Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff (Henry Holt and Little, Brown, 2018) reviewed by Jo Taku
Michael Wolff was able to take a seat inside the White House after Trump took power without official accreditation, as was Steve Bannon, such was the incompetence and disorganisation in the new administration. He drew on his observations from this vantage point to write a book that was originally to be of the first 100 days of the new president of the United States – but eventually stretched to 200 days. The title seems to have been tacked on at the end of the project, from Trump’s comment that North Korea will see ‘the fire and the fury’ as has never been seen before, and this is one of the briefest of mentions of Korea in the book; a typical Trump outburst that seems to have horrified most of those around him. What do we learn from the book (apart from the fact that Steve Bannon apparently reads The Guardian)?
Well, first of all, it seems clear that neither Trump nor the rest of his team wanted to win this election, and were shocked and appalled at the prospect of him actually taking power, pretty well all with the exception of Steve Bannon of the right-wing Breitbart news website bankrolled by billionaires Bob and Rebekah Mercer. Trump didn’t even fund the campaign himself.
As with Brexit, the election bid and the pitch against the establishment party leaderships seems to have been a ploy with other ends in mind. In the case of Brexit, those in the Conservative Party were jockeying for position to seize the leadership, and were clearly shaken by a result that would cause damage to the British business interests they were tied to.
In this case, each of the main players had their own reasons to run a good campaign and lose. Many of those on the team had their eyes on television presenter positions, bearing in mind Roger Ailes’ (formerly of Fox News) advice that ‘if you wanted a career in television, first run for president’.
In Trump’s own case, the campaign would be a platform to build his media empire as a rival to Murdoch’s. Melania was shocked at the result, having been promised by Trump that he would not win, she wanted a quiet life; ‘The unspoken agreement among them: not only would Donald Trump not be president, he should probably not be’. So this raises a series of questions about what to do with power, and who will guide Trump in a job he is unsuited for and clearly dislikes.
Wolff identifies three groups that were pushing for the ear of the president during those first 200 days, and, when he wasn’t listening – he doesn’t listen easily to anyone it seems – simply push their own policy initiatives: Steve Bannon, characterised as a nationalist-populist (to be distinguished from the alt-right), Reince Priebus oriented toward the right of the Republican Party, but not so far right, and Jared Kushner working with Trump’s daughter Ivanka; ‘Jarvanka’, who have their sights set on a middle-of-the-road respectable Democrat presidency in the future in which Ivanka takes the helm.
The very rich businessmen that Trump wants to appoint to key positions are out of the frame because their own shady dealings will then come to light – they don’t want that kind of spotlight on their affairs – and so the Jarvanka strategy is to orient to the Democrat apparatus. The underlying impulse of this presidency, then, is toward traditional US statecraft, and very much in keeping with some of the oldest existing alliances.
Kushner, for example, attended Murdoch’s daughters’ baptism in the River Jordan in 2010 (along with Tony Blair, buddy of Murdoch at that point before the accusations that he made a play for then-wife Wendi). And there are other interests to be guarded; Jared’s brother Josh has company interests in keeping Obamacare or some variant of it on the books. In some ways, and this is not much of a consolation, the Trump regime is business as usual, at least business that the US ruling class can live with.
Fire and Fury also paints the alt-right as quite isolated from power, Richard Spencer’s neo-Nazi antics at Charlottesville are useful but also embarrassing to Bannon, and here is one of the performative effects rather than simple descriptions that Wolff pulls off, one of the consequences of the publication of the book; Bannon is also isolated, in fact now finished.
We see Jarvanka and Priebus manoeuvring to prevent Bannon accessing Trump – hanging around for dinner and waiting for invites to official trips – and after the side-lining of Priebus, Bannon is also out. After the book was published, Trump declared that when he, Bannon, lost his job he also lost his mind, and within a week he had lost it all; Rebekah Mercer (dad Bob now gone to meet his maker) pulled the funding for Bannon back at Breitbart, and so now Steve’s plans for his own presidency based on that media platform are sunk.
So, we have a picture of a president who does not govern, good news perhaps, and wants to spend his time playing golf (disappointingly, the book does not include Wolff’s anecdote that Trump likes to watch gorillas fighting on television, that White House staff rigged up a transmission tower outside the temporary accommodation before he moved in so that a special cable channel could beam documentaries into his bedroom where he would sit four inches from the screen giving advice to the gorillas).
And we have a picture of power that Wolff himself does not understand as being structural at all; treating it as only being the personal peculiarities of weird individuals, bad behaviour unseemly in a leader.
This power is patriarchal, Trump with no irony referring to Melania as his ‘trophy wife’ and luring wives of business partners into bed to then humiliate all involved. It is racist, with his son-in-law treated as a good Jew who will be sent to the Middle East to sort out the Arabs; ‘For Trump, giving Israel to Kushner was not only a test, it was a Jewish test’, and this racism is explicitly flanked to the right by antisemite Bannon who refers to the ‘cosmopolitans’ and baits Kushner about his lack of full-blooded support for Israel in order to make him look weak. And it is class power; ‘what is white trash’ a model visiting Trump asks; ‘They’re people like me’, he replies, ‘only they’re poor’.
Ok, Trump still has the button, the big red button, bigger than little rocket man, but he is a weak president with no hope of reaching a second term. This is some comfort, but with a scary ride through the years to come, with some unpredictable dangerous moves when he gets bored, when he makes an outburst.
This, Wolff claims, is mainly about family. Sons Don Jr and Eric are known by insiders as Uday and Qusay (after Saddam Hussein’s sons), but it is Jared and Ivanka who are bright and canny enough to steer the ship. There is a dose of false explanation that homes in on Trump’s own stupidity and reeks also of class contempt; he doesn’t read, he is ‘postliterate’, he doesn’t process what he is told, he lacks what neuroscientists call ‘executive function’, Wolff says; he is ‘unmediated’, ‘crazylike’.
In this Wolff is actually closer to Trump than Bannon, and Wolff scorns Bannon for looking to social forces rather than individuals as the source of political change (or good administration). There are moments in the book where careful observation gives way to speculation and mind-reading. Of Richard Spencer at Charlottesville, for example, Wolff writes that ‘Steve Bannon thought Oh my god, there he goes. I told you so. ‘Thought?’, how does he know that?
But, oh my god, this is an inside view of a profoundly dysfunctional White House, functioning, as it always does, as the centre and support for US-style capitalism in its full glory and nastiness. We might get through this, but there may well be worse to come.