It’s been titillating liberal-centrists and topping best-seller lists since January, but Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is trashy and overrated.
Essentially, Wolff, a provocative columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, spent a year wandering around the White House talking to key members of team Trump.
The result was a book. Trump hoped it would be a flattering one — he’d liked a piece Wolff had done on him during the election, and given him free rein of the West Wing off the back of it. But it isn’t.
Fire and Fury reads like someone’s taken the premise of Donald Trump becoming President and turned it into a sleazy, Dynasty-esque soap opera. It revels in the plots and the Game-of-Thrones-y backstabbings, the clashing egos, the ambition and the greed. But it’s probably mostly bollocks.
Michael Wolff is a notoriously shoddy journalist. More high-society gadabout than serious reporter, he’s known for fabricating quotes, inventing composite characters out of bits of several real-life people, and generally sexing up his material to make it more sensationalist and interesting.
In Fire and Fury, he describes what he (claims he) experienced in the White House in microscopic detail — right down to the wording of specific conversations, and even the thought processes and motivations of the key players involved.
But unless Wolff is secretly God, or managed to wire-tap every room in one of the most secure buildings in the world, it’s extremely likely that a lot of it isn’t true.
Wolff writes as if he was there to personally witness it all. But that would’ve been virtually impossible. At best, he must be reimagining scenes based on what other people — many of them embittered, or dubiously motivated, or both — have told him. At worst, he’s made large chunks of it up.
In his preliminary author’s note, he basically admits to including things he was told by his interviewees, despite having no clue whether they were true or not. And at no stage does he distinguish between what he was there to see and hear himself, and what’s just second-hand gossip.
Is Trump’s daughter Ivanka really considering running for President? Did his wife Melania really cry her eyes out the night Donald won? Did Rupert Murdoch really call Trump a ‘fucking idiot’? Is Trump really having an affair with his UN Ambassador Nikki Haley?
It’s all perfectly plausible. But I’m not going to believe it just because Wolff claims it.
In fact, having read Fire and Fury cover to cover — laboriously, over about thirty commutes — I don’t know much more about the Trump White House than I did when I started.
There’s the stuff we all knew already — that Trump isn’t fit to be president of a backwater golf club, let alone a nuclear-armed global hegemon. That his White House is a mess. That there’s no clear power structure, and everyone hates everyone else.
But beyond that, it’s mostly just unattributed tittle-tattle. There’s almost nothing I’m willing to firmly conclude about Trump’s West Wing based on what I’ve read in Wolff’s book alone.
But three key points do stand out — largely because there’s a lot of more reliable sources claiming the same.
1) Trump is just Trump. He isn’t a Machiavellian genius putting on an act (UK media types claimed the same about Boris Johnson for years). He’s essentially a big, balshy toddler obsessed with what gets said about him in the media.
2) Trump is probably mentally unfit for office. He’s incapable of taking in complex information, has terrible impulse control, and mostly improvises his opinions on the spot. He repeats himself constantly. He may have dementia (compare how he speaks and acts now to videos of him from the ’80s and ‘90s).
3) Trump’s underlings are at war with one another. The book identifies three West Wing factions fighting for control of the Trump presidency: the Republican Party establishment, who want him to become a mainstream conservative politician; Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, probably closet right-leaning Democrats, who desperately try to moderate him; and alt-right overlord Steve Bannon and his acolytes, who aim to use Trump to forward a far-right nationalism.
Since Wolff left the White House, Reince Priebus, the Republican establishment’s man on the inside, has been ejected. Bannon’s gone too.
Where that leaves the balance of power, I have no idea. But given Trump’s evident inability to govern, I’d suggest paying close attention to who he’s got working for him if you want an idea of what the White House will do next.