On the day The Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s fly-on-the-wall expose of life in Donald J. Trump’s White House, was released, twitter account @pixelatedboat posted a satirical passage purporting to be ‘from the book’. In it he alleged that Trump staffers had been forced to create a ‘gorilla only TV channel’ that Trump would watch for 17 hours a day.
This joke tweet was then shared as a genuine extract by well-established media commentators on both the right (who used it to denounce Wolff’s book as ‘fake news’) and left (who claimed it a further evidence of Trump’s madness). This as well as anything illustrates the bizarre, slippery times we live in. As with everything around Trump and his presidency, it seems that even the books launch has stretched and warped reality into unstable patterns, outrage flying in from all sides, facts replaceable with alternative facts, and nothing mattering as much as who told the best myth.
This is little surprise when the rise of Trump has more than a touch of the mythic about it. In Wolff’s telling, no one in the Trump campaign, least of all the prospective POTUS, had any intention – or even desire – to win the election. The whole thing was more of an extended prank, the reality TV ‘what if’ to trump [sorry] them all: what if Donald ran for president?
Until Steve Bannon and Bob Mercer threw their weight (and Mercer’s not inconsiderable finance) behind the campaign, everything was running smoothly- that is, Trump’s ratings were woeful and he was almost definitely about to lose. But with the massive injection of cash from weirdo multi-billionaire fund manager Mercer (who is described in the book as a spectrum pinging, monosyllabic lurker who won't look you in the eye), the covert social media manipulation of Cambridge Analytica, and Bannon’s own provision of what Trump had fundamentally lacked – namely a core belief system designed to appeal to white America– suddenly, disastrously for all concerned, Donald went from farce to a contender.
Wolff describes the emotions Trump passed through as he realised he may end up winning the one and only competition he wanted to lose; from disbelief to outright horror, to something more terrible again – a new found certainty that, yes, he Donald Trump actually wanted and deserved to be President of the United States of America.
There was a problem; with Trump never intending to be president, he was completely unprepared for the job he tumbled into. Most presidents have spent a lifetime preparing for the role. Trump spent around ten weeks. Wolff describes the inevitable, near continuous shitshow that unfurls from his coronation onwards with some glee. Trump’s instinct is to run government as he would one of his companies; hire yes men, crooks and family members, take all the credit if he blunders his way to success and pin any failures onto the nearest sap. No one has a clue what they are meant to be doing, and the teams that Trump pulls together – often making appointments based on whatever the last person he’d spoken to suggested – are packed with oddballs, incompetents and nutters. “Sean Spicer,” Wolff notes of the unfortunate press officer “who was meant to explain what people did and why, could not because nobody had a job and nobody could do a job.”
The politicking amongst the inner circle is reminiscent of a medieval court (a comparison Bannon is comfortable with, describing himself as Trump’s ‘Cromwell’), with Trump, a McDonald’s guzzling man-child as it’s chaotic, clueless centre, bestowing favour and fury alike. Most of the book's most salacious revelatoins have already been much publicised; Trump tucked up in bed at 6.30pm, wolfing cheeseburgers and watching three TVs whilst giving long rambling phone calls to whichever member of press he wanted to impress; the story of Trump barely able to focus on the learning about the constitution past the fourth amendment- it's all as car crash compelling as you'd expect. Meanwhile the closest members of his retinue, namely Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon, are constantly, comically, manoeuvring against each other; at one point Wolff details that Kushner has been briefing Rupert Murdoch to brief Trump against Bannon. Meanwhile Bannon leaks to the press about Kushner, darkly alluding to Russian connections yet to come. Round and round they go.
The finest summery of events comes in a widely circulated internal White House email attributed to Trump’s economic advisor Gary Cohn (and he’s yet to deny these are his words), one of the few high ranking figures in the White House to have any job-relevant experience, Cohn sounds more abductee than employee –
“It’s worse that you can imagine – an idiot surrounded by clowns, Trump won’t read anything. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored. His staff are no better… Kushner is an entitled baby who knows nothing. Bannon is an arrogant prick who thinks he’s smarter than he is. Trump is less a person than a collection of terrible traits. No one will survive the first year other than his family. I hate the work but feel I need to stay because I’m the only person there with a clue what he’s doing… I am in a constant state of shock and horror.”
The impression is that every single member of the ruling executive body is an Ignatius Reilly figure – considering themself a genius surrounded by dunces, unable to see that the joke is, in fact, on them. And of course at the heart of it is the biggest dunce of all – the ‘very stable genius’ Donald J Trump.
In Wolff’s telling, Trump is a near illiterate child of wild temper and little knowledge. He’s not necessarily a bad guy – he’s just out for Trump and Trump alone, pliable one minute, recalcitrant the next, a spoilt, deeply insecure and thin-skinned child who needs to his ego constantly molly-coddled. With his love of wrestling, reality TV and brash celebrity he has lived “like Hulk Hogan, as a fictional character”. He barely reads the briefings given to him, and only u-turns on intervening in Syria after Ivanka shows him a presentation made up of “big pictures”. It’s doubtful then, that he’s ever going to wade through all 22 chapters of Wolff’s work (even if it is centred round his favourite topic) – but he’s still tweeting spluttering responses. Never in danger of following the maxim that a tiger need not declare its stripes, Trump has been refuting Wolff’s questioning of his IQ by describing himself as “like, very smart”. And it’s these seething, self-righteous responses to The Fire and Fury that have been the greatest confirmation of the books’ veracity.
But here also lies the irony – no matter how entertaining the book is (and it is entertaining, more so than any political book of recent years, how could it not be?), and no matter how much Donald denies Wolff’s claims, the unattributed quotes and behind the scenes conversations can’t hold a candle to the very public and completely nutso things he says and does every single day. Consider which is more surprising; that Steve Bannon, a bitter, sclerotic loser elevated after years of mediocrity should openly despise the silver spoon liberal Jared Kushner? Or that Trump is willing to tweet about launching nukes as though he’s waving his dick about? That a president with little experience is mocked by government insiders? Or that a man can be heard on tape talking about literally sexually assaulting women and still be elected? We’re already a long way down the rabbit hole, and if you need this book to confirm that, you’ve not been paying attention.
So there’s little in The Fire and Fury that hasn’t already been guessed at. Since Trump’s blatant inauguration lies onwards (the biggest inaugeration ever!), he’s openly displayed his mendacity and petty obsessions for the world to see. Of course he’s a liar, of course he doesn’t have much grasp on what he’s talking about, and of course he’s more interested in what people say about him than he is about the minutiae of health policy – all of this has been plain as day. If there is anything really revealed in the book, it’s a close insight into the nature of secretive, perennial shitbag Steve Bannon, a shabby, delusional Machiavelli who really believed – despite all the evidence of his 60+ years- that he was the white knight who was going to burn Capitol Hill clean. The recurrent theme in the book is that Trump has no real political ideology beyond his barely informed gut instinct, which is just as likely to veer to the left as it is to the right. ObamaCare, for example, was a system he barely understood but broadly favoured – if only it could be rebranded TrumpCare… But he’s supremely easy to influence (except when he isn’t – consistency isn’t a strong suit), something Bannon exploited to the full. However, Bannon mistook his brief months of favour for the start of “50 years of Trumpism” – ie 50 years of Bannonism. He was a fixture at Trump’s elbow, advocating for an alt-right wet dream of shock and awe, instituting the Muslim travel ban with the express purpose of enraging liberals, tearing up the climate agreement for much the same reason, everything beholden to a nationalist, isolationist agenda that would reassert that greatest of myths; that flabby, aging white men with bad skin and no joy truly were the best of us all.
Unfortunately for Bannon, he hadn’t paid enough attention to the Cohn email – he wasn’t family and thus, just like everyone else in Trump's life, his days were numbered. Now, as always happens, he’s out on his arse, ditched by the Donald. Apparently the Mercers have followed suit, ad he's lost his job at Breitbart as well. Now he’s reduced to publishing humiliating, grovelling statements begging Trump to love him once more. Poor Steve-o; despite all his chest puffing bullshit about ‘waging total war’ against the political elite and being ‘Darth Vader’ (lol), he lasted just under a year close to power.
With Bannon out of the picture, the direction of the American administration under Trump – if Wolff is to be believed anyway– will substantially alter. This gives the book the air of closing the first chapter of the strangest presidency of modern times. Bannon is out, and Javanka, the mocking portmanteau shorthand for Jared and Ivanka, are now Trump’s closest advisors. Whether that means that their liberal, NYC sensibilities will have some sway is another matter (both have been Democrat voters in the past), but there is -currently at least- no one with the chaotic, nihilism of Bannon intent on kicking off a brutal culture war from the heart of DC. Is it better for the world that the slick Republic machine is likely to step into the void? We'll find out soon enough.
It’s a shame there’s not more in the book on the Mercers – shadowy figures behind the rise of Trump, they remain enigmatic, as do the motivations of the hordes of Americans who voted for Trump despite of – because of – his clear unsuitability. A more complete book would have had Wolff as curious about the how and why of Trump’s triumph as the way it played out. At this stage there is no telling whether Trump is a wild fluke of the new millennium, or the outlier of an all new age. Wolff isn’t offering an opinion either way. .
Still, The Fire and Fury has all the drama and overblown characters of any of the greatest of reality TV that Trump so loves. It’s impact has been instantaneous, a remarkable media event in a time when remarkable media events are commonplace. The book has caused anger, analysis and no small amount of hilarity from all sides. Most inevitable of all, Donald has tweeted.