The Trump era has deepened our historical amnesia. Every day, it seems, yields another “unprecedented” development in the White House. Tevi Troy pushes back against this impression in Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump. A presidential historian, Troy has produced a timely book in a tumultuous year. As he reminds us, though the Trump presidency “is indeed replete with wild energy and rivalries, it is hard to say from the perspective of the past seventy-five years that any of the current rivalries are worse or more intense” than they were in past administrations.
Troy begins in the 1930s, when the Brownlow Committee on Administrative Management, established by Franklin D. Roosevelt, reached a consequential conclusion: “The president needs help.” Before the New Deal era, which hastened the federal government’s growth, presidents turned to cabinet secretaries for policy development. This changed in 1939, when a congressional act created the Executive Office of the President to improve government efficiency. As Troy notes, “the Brownlow Committee had set in motion a decades-long expansion, leading to the current White House operation of more than 1,600 people and the creation of the modern White House staff.”
Fight House illustrates how White House staff can contribute to presidential destiny or dysfunction. According to Troy, three factors—ideological discord, administrative process, and presidential tolerance for conflict—lead to staff infighting. “Knowing the history behind White House infighting,” he writes, “can help leaders in politics, business, or sports understand better the role of conflict and its larger benefits to an organization, but also its capacity to sink the best of leaders.”