Reviewed in the United States on January 21, 2020
This is a well researched book, of course, given Rucker's and Leonnig's reputation (and a Pulitzer prize each). They interviewed nearly 200 people, many of them top Trump advisors although most chose to remain unnamed sources. There are a lot of quotes, enlivening the text, and they know how to lay out a strong narrative with often-vivid details about the participants.
There's no getting around it President Trump is shown as erratic, impulsive, ignorant of the things a president should know, vindictive, profane and mean. He runs a chaotic administration and likes it that way. Pitting people against each other, creating insecure lackeys, is his preferred management style. He did it at the Trump Organization, and the opportunities for testing loyalties--and making himself the center of all the attention--are even greater now.
How many books describing a completely unfit president will be published before his core support drops significantly? Books come. Books go, and yet Trump's support among Republicans in Congress and voters (95% or so approve of him) remains basically unchanged. (And, spoiler. The title is ironic, at least for the authors. Trump, who's used it at least four times, seems completely convinced of his superiority. In his mind, it is always others who have to be wrong--while he has to get all of the credit. The writing was on the wall for Steve Bannon after he made the cover of TIME. Trump treats both political appointees and experienced government experts the same--with disdain and disrespect. He doesn't listen, won't learn, and thinks he knows "more than the generals"...also, more than the communications director, the financial experts, intelligence officials, lawyers....and on and on. As some previous biographers have noted, it would not surprise him to be told he knows more than anyone. He would agree.) When things go wrong—and they often do—his first thought is to find someone to blame. (And blame them he will, even if the problems were caused because they did exactly as he told them to.)
Trump’s leadership style is also defined here by his temper, by uncontrolled (and apparently uncontrollable) rages. This is not a psychologically well man. He is shown frequently ranting, raving, reducing people to tears (Nielsen and Sessions and Spicer are just three of them). We've all seen how he insults and demeans his political opponents or anyone who mildly criticizes him. But Trump doesn't even treat "his" people with respect. There is no manager in America who would not be reported for this kind of abusive behavior to HR--too many examples to list--and fired if it continued. What Trump creates in the workplace is the definition of a "hostile work environment".
His verbal abuse of others--including publicly humiliating women who don't even work for the government anymore like Lisa Page--would not be tolerated (by law) at any workplace in America. Why are the behaviors these authors describe tolerated from the nation's top CEO? There is no one who can rein him in and it's unnerving to read about his unrestrained tirades, including calling the nation's top generals--with their aides present, squirming-- "babies" and “dopes”. How is this permitted from the nation's president?
Rex Tillerson wasn't a good SOS, but at least he shows up in book after book as having the spine to stand up to Trump. He was genuinely upset about how Trump--who took five draft deferments during Vietnam--disrespected the nation's military leaders. Tillerson did not deny calling Trump an "f-ing moron" after the above “dopes” meeting. Preibus corralled Pence afterward to come and show Rex how to treat Trump with proper deference and how not look to look so contemptuous when he spoke--repetitiously, ignorantly, ramblingly, irrelevantly--in group meetings. Working for Trump, means knowing and accepting that that loyalty is EVERYTHING. And you show you're loyalty by endless flattery and compliance with whatever Donald Trump wants.
Leonnig and Rucker show a profile of the nation from the Oval Office. If I had to make a criticism--observation, really--its that it benefits from all their sources but also suffers from them. With so much emphasis on information from those who had the willingness to work with Trump in the first place, the book fills a certain political niche, but lacks the sweep of popular history. There's not enough about how Trump policies are impacting real peoples' lives, and little about what others are doing in opposition to his policies--and why. The travel ban is one impactful decision extensively described, but the descriptions are largely confined to reactions in the executive branch (and, in one brief passage, what Trump staff sees happening at airports via television.).
There’s ample detail but sometimes it lacks context. The Russia investigation, for example, is gone into at great length, but some of Trump's statements are treated as if we all should assume they're true. After how the authors' own paper has documented over 16,000 presidential lies in 3 years, they should be in the forefront of encouraging readers to be skeptical of whatever he says. Certainly, no one can say with certainty what President Trump "feels" or "believes" about anything. All we really know is what he says and does. This includes reaction to the Mueller investigation which has a number of missing pieces in the retelling, and is marred by the idea that "Trump believed Putin when he said he wasn't involved".
"A Very Stable Genius" is an up close look at Trump and how he governs. It rarely pulls the lens back for a wider view, for a look at his impact around America and how he's changing the country with his laws, his deregulations, his nationalism and his apparent goal of returning to the America of the 1950s. They leave it largely to the reader to make those conclusions for themselves. Some will appreciate that approach; others will wish for more of a sustained argument that a president like this is dangerously unfit for office.
They quote one official who summarizes Trump's impact at the top. In the beginning of his administration, "There was more of an ethos in the place of trying to help the institution and to help enlighten him rather than simply to execute his marching orders." Now, this official said, "I'm not sure there are many, if any, left who view as their responsibility trying to help educate, moderate, enlighten and persuade--or even advise in many cases. There's a new ethos: This is a presidency of one. It's Trump unleashed, unchained, unhinged." In the end, we are left to imagine with some alarm what a second term would be like.