Scoundrel Time

An Amorality Tale: Fire and Fury, a Review

Now that the shockeroo revelations in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury have subsided into our latest weary Trump-era rearrangement of America’s much abused mental furniture, I’ve got a mildly rude question to ask. To whom, exactly, were they shocking? Not to any faithful reader of, for instance, New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman’s inside-dish news stories on the disarray, abrasive relationships, and constant jockeying for power among inexperienced dolts in the most leak-prone White House ever. By now, the platoons of staffers contending for the code name “Shallow Throat” at the NYT and/or The Washington Post, among other venues, must number in the dozens, if not hundreds.

Thanks to Haberman and her colleagues on the presidential beat, we’ve known or at least inferred since not long after Inauguration Day that many of Trump’s subordinates view him as a blustering, capricious child who needs constant coaxing and (often ineffectual) policing to prevent him from going off the rails in his latest fit of pique. We’ve also had abundant opportunities, if you can call them that, to be doused in Trump’s ignorance, crass narcissism, and erratic thought processes whenever he spouts off in public or just decides it’s Twitter time. At that level of interest, Wolff doesn’t deserve credit for a whole lot more than being smart enough to know that Fire and Fury is a much catchier title than Today Is Wednesday.

What his book has unquestionably and juicily added to the mix is an orgy of telltale detail and a raft of up-close character sketches. Plus lots of fresh on-the-record quotes, the sulphuric and jaw-droppingly outrageous bulk of them coming from ousted West Wing alt-right guru Steve Bannon, whose indiscretions you presumably already know about, since his slash-and-burn apostasy did the most to provoke Trump’s dudgeon and has now cost Bannon his Breitbart gig as well. It’s a safe guess that, minus Bannon’s garrulous participation—he’d almost be within his rights to demand a co-author credit—Fire and Fury wouldn’t have made anywhere near the splash it has, not to mention the money.

Beyond that, however, the best reason to read the damn thing is the way Wolff has given a dimension to Trump’s presidency that the most crackerjack daily journalism can provide only up to a swiftly outdated point. For that matter, Trump’s own bedeviled handlers have all but given up pretending one even exists. He’s given it a storyline—a more or less coherent storyline, too. Even crusty old Bob Woodward might have told him it couldn’t be done.

New outbreaks of poison ivy occur so rapidly in Trumpland that even dedicated anti-Trumpers can barely see the trees anymore, let alone the forest. Sheer frustration at our inability to organize our perceptions of what’s going on is one reason we’re so impatient for Birnam Wood to either start slouching toward Dunsinane or just catch fire. But Wolff had eight months of apparently unmonitored White House access, chatting with whoever looked naive enough to hope for a sympathetic listener. This appears to have meant nearly all of them, except maybe H.R. McMaster and the Administration’s bubble-gum sphinx, Mike Pence.

Since Wolff wasn’t obliged to file a story on each day’s outrages and snafus in real time, he was in a position to spot narrative arcs where most of us saw chaos. Nobody will begrudge him Fire and Fury’s all but inevitable movie sale. He’s got a perfect opening scene: Melania Trump “in tears—and not of joy” as she realizes her husband has actually won the presidency of the United States. (Wolff’s account does a lot to confirm the suspicion that Trump himself not only never expected to win, but had no interest in the job he’d be stuck with if he did, until, in the one real pivot of his political life, he decided it was his destiny.) And he’s got the perfect finale: Bannon exiting the White House, his fantasy of masterminding a new populist regime in tatters just eight months into Trump’s presidency, amid the fallout from POTUS’s equivocal defense of Charlottesville’s neo-Nazis and the saber-rattling taunt to Pyongyang that provides the book’s title.

How credible is what’s in between, especially since Wolff has been known to embroider his material? Beltwayites have already spotted any number of minor but disfiguring errors in the book. At least one somewhat less trivial claim—that Trump had no idea who former House Speaker John Boehner was when Roger Ailes recommended Boehner as his chief of staff—has already proven to be false. (The two men played golf together in 2013.) But even Bannon hasn’t denied the quotes attributed to him; he’s only tried to fudge their meaning. Otherwise, while bits and pieces of Fire and Fury’s rococo would benefit from more reliable sourcing, the overall picture is a convincing one, not least because it’s in no way at odds with everything that’s already been reported about the inner workings of this spectacular nest-of-vipers administration. Wolff’s version just fleshes it out, with the extra frisson of letting us grasp that the whole bungling improvisation may have been even more cuckoo than we thought.

The past tense isn’t accidental, because Trump’s White House is already a very different place than it was last spring and summer. (Don’t Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer, both major supporting players in Wolff’s saga, already seem like dim names from some half-forgotten sitcom?) Maybe current chief of staff John F. Kelly has given up on the fool’s errand of trying to regulate Trump’s behavior, but he’s plainly done a lot to regulate the world around him. Fire and Fury takes us back to the almost incredible days when Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were dreaming of untrammeled power instead of dreading what Robert Mueller might dredge up; Bannon was still scheming to outwit, outplay, and outlast the Goldman Sachs globalists he despised; and Priebus was skittering between camps to save his own hide, in a White House stocked with preening novices whose fantastically vague portfolios allow them to wander into the Oval Office on the slightest whim to bend Trump’s ear or curry favor.

You certainly don’t keep turning pages because of the quality of Wolff’s understanding of the political or moral stakes involved. He’s dishing up pure soap opera, and he’s more or less amorally indifferent to the real-world consequences of these hijinks. The wrecking-ball attack on government agencies and institutional expertise that the Trump administration is successfully carrying out, from the gutting of the State Department to the perversion of the EPA, doesn’t interest him at all, for instance. Yet that’s where the damage caused by this crew’s appetite for destruction is most likely to be permanent, or anyway not repairable for a decade or more.

It also says a lot about Wolff’s opportunism, lack of judgment, or both that Bannon emerges as virtually the book’s hero. That’s not because he’s admirable (why would Wolff care?), but simply because he’s colorful and droll. A sort of reeking, canny Falstaff who’s never short of axes to grind, he gets a starring role because he’s giving Wolff his best material.

Although the author does call Bannon’s world-view “apocalyptic” once or twice, he doesn’t seem particularly perturbed about that. The odiousness of the former Breitbart honcho’s white-nationalist fantasy U.S.A., his scurrilous contempt for journalistic or political probity, and the nihilism that makes him Julian Assange’s right-wing doppelganger are all non-factors from Wolff’s perspective, because they won’t sell books. That attitude is in keeping with the way everyone else’s ideological agendas are reduced to clashing personality quirks as well, which is a much more Trumpian view of life than Wolff himself may realize.

On the other hand, if the free ride Bannon gets in Fire and Fury is more than a little egregious, the considerably less neutral descriptions of Trump’s bizarre family are Wolff at his most acute. It’s been obvious for a while that Trump admires the House of Saud because he’d love to emulate it, at whatever cost to American norms he’s never paid attention to anyway, and, if Wolff can be trusted, Jared and Ivanka are smitten with the same dream. Unless he’s just recycling a malicious rumor that Bannon or somebody else made up, which is always possible, the couple agreed that, when their turn came, Ivanka and not Jared would be the one to inherit—sorry, run for—the presidency.

While it’s unclear if Ivanka’s dad was in on this deal, Trump did tell John F. Kelly he might make his son-in-law Secretary of State one day. (Interestingly, when Kushner got handed the trifling job of making peace in the Middle East—sort of a practice run for Foggy Bottom, you could say—the Saudis had no problem taking him seriously as a negotiator. In their eyes, it’s a given that family ties count for more than official titles or diplomatic experience.)

Since it’s all too believable that poor Melania Trump felt nothing but “terror and torment” at the prospect of becoming First Lady—and only performs the job at metaphorical (well, let’s hope) gunpoint—Ivanka quickly became Trump’s “real wife” as far as White House staffers were concerned, which didn’t stop them from scoffing at her misguided confusion of “First Lady noblesse oblige” with actual policy-making. The “real daughter,” meanwhile, was—is?—White House communications director Hope Hicks, who’s so loyal that she stuck around even after Trump ebulliently told her she was “the best piece of tail” Corey Lewandowski would ever have.

That’s the crude, sexist Trump we know. Nonetheless, according to Wolff, he once told a friend—“with something like self-awareness”—that he believes women are better than men at understanding the kind of coddling he requires. From Hicks and Ivanka to Kellyanne Conway, he may be right. If Bannon “was certain that the deepest part of [Trump] was angry and dark,” and did his best to play to it, Ivanka is equally convinced that her father “only wanted to be loved,” and does her best to play to that. Needless to say, the two views hardly cancel each other out, considering that Trump’s relationship with his base fuses them.

Otherwise, despite the contrary impression you may have gleaned from the advance excerpts and the feverish media coverage, the Trump depicted in Fire and Fury actually has a few appealing sides. It’s easy enough to believe that he can be affable and even charming when he’s feeling genial, after all. The problem is that geniality rarely surfaces in his presidential persona, aside from the rancidly abusive variation on it he peddles to the faithful at his El Jefe red-state rallies.

Even though Conway once explained her boss’s abstention from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on the grounds that he’s no good at being funny—at least not, she qualified, “in that kind of humorous way”—his rare moments of self-deprecation aren’t witless. (When Melania asked him what “white trash” meant, he answered, “They’re people just like me, only they’re poor.”) Excepting the people he shafted financially and the women he allegedly molested, he might have been remembered as nothing worse than an entertaining but obnoxious gargoyle, if only he hadn’t run for president.

Not that it matters anymore. In the book itself, people who are worried that he’s crazy come in a distant second to those convinced that he’s “an idiot surrounded by clowns.” Nonetheless, Fire and Fury has become the flashpoint bringing the question of Trump’s mental stability into the open as never before. Trump himself has reacted as if that’s the charge most in need of denying—presumably without having read the book—adding the immortal boast that he’s a “very stable genius” to our already sizeable Trumpian lexicon. In typical fashion, he’s heightened the concern by the manner in which he’s set out to refute it, and therefore done a lot to help legitimize mainstream public discussion of his sanity.

Even if that doesn’t lead Mike Pence to discover heretofore unsuspected virtues in the 25th Amendment, which it won’t, my hunch is that Wolff’s book will look like a turning point down the road. No doubt inadvertently, its bestseller status seems to me to have rung down the curtain on the first phase of how we—in this case, meaning the opposition—have tried to cope with Trump’s presidency. Up to now, the one thing he and we have agreed on is that it’s all about him.

Despite any number of wonky attempts to remind us that his administration’s dire policies matter more than his antics, liberal America hasn’t been able to stop obsessing about Trump’s personality—vulgar, obstreperous, dim-witted, obscenely truth-allergic, or flat-out unhinged, take your pick—and feeling incredulous that the MAGA mob not only dotes on the whole performance, but thinks he speaks for them. But thanks to Fire and Fury, it now seems as if there’s little left to say about his personality. He is what he is, we know what he is, and those unconvinced that what he is makes him appalling, dangerous, or both won’t ever come around to our point of view.

So what’s the point in even thinking up smartass new insults anymore? Just in time for the midterms, Michael Wolff has freed Democrats from the temptation to go on wasting our time being horrified, not to say entranced by our horror. Trump won’t change, but there’s one fate he dreads more than people thinking he’s crazy: being made to feel irrelevant. Even some Republicans may want to get on board with that project by now, and for all we know, John F. Kelly already has.