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This week: who the hell is Michael Wolff, why the hell is Toby Young, what the hell is blockchain.
If you haven't read any of the Michael Wolff book extracts yet, do read the New York one, it's fabulously juicy. While there isn't any "deep" news here - we already knew about the shitshow, and the shitgibbon - the details in Wolff's portrait are amazing. Perhaps the central insight is that nobody around Trump thinks he can do the job. Not only that, but none of them seem to respect or like him, not even his daughter. I cannot think of another president or political leader of whom that has been true. It's almost enough to make you pity him. But no.
I find the story of how Wolff got his story almost as interesting as the story. His own account is here. Basically everyone allowed him to wander around the White House because everyone assumed he was there on someone else's say so. He must have been unable to believe his luck. At every moment he must have been thinking I can't believe they're letting me do this (as dollar signs passed before his eyes). But they did, which is itself emblematic of disastrous dysfunction. As Jack Shafer says, the stupidity is baffling: after all, this wasn't any journalist, this was the guy who screwed over Rupert Murdoch - Trump's buddy! Didn't someone, anyone think to say...well, clearly not. Wolff didn't just stumble into this, however. As Shafer admits, slightly grudgingly, he played a very skilful game. First, he cosied up to Bannon - the transcript of Bannon and Ailes' conversation in the New York extract is from a dinner at Wolff's house). Second, in print and on TV, he seduced the Trump team from afar for months beforehand with considerable guile, letting them think he was one of them without quite going so far as expressing support for Trump. The third factor, I think, is who he is. Wolff is a hustler and a gadfly who enjoys winding people up, and a serial and occasionally successful entrepreneur. On both counts, you can see why Bannon would like him. He is also just fun to hang out with - gossipy, funny, a great storyteller. I know this because we both spoke at a conference in Tel Aviv in 2016 and ended up having a long lunch together. Trump was well on his way to winning the GOP nomination and Wolff told me about a brief encounter in an elevator. He had been interviewing Rupert Murdoch in Murdoch's New York apartment, in the Trump building. Murdoch, who would occasionally doze off in the middle of an interview, had a tendency to mumble (Wolff claimed to have great difficulty transcribing the tapes). At the end of one session Murdoch decided to leave the building, for his next appointment, with Wolff. Trump then happened to get into the elevator at the same time. Wolff found himself in a small space with two deranged billionaires. Murdoch mumbled something. Trump looked over his head at Wolff and said, "I can't understand a word he says."
THE A-HOLE QUESTION
The outrage over Toby Young's appointment is way out of proportion to the offence. He isn't being ennobled and handed the Home Office, he's one non-executive appointee on the fifteen-strong board of a minor quango, and he's as well or better qualified than many non-execs, as Laura McInerney (an education expert and very much not on Young's side of the political divide) says here. The free schools he helped to found are a real achievement. Should Jo Johnson have appointed him? No. The reason is simple. He's an arsehole - the kind of irredeemable, deeply annoying arsehole who thinks he's a "maverick" or "politically incorrect". Young's tweeted defence of his appointment makes some good points, but he fails to recognise that his opinions or views are the not real issue here (Laura makes the same point more eloquently here). This raises a wider question about whether arseholes ought to have a role in public life. What if the arsehole is really good at their job - do we give them a pass? I say no. We should treat public life like the workplace and follow Robert Sutton's no asshole rule. (Asshole/arsehole is an ideologically neutral category. It is not someone with whom you disagree, it's someone who is consistently, personally unpleasant in public - so I'd prefer it if Jared O'Mara, Clive Lewis and Emma Dent Coad were not in public life too).
THE BITCOIN MACHINE
This is the best blockchain explainer I've come across.
I can't get enough interviews with Maggie Haberman - it's as much to do with how she talks, and just her presence, as what she says, though what she says is always interesting - and this is a good one with Preet Bahara, recorded just before the Wolff book. Particularly fascinating when she gets on to Trump's personality (she's been covering him for over a decade). She mentions that for some reason he seems to have stopped absorbing any new information after about 1995, which is interesting and reminds me that when you see old footage of him he seems smarter, more thoughtful and almost charming.
One of my New Year's resolutions - more a vague aspiration really - is to get better at the piano, which, believe me, should not be hard. By the end of the year I expect to have kicked on from Jingle Bells to Schubert and polyrhythmic funk - speaking of which, here's a video of jazz pianist Barron Ryan performing his take on Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough.
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