Review: Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff

February 5, 2018

Fire and FuryIn the interconnected world of 2018, it’s difficult not to be invested in American politics even if you are, like myself, non-American. Most of us have friends and loved ones who are Americans or live in America, and we care about things like them having affordable healthcare and being able to go to the cinema without being gunned down by radical white terrorists. Then there’s America’s nuclear arsenal, which, while not much of a concern under someone as level-headed as Obama, starts to look a bit worrying when the nuclear codes are passed on to someone with the grace and self-restraint of a spoilt toddler whose last piece of birthday cake just got smashed on the floor.

So, even though we’d really rather spend our free time on more fun things than thinking about Donald Trump, like shoving hot needles under our nails, I joined in with the many non-Americans in my circle of friends who had to read this book.

I held fire for a few days while I waited to see what level of credibility to lend the book. To start with, Michael Wolff has more credibility than most of Trump’s administration (a bar admittedly set so low that an ant couldn’t limbo under it), with a background of writing for respectable publications like the Guardian, and personal testimonies that while he’s not necessarily a nice person — being willing to cross lines about what’s on and off record that some reporters consider more sacred — he is one who brings the receipts. So far, the response to the book leaves me inclined to consider it a relatively trustworthy account. While some people, most infamously Steve Bannon, have apologised for what they said in the interviews with Wolff, there have been no real denials of its content, and eyewitness accounts of Wolff’s level of White House access and the veracity of conversations such as the Bannon-Ailes dinner with which the book opens.

The picture that Fire and Fury paints is not a surprising one, if you’ve been attentive to the last 12 months of media coverage, but the ungilded truth in its entirety is a pretty nauseating thing to behold. Donald Trump isn’t merely the stupid and amoral person he comes across as in his tweetstorms and what might charitably be described as speeches. He appears to be possessed of severe mental deficits. He does not read, not even one-page briefings, and has several of his own staff convinced that he is at best semi-literate. If something needs to be brought to his attention, White House advisors have to find a way to present it to him in a visual format that won’t take too long or offer him too many facts that might bore him and cause him to switch off, as he does even in meetings with other world leaders. Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria utterly disinterested him — and he grew quite annoyed at people constantly bringing it up with him as though he were supposed to care — until Ivanka made him a video consisting mostly of footage of Syrian children foaming at the mouth.

He displays many signs that will ring a bell for people familiar with the early stages of dementia, such as oddly-directed paranoia — his terrible diet of fast food is allegedly because he uses food that was prepared before anyone knew he was coming to avoid poison — and constant, worsening repetition of the same stories. His address to the CIA upon the confirmation of its new director is something that has to be beheld in detached print in order to fully appreciate the diseased nature of the mind from which it sprang.

What’s truly impressive, in the way that a train derailment or plane crash is ‘impressive’, is how utterly he has disabled the normal structure of Washington despite barely understanding it. If he had instituted a proper chain of command underneath him, then perhaps the gears of government could still turn despite being presided over by the court jester, but instead he has created an environment where people without official job titles are in charge of the same things as people with traditional positions in the command structure, and therefore no one is in charge of anything. Trump’s White House is a warped popularity contest in which advisors have to try to compete for his incredibly limited attention span (after watering down whatever they wish to convey enough for his simplistic understanding), when they aren’t attempting to wrest parts of their job function back out from the grasping claws of whichever West Wing faction opposes them. At the time of writing it seems the West Wing was largely split into the Bannonite and Jarvanka factions, but with Bannon having fallen out of Trump’s graces as all non-family members eventually do, who knows where the fault lines lie at this point?

Because one wonders why anyone who isn’t a Trump or married to one would ever take a job in this White House. Everyone will fall out of Trump’s favour, it is abundantly clear. Everyone. Because Trump redefines incompetence, things will continue to go wrong for him, but he is incapable of even comprehending the idea of taking responsibility for those failures, ergo there will always need to be a rolling road of scapegoats on whose shoulders the blame can be placed before they are disposed of, leaving Trump to spring unhindered back into the belief that he is a very stable genius who is doing a fabulous job and just keeps being let down by his gosh-darn awful team.

At times the depths of his ignorance are so profound that it’s almost tempting to ascribe a level of innocence — although he clearly needs to be removed from office, maybe we shouldn’t hold someone entirely responsible for what comes out of their mouth when they’re clearly in the early stages of dementia? — but those temptations are soon enough quashed by gems like this, reminders of his sleazy and deeply amoral personality that go back decades:

Trump liked to say that one of the things that made life worth living was getting your friends’ wives into bed. In pursuing a friend’s wife, he would try to persuade the wife that her husband was perhaps not what she thought. Then he’d have his secretary ask the friend into his office; once the friend arrived, Trump would engage in what was, for him, more or less constant sexual banter. Do you still like having sex with your wife? How often? You must have had a better fuck than your wife? Tell me about it. I have girls coming in from Los Angeles at three o’clock. We can go upstairs and have a great time. I promise… And all the while, Trump would have his friend’s wife on the speakerphone, listening in.

Unfortunately, it appears that someone in the White House wised up (relatively speaking) and revoked Wolff’s access prior to the Russia investigation getting particularly interesting. It’s around that point that the book turns from a nuanced look at the interior runnings of the White House, drawn from many sources, to a fairly one-note presentation of Steve Bannon’s every thought, flavoured with a bit of bitterness from Katie Walsh. Although I would suppose it became difficult to get other sources at this point, Wolff indulges Bannon a bit too much in providing a platform for his remarkable hyperbole. Mike Pence is also largely absent from the book, with one of the few mentions of him being of what a tight ship his staff run compared to the utter mess of Trump’s staff; I guess they were seasoned enough to be comparatively unwilling to leak, but it does give an impression — a thoroughly false one, I’d wager — of the VP as off in his own innocent little land.

It’s understandable, given the time-sensitive nature of the book, that editing wasn’t as thorough as I would normally expect of political non-fiction. I can forgive things such as Steve Bannon making a ‘pubic appearance’, despite the mental image that absolutely no one wanted, and despite the intense public scrutiny, few factual errors have so far been highlighted (misidentifying a person who was at the Four Seasons at the same time as Ivanka is the only one I’ve seen that isn’t a typo or misspelling, but given it’s not someone she actually spoke to, it’s hardly damning). However, even as a person who loves to abuse a subclause, I have a difficult time parsing sentences like this:

In nearby Alexandria, Virginia, Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute, which is sometimes described as a “white supremacist think tank,” who had, peskily for the White House, adopted the Trump presidency as a personal victory, was organizing his trip to CPAC, which would be as much a victory march for him as it was for the Trump team.

Please stop torturing the commas. They’re your friends.

Whatever its technical faults, the first three-quarters of Fire and Fury should be one of the most important publications of 2018. I cannot imagine a book this damning being released about a British, or Canadian, or Australian leader which would not significantly impact their ability to stay in office. Unfortunately, due to the structure of the American political system and the incredibly polarised nature of its current voter base, it’s unlikely to have the impact that it ought. The people who need to read it will not; the people who are reading it already know it. And, as the book itself highlights, everyone working with Trump is already painfully aware that Trump is not competent to fill the office and should be removed via 25th amendment — but he won’t be, because Trumpism has grown beyond its imbecilic founder, and there’s no shortage of people who think they can continue to work his strings without getting burned by the fire and the fury.

3 stars

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