American presidents

Michael Wolff’s ‘Fire and Fury’ is not the only book to explore the US presidency. Here are others

Historians, commentators and thinkers have written many books on how the US presidency works. None of them applies to the incumbent, Donald Trump.

Few books on American politics have ever dominated the news cycle like Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s tell-all book about Donald Trump, his presidential campaign and first year in the White House. In the book itself, as well as in Trump’s response (sample tweet: “Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book”), historians now have an unexpected bounty of material to pick over for years to come.

With Trump himself weighing in so loudly, it’s easy to miss the signal in the noise. Without wanting to give too much credence to any potential strategy of the Trump administration, it pays to think about what students of the US presidency can and cannot learn from existing theories on the presidency, when applied to the current office holder – if nothing else, to help weigh up how the administration’s actions might affect Trump’s chances of re-election.

For many, the foundational text that tried to theorise the US executive is Richard Neustadt’s book Presidential Power and the Modern President, originally published in 1960. Neustadt argued that thanks to the structure of the US government, the power of presidents is measured mainly by their ability to “persuade” others. According to 1950s commentator Robert Donovan, this feature of the office infuriated the 34th president, veteran General Dwight D Eisenhower: “In the face of the continuing dissonance and disunity, the president sometimes simply exploded with exasperation.”

Given the Trump administration has failed to score any significant legislative victories despite holding majorities in both houses of Congress – aside from a highly controversial and regressive tax bill – Neustadt’s work seems as resonant as ever. And if the Republicans lose control of either or both chambers of Congress in November’s midterm elections, Trump will need more than ever to develop his ability to persuade those he disagrees with rather than simply pummelling them.

Reign of the mad man

While the social media broadside is Trump’s preferred way to communicate with the American people, that doesn’t make him unique; Theodore Roosevelt for one made no secret of his belief that the presidency could be used as a bully pulpit. But historians usually think of Roosevelt as a president who strived to clearly articulate a moral agenda by using what Neustadt called the “status and authority inherent in his office”. Judging by Fire and Fury and other accounts, it’s not clear that Trump is capable of this, or that he even has a vision beyond the nebulous slogan “America First”.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr | Image credit: NBC Television/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under Creative Commons]
Arthur Schlesinger Jr | Image credit: NBC Television/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under Creative Commons]

Thirteen years after Neustadt’s tome was published, Arthur Schlesinger proffered what is still the most famous of all theories on the US executive: The Imperial Presidency. Influenced by the twin nightmares of Watergate and Vietnam, Schlesinger set out a dystopian vision of an office corrupted by war-making powers assigned to presidents by the US Constitution, and identified just how much the judicious (or otherwise) use of the Imperial Presidency depended on the character of its incumbent.

Richard Nixon, for instance, sought to force concessions on his adversaries abroad by invoking the so-called Mad Man Theory – a strategy to convince his adversaries he was so unpredictable and virulently anti-communist that American power under his watch was a force to be both respected and feared. Perhaps this was the thinking behind Trump’s infamous “my button is bigger” tweet railing at Kim Jong-un on January 2 2017.

During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan pursued a not-too-dissimilar strategy. At the end of that decade, Coral Bell described the Reagan Paradox: a style that blended aggressive ideological rhetoric designed to cow the Soviet Union and the communist world with a more pragmatic, conciliatory “operational policy”.

But again, all the work done to make sense of previous presidencies seems of little use today. From what we currently know about the Trump administration, it is difficult to imagine this president or those around him operating with enough self-reflection to frame a rationale, however reckless or dangerous, that can compare with Nixon’s or Reagan’s.

Stirring them up

For many Trump supporters and what remains of the Tea Party movement, a better point of reference is G Calvin Mackenzie’s 2016 work The Imperiled Presidency. As Mackenzie sees it, the office of the president is by its very nature “imperilled” because it’s too weak and bureaucratically constricted to properly exert influence over a federal government that’s too big and out of control.

This condones the familiar idea that Washington is a “swamp” overrun by lobbyists trying to extract money and special treatment from a corrupt system. Many Trump supporters argue that this is where “their” president can offer a fresh approach as a political outsider ostensibly accustomed to “getting things done”.

It may be that Trump can keep mobilising his supporters from the bully pulpit, a Rooseveltian Persuader-in-Chief operating via Twitter. He could also continue to project his rhetoric overseas in ways reminiscent of Nixon or Reagan. But post-Fire and Fury in particular, it seems more likely that future historians will need a new category altogether to make sense of Trump.

As Politico’s Jack Shafer noted, Fire and Fury has cemented Trump’s reputation “as a shallow, narcissistic, dim, post-literate, impulsive, temperamental and doddering buffoon who blusters and lurches from crisis to crisis”. Of all Trump’s 44 predecessors, none comes close to fitting that description.

Regardless, the furore over Wolff’s book will also reinforce many Trump supporters’ most distinctive view: that the “elite” is hostile to both the insurgent president and those who voted for him. Perhaps this will make them even more likely to vote for him in 2020 – providing years of baffling material for future thinkers to try and make sense of.

Peter Finn, Lecturer in Politics, Kingston University and Robert Ledger, Visiting Professor, Schiller International University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

The ordeal of choosing the right data pack for your connectivity needs

"Your data has been activated." <10 seconds later> "You have crossed your data limit."

The internet is an amazing space where you can watch a donkey playing football while simultaneously looking up whether the mole on your elbow is a symptom of a terminal diseases. It’s as busy as it’s big with at least 2.96 billion pages in the indexed web and over 40,000 Google search queries processed every second. If you have access to this vast expanse of information through your mobile, then you’re probably on something known as a data plan.

However, data plans or data packs are a lot like prescription pills. You need to go through a barrage of perplexing words to understand what they really do. Not to mention the call from the telecom company rattling on at 400 words per minute about a life-changing data pack which is as undecipherable as reading a doctor’s handwriting on the prescription. On top of it all, most data packs expect you to solve complex algorithms on permutations to figure out which one is the right one.


Even the most sophisticated and evolved beings of the digital era would agree that choosing a data pack is a lot like getting stuck on a seesaw, struggling to find the right balance between getting the most out of your data and not paying for more than you need. Running out of data is frustrating, but losing the data that you paid for but couldn’t use during a busy month is outright infuriating. Shouldn’t your unused data be rolled over to the next month?

You peruse the advice available online on how to go about choosing the right data pack, most of which talks about understanding your own data usage. Armed with wisdom, you escape to your mind palace, Sherlock style, and review your access to Wifi zones, the size of the websites you regularly visit, the number of emails you send and receive, even the number of cat videos you watch. You somehow manage to figure out your daily usage which you multiply by 30 and there it is. All you need to do now is find the appropriate data pack.

Promptly ignoring the above calculations, you fall for unlimited data plans with an “all you can eat” buffet style data offering. You immediately text a code to the telecom company to activate this portal to unlimited video calls, selfies, instastories, snapchats – sky is the limit. You tell all your friends and colleagues about the genius new plan you have and how you’ve been watching funny sloth videos on YouTube all day, well, because you CAN!


Alas, after a day of reign, you realise that your phone has run out of data. Anyone who has suffered the terms and conditions of unlimited data packs knows the importance of reading the fine print before committing yourself to one. Some plans place limits on video quality to 480p on mobile phones, some limit the speed after reaching a mark mentioned in the fine print. Is it too much to ask for a plan that lets us binge on our favourite shows on Amazon Prime, unconditionally?

You find yourself stuck in an endless loop of estimating your data usage, figuring out how you crossed your data limit and arguing with customer care about your sky-high phone bill. Exasperated, you somehow muster up the strength to do it all over again and decide to browse for more data packs. Regrettably, the website wont load on your mobile because of expired data.


Getting the right data plan shouldn’t be this complicated a decision. Instead of getting confused by the numerous offers, focus on your usage and guide yourself out of the maze by having a clear idea of what you want. And if all you want is to enjoy unlimited calls with friends and uninterrupted Snapchat, then you know exactly what to look for in a plan.


The Airtel Postpaid at Rs. 499 comes closest to a plan that is up front with its offerings, making it easy to choose exactly what you need. One of the best-selling Airtel Postpaid plans, the Rs. 499 pack offers 40 GB 3G/4G data that you can carry forward to the next bill cycle if unused. The pack also offers a one year subscription to Amazon Prime on the Airtel TV app.

So, next time, don’t let your frustration get the better of you. Click here to find a plan that’s right for you.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Airtel and not by the Scroll editorial team.