Dysfunctional. Childish. Self-centred. Narcissistic. Ideologically myopic. Illiterate. Cranky. Capricious. Arrogant. Scheming. Petty. Ill-educated. No, I’m not writing about our local council (although, yes, all those words apply equally to The Block). These are some of the words that came to mind as I read Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.
Dysfunctional popped into my mind most often as Wolff described the lurching, staggering, fumbling and bumbling of Trump’s staff and family advisers after their unexpected – and for some unwanted – victory. (I know: curiously coincidental how that description also echoes our own council’s meandering, aimless and destructive governance, but let’s not talk about The Block right now…). Not that it’s surprising: the amount of political experience among the core group and family that stuck together through Trump’s campaign combined was less than an hour’s worth.
It’s like reading about a train wreck described in excruciatingly minute detail: the trajectory of every rivet and bolt as it shakes loose from the engine and flies off into space is chronicled, measured and examined. Or perhaps it’s better described as reading about the antics of an entire kindergarten class where cranky children fed on high-sugar treats are not given sufficient nap time.
And despite my initial expectations, the book is less about Trump than about his minions and the limpets who cling to him. While it’s not flattering about the Ignorati-in-Chief, it scorches the hangers-on. There’s a point made that American democracy could survive Trump and manage well enough if the White House had a competent, experienced, educated and literate staff of professionals to mitigate his inabilities. But with its cast of amateurs and grasping opportunists it hasn’t a chance.
I had already read much of what Wolff described online and in newspapers and magazines (such noteworthy publications as the Washington Post, New York Times, Maclean’s, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and others which Trump labels ‘fake news’ because they fail to tug their collective forelocks and genuflect to his self-described “very stable” genius). The madcap antics, the sordid affairs, the flailing and failing of Trump’s staff are already as well documented as the president’s own erratic bumbling governance and noxious tweets. But I’ve not had it all served in a single dish before, nor had I been aware of the backgrounds of many of the players. That’s the strength and delight – and fright – of this book.
It’s not surprising how the White House has devolved into such chaos, bitter infighting, petty squabbles, open pissing matches, public pouts and backstabbing. After all, as Wolff shows, not only did none of the core players from the campaign team have any experience in actually governing, they were far from being the best and brightest in any of the Republican camps. Even after the victory, when they temporarily managed to recruit some reasonably competent, stable players from the Republican bureaucracy (like Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus), they soon alienated, isolated and either fired them or drove them to resign after only a few frustrating months (37 as of this writing; oops – the 38th resigned even as I was writing this – the average IQ of the White House continues its perilous drop…).
Trump’s own sons collectively would make the characters in Dumb and Dumber look like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein. Jared and Ivanka (‘Jarvanka’) are only marginally more gifted than Trump and his sons – although not in any sense in governance, politics or policy, merely in their ability to string together more than six words into a coherent sentence. They are all entitled, self-absorbed rich kids further out of touch from actual Americans than Zsa Zsa Gabor in Green Acres. They collectively make the Beverly Hillbillies look culturally and socially savvy. Fitting analogies, given Trump’s own intellectually-challenged passion for TV (three screens run simultaneously in his bedroom) and deeply-held dislike for reading, reports and presentations – let alone reason, study, learning, explanations and listening to others.
Wolff is only one of many observers who wonder why Trump has allowed inept family members into the inner circle as advisers when they clearly lack the competence, skills, experience, tact and abilities to be more than head-nodding puppets. But for Trump, family is easier to manage, to intimidate and control that someone who might have a backbone and resist his capricious whims.
This is not a new revelation: it’s been in the news and media ever since the election. Wolff’s book is less an exposé than a catalogue and chronology of what we already knew. And it only covers the first year, from the end of the campaign to fall, 2017 when Bannon was ousted. It does not paint an optimistic picture for the rest of the term, given who remains behind.
Surprisingly, Steve Bannon appears pretty much the smartest guy in the room most of the time (which not only does he know, but he reminds others of), although far from the most sympathetic. Okay, none of them appear sympathetic or likable, but the white supremacist Bannon least of all. Still, even though I dislike his politics and views intensely, he was one of the few – sometimes the only one – who thought things through and made informed comments. And he reads books. Most of the rest merely bobble-headed their agreement with whatever nonsense came from Trump’s mouth. Trump, astonished by anyone smarter than himself who could speak in complete sentences without repeating them every few seconds (a very large field outside the White House), said of Bannon, “A lot of stuff goes on in his head.”
Yet for all his being the poster boy for the despicable alt-right, Bannon seems more a disciple of Rosa Luxemburg or Peter Kropotkin than any right-wing herald. His motto should be, “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.” Assuming, that is, the dogs are set upon the bureaucracy, the establishment and every American institution. Bannon’s intelligence is, however, severely handicapped by his rigid, anarchist-like, take-no-prisoners ideology that permits no compromise, no solution but simply to tear down everything around him.
Reviewers and commentators have said that Wolff’s book helped drive Bannon out of grace with Trump other conservatives, but Bannon was clearly on his way out months before the book was released. Wolff describes his inevitable distancing from Trump because Bannon – the diehard ideologue – felt Trump had betrayed the cause of Trumpism (aka Bannonism). Trump, on the other hand, was furious that Bannon took credit for Trump’s election victory (and got his face on Time magazine’s cover).
Then Bannon’s blistering August, 2017, interview published in American Prospect was the final straw that gave his in-house enemies (the Jarvanka crowd) the leverage to turn Trump firmly against him. Bannon is still out there, stirring up political mischief, with his uber-right ‘anti-patriarchy’ movement he hopes to raise to tsunami level in upcoming elections and take down Trump (and everyone else standing in his way).
Wolff clearly describes Trump’s zero-sum views of the world and his role in it. If anyone in his circle or outside it gets attention, if anyone gets media attention, if anyone is mentioned in a story, it means Trump isn’t getting that attention. To Trump, it means someone else is stealing his limelight. That makes Trump upset and angry that he’s not the centre of attention. he needs to be loved, he needs to be the focus. And when he isn’t, he lashes out.
It doesn’t take long for his anger to turn into raging abuse, ad hominem attacks and eventually dismissal. He flies into rages over what he perceives of as even insignificant or accidental slights. To survive in Trump’s White House, according to Wolff’s description, you must be an unendingly flattering sycophant and spineless yes-person. You must sell your soul (if you believe you have one) and deep-six your own ego. Fortunately, his children and son-in-law fit that bill quite well.
Here’s the scariest part: Both Ivanka and Bannon imagine themselves “presidential material” and seem to have aspirations for the office. Perhaps after Trump, they imagine they can juxtapose themselves as more literate, more intelligent, less volatile (Ivanka, anyway) than Trump to the base that elected Trump. If they can con the evangelicals into supporting them like Trump did, they might even have a chance, given the growing control the Christian theocracy has in the US.
Yet Wolff’s book barely delves into Trump’s obnoxious, illiterate tweets, his rambling, incoherent speeches, his ill-educated statements on policy and international affairs or his constant, unending stream of falsehoods, incorrect claims and outright lies (his recent State of the Union address was rife with . That would take a much – MUCH! – larger book. And its publication misses such juicy White house scandals as Trump’s affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, Rob Porter’s resignation over alleged abuse of his wives or Trump’s demand for a military parade in his honour (ironic, coming from a draft dodger but in keeping with his self-image as a dictator).
No doubt, others will pick up where Wolff left off and continue to investigate and chronicle the Trump White House through the next three years (at which point, we hope, sanity returns to American voters and they choose someone competent to fill the presidential role).
A significant absence in the book is Melania Trump, the president’s trophy (and fourth) wife. She is noted as breaking into tears of horror and fear when her husband’s victory was announced, but she vanishes from the narrative afterwards. That’s in part because she didn’t even live in the White House until June, 2017. Before moving in, she demanded the White House be exorcised and all “pagan artifacts” be removed and the building be annointed with holy oil. Any chance Melania might prove to be an island of clear thinking and stability in Trump’s mad house is wiped out of the picture by this bizarre, medieval behaviour.
A big question is the veracity of Wolff’s narrative. Is it credible? Clearly the White House didn’t think so. Risibly, Trump commented on the author, saying, “Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book.”
Coming from the Liar-in-Chief, that’s darkly amusing. It’s not as if the anti-literacy Trump would actually read it – he doesn’t read anything (another uncanny resemblance to The Block on our council). His opinions are based on what he’s seen and heard on TV – it’s an echo chamber for him. He thinks of it just what Faux News or his unctuous staff told him about it. I suspect Trump was also mad because he doesn’t always get to be the focus of the book: there are whole chapters where he’s merely the whining nonentity in the background. And being the centre of everyone’s attention – even his critics and opponents – is what Wolff says he lives for.
Around Trump, there’s been a wave of cover-your-ass denials over the book from spineless Repugnicans whose denials have all the ring of cringing sycophancy, but are undercut by the lack of evidence to support them or offer alternatives (and it’s not as if oleaginous characters like McConnell, Cruz, Christie and Ryan have any real credibility or reputation left to lose…).
Wolff obviously wasn’t present during every conversation and either invented material or depended on the reports and comments of others, but he did have far-ranging access to the players. Some of the material is explosive, but not well substantiated or sourced. And he’s hardly unbiased – he shows little if any respect for any of the players he writes about; although he isn’t vicious. Unflattering, yes, and he sometimes sinks to belittling (although, curiously, he never comes out and accuses Trump of egregious nepotism and plutocracy even through it’s evident to everyone else). And there have been some fact-checks that show minor discrepancies, although no major ones.
On the other hand, there is a lot of insider information, actions and quoted comments that have not been denied. Bannon in fact apologized – uncharacteristically and ingratiatingly – for his comments that Wolff quoted. But he didn’t deny them. That hurt Bannon’s credibility and reputation much more than Wolff’s (the tough guy on his knees, begging forgiveness…).
Overall, it’s believable, entertaining (for political junkies like me) and Wolff comes across as a credible, if sometimes overly-enthusiastic, chronicler. It’s a good read, although it helps to know about the American political system and who the main players are. It’s nowhere near as damning or salacious as some have suggested. And a lot less about Trump than I suspect he’d like.
Four of five stars in my ratings.