe, is taken for granted and hardly noticed: the culture of “those whose opinions count,” the uniform body of articulated opinion bearing down from every angle – the entertainment industry, academia, the large corporations, the press, the major television networks, the legal profession, activist conferences and governmental programs, non-governmental organizations, and the millions of educated and semi-educated people who instinctively gravitate toward whatever opinion is “respectable” at the moment. When we think in these terms, we see the immensity of the task Trump and his followers have taken on. For them to succeed requires nothing less than an intellectual and cultural revolution. The analogy that most readily comes to mind is to the Protestant Reformation.
Roger Stone is a long-time political operative and associate of Donald Trump. He was national president of the Young Republicans in 1977-9, has worked in nine presidential campaigns, ran Ronald Reagan’s campaign in New England in 1980, was chairman of Trump’s Presidential Exploratory Committee in 2000, and was a senior adviser to Trump prior to the 2016 election. (He doesn’t tell us why he left a formal position to advise the campaign from outside.) The Making of the President 2016 is his fifth book. Throughout the lead-up to the election, Stone was a frequent guest giving “an insider’s perspective” on Alex Jones’ much-viewed InfoWars.com.
The year and a half after Trump announced his candidacy in July 2015 was, as everyone knows, one of the most tumultuous times in the political history of the United States. What most continuously commanded the public’s attention, because the media made each one an obsession and Trump struck back hard with his attacks on “the dishonest media,” was a constantly renewed drumbeat of “gotcha” mini-scandals attacking Trump. The process, as Stone explains, was for a reporter to “pick something Trump said, even if the chosen statement were a side comment, that could be blown up into a controversy that would cost Trump days of media time to explain what he meant.” The result was incongruous: a campaign in which issues of existential importance were hammered home in months of rallies, while at another level the public mind was flooded with nerve-wracking distractions.
It is both a strength and a weakness that Stone has made these distractions the meat of his book, leading readers through the series of agonizing episodes. The strength comes from making the book a good chronology for readers who by now have sufficiently recovered from their nervous exhaustion and are ready to see the value of an account that brings the episodes together in one place. The weakness lies in the failure to do a lot else of what a book on “the making of the president” might ordinarily be expected to do. Stone examines in only the most cursory detail the many other facets of the campaign. Although each is touched on, we are told little about the staffing, the state-by-state organization, the financing, the role played by the gigantic Trump rallies, the strategies, the coalitions that were put together – and all else that would go into a complete analysis.
It would be especially meaningful to be told how Trump’s thinking evolved during the years that led up to the campaign. He had at one time, Stone says, taken very different stands on the issues. How was it that he became sensitive to the whole mix of national problems that, though deeply sensed by many Americans, had so long been relegated to the nether world of the “unspeakable”? As someone close to Trump, Stone would be the perfect person to explain this. Without it, it seems as though the Trump of July 2015, by then making himself the champion on those unspoken issues, was akin to Athena, born full-grown from the forehead of Zeus. Stone describes Trump as “a pragmatist, not an ideologue,” but when Trump took on the enemies he did, he was doing just the opposite of what any other “pragmatist” would do.
Just as obvious is Stone’s lack of attention to the issues, which were the spine of Trump’s instant mobilization of what he sees as a “movement.” Trump galvanized millions of Americans from his very first speech, while turning off millions of others through what they saw as his gruff and aggressive persona. (Not everyone saw that persona the same way; his supporters relished it for its humor, charm and irreverence.) It was the issues that brought him his instant support. The thousands who stood in line to enter his rallies (or to hear him as part of the overflow) were moved partly by his celebrity but primarily by the urgency of his message. While this was true, this reviewer was struck by how many of his acquaintances were oblivious to Trump’s themes, and voted for him (those who did) primarily out of dislike for Hillary.
As the book recounts the many distractions and side-issues, it seems that Stone has wanted to strike a middle ground between overt partisanship and outsider-like objectivity. Although no effort is made to obscure that he is 100% in Trump’s corner, there are times when he rather gratuitously includes longer-than-necessary statements of the Democrats’ or mainstream media’s anti-Trump criticisms, and allows them to stand without adverse analysis. One presumes he wanted a certain balance, even though it isn’t likely that anyone who thinks badly of Trump will see it as balanced. What is perhaps most apparent about Stone’s attempt to avoid making the book a one-sided polemic is that he fails on more than one occasion to explain fully Trump’s side to a particular controversy. In what follows, we can make no attempt to do more than give the highlights of a few of the major episodes, but it will be worthwhile to note where Stone has left the explanations incomplete.
The “birther” controversy. The question of whether Barack Obama was born outside the United States and hence Constitutionally ineligible to be president had been around since he was elected to the state senate in Illinois. In 2011, prior to Obama’s winning a second term, Trump called upon him to release a long-form birth certificate from Hawaii. After years of delay, Obama on April 27, 2011, provided what he said was the long-form certificate. The failure to provide such easily-available documentation had long fed suspicions, although anyone who raised the issue – including Trump – was belittled as a “birther” and as patently unreasonable or even racist. The issue emerged again in 2016, and Trump sought to clear the decks of it in September 2016 with an unequivocal declaration that “Obama was born in the United States.” (Characteristically, he didn’t leave it at that, prodding his opposition by pointing out that the issue had been raised by the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008).
Stone gives this history, but not completely. He doesn’t mention what we have just indicated as Trump’s attempt to put it to rest, or explain how it was that Trump was willing to go contrary to his own thinking to do that. (Presumably it was to remove yet another of the distractions that were drawing attention away from substantive issues.) What is most significant, however, is that Stone makes no mention of the outcome of Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s five-year investigation into the long-form certificate, which in mid-December 2016 led the sheriff to cite evidence that the certificate was a fake. Arpaio’s announcement came in time to be included. If the ultimate judgment of history is that the certificate was indeed a fake, the implications will be staggering.
Whether willing to endorse the winning nominee. The first Republican primary debate, hosted by Fox News on August 6, 2015, started off with a “gotcha” question by Bret Baier, one of the moderators, that was clearly designed to commit Trump not to run as an independent or, barring that, to make Republican voters reject him as disloyal. The question: Is anyone unwilling to pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee? Of the seventeen candidates, Trump was the only one to raise his hand. Rather than destroying Trump, it had an electric effect, separating him from the others and underscoring the impression that “here at last is someone different.” Stone writes that it was a “moment certain to be remembered by historians as a turning point.” It is another illustration of Trump’s pragmatic politics that a few days later he did an about-face and signed such a pledge. As it turned out, some of the other candidates reneged on their own pledges (a seeming treachery that is arguably excusable because of the bitter exchanges that occurred after the pledges were made).
A similar question came up near the end of the general election campaign when Trump was asked to commit to acknowledging Hillary Clinton’s victory if she won. We don’t know, of course, what Trump would have done, but we do know that there has been little acquiescence in his victory. The months and weeks following November 6 have seen a continual attempt to delegitimize Trump’s election and, after his inauguration, his administration.
Comments about women. Hillary Clinton was the first woman to receive a major party nomination for president, and along with feminists in general she fully expected the women’s vote to sweep her to victory. As it turned out, according to Stone’s review of the election’s demographics, “Trump won the votes of white women overall, 53 percent to Hillary’s 43 percent,” in part because he overwhelmed her (62 to 34 percent) among “white women without a college degree.” (Various explanations for the latter are possible. One among them is that the women without a degree are less intelligent, and accordingly, as the left would think, inclined to support Trump. A contrary view is that they are less acculturated to the political attitudes that would be pressed upon them in academia.)
Enormous efforts were made by the mainstream media and the Clinton campaign to paint Trump as a crude misogynist. At the first Republican debate, moderator Megyn Kelly dropped any pose of neutrality to argue Hillary’s case, telling Trump “you’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.’” Much of the steam went out of the attack when he answered humorously, “only Rosie O’Donnell.” The point about Trump had its greatest impact when a month before the election the Washington Post released an eleven-year-old “hot microphone” conversation in which Trump had bragged about “kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women.” Although Trump admitted “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize,” the media furor was for several days all-consuming.
Judging from the eventual women’s vote, Trump’s counterattack was effective. He immediately “hosted a panel of three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault or rape – Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Juanita Broaddrick.” Trump had four such women present at the second Trump/Clinton debate. The point related directly to Hillary: that she had been “an accomplice-after-the-fact – an enabler – who regularly attacks and threatens Clinton’s sexual assault victims.” Part of the rebuttal was to point to her hypocrisy; less than a year before, she had tweeted the de rigueur feminist absolute that “every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.”
An interesting aspect of this attack-and-response is the insincerity and double standard it highlights. The expectation behind the release of Trump’s recorded conversation, and the days of hysteria about it, was that it would destroy his candidacy with all of America’s more refined and delicate souls. This, of course, overlooked the fact that American culture has long-since lost its sensitivity to crudities of all sorts, which pour in through television, the movies and in print – almost all of it left-inspired. The insincerity becomes visible when we realize that although the more committed feminists will cry out against any male crudity, they are perhaps the only people on the left who care about it. A semen stain on a young intern’s dress wasn’t enough to bring even a single Democratic senator to vote to convict President Clinton in his impeachment trial. One could write a book about the many instances of indifference.
The Alicia Machado episode. Five weeks before the election, Vogue magazine and the New York Times picked up the hue and cry against Trump for having “fat-shamed” the winner of the Miss Universe contest twenty years before, in 1996. (Trump was the executive producer of the pageant.) Trump is said to have humiliated her after she went from a svelte 117-118 pounds to 160-170 pounds, an increase totally inappropriate for a beauty queen during her reign. Stone recounts the hullabaloo in some detail, and adds some disconcerting facts about Miss Machado that weren’t revealed to the American public. If they had been known, they would have destroyed the criticism’s anti-Trump propaganda value. “In 2005, the Philadelphia Phillies major league baseball star, outfielder Bobby Abreu, broke off his engagement with Machado after she went on a reality television show in Mexico and had sex on camera with a fellow cast member… Machado appeared nude for a Mexican edition of Playboy in 2006. Mexico’s attorney general claimed Machado had a child with narco-cartel drug lord Jose Gerardo Alvarez….”
The “mocking the reporter with disability” incident. In reporting the controversies that kept things boiling in the fall of 2015, Stone passes over without mention one of the allegations against Trump that appeared extremely damaging to him at the time and that was repeated by actress Meryl Streep even so recently as January 2017 in her denunciation of Trump at the Golden Globe awards. This is the accusation that at a rally in November 2015 Trump flailed his arms in belittling imitation of a disabled reporter, Serge Kovaleski. The background was that Trump had said that he had witnessed thousands of Muslims across the Hudson River celebrating the 9/11 attacks, Kovaleski had co-written a report in The Washington Post in 2001 that said “law enforcement authorities detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river.” When, however, Trump in 2015 made his statement about the celebrations, Kovaleski circulated a statement to the media saying just the opposite of his earlier report: “I certainly do not remember anyone saying that thousands or even hundreds of people were celebrating.” Trump hopped on this about-face, making fun of it by flailing his arms in belittlement. The media in turn jumped all over Trump, revealing that Kovaleski was disabled, showing the video of Trump’s gestures, and making what seemed like a conclusive case of Trump’s inhumanity.
What has not been made generally known to the public, although it has appeared in several sources outside the mass media, is that Trump was not making fun of Kovaleski’s disability. The video of Trump at his rally made it seem he was mimicking spastic arm movements. The fact, however, was that Kovaleski is not spastic; rather than lacking control over his arms, his demeanor is calm, with his right arm pressed against his chest. Moreover, videos of Trump speaking on other occasions show identical arm-flailing gestures, including even one occasion when he was making fun of himself. Outside the ebullient context of his rallies, they may not seem especially becoming. But they had nothing to do with mimicking a spastic.
Roger Stone has covered a lot of ground and provided a good history. This is an instance, though, where he missed an opportunity to set the record straight, especially with regard to what on the face of it has seemed one of the most damaging revelations about Trump’s character.
Criticism of the Hispanic judge. Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren attacked Trump for “race-baiting a judge.” Some students at Trump University in California had filed a class action suit accusing the University of fraud. Trump cited excellent ratings given to the University, and was advised by his attorneys that the suit should have been dismissed on summary judgment. Speaking of the judge’s repeated rulings for the plaintiffs, he publicly surmised that the judge – U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, an Obama appointee – was biased because he was a Mexican (which turned out to be only partly true; Curiel was born in Indiana to Mexican immigrant parents). Although Trump predicted that he would wind up receiving a lot of the Hispanic vote, he knew how heated the Latino opposition had been to his promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico and stop the illegal immigration. Investigation by Jerome Corsi showed that Judge Curiel was a member of the “La Raza Lawyers of San Diego.” (“La Raza” means “the race.”) To Senator Warren and the media who set up a hue-and-cry, Trump was guilty of racism in calling out the judge. The question any objective person must ask, however, is whether it was not in fact the judge who was the racist, with Trump’s reaction being precisely to his apparent racism.
After Trump was elected, he settled the case for $25 million. This can be taken as an admission of fault; or his explanation can be accepted that even though he continued to believe he would win the case at trial, his impending presidency made it important to remove it as a distraction.
The “fight with a gold-star father.” One of the most powerful anti-Trump speeches at the Democratic National Convention was delivered when Khizr Khan, accompanied by his wife, came to the rostrum to denounce Trump. The Khans are parents of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who in 2004 was killed in Iraq. The father declared that Trump “consistently smears the character of Muslims,” and went on to say that “Hillary Clinton was right when she called my son ‘the best of America.’ If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America.” In light of this attack, it seems perverse when even so late as March 2017 a major newspaper chain has been able to turn the whole incident on its head, making Trump (who, as one might expect, didn’t take the attack lying down) the instigator: ”During the campaign,” Anita Kumar of the McClatchy Washington Bureau writes, “he picked a fight with Khizr Khan… saying the father had ‘viciously’ attacked him.” This most recent commentary reflects the theme the mainstream media adopted during several days of its preoccupation with the episode immediately following the Democratic convention: the whole thing was Trump’s doing, matching him against two grieving parents. Stone explains the incident well, but moves on without comment about who really “started the fight.” Nor does he discuss the pro’s and con’s of Trump’s call during the campaign for a moratorium on Muslim immigration.
We will leave it to readers of The Making of the President 2017 to drink more deeply from Stone’s discussion of these and the many other side-issues that flooded the public mind during those months. Students of “American democracy” will want to reflect on how the distractions were made the proxy for a serious discussion of vital, even existential, issues. As Stone has so convincingly shown, Trump fought it out on those issues through a fog of obfuscation.
In effect, this book preoccupies itself with the outer crust of the campaign, giving an account of the brutal slugfest between the mainstream media and a man of extraordinary emotional fortitude. As Roger Stone’s background shows, the book’s author is an “ultimate insider.” We might expect that his future writing will present more from that unique perspective.
Dwight D. Murphey