Michael Wolff’s account of the Trump administration’s chaotic misrule will surprise no one who has read a newspaper during the last year, detailing as it does, the President’s profound unreadiness for his new role, his childish ignorance of world affairs, his obsequious and feuding advisers – who privately voice contempt for him – his fleeting attention span and tendency to repeat anecdotes every ten minutes.
Fire and Fury distils every longstanding concern about Trump into a compelling morality tale; it confirms every fear that the forty-fifth US president may well be mentally unfit for office and that his incendiary blend of arrogance and incompetence continually flirts with catastrophe.
It is worth noting that even within the mainstream US press there have been misgivings about Wolff’s reliability as a narrator. Fourteen years ago a New Republic profile said that scenes in his business reportage “aren’t recreated so much as created—springing from Wolff’s imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events.” That said, his portrait of the Trump White House jibes with countless accounts in newspapers of record, all of which confirm that the administration is not only hopelessly disorganized but that senior aides and advisors must often pander to the whims of their deeply dysfunctional leader if they hope to survive the internecine power struggles that have characterised this last year.
Writing about what Trump looked for in advisors, Wolff says he “required you to be all in. From phone call to phone call ‒ and his day, beyond organised meetings, was almost entirely phone calls ‒ you could lose him.” More worryingly: “The subtleties here were immense, because while he was often most influenced by the last person he spoke to, he did not actually listen to anyone. So it was not so much the force of an individual argument or petition that moved him, but rather more just someone’s presence, the connection of what was going through his mind …”
Regrettably, Wolff rarely examines the political and cultural shifts that enabled Trump’s candidacy and later ensured the support of his base, despite the many embarrassments of the first year. About Steve Bannon, the Machiavellian former chief strategist, Wolff observes: “Bannon’s entire political career, such as it was, had been in political media. It was also in internet media that is, media ruled by immediate response. The Breitbart formula was to so appall the liberals that the base was doubly satisfied, generating clicks in a ricochet of disgust and delight … The new politics was not the art of the compromise but the art of conflict.”
That ricochet of disgust and delight neatly describes the political mayhem of 2017. Less than a week into the new year, a series of crazy Tweets and his foolishly petulant response to Wolff’s book, and Bannon’s swingeing criticisms of his presidency, have proven – more damningly than any journalistic tell-all – that President Trump is as full of uncompromising sound and fury as ever. He remains capable of inflicting irreparable harm on America’s Constitution and its reputation in the world, unless, as now seems increasingly likely, the Mueller investigation, the midterm elections or simply a belated sense of decency within the GOP, hold him accountable for his astonishing record of misgovernance so far.