Wolff’s ‘Fire and Fury’ mostly dire and dirty

February 15, 2018
Trump’s election and administration have been mired in controversy from the start.

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House
By Michael Wolff
Published by Henry Holt & Co.

The furore surrounding Michael Wolff’s book is unsurprising because he lifts the lid on the foetid cesspit that is US President Donald Trump’s White House. In the tradition of scandal-mongering journalism, he reveals the back-stabbing, in-fighting and squabbling of this ramshackle administration of bigots, ignoramuses and incompetents.

Successful lid-lifting exercises are not new and offer their authors rich rewards, even if what they reveal is less rewarding for the reader. Trump’s election and administration have been mired in controversy from the start and he already threatens to compete with Roman emperor Caligula’s antics.

Wolff’s insider’s revelations, however, do little to reveal the political and economic factors behind Trump’s elevation. The collapse of Trump’s flagship aim of repealing Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, for instance, is given less than a single sentence in the book.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent in the 2016 race, Trump came to be the soundboard for a section of the widespread discontent in the US, which deserves greater examination. Among the book’s chief shortcomings is its failure to explain how, in the world’s “greatest democracy”, someone like Trump became president.

Wolff’s book rips off any remaining veils, allowing those who know Trump best to reveal his obscene nudity in full. But Wolff is more consumed with the news media and personalities than policy issues. He says he’s not interested in politics but people and power — and while what he writes is compulsively fascinating, he excludes facts and fudges specifics.

Wolff excoriates the entire Trump entourage and is a keen judge of character. Much of what he says, though, has to be taken on trust, as few sources are cited.

Wolff did not write this book because he abhors Trump’s policies. He is a journalist who, like Trump, is not squeamish about bending the truth in favour of a good story.

His book opens with a dinner conversation that included then Trump advisor and far-right activist Steve Bannon and ex-Fox News head Roger Ailes that took place before Trump’s inauguration, offering verbatim quotations. He omits to reveal, however, that the dinner took place in his own home.

As Jonathan Martin in the January 8 New York Times puts it: “Wolff is unsparing in his portrayal of Trump as an aberrant chief executive, not only detached from governance but barely literate. He summons withering on-the-record assessments from ostensible allies of a seemingly infantile president.”

Fire and Fury ignited a war that has left its share of collateral damage. The book also underlines that Trump is simply Trump, he has no clear ideology, no political cause – he is simply an extreme egotist.

[Slightly abridged from John Green’s Mapping Utopia blog.]

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