It’s difficult to review a book as notorious as Fire And Fury. One suspects most people made their minds up even before reading it. If so, perusing this will reinforce your belief that Donald Trump is not fit to be president of the United States.
Others have read that the author Michael Wolff is “tabloidy” and has in the past written sketchy pieces. If you’re one of them, then this book is a piece of fluff that leans towards sordid entertainment instead of serious journalism.
As always, the truth is somewhere in-between. But let’s get the sensationalism out of the way first.
Is it a scathing criticism of Trump? Yes. Does it allege that he eats burgers in bed, won’t let anybody clean his room without permission, can’t sit through a 10-minute presentation by his generals, and can’t abide criticism from those around him? Yes, yes, yes, and oh yes.
Is it all true? That depends.
The book is light on sources. It’s unclear if what’s described was directly witnessed by Wolff, or if he heard it from someone else, or if he put two-and-two together to come up with whatever number he decided on.
Wolff even admits in the foreword that “many of the accounts… are in conflict with one another”. He says that sometimes he lets the original versions stand, but at other times he “settled on a version of events I believe to be true”.
Truth and lies are indeed the thematic absurdity of Trump’s rise to power. Politics is already a perpetual motion machine whose flywheels revolve on “spin” and “angles”, and it feels like the 2016 US elections sped them up to the limit.
We’re not so much blind men limited by the reach of individual experiences as viewers blinkered by those we trust to show us just enough that we only see bits of the elephant at a time. To what end? So that we may not be overwhelmed? Or so that we can revel in blissful ignorance of complications?
And so it comes to Fire And Fury, that the lens we see through determines which parts of the narrative we hold true. What looms large is the incompetence of Trump. What perhaps may slip by are the desperate efforts of those around him to steer a sane course despite the president’s leadership.
Take, for example, Steve Bannon. He’s the dishevelled one in the corner, forever scowling at some perceived slight. The book gives the impression that he believes he’s always the smartest one in the room and resents the fact that many don’t give him that credit.
The inauguration speech bemoaning the rut that America was in, and rallying support for desperate measures in desperate times – that was Bannon who supplied the ink. So was the assertion that China is now the enemy and that Fortress America must make the Last Stand.
But whether or not you agree with the polemic, the book conveys Bannon’s opinions as being earnest and very much his own. In fact, some have suggested that Wolff was managed by Bannon to popularise his brand of radicalism beyond the readers of far-right news website Breitbart. In all of this, Bannon stands out as his own man, not compromising his beliefs for the president.
Then there is Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Before this book, the popular narrative was that son-in-law and daughter were hanging onto Trump’s coattails and wielding White House influence to cultivate extensive business networks and expansive profits after four years.
But Wolff’s book shows quite the opposite; Jared is the reliable “body man” who stood by his father-in-law when the campaigning got tough. He has a liberal background and is the one cultivating relationships with moderate Republicans. It is his voice that tempered the first speech to Congress in January 2017 (notable for being labelled by The Washington Post newspaper as “surprisingly presidential”).
Meanwhile, Ivanka reached out to Dina Powell to be a voice of reason in the White House. (The former partner at Goldman Sachs had previously worked in the George W. Bush administration and, thus, had more experience in how a White House should operate than anybody in the Trump campaign team.)
So these are some ideas that stand out from the anti-Trump barrage that otherwise permeates the book. Or does it? Any reading of contemporary affairs is an interpretation of facts, but the nature of the Trump presidency is that you have to question the fundamentals.
As written earlier, it’s not clear how reliable Wolff’s sources were, and one would think he would be prone to sensationalism. But I do believe that the parts that highlight the islands of sanity in the hurricane that is Donald Trump shimmer with more truth than not.
The word is out that a film based on this book is already in the works. This will be yet another layer in between the audience and reality. And where is the truth in all this? Somewhere in the smoke, I hope.
Fire And Fury
Author: Michael Wolff
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co, nonfiction politics