White House exposed

Fascinating but flawed: that’s both the president and the book, writes Jacob Parakilas

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House
Michael Wolff
Little Brown, £20

The beginning of 2018 finds American political analysts in confusing territory. On the one hand, demand for expertise is high; on the other, the fire hose of stories and scandals around President Donald Trump and his close advisers has made it extraordinarily difficult to focus on the long-term shifts in political power taking place.

In this environment, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House seems more like a singular product of its time than a testament likely to be picked up by any but the most dedicated historians of the early 21st century. Like many other parts of our hyper-exaggerated political context, it does have significance − but perhaps less than the breathless coverage it received might suggest.

To say that Wolff is an accomplished storyteller is both to praise and damn the book. It spectacularly captured the political world’s attention for an entire week in early January at a time when each new development seemed to have a maximum public awareness half-life measured in hours. But that was less a product of its admittedly well-managed roll-out and more a testament to its nature as a concentrated shot of pure gossip injected straight into the veins of Washington – and of millions of politically engaged observers outside. 

But it also speaks to the extent to which the book serves the story at the expense of all other considerations. Others have more comprehensively enumerated the book’s elisions and mistakes; it is perhaps enough here to note that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell − who by any reasonable accounting is one of the four or five most powerful people in Washington − makes barely a cameo appearance. 

This focus on the dynamic between Trump and his team is intentional and perhaps understandable given the extent to which US political analysis in 2018 has turned into a game of latter-day Kremlinology. Wolff has inducted all of us into this game, making every reader feel like an instant expert on the tools and dynamics of intra-West-Wing power plays. It’s only fair to add that he is not the only person responsible for this focus; merely the most successful at it. 

And, to be clear, the book has had some real-world impact. The schism between Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, a central if pitilessly drawn character in the book, had begun to open before publication, but has exploded since. Bannon, having lost both his White House job and his role at Breitbart News, has seen the white working-class base take Trump’s side in their spat, depriving him of a realistic shot at a second act in national politics. Meanwhile, Trump’s angry, defensive response to questions the book has raised − again, not in isolation − about his psychological fitness for office has also stimulated a degree of debate about the powers apportioned to the US president in the era of strategic nuclear weaponry and Twitter.

One of the ironies of Wolff’s book is that Trump himself isn’t an especially developed character; though whether that’s a function of the author’s intention, his lack of direct access to the president or the impossibility of capturing Trump’s bizarre personality is a reasonable and open question. But even in a largely critical portrayal of his inner circle, Wolff’s book feeds into Trump’s most notable skill of keeping the cameras firmly focused on himself – a skill deployed to great effect during an overwhelmingly crowded Republican primary. Even a sharply critical portrayal such as Fire and Fury has been reduced in public consciousness to the simple question: ‘Is this a win for Trump?’

I tend to think that it’s not − but that’s not the point. The point is that the president isn’t the executive branch; the executive branch isn’t the government; and the government isn’t the United States of America. Fire and Fury has useful elements for understanding this president and his immediate circle, but it has been elevated to the polar star of understanding American politics in 2017. And that does a disservice to both policy professionals and a wider audience.