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Review: "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House"

A new book renders the president as a pathetic and weirdly human blowhard, but it isn't a liberal screed.



Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” suggests a comic crime novel, in which outlaws pull a scam beyond even their fantasies and struggle to adjust to success as well as fallout. Sadly, however, we’re talking real life, in which Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States.

As Wolff tells it, no one was more shocked or troubled than Trump by this astonishing turn of events. The reality TV star and flimflam man -- ducker of loans, grabber of women, defender of Nazis -- had intended the presidential run as a scam to expand his brand and start a cable network.

Wolff reportedly conducted more than 200 interviews with Trump and his White House staff, and “Fire and Fury” is most alarming for its existence. Why would a fledgling president, with no political experience whatsoever, allow a writer such unfettered access? The answer is implicitly provided, as Wolff portrays the Trump White House as empty, unstaffed and chaotic, driven by rival factions seeking to exploit the profound ignorance of the new head of state.

The juiciest portions of “Fire and Fury” have become internet sensations, prompting rushed publishing of the book and its selling out. Trump reportedly didn’t recognize the name of former Speaker of the House John Boehner, a fact that’s been challenged and which might even strain the credibility of Trump’s stupidity. Trump doesn’t read at all, expecting briefs to be curtailed to a single page, which he still ignores. The president’s attention span is so remarkably limited -- concerned only with golf, sex, and his always awful media image -- that he walks out of meetings with world leaders.

Throughout “Fire and Fury,” Trump is likened to an idiot, a temperamental child, and a peevish god who’s impossible to predict or satiate. Everyone fears and ridicules him as an agent of chaos who’s been granted potentially catastrophic power, as embodied by Trump’s Twitter jokes about nuclear war with North Korea.

Trump’s described as seeking the approval of the liberal media, despite demonizing them publicly as “fake news,” and of billionaires such as Fox Network honcho Rupert Murdoch. People such as Murdoch, quiet pillars of global power, aren’t conservative enough for Trump strategist and former Breitbart honcho Steve Bannon, whose participation in “Fire and Fury” has exiled him from the Republicans and white supremacists who propelled him to fame, as well as from the billionaire Mercer family, which seems to long for a feudal, dog-eat-dog society from which their fortune will insulate them.

“Fire and Fury” renders Trump as a pathetic and weirdly human blowhard, gorging on fast-food and network TV while ignoring American governance -- but it isn’t a liberal screed. Wolff, of questionable repute himself, empathizes with Trump and Bannon’s anger at the establishment, and his equal-opportunity sleaziness has a guttural power. Trump, Bannon, and Wolff are correct: The left’s obsession with protocol plays into the right’s hand, allowing conservatives to promote themselves as figures of freedom while gutting government protections and trampling on freedoms of the state and individual. Wolff’s refusal to affect “offense” at Trump’s atrocities ironically informs them with a renewed power to shock.

Yet the book is mostly just another piece of detritus among the unending noise of this presidency. Wolff acknowledges that his sources are liars and that many of the sentiments disclosed are lies -- a handy way of allowing an exploitive journalist to have his cake while eating it. “Fire and Fury” abounds in wobbly qualifying phrases, such as “may not,” “might have,” “many,” and “some idly speculated.” There are loads of typos, some so glaring as to break the flow of sentences, and structural repetitions that start portions of the narrative over again. This sloppiness admittedly fits the subject.

Wolff doesn’t dramatize the war that drives the book: between Bannon, first Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner for control of the president’s agenda. Wolff writes in bullet points that propel the reader forward at the expense of nuance. We meet a network of chief executives, lawyers, spies, leakers and world leaders. They form an infrastructure of corruption that Bannon pretends to oppose, fashioning himself as a militant revolutionary. The Kushners embody the centrist, corporate-friendly quasi-left, while Priebus fights for the increasingly conservative Republican establishment.

Distractingly, we never learn how this White House functions, or disfunctions, with the national government. Politicians such as Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are relegated to blink-and-miss-them cameos.

“Fire and Fury” will probably have little immediate political impact, except for the temporary implosion of Bannon’s career, which, hey, I’ll take what I can get. But Wolff may have established an important precedent in treating this regime casually as an unremitting freak show. The author doesn’t indulge the cowardly euphemisms that characterize “respectable” reporting. Wolff turns Trump into a joke, demythologizing a man who depends on myth. “Fire and Fury” may supply the groundwork for a more important book. Or revolution.


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