On August 8 of last year, Donald Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” His words were meant to cow the North Koreans into abandoning their nuclear and missile arsenal but until now, at least, they appear to have been only idle threats. Michael Wolff has now adopted the phrase as the title of his book on the first nine months of the Trump presidency – surely, a cleverly ironic choice. For since his election Trump has proved to be more a source of combative words than of real achievements.
Wolff insists that Trump and his circle had never expected to win the election, that he had been planning his campaign, instead, as a business promotion for the Trump brand and a possible new television channel. Victory thus left Trump unprepared for the job ahead. This story must, however, be too simple since Trump had been toying for years with the idea of running for president. He had been telling everyone willing to listen of all the things that, in his view, were wrong with America and the world, how they could be set right in simple ways were it not for corrupt and incompetent politicians everywhere, and how he, Trump, could easily do so, given half a chance. There was, no doubt, some hesitation in him about whether he would actually want to put such words into action. But in the end, it was a combination of overconfidence and ignorance that propelled Trump to actually seek the highest elected office.
He did so with few thoughts about job once he was elected. He had run his shaky business for many years as a small, somewhat chaotic family affair. How was he supposed to operate now the vast machinery of the Federal government? What was worse: “Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was in print it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate… But not only didn’t he read, he didn’t listen. He preferred to be the person talking. And he trusted his own expertise – no matter how paltry or irrelevant – more than anyone else’s.” (pp. 113-114) An explanation of the Constitution left him yawning. And when Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC host, asked him whom he called on for advice, Trump is supposed to have answered sheepishly: “Well, you won’t like the answer, but the answer is me. Me. I talk to myself.” (p. 47)
Resisting advice and skeptical of the Washington bureaucracy, Trump left himself, thus, open to being influenced by whatever he had seen most recently on television and whatever he had been told by the last person to speak to him. The problem was that even though Trump had strong opinions, he also changed them frequently and was often unable or unwilling to reach any final decision. Three factions vying for the new president’s attention emerged in consequence. There was Steve Bannon, backed up by Bob and Rebekah Mercer and the alt-right media, who pushed a confrontational agenda of “economic nationalism;” there was Reince Priebus and his cohort advancing a mainstream Republican Party line; and there was the family, Ivanka and Jared Kushner with their moderate “New York Democrat” friends. The competition between them soon turned bloody and led to the ouster of Priebus, Bannon, and others from the White House. The turmoil was exacerbated by the investigation of Russian interference in the election and possible collusion with this in the Trump campaign. This led soon to the ouster of the FBI director, James Comey, and Trump’s alienation from his Secretary of Justice, Jeff Sessions, one of his earliest supporters. The dynamic set thus into motion is still working itself out and we can expect more turmoil to come out of Trump’s White Hose.
While Donald Trump is the central figure in Wolff’s narrative, an important second role is filled by Steve Bannon. It was Bannon who, in fact, helped Wolff to gain initial access to Trump. Trump himself had then invited Wolff into the White House under the impression that Wolff was writing a book on his first year in office to be called The Great Transition. And so, Wolff, with Bannon’s help, managed to sit in the White House for half a year observing and overhearing the things he reports in his book. It begins and ends not surprisingly with Bannon. Its first section describes a dinner party in the spring of 2017 at which Bannon and Roger Ailes, the deposed head of Fox Television, freely dissect the Trump presidency and it ends after Bannon’s banishment from the White House with his declaration that “Trump was just the beginning.” For Bannon, Trump had, in fact, always been only the vehicle for his own political ambitions even as he was professing again and again his loyalty to the president. He could thus confidently declare after his ouster from the White House: “I am the leader of the nationalist, populist movement.” (p. 301) As far as Trump himself was concerned, Bannon foresaw that he would had little to fear from an investigation into his links to Russia. Yes, Donald Jr. had made a serious mistake when meeting with the Russians during the election campaign. But What he had done was possibly treasonous, or unpatriotic, and, in any case, “silly” and “bad shit.” (p. 255) And there was no reason to believe Donald Sr., when he denied all knowledge of this meeting. But none of this would be sufficient to bring the president down. It was, however, another matter altogether, if the inquiry should turn to Trump’s finances. “You realize where this is going,” Bannon said during another dinner party in July 2017: “This is all about money-laundering …. They are sitting on a beach trying to stop a Category Five.” (p. 278) Bannon had no doubt that Trump’s business dealings had been fishy. He thought, in the end that “there was a 33.3 percent chance that that the Mueller investigation would lead to the impeachment of the president, a 33.3 percent that Trump would resign, perhaps in the wake of a threat by the cabinet to act on the Twenty-Fifth Amendment (by which the cabinet can remove the president in the event of incapacitation), and a 33.3 percent chance that he would limp to the end of his term. In any case, there would certainly not e second term, or even an attempt at one.” (p. 308)
Bannon emerges from this account as Wolff’s tragi-comic hero. Unlike Trump, he actually reads books (to the astonishment of everyone else in the Trump circle). 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 Strauss 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. So, 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 this world-view separates him from Trump, he shares with the president an overwhelming desire to speak, to communicate and what the one pursues with his tweets, the other does through incessant leaks. It is this inability to stay silent that finally brought Bannon down. Bannon’s leaks were, no doubt, a rich source for Wolff’s book they were finally also instrumental also bringing about the complete break with Trump.
Wolff’s book has been criticized for a number of factual errors – though none of them deadly – and for his willingness to conjecture and interpret, but when we read it in the light of what we already know about Trump’s presidency from other sources, we cannot doubt its overall veracity. Its devastating effect is not even primarily due to its revelations (there are a few) but to the fact that it collects bits of common knowledge into a single compelling narrative. The book is a major achievement of the kind that the great Roman historians would have recognized. 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 seeks to tell a story and he allows himself to put fitting words into people’s mouths. Like the ancient historians, he revels in the foibles and vices of our rulers. And also in the style of those historians he is clearly advancing an agenda, all the while claiming to be writing in a disinterested fashion (“sine ira et studio,” as the Romans put it).
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 that turns out to be the case, Wolff’s book will surely be read for a long time. Even if it comes otherwise, I hope that the book will be remembered for its vivid depiction of a deeply disquieting moment in US history.