Michael Wolff - inside view

Fire in the hole

Paul Demarty reviews Michael Wolff Fire and fury: inside the Trump White House (Little, Brown 2018) pp336, £14.99

The appearance of Michael Wolff’s extraordinary account of Donald Trump’s presidency has already become the pre-eminent succès de scandale of 21st century letters thus far.

The White House response has been trenchant and hysterical, with the president denouncing it as a complete fiction, and the latest in what the book reminds us is a long line of press secretaries reinforcing the condemnation. Legal action is threatened against Wolff, publisher Henry Holt and - not uninterestingly - Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. It is surely more than mere gratitude that led Wolff to thank in his acknowledgements, pointedly, the libel lawyer he hired to give Fire and fury a once-over. The truth is that Trump has blundered directly into what is now called the ‘Streisand effect’, whereby attempts to suppress some item cause it to spread more rapidly among outraged enemies.1 Even British readers, whose much trumpeted national veneration of liberty reaches no further than the door of the libel courtroom, will benefit from the samizdat PDFs circulating online once Trump’s legal team cast an eye over the Atlantic in pursuit of a cheap victory.

What we find, in whatever format, is a very peculiar book, albeit compulsively readable, droll and frankly horrifying. The sourcing of various anecdotes in here is a particular problem, to which we shall return; certainly, there is a great deal of eyebrow-raising material, which will be confirmed or refuted in the coming months and years. If even a third of it is true, however, Americans are living through some of the most preposterous events in modern political history. Certainly, those looking for evidence that Trump is not what he often appears to be in the presentation of his hated enemies in the media - a narcissistic, vindictive man-child, a demonic cross between King Joffrey of Game of thrones and Father Dougal from Father Ted - will not find it in Wolff’s book.

It almost reads like a roman à clef from which the author has forgotten to excise the real names; the protagonist is not Trump, but those surrounding him. They are, as the jerry-built Kremlinologists of Pennsylvania Avenue often tell us, an odd bunch, and the forward motion of Wolff’s ‘novel’ derives from the tension between the generals, the bankers, the close family and Bannon (who looms problematically large, and serves as a puckish anti-hero). Each have their own objectives, and (according to Wolff) wildly divergent political outlooks; but all are united in their basic conception of their task - managing Donald, keeping him on the straight and narrow. As their mutual infighting grows in intensity, the various factions find themselves constantly blown off course by the unpredictability of the man at the centre of the fiasco. It would be a great political satire, except that it might be actually happening.

Pleading the 25th

Most of the controversy surrounding Fire and fury is focused on the portrait of the president himself. Official American society is deeply divided on Trump - is he an idiot (I choose the word that means both stupid and mad, for they are of a piece here), or is he actively and shrewdly malevolent, an evil demagogue - even (given the Russiagate business) a traitor? The portrait in these pages fits squarely in the former camp.

Trump, it is alleged, reads nothing, directly consuming information only from cable news and face to face meetings (some of the White House staffers concluded that “for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate”). He will ignore anything that bores him, anyone who lectures him in the manner of a professor, anyone who acts as if they are smarter than he is, often walking out of meetings. His trademark extemporising, speechifying style is crudely effective in front of a friendly crowd, which he seems to read masterfully, but downright bizarre elsewhere. There are a few speeches reproduced almost verbatim here, and in print they read like the mutterings of a psychotic - the less amiable the audience, the worse.

Far from a diabolical figure, Wolff’s Trump is almost pitiable, a man oddly unable to understand anything of the situation he is in, reacting with joy to any praise or sycophancy, and rage to anything he interprets as hostile or condescending. He cannot understand why the liberal media outlets do not admire him, and resents it with the fury of a scorned child. He can conceive of it only in terms of personal, individual animosity (a long-running thread of the book, presumably fed to Wolff by Bannon himself, is the latter’s attempts to explain that his enemies are not individuals, but institutions - “He thinks he can fire the FBI,” Bannon remarks). In the favoured vocabulary of the man himself - Trump is a moron, and a sad loser.

By the end of Wolff’s narrative (and again Bannon is the source quoted), there is talk of the 25th amendment to the US constitution - section 4 of which allows the vice-president and cabinet to declare the president unfit, for health reasons, to continue in his or her duties. Together with impeachment over the Russian question, the 25th amendment is a reminder that even so exalted an office as that of president of the United States is vulnerable to spectacular reversals.

Russian dancing

The essential difficulty with this narrative is that, by the very nature of his enterprise, Wolff is reliant entirely on the immediate circles of courtiers around Trump, who by their own admission are quite as busy undermining each other as they are being undermined by The Donald. Is he really that bad? The truth is - we cannot know. Trump is clearly accustomed to being surrounded by yes-men and women, and prolonged exposure may be harmful; he has people to take care of rocky details in his real-estate-cum-self-promotion business, but is hostage to the independent ambitions of those around him. He clearly suspects many of those ambitions to be actively and deliberately hostile to his interests - this much can be gleaned from the occasional glance at @RealDonaldTrump on Twitter. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how he has survived as long as he has if he is as daft as he appears here.

We must abandon the question, as only speculation is possible. The greatest interest, from our point of view, in fact has to do with the last question - exactly how far Trump’s paranoia is justified. Here, the book’s account is intriguing in many respects.

Though the disastrous handling of the Russian collusion scandal provides Wolff with his major narrative beats, he is very careful not to pass judgment on the substance of the allegations except where the record is undeniable. He concludes, as all sensible people must, that the notorious meeting between Donald Trump junior, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and co and Russian intelligence assets did happen, and that the intrepid Trump clan hoped to get some dirt on Hillary Clinton by these means. Yet Wolff calls the venture “imbecilic” and seems very much of one mind with Bannon (again), who claimed “the Trump campaign was not organized enough to collude with [even] its own state organizations”.

Hanlon’s razor preponderates - “never ascribe to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity”. For Wolff’s interviewees, the meeting was a matter of desperation: at the time, in the middle of summer 2016, the Trump campaign was looking at a bruising defeat, and therefore it was assumed that the family had nothing to lose by procuring Russian dirt. The peculiar nature of the Trump family makes it vulnerable to such misfortune. The patriarch, after whom the others are patterned, is bourgeois in extraction and bank balance, but profoundly petty-bourgeois in outlook - a man who projects onto big business (and, by extension, politics and life in general) the zero-sum hustle of the market stall trader. Donald Trump is exactly the sort of person who would read one of Donald Trump’s books. He is Del-Boy Rex. The Russian business is not the result of especial Machiavellian deviousness, but of catastrophic tactical short-termism.

The threat has nothing to do with the Russian contacts as such, according to Wolff’s protagonists. The problem is merely that, by firing FBI chief James Comey, Trump allowed a special prosecutor to be appointed, and such prosecutors - in a society where everyone is guilty of something - can be relied upon to find something. (Luxury real estate, being as it is an excellent and suitably popular means of money-laundering, is especially vulnerable to diligent legal research.) On top of that, he made powerful enemies. “If you fuck with the intel community,” Jared Kushner was allegedly told by an unnamed senior Republican, “they will figure out a way to get back at you and you’ll have two or three years of a Russian investigation, and every day something else will leak out.”

Swamp creatures

The real interest of this problem is revealed if we turn it around.

Put it this way: if it is risky for the president to take on the FBI, the reverse is also true - it is risky for the chief of the FBI to take on the president. Comey found that one out the hard way. Yet the ‘intelligence community’, or parts of it, clearly is out to see blood flow in the West Wing - surely not a situation the spooks would want to be in. Trump’s presidency as such is already evidence of a colossal failure of the American establishment to keep its house in order; the civil and military apparatuses of government and the media that, following Bannon (again!), Wolff calls “the swamp” are guilty of a monstrous failure that in Tokugawa Japan would demand immediate ritual suicide on a wide scale.

The Russiagate business, the relentless strategy of tension pursued by CNN and friends - they appear to be a glorious offensive against a possibly treasonous interloper, but are in fact a desperate scrambled, immune response. This ought not to have happened at all; and while the tortuous complexity of constitutional ‘checks and balances’ is supposed to limit executive power, the framers surely did not anticipate active and irreconcilable hostility between the president and more or less everyone else. Trump is there in the first place because the swamp failed to do its job and maintain ‘business as usual’ in the starry firmament of American politics.

For an illustration, we can do no better than Wolff’s account of Trump’s Afghanistan troop surge. Trump had struck an isolationist note on the campaign trail, and surely understood that the American mission in Afghanistan was a disaster. Yet his was also a macho, grandstanding appeal; so he could not very well be seen to retreat. His response was one that Wolff has him resorting to a lot in these pages - ignore the problem. Not ignoring it, however, were the instruments of ‘official’ foreign policy. General HR McMaster knew that a substantial troop surge of 60,000 or so would be necessary to have a serious chance of victory, but - Trump or no Trump - that would be politically impossible. So they pushed for a modest surge of a few thousand or so, which would keep the side going for a couple more years. Trump’s initial response was scathing:

For two hours, he angrily railed against the mess he had been handed. He threatened to fire almost every general in the chain of command. He couldn’t fathom, he said, how it had taken so many months of study to come up with this nothing-much-different plan ... To Bannon, the meeting was a high point of the Trump presidency to date. The generals were punting and waffling and desperately trying to save face - they were, according to Bannon, talking pure “gobbledygook” in the situation room.

In the end, of course, he was talked round; but what interests us here is surely that his first response was basically correct. He was being sold a bad bill of goods. The McMaster plan really was a dry political calculation that would nevertheless cost American and Afghan lives, merely prolonging an intractable war to the benefit of nobody at all - a course of action that made sense only as ... what? As a tactical political manoeuvre, which would evade both immediate defeat and the great cost of large-scale military escalation. Trump’s great strength as a campaign-trail demagogue was his recognition of the absurd contradictions that encumbered all his opponents. He would have no leg to stand on if Afghanistan and Iraq were not actually disasters.

But such is the whole reality of politics according to ‘the swamp’: it is a game, both magical and bound by fiendishly complex rules, a sort of n-dimensional quidditch. Wolff treats politics in much the same way, bewildered at Trump’s sheer incompetence and unpreparedness for office; but his time with the Trumpites has taught him at least to feel bad about it.

Gospel according to Steve

Foremost among those Trumpites, of course, is Bannon, and so we turn finally to a necessary health warning. Trump’s litigious instinct has sniffed out his former ideological hit-man in all this furore and, whatever the outcome of the legalities, we must say that this book is skewed Steveward throughout. It is Bannon’s arch-enemies, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump (‘Jarvanka’), who come out again and again as the authors of the most extreme stupidities (including the firing of Comey). Wolff describes them as basically Democrats, which might be true, but might also be the sort of thing Bannon would think about them.

Bannon has a dark magnetism to the denizens of the swamp; perhaps the greatest indictment of the intellectual culture of the American establishment is that this absurd charlatan is apparently the most profound ‘man of ideas’ they have seen for a generation or two. His combination of paleoconservatism and Keynesian stimulus politics is innovative to the same degree as whatever chip shop it was that, observing both chips and gravy and cheesy chips on its menu, first alighted on the divine combination of chips, cheese and gravy. His cosmopolitan name-checking is impressive only to people whose historical knowledge is enfeebled enough to let him get away with it.

There is, admittedly, also the matter that - contrary to the corrupt courtiers and swampy careerists - he is the only actor in all this who seems to think that Trump’s election actually means anything important. In any event, it is extremely difficult to shake the impression that Fire and fury is basically the story of Steve Bannon’s glancing blow at mainstream politics, in the course of which he is amply congratulated for being so scandalous. Indeed, the book ends with him starting off to continue his ‘revolution’ in permanence, pursuing economic nationalism now against the president he claims (apparently to Wolff’s satisfaction) he created. “It’s going to be wild as shit,” he says. The same prognosis, surely, must be true for our author l

1. The reference is to singer Barbra Streisand’s ill-starred attempt to suppress a photograph of her hideous Malibu McMansion, but the phenomenon is older, and Peter Wright’s Spycatcher - a tell-all memoir of life in MI5 - is probably the greatest ‘serious’ example of it on this side of the pond.