The publishing sensation of this young year is Michael Wolff’s inside-the-West-Wing tell-all, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”
Within days of its publication date, which was moved up by several days to meet frenzied demand, the book was sold out at stores; it dominated the Sunday cable talk shows; provoked President Trump and his minions to a string of furious attacks; and has the official chroniclers of White House dysfunction at big East Coast newspapers crabbing about trivial inaccuracies (a sure sign that it has struck a nerve).
“Fire and Fury” was destined for success for several reasons. It fits the prevailing narrative about the Trump administration as perfectly as the last piece fits a jigsaw puzzle. It goes down easy, slathered over with the moist lubricant of gossip. It’s not too heavily freighted with serious stuff like policy, and what’s there is given a once-over-lightly treatment that affords readers the sensation of knowing just enough about that stuff for dinner-party conversation.
But having spent hours this weekend absorbing the book cover-to-over (figuratively speaking — my version was on a Kindle), I can tell you that there’s absolutely nothing new of any importance in “Fire and Fury.” If you’ve been following the Trump administration over the last 12 months, you already know everything in it.
Oh, sure, there are a few fresh nuggets here or there, sprinkled about like the hard bits in the Christmas fruitcake you cracked a tooth on over the holidays, but most are scarcely more interesting than the one about the internal architecture of Trump’s hairdo (page 79 on Kindle).
None of that may be important, however, because the proper way to think about “Fire and Fury” is not as a book, but as an event. The vast majority of people discussing it over the next few weeks — assuming the furor lasts that long — will not have read it. When the Sunday cable talk shows went into full cry over it, they focused largely on the West Wing’s reaction to it.
The drama was all about whether Trump would throw a conniption, or did Stephen K. Bannon permanently blot his copybook by getting quoted saying stuff not too far from what he’s said in public, etc., etc. It was no longer even necessary to read “Fire and Fury,” because you could learn all you needed to know about its text from the bare context provided by the Sunday hosts before they brought in their “roundtables” of Washington insiders and political pundits to masticate the gristle of what it all means.
But having done the reading homework myself, I can tell you that the first 30% of “Fire and Fury” is an engaging read, full of little frissons of revelation. It’s not badly written, though portions show the effects of hasty editing to meet a deadline.
After the first third, however, it becomes boring, repetitious and, ultimately, depressing. There just isn’t much for Wolff to say about the White House after he’s said it once, and the discouraging thought that his cast of characters are in place because of a quirk of the American presidential electoral system that surprised them as much as it shocked outsiders soon outweighs any pleasure one might get from watching them bite each others’ heads off.
Let’s take a quick look at the basic narrative threads of “Fire and Fury.” Stop me if you’ve heard these before.
—Trump didn’t want to win the election, and no one around him thought he would. Duh. If it wasn’t evident from the performance-art nature of his election campaign, the notion that Trump was serious about governing couldn’t survive his immigration executive order, issued seven days after the inauguration. There was the slipshod drafting of the order, the failure to run it past the people who would be responsible for implementation, and its taking immediate effect, which created massive chaos at major airports coast-to-coast and around the world. No one who cared about governing would do anything this way.
Then there’s the ludicrous collection of numbskulls and vandals walking the hallways and heading government departments and agencies. It’s one thing to put people in place with the intention of refashioning government health, environmental and educational policy; quite another to give the job to people who have absolutely no executive experience or, in fact, knowledge about their jobs, and who instantly go to war with their own staffs. Step forward, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Now please sit down again.
In any event, Wolff isn’t much more interested in government than Trump; important issues such as healthcare repeal, education policy and the environment make walk-on appearances in “Fire and Fury” mostly in the course of the book’s real topic, which is the internecine squabbling over them.
—Everyone around him treats Trump like a child. Duh. One of the money quotes from the book retailed endlessly by commentators is that dealing with Trump is like “trying to figure out what a child wants.” Wolff attributes it to Katie Walsh, a Republican Party functionary who spent a brief period on the White House staff before being exiled, ostensibly to her own relief, to a post at the Republican National Committee. But is this apercu supposed to be new? To my recollection, scarcely a single anonymously sourced inside-the-White-House story appearing over the last 12 months lacks a similar quote, or at least the same implication.
—Everyone around him thinks Trump is an idiot. Duh. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones had fun last week by posting a quiz in which readers were asked to match a description of Trump’s intellect (“fool,” “idiot,” “moron,” with various profane qualifiers appended), to the person who uttered it. A few came from the book, but a few were preexisting. The sources included Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, and 21st Century Fox Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch. Anyway, clearly not news.
Trump’s eruption over the weekend to the effect that he’s real smart and a “stable genius” may have had the air of Fredo Corleone’s equivalent pleading in “The Godfather, Part II,” as numerous cinema experts pointed out, but that wasn’t the first time that he’s tried to establish his intellectual bona fides by assertion, rather than action. Anyway, there’s been plenty of reporting over the months about the need to present information to Trump in pictorial form rather than via the written word. Nor are questions about his reading ability new; a friend of mine who brought a lawsuit against Trump over a business deal came away from a deposition convinced Trump was illiterate, and that was decades ago, when he was still swanking around as a big shot in New York real estate circles.
—The White House is rent by war among advisors. Wolff identifies the principal camps during his time as a fly on the wall as those of Bannon; first daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner; and former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who was replaced by John F. Kelly at the end of July. This started to be widely known even before inauguration day.
But Wolff may actually have made a signal contribution to Trumpology here by making clear how much each gang leaked to undermine the others. Despite the obligatory paragraphs in all those inside-the-West-Wing scoops in the big papers about how many sources they were based on (how many people work in the White House, anyway?), it appears from Wolff’s book that those stories really all emanate from the power jockeying among those three groups; sometimes it’s one camp leaking against the other two, sometimes two camps in temporary alliance against the third.
This just tells you that the correct rule of thumb to apply when reading any of these yarns is the Latin term “Cui bono?” (“Who gains?) The one notable aspect of all this is Wolff’s obsession with Bannon, which almost approaches Bannon’s obsession with himself. Bannon emerges as the hub around all the White House intrigue spins, which may or may not have been true. But it’s Bannon’s view, which makes it a teeny bit suspect as it comes through Wolff.
The bottom line is that much of “Fire and Fury” reads like warmed-over gruel. Some anecdotes have been widely reported in the past — high-level disagreement over Afghanistan policy, the hash Trump made of his response to the Charlottesville racial violence, the 10 days of Anthony Scaramucci — and are repeated by Wolff with a soupcon of insider spin as though being seasoned to make them appear to be his own discoveries.
None of this makes “Fire and Fury” unimportant. For one thing, it’s notable that the book has ticked off everybody in or near the White House. Trump is incensed for obvious reasons. Bannon and others directly quoted are embarrassed to the point they fear for their futures in the Trump-iverse.
The official chroniclers of Trump dysfunction are worried about their book contracts and sales because Wolff got there first — more so because he stripped the inside story of the decorous veneer that weighs down the accounts appearing in the serious press and applied the shiv to his sources with maximal viciousness and cruelty. After “Fire and Fury,” no one will need another inside-the-White-House book. Wolff collected all the stories and let it rip.
The last thing to be said about “Fire and Fury” is the curious vacuum at its center. One character fails to emerge from its pages with any color: Donald Trump. Wolff claims to have interviewed him directly, but that doesn’t come through at all. The Trump around whom all these satellites orbit remains a black hole. No one really explains what he thinks, what he does, who he is.
As a result, the book ends up being mostly about everyone else’s interactions with each other, and very little about their interactions with the president of the United States. Maybe Trump meant it that way, or maybe there’s simply no one there. That wouldn’t be news, either.