Henry Holt and Co., 2018, 336 pages, C$39.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-250-15806-2
Just so that we’re clear on where this review is coming from: I’m not an American, and I’ve never been aboard the Donald Trump train. Like many others, I considered him a joke candidate until he wasn’t, and while I was momentarily intrigued by the idea of an outsider president able to set his own policy agenda outside establishment politics, a pair of articles read in early 2016 definitely made me a Never-Trumper: A transcript of Donald Trump’s meeting with The Washington Post editorial board that portrayed a candidate with serious cognitive problems, and an article from The Atlantic in 2011 describing how Trump personally wrote insulting notes to journalists reporting on him, showing a candidate with even more serious temperamental issues. I’m not claiming to any special deductive power here—what I saw was what everyone saw, and once you are outside the United States’ partisan borders as I am, my opinion is widely, almost universally shared.
You can imagine that I didn’t sleep much on Election Night.
The rest, as we now approach the first-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, is slowly sliding into history. It has been an eventful twelve months—even political junkies such as myself regularly risk overdoses when it comes to the carnival of political stories. Trump’s administration has been a rolling dumpster fire of incompetence, meanness and absurdity. While Americans seem to be stuck in a tribal epistemology debate, the rest of the world looks on worryingly and occasionally sends care packages to the remaining sane Americans—Are you OK? We’ll be there for you once this is all over. If we survive.
Of course, the one-year anniversary of any new administration also sounds the starting gun of a second wave of reporting. Beyond the daily headlines and slightly longer analyses, a full year allows writers to take in the first few months of an administration and write longer pieces taking it all in. News reports and incidents accumulate, becoming data, patterns of behaviour and knowledge. While there have been a few relevant books about the campaign already published (Clinton’s What Happened is on shelves, along with the pro-Trump The Devil’s Bargain about Steve Bannon, and Corey Lewandowski’s Let Trump Be Trump), Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House is the first blockbuster book giving readers insider access to the Trump White House’s first two hundred days.
During that time, Wolff tells us, he basically sat in White House hallways, interviewed various people, listened to random conversations and was able to piece together a coherent picture of the administration. Amazingly enough, Wolff never signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement and was able to ask questions in a way that made people confide in him. The Trump administration thought he was one of theirs, but his conclusions aren’t friendly.
Consider that most of Fire and Fury’s first chapter consists in presenting a portrait of Donald Trump as a dangerously unintelligent person. Though numerous examples and third-party recollections, we are shown an egomaniac who expected to lose the presidential election, someone uninterested in reading, analysis or decision-making. The essential Trump equals Stupidity equation is hammered over and over again, leaving us to wonder if Wolff has blown his most salient conclusion too early.
But as it turns out, Trump equals Stupidity is a foundational aspect of the narrative that Wolff builds throughout the book. It is the necessary element to understand the dark comedy of Fire and Fury. The intellectual void at the top of the Trump administration explains why, in its first six months, three warring factions operated within the White House: The establishment Republicans (rep: Reince Preibus), the far-right populists (rep: Steve Bannon) and the president’s own family (rep: Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner). Trump being a weak president unable to lead, all factions saw the potential for their viewpoint to prevail, explaining much of 2017’s turmoil.
In any other administration, Wolff’s book would have been an unprecedented tell-all, vulnerable to basic incredulity—who would believe such a thing? But in Trump’s administration, the warring factions inside the White House leaked so much information throughout their tenure that much of the story has already been told and can readily be believed through corroboration. The leakiest administration in history has already had nearly all of its actions and inner processes extensively documented in public media. In this light, Wolff’s book becomes an exercise in detail and narrative—it provides additional information about actions already publicly described (such as going into further detail as to how Ivanka convinced her dad to send missiles on a Syrian airbase, by showing emotionally poignant pictures of dead children) and wraps up those news reports into something of an overarching theory about the administration.
The story, as often repeated, is this: Trump is ill-equipped to be the President of the United States. He has neither the knowledge, the temperament nor the abilities to be commander in chief. This void is filled by people around him (few of them competent, because the competent ones know better than to dive in this cesspool), but since there are various factions all aiming for superiority, the results we get are inconsistent, and frequently sabotaged by Trump himself. Wolff tells, time and again, how everyone surrounding Trump has lost their illusions about him. They know him to be inept, and it’s only a matter of time before he turns on them. Those who stay do so because they’re convinced they can use his weakness as a way to further their own ambitions, or because they fear that even worse things would happen if they left.
The book’s main narrative effectively ends in August 2017, days after the infamous press conference in which Trump refused to condemn neo-Nazi groups in the wake of the tragic Charlottesville events. (I remember that day—we were driving home after a long family trip, and my wife was reading the highlights of the press conference as they came in on her cell phone, while I was shaking my head in redundant disbelief.) An October 2017 epilogue describes Steve Bannon’s future plans after leaving the White House, suggesting that Trump is merely a component of a larger movement.
Ironically, the one person who does come out of the book more positively than others is Bannon himself. He was obviously a primary source for Wolff (thanks to the copious amount of Bannon’s inner monologue, but also descriptions of how voluble he can be) and it shows… Bannon’s agenda may be repulsive to most, but the man himself is shown to be more intelligent than most of the other people in the White House, his policy-making efforts sincerer than others, and his warnings going unheeded in the wake of catastrophic PR moves by the administration. Conversely, it goes without saying that the biggest loser of Wolff’s book is Trump himself—an empty shell where a leader should be, a self-destructive fool frequently losing control of himself. (“Dyslexic” and “illiterate” are only a few of the words used to describe him.) Still, those rankings are relative: Nearly everyone in the book is portrayed as being in over their heads, holding on until the pressure is intolerable. But once you accept the Trump equals Stupidity equation, it becomes difficult to be sympathetic to anyone willing to cover up for an unsuitable president.
The reaction to Fire and Fury in the week-and-a-half since its first excerpts leaked has been as spectacular as it’s been predictable: The national conversation has seriously looked at nigh-unthinkable topics such as “Is the president mentally fit for duty?” prompting the new Trump-issued catchphrase “stable genius.” The various factions of the Trump White House have started firing denials and accusations about what other factions have said, further reinforcing the book’s thesis. (And as I write this review, the BREAKING NEWS is that Bannon is out of Breitbart, largely due to Fire and Fury. The Trump news never stops, don’t they?) Wolff has become a minor newsmaker, with post-publication interviews dropping further nuggets of provocation along the way, such as a possible affair in the White House. Clearly, there was an untapped hunger for a Trump-weary nation to discuss these things and the book was a catalyst for the conversation.
And while it felt really good to read a book that tells it as candidly as possible, I’m not too fond of some aspects of Fire and Fury. Wolff spent a lot of time embedded with the Trump team and some of it has stained him. He sets up, somewhat disingenuously, an overarching polarized conflict between Trump and the media, minimizing that much of the revulsion against Trump and his systematic undermining of institutions goes far beyond the media to the American people at large who, by a three-million-vote margin, collectively preferred Hillary Clinton. There’s no need to portray the media as an antagonist. But then again, Wolff is a New York media creature, and he’s got plenty of baggage about it. In the middle of Fire and Fury, there is a lengthy digression about the New York Observer magazine that Jared Kushner bought, and it feels like score-settling coming out of nowhere. In other spots, the book feels as if it has been rushed through editing, with cumbersome sentence structures that could have used another round of polish.
But does it matter? Ultimately, I expect that Fire and Fury’s legacy will be dictated by later events. There are roughly seven ways the Trump presidency can end (three of them not advisable to mention unless I want to end up on a list of suspicious foreign nationals) and the conclusion of his presidency will either invalidate or reinforce what Wolff has seen from his perch in the White House.
And yet, as I proofread this review for publication a few weeks later, I’m struck at how the book both caused and explained Steve Bannon’s fall from grace even from his once-unassailable position in the conservative news media. Destructive agenda aside, Bannon is too smart for his own good … leading him to candid comments and a sentiment that he was essential to his cause. Alas (?), it turns out that he underestimated how much of a tool he was for Trump worshippers. I’m also struck at how much of a good mental model Wolff offered in Fire and Fury to understand how the Trump White House works—and how, as droves of people are quitting or being fired, Trump remains at the middle of the storm, empty, weak and impulsive. We can already tell it won’t end well.