Commentary: A cipher in a pit of vipers

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – The book isn’t a bombshell.

For all the furor it produced across the country and the panic it provoked in the Oval Office, Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” doesn’t contain many revelations for those who have paid attention.

John Krull, publisher,

The book tells the story of a president who has impulse-control challenges, thinks research and analysis are for sissies and has a pit of vipers for advisers.

Not much news there.

This doesn’t mean Wolff’s book is without merit.

Among its insights is its portrait of President Donald Trump.

Despite his immense charisma, Trump emerges as a cipher. For all the fervor he inspires on one side of our great national divide and the animosity he arouses on the other, the president comes across as a man without firm ideological convictions. His faith is in his gifts as a salesman and his gut, not any system of thought or belief. His need, always, is for a “win,” in any way winning can be defined.

It is because Trump is a blank slate that the infighting around him is so savage. The people around him – the Steve Bannons, the Jared Kushners, the leaders in Congress – see the president as a white board onto which they can sketch their own plans and programs. They all seek to play him, to make Trump’s presidency their own, pushing rivals to the side or overboard in the process.

The variable in their jousting is Donald Trump’s insatiable neediness. No matter how high he climbs, how famous he becomes, how much money he makes, it is never enough for the president.

The Donald never feels he has gotten his due.

It is this sense of unceasing grievance that unites him with his supporters.

This is where Wolff’s book renders its greatest service.

A great deal of ink has been spilled and much, much air time has been filled speculating on the nature of our ever-widening divide – about why, even in relative peace and prosperity, so many Americans are so unhappy with each other.

Wolff makes clear that, even while we’re yelling at each other, we Americans are not talking about the same things.

The Americans who abhor Trump see his presidency as an assault on the very principles of self-government, on societal norms and even on decency itself. They see him as a barbarian who is not just at the gate, but inside the temple and the parlor, laying waste to everything in sight.

But the Americans who support Trump see the things these other Americans value – the principles, the norms, education and even knowledge – as a sham, a false construct designed to elevate some people in status and degrade others. Their support of Trump is a mission.

But it is a mission of destruction, not construction. They don’t care if this president builds anything – even his much-ballyhooed wall – so long as he takes a wrecking ball to whatever system or construct infuriates them.

They have no agenda beyond that.

This is why President Trump’s critics look at his first year in office and see a year of disasters, failures and wasted effort, while his fans see the same events as a march of triumph. Every affront – every middle-finger salute – Donald Trump delivers to the supposed elite and their values is a victory, even if nothing much comes of it.

It is an article of faith among this president’s supporters that no other president has been treated with the lack of respect Trump has.

They have a point, but they ignore the fact that we never have had a president like Donald Trump before – one who reveals so much (his family, his mercurial mood swings) other presidents have hidden, while hiding so much (his taxes, his business ties, his debts) others have revealed.

Trump is true to what he knows, his reality-TV roots, and he has created a reality-show presidency, an ongoing artificially constructed drama in which conflict always makes for better viewing than resolution.

The participants are the American people, trapped in echo chambers where their screams grow louder and louder and louder and their frustration increases more and more because no one seems to hear them.

No one is listening.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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