Given today’s bipolar political climate, most folks will make up their minds about Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” based on nothing more than a sampling of the goggle-eyed media coverage lavished on the Trump takedown.
That’s too bad. There’s catnip here for both ends of the political spectrum. The book’s well worth reading.
Trumpistas get to surf a colossal wave of self-righteous indignation. They’ll cite “Fire and Fury” as further proof that the media mainstream is a geyser of “fake news.” Wolff is being dismissed as a New York hack playing fast and loose with the rules for sourcing and attribution in depicting Trump as a sub-literate moron, rapidly sinking into dementia. (Since the book’s publication, the president’s physician has denied cognitive impairment.)
Ironically, loonies far to the right of Trump are finding common ground with liberal Trump haters. Both the libs and the kooks who have read the book see “Fire and Fury” as an act of exquisite revenge on Trump and equally on his grasping daughter and clueless son-in-law. Jared and Ivanka — “Jarvanka,” as Wolff dubs them — are portrayed as socially ambitious liberals only masquerading as conservatives.
The vengeance is wrought by the man at the heart of Wolff’s book: deposed “chief strategist” Steve Bannon, the alt-right media wizard. Bannon’s eleventh-hour takeover of the Trump campaign in August 2016 is widely credited — and not just by Time magazine — with transforming an onrushing debacle into Trump’s squeakingly narrow win. Thus was the serially bankrupt heir to a real estate fortune rescued from a fading career on reality TV and escorted right into the Oval Office.
Bannon remained the administration’s shaping hand for most of a year marked by chaos and gaffes — the ill-considered and legally ignorant ban on Muslims, Trump’s mealy-mouthed reference to the “very fine people” among the fascist storm troopers who showed up in Charlottesville and killed a woman, and on and on and on.
But politics aside, only the most humorless Trumpista will fail to find “Fire and Fury” at least occasionally funny. Wolff possesses a sly sense of irony. When he lets Bannon mouth off — which is often and to incisive effect — that irony mixes well with Bannon’s taste for rich and inventive obscenity. In short, the book is a guilty pleasure for liberals and right-wingnuts alike:
Here Wolff dissects how Bannon, after taking charge of the campaign, was able so effortlessly to dazzle and control his candidate:
“There was no competition in Trump Tower for being the brains of the operation. Of the dominant figures in the transition, neither Kushner, Priebus, nor Conway, and certainly not the president-elect, had the ability to express any kind of coherent perception or narrative. By default, everybody had to look to the voluble, aphoristic, shambolic, witty, off-the-cuff figure who was both ever present on the premises and who had, in an unlikely attribute, read a book or two.”
Here Wolff channels Bannon’s scorn for Trump aide Dina Powell, yet another alumnus of Goldman Sachs — a Wall Street firm Trump had trashed repeatedly on the campaign trail — who had come to save his presidency: “Among Bannon’s many regular targets Powell had become a favorite. She was often billed as Deputy National Security Advisor; that was her sometime designation even in the New York Times. Actually, she was Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy — the difference, Bannon pointed out, between COO of a hotel chain and the concierge.”
And, speaking of the servant class: “Trump’s fallback was his son-in-law. On the campaign, after months of turmoil and outlandishness (if not to Trump, to most others, including his family), Kushner had stepped in and become his effective body man, hovering nearby, speaking only when spoken to, but then always offering a calming and flattering view. [Fired campaign manager] Corey Lewandowski called Jared the butler. Trump had come to believe that his son-in-law, in part because he seemed to understand how to stay out of his way, was uniquely sagacious.”
One of Wolff’s more credible insights is that the reason the pre-election Trump remained so careless about financial disclosure, his race baiting on the campaign trail and, among other issues, his bizarre bromance with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is that right to the last Trump never dreamed he’d actually be president. Melania, having been promised by her husband that the family’s ordeal by politics would soon be over, greeted the freakish win with tears, “and not of joy,” according to Bannon. (A depiction denied by Trumpistas.)
For Trump, Election Night may or may not have led to the spasm of sheer terror Bannon describes, but his ego quickly rose to the occasion and terror was replaced by the aura of boundless self-satisfaction he has radiated ever since.
Here Wolff analyzes that aura more closely: “Trump himself you could see as a sort of Delphic oracle, sitting in place and throwing out pronouncements which had to be interpreted. Or as an energetic child, and whomever (sic) could placate or distract him became his favorite. Or as the Sun God (which is effectively how he saw himself), the absolute center of attention, dispensing favor and delegating power, which could, at any moment, be withdrawn. The added dimension was that this Sun God had little calculation.”
All right, fun stuff. But is it true, made up? Genuinely “fake”?
Without joining Kellyanne Conway in the realm of “alternate facts,” it’s worth noting that different genres of nonfiction invite differing standards of verification. Metaphor can enhance factuality as well as undermine or betray it.
Those differing standards come into perfect and ludicrous collision in the incident, retailed in “Fire and Fury,” in which a hapless fact-checker for The New Yorker, a magazine famous for vetting every word it prints, calls Bannon to confirm a detail: Anthony Scaramucci’s quoted characterization of him as a man who regularly — in not quite these words — performs oral sex on himself. (The New Yorker ran Scaramucci’s quote; Bannon’s reply goes unrecorded.)
Yes, there are factual errors and a lot of sloppy copyediting in a book whose publication date was simply moved forward by four days after Trump threatened a lawsuit to prevent its release — a maneuver that has helped propel the book to the top of the best-seller charts.
The example of inaccuracy most commonly cited is Trump allegedly asking, “Who’s that?” when the late Fox News guru Roger Ailes suggested he appoint retired former House Speaker John Boehner as his chief of staff. As Donald Jr. cried out to media, certain this would prove Wolff a prevaricator, Trump and Boehner had golfed together a few years earlier. But who says Ailes wasn’t quoting Trump verbatim, given the mounting evidence that, whatever the aging president’s cognitive skills, his memory — “ooze” according to Rolling Stone political reporter Matt Taibbi — simply isn’t what it used to be?
Yes, Wolff downplays policy issues and all but ignores Trump’s largely dismal legislative record, focusing instead on the crosscurrents of gossip whistling through an understaffed administration. But bear in mind that in the absence of meaningful leadership from the Oval Office, gossip has been the very essence of daily life among the aides, factota and sycophants traipsing to and from the West Wing water coolers, men and women with more time on their hands than purposeful things to do.
Who’s in? Who’s out? Who leaked what to whom? In this, of course, they are perfectly in sync with a president whose principal activity, golf aside, is to binge-watch cable TV and wince or bask in the slights and kudos delivered by the chatterboxes on CNN and Fox News. And anyway, as a major 20th century newspaperman didn’t quite say: Gossip is the first rough draft of history.
That doesn’t make Wolff Herodotus, but he is, to date, clearly the Boswell of the Trump presidency, a biographer perfectly suited to his topic.
Yes, Wolff’s sourcing runs the gamut from casual to uncertain. While no one has challenged the claim that he haunted the White House for months and spoke to scores of people, often with a recorder in hand, Wolff frequently leaves it unclear whether he was in the room or is passing on secondhand accounts of who said what — even when he could have easily and absolutely corroborated his account.
Example: Wolff details at length a dishy conversation over dinner in a Greenwich Village townhouse, a dinner party attended by no less a poohbah of right-wing opinionators than Ailes, a man who, cast out of Fox News for sexual predation, had then declined an offer to run Trump’s campaign. Why did he turn down the job?
“Ailes was convinced that Trump had no political beliefs or backbone. The fact that Trump had become the ultimate avatar of Fox’s angry common man was another sign that we were living in an upside-down world. The joke was on somebody — and Ailes thought it might be on him.”
Wolff goes on to recreate an in-depth conversation between Ailes and, when he finally shows up, Bannon. What Wolff doesn’t bother to tell readers — many of whom might by now be deeply skeptical of his ability to channel such a lengthy dinner-party exchange — is that Wolff was present at the dinner, as its host. The Greenwich Village townhouse is his home. And Trumpistas would be wise to take note: A bon vivant who can chow down with the heads of Fox and Breitbart News should not be mistaken for a run-of-the-mill Democrat still weeping over Hillary Clinton.
As someone who has spent his entire working life in the news biz, I take seriously the ever-evolving standards for proper attribution. But let’s be honest: Some of it is a matter of ritual more than substance, an incantation aimed at libel lawyers rather than readers.
In the old days it was standard practice to attribute an anonymous comment to an “unnamed source.” Then it became de rigueur to characterize the unnamed source: “an unnamed former member of the president’s cabinet.” Now, fashion decrees that we tack on a statement of the obvious — the unnamed speaker’s reason for requesting anonymity: “ … an unnamed former member of the president’s cabinet who asked that her name not be published because she feared retaliation by her boss.” The boss in this instance being a thin-skinned man given to vicious and unseemly assaults on almost anyone willing to debase himself by taking a job in his administration.
Wolff drops the rituals of attribution and simply throws readers into the midst of scenes and discussions, some of them screaming matches, that he can be presumed to have witnessed or to have harvested from leakers and gossips.
Bannon is obviously Wolff’s deepest throat, but long-suffering aides Katie Walsh and Hope Hicks come across as equally voluble, if less insightful. That Wolff got only a couple of sit-downs with the president requires no apology on his part. You don’t need even that much official access to enter the mind of a man who, as regularly as the dawn breaks over Mar-a-Lago, can’t stop spilling his guts, tweet by tweet.
Equally to the point: Who would want to read a book that on every one of its 300-plus pages dutifully regurgitated the ritual attribution: “ … according to a White House insider who asked for anonymity in order not to be fired or screamed at by Trump.”
But if Wolff’s way with attribution breaches conventional newspaper etiquette — and journalists will be the first to tell you it does — we should also concede that he really isn’t offering conventional reportage. “Fire and Fury” — a title lifted from one of Trump’s reckless threats against nuke-armed North Korea — is not a routine quickie on the first several months of a chaotic presidency.
Wolff is attempting something more profound and panoramic: It’s a layman’s stab at group psychoanalysis, a science that, at least since Freud reached into Greek mythology to characterize father/son dynamics as “Oedipal,” has been as interested in metaphor (Sun God) as in plodding chronology. “Fire and Fury” grinds a plethora of quips, comments and apercus into a lens through which Wolff presumes to assess, not just what went on as the reality TV star took over the White House, but what may unfold in the months and years ahead, if Trump lasts that long.
With some of the skills of a novelist, Wolff portrays the group psychodynamics of a deeply dysfunctional presidency, one led — if that’s the right word — by a man at odds not just with common sense and decency, but with his own most fawning lackeys. It’s less a chronicle, less a history, than a diagnosis.
Will the patient survive?
The test of Wolff’s insights lies in what’s coming down the road. Will the Russia probe directed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller “trace a money trail through Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, and Jared Kushner and roll one or all of them” before, as Bannon predicts, Mueller brings down the president himself?
For Wolff’s sake, one has to hope the author’s powers of prophecy are better than Bannon’s. So far, the book’s most immediate aftershock has been not Trump’s undoing but that of Wolff’s chief source. For telling Wolff that he thought Donald Jr. “treasonous” for cuddling with the Russians in search of dirt on Hillary, Bannon has had his allowance cut off by another bizarre daddy-daughter duo, Rebekah and Robert Mercer. They’re the Breitbart-backing billionaires who also paid for Bannon’s installation at the top of the then-foundering Trump campaign.
Now, not only is Bannon officially persona non grata at the White House, Rebekah Mercer has ordered his ouster from Breitbart as well, a media platform that had seemed to give Bannon a fearsome power over Trump and the GOP no matter whether he was still able to waltz in and out of the Sun God’s oval throne room.
Bye-bye, Bannon? Don’t count on it. The man has a rubber butt. He has bounced back before to continue whispering in the ear of an upstart politician desperately dependent on his counsel, whether delivered in an Oval office huddle or by phone during a pretend banishment from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Trump haters who read Wolff’s book will be watching closely to see if the basic White House power schism plays out as diagnosed: Does Bannon’s demise — if in fact it has happened — leave the field open for self-aggrandizement and more boneheaded decision-making by Bannon’s chief West Wing adversaries, Ivanka and Jared?
They are, after all, the folks credited with suborning the Trump era’s most disastrous decision to date: firing FBI chief James Comey (thus jolting to life the Frankenstein in any rip snortin’ White House scandal: a special counsel.) More comically, Jarvanka also encouraged hiring fellow New Yorker Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci as a White House communications czar. (Scaramucci, another Goldman Sachs alum, lasted 10 days before comments as stupid as Trump tweets cost him his job.)
In assessing a book like “Fire and Fury,” the real measure of truthiness isn’t whether Wolff was actually in the room or just wants you to think he was. In a book written out of the day’s headlines, and inspiring more than a few of them since its publication, the standard of proof will be the headlines to come.
Will Wolff’s scathing description of the Sun God — stupid, impatient, prey to conniving children — be borne out in the weeks and months ahead?
The most daring of Bannon’s predictions will be the most fascinating to watch. As the Mueller probe closes in on Kushner and Trump family finances — in particular on the global jet stream of corruptly gained and poorly laundered Chinese and Russian cash behind so many real estate projects — will Jarvanka sell out the president in a last ditch effort to save their own tender behinds?
As Bannon intones in one of his more Shakespearean moments: “The daughter” — i.e. Ivanka — “will take down the father.”
Really? Stay tuned.
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.