Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.
— Mark Twain
What am I to make of Michael Wolff’s novel, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House? Let me speak frankly here: was this adapted from anime?
Wolff’s characters, including his hero—the unbelievably named “Donald Trump”—are unrealistic, the plot unbelievable, the dialogue shallow, the side characters simple masterpieces of beast-to-human transformation. The volume’s most inspired creation is the vagabond necromancer Steve Bannon: a disheveled pile of circus rags given the power of speech. But with his autodidact tendencies and obscene Reddit fashion choices, Wolff has merely plagiarized Ignatius J. Reilly. Where this novel truly disturbs is its aesthetic vision, if I may call it that. Only a profoundly diseased mind could create this vision of cosmic horror.
I beg your pardon, Reader—the editor has just sent me a message.
Oh. This is a nonfiction work. I see. Ignore the above.
Reviewing Michael Wolff’s nonfiction book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, means wading into two fights: the book itself, and the reception to the book. The impact, and the blast crater around it. You can’t discuss one without talking about the other. There’s been avalanches of takes written about Wolff’s book (is it accurate?) and Wolff himself (does he deserve our respect?).
First, let’s talk about the book itself: F&F is Wolff’s behind-the-scenes tell-all about the Trump Family’s annexation of the White House, and their failures since then. The book begins with a dark ‘n’ stormy night in November and concludes with General Kelly’s purging of the Executive Branch. In style and substance, it reads like a tetchy Roman historian recounting the perversions of the Caesars and their court. At least one wag has called it the novelization of the first six months of the Trump Administration. Let’s jump to the conclusion: this book is a fantastic, and mostly accurate, portrayal of Our National Nightmare.
The so-called mistakes in the book are few in number. It’s entirely believable that Trump would forget who John Boehner is. Wolff confuses the political hand Mike Berman with the Post reporter Mark Berman, forgets that BuzzFeed released the dossier (not CNN), and forgets where Wilbur Ross worked.
These complaints miss the game: this book is not about unearthed facts. Except for the racy Bannon quotes, there’s little in F&F that is new. This is not a masterpiece of investigative reporting. What was required to write F&F was a working knowledge of New York and D.C. society, a good biographic understanding of Trump, canny social observation, and lots of people willing to leak. Wolff had all four. Here’s one example:
The point was, there didn’t need to be an answer because he wasn’t going to be president. Trump’s longtime friend Roger Ailes liked to say that if you wanted a career in television, first run for president. Now Trump, encouraged by Ailes, was floating rumors about a Trump network. It was a great future. He would come out of this campaign, Trump assured Ailes, with a far more powerful brand and untold opportunities. “This is bigger than I ever dreamed of,” he told Ailes in a conversation a week before the election. “I don’t think about losing because it isn’t losing. We’ve totally won.” What’s more, he was already laying down his public response to losing the election: It was stolen!
Every word in this sentence is old news: a known quantity, in the language of the intelligence community. Of course Trump ran to build his brand. Of course he was shocked by his winning, and of course “The campaign, on its face, was not designed to win anything.” But this book puts this dog-eared data in a larger perspective. Most of what journalists do is take already-existing facts and arrange them in an understandable way for public consumption. The facts of F&F are simply larger and more salacious than the usual stuff on the police blotter.
The real reason Wolff’s book is so delightful—and why it’s doing so well—is that it renders the chaotic idiocy of the Trump White House legible. For the first time, someone has made the confusing, infuriating world of Trump clear. In Wolff’s telling, every action emanating from the White House can be explained as the result of three cliques inside the Executive Branch fighting for Trump’s attention. Indeed, F&F illustrates that the president isn’t just as dumb and incompetent as we imagined—he’s more incompetent and uninformed than we are capable of imagining.
In Wolff’s telling, Trump is almost totally unable to process information: his interests seem limited to burgers and television, in great quantities. A functioning Presidency can get around a disinterested or incompetent chief executive. The Wilson and Reagan Administrations were able to function when both of their principals were incapacitated. The body can keep working even after the soul has fled: Ben Affleck’s recent life is proof of this. However, for the executive branch to keep running, you need to have a strong institutional structure, a team of dedicated professionals to prop up the president. From the beginning of his administration, Trump was incapable of building such a political machine. Wolff notes:
There was no real up-and-down structure, but merely a figure at the top and then everyone else scrambling for his attention. It wasn’t task-based so much as response-oriented—whatever captured the boss’s attention focused everybody’s attention.
Bannon, Kushner, Conway, and the president’s daughter actually had no specific responsibilities—they could make it up as they went along. They did what they wanted.
Have you ever been to a party where a drunken fight breaks out, and nobody’s in charge? One guy getting in the middle. One guy making peace. One guy in the corner making snarky observations. It will shock you to learn that those college keg brawls are miracles of organization next to the Trump White House.
Nobody in the Trump inner circle had any idea what they were doing; no organization, no formulated policy, no lines of hierarchy besides the principle of “be the last person in the room to talk to Trump.” They say that high school never ends, it just changes location, and that was certainly true of the Trump sdministration. The White House was Prom Court writ large. How was policy decided? By a daily, ongoing brawl between the three wings of Trumpland: the conventional GOP, represented by Reince Priebus; the fire-eating nationalists, led by Bannon—and the centrist sorta-Democrats, led by “Jarvanka” (Ivanka and Jared). Whoever had Trump’s favor determined the direction of the country. All of which could be undone, at a moment’s notice, by a Trump tweet.
And here we get to the real value of F&F. Imagine you see an eighteen-wheeler coming down the road, swerving from side to side. You ask yourself: is the trucker drunk? Murderous? Crazy? Wolff’s book is the first understandable, rational explanation of what’s going on in the driver’s cabin: there are three people fighting over the wheel. It shouldn’t make you feel better about being on the same highway, but it does. There is a blueprint to the terror.
Now: what about everything else that surrounds Wolff’s book? F&F has been the talk of the political class. It’s rare that any writer sees immediate and drastic results from their work, but Bannon was excommunicated from Trumpland shortly after chapters from Wolff’s work were made public. Most of the complaints boil down to two objections:
First, that Wolff’s back-biting, catty book was (and is) taking attention away from more serious matters. The second complaint is that Wolff is not one of us: not a serious reporter, not a hunter for truth, but a cheap gossipy rumor-monger.
Both of these objections are accurate. So what?
It’s not Wolff’s fault that the press focuses on superficial and fleeting matters. Trump himself is a walking, talking catalog of insipid actions and inane words.
As for Wolff himself, the haters are entirely accurate. As Drew Magary wrote, Wolff is a man whose “credibility is often suspect and who represents the absolute worst of New York media-cocktail-circuit inbreeding.” And that’s the point. Wolff is not a hero. A hero couldn’t have written this book. This book is court whispers and rumor—and that’s the perfect style to capture Donald Trump, the ultimate image-obsessed, media-fixated, shallow celebrity try-hard. “In a way,” Magary wrote, “it’s fitting that our least reliable president could finally find himself undone at the hands of one of our least reliable journalists.” Maybe that’s what it takes in general. After all, what were the Nixon tapes but crabby, rambling sessions by a paranoid man in a little room?
There’s another problem, of course. Wolff broke the unwritten rules of D.C. journalism. He took the secrets that the District told him, and published them. As the journalist Jeff Sharlet wrote on Facebook:
Who the hell else was going to get close enough to the power to describe the way it really walks, talks, and stinks? Bob Woodward? Not this time around, and not since Watergate, either. Woodward cut deals — deals which gave him tidbits to peddle and which also preserved his access. Which would you prefer: An asshole who relishes his access to power as an ornament with which to improve his status with other elites, or an asshole who betrays it? Wolff, who by many accounts will betray just about anybody, was the writer for the job of bringing us inside the administration that wants to screw everybody.
The furor around the book is a capsule history of D.C. pettiness—outrage that Wolff had access, that he leaked, and finally that the book was popular.
The Beltway’s loss is our gain. The story told in F&F is the story of modern America: the delusion of a profound destiny meeting the sordid reality of late capitalist politics. The irony, of course, is that Trump and the Russia conspiracy buffs and the meritocratic Democrats share the same vision. What vision? The promise that the presidency is (and always has been) a scene of great figures cut in cold alabaster. The people in this story believe this, even as they disprove it. In Wolff’s analysis, all Trump has ever really wanted was “a good write-up in the New York Times,” which is both touching and darkly hilarious.
In F&F, Wolff pulls off a neat double act. He convinces us of the humanity of the people behind the throne, and in doing so reminds us that history is a series of strange happenings, a play we all participate in. The story stars Trump, but it’s just as much a tale of the country that made, and then elected, a clown president. Which is a way of saying: this is us. As my longtime friend George W. Bush said after Trump’s inauguration, “that’s some weird shit.”