Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury. Inside the Trump White House, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2018
On August 8 of last year, Donald Trump threatened North Korea with fire and fury “like the world has never seen.” The words were meant to cow the North Koreans into abandoning their nuclear and missile arsenal but, half a year later, the words have so far proved to be only typical of the bluster that is Trump’s trademark. Michael Wolff has now adopted the phrase ironically as the title of his book on the first nine months of the Trump presidency – surely a clever choice. For Trump’s government has proved to be a source of combative words more than of real achievements. The book describes a scene of continuous confusion and turmoil: how White House staffers have come and gone – hired and dismissed at the president’s whim; how those left inside are engaging each other in mortal combat fostered by personal ambition and the desire to have the president’s ear; how Trump’s own lack of political experience is fully matched by the inexperience of his staff; how Trump needs to be constantly watched, contained, and protected from himself like an obstreperous child.
It’s astonishing to hear that Wolff managed to observe and overhear many of these things because he was allowed for months to sit in the White House. Trump himself had invited him in on the assumption that Wolff was to write a book called The Great Transition. We don’t know how seriously Wolff ever felt about this project, but it is evident from his writing that his expectations of Trump’s presidency changed radically as he observed its realities. The published work, Wolff has confirmed in interviews, is meant to help with the downfall of Trump.
Wolff’s account has been criticized for factual errors – none of them deadly – and for his willingness to conjecture and interpret, but when we read it in the light of what we know from other sources, we cannot doubt its overall veracity. Its devastating effect is, perhaps, primarily due not to its revelations (there are a few) but to the fact that it collects what we already know into one single story. The book is a major achievement of the kind that the great Roman historians would have savored. It is not like works of modern historical scholarship with their endless footnotes referencing every claim, and their desire for detachment and balance. Like the Roman historians, Wolff constructs a narrative and he does not shy away from putting words into people’s mouths and thoughts into their minds. Like those ancient historians, he eagerly dwells on the foibles and vices of our rulers. And in the style of those historians he advances an agenda while claiming to write in a disinterested fashion (“sine ira et studio,” as the Romans put it).
While Donald Trump figures large in Wolff’s narrative, its central figure is, in fact, Steve Bannon, who, indeed, helped Wolff to gain initial access to Trump. The book begins with a dinner party in the spring of 2017 at which Bannon and Roger Ailes, the deposed head of Fox Television, dissect the Trump presidency and it ends with Bannon’s expressed conviction – having recently been fired from the White House – that “Trump was just the beginning.” Bannon is Wolff’s tragi-comic hero. Unlike Trump, he actually reads books (to the astonishment of everyone else in the Trump entourage). Unlike Trump, he has ideas, convictions, and “projects.” Unlike Trump, he thinks in large, strategic terms about politics. But his learning is spotty and his vision of political reality and his own place in it is distorted. We can’t help feeling that he has been caught in the web of “fake news” that threatens to swamp everything and which the Breitbart channel directed by Bannon himself was so clever to exploit. It turns out that Bannon has come to believe in the absurd Noel Howe and William Srauss theory that history moves in strict generational circles and that we are now in the fourth stage of that development, a moment when the existing order inevitably disintegrates. Bannon’s view of American and world politics is duly apocalyptic. And he is eager to speed the apocalypse on its way; Trump is for him only one of the tools to bring that about. If all this separates him from Trump, he shares with him an overwhelming desire to speak, to communicate and what the one accomplishes with his tweets, the other does through incessant leaks. It is this inability to stay silent that has brought Bannon down. We can be sure that many intimate details in Wolff’s book come from Bannon and, ironically enough, it is that book which led to the open break with Trump – after Wolff quoted Bannon’s characterization of Donald Jr.’s meeting with the Russians during the 2016 election campaign both treasonous and stupid.
After reading Wolff’s book it becomes difficult to believe that the Trump presidency will have a happy outcome either for Trump himself or the United States as a whole. If this turns out to be the case, Wolff’s book will surely be read for a long time. Even if it comes otherwise, I hope it will be remembered for its vivid depiction of a deeply disquieting moment in US history.