Michael Wolff is no James Boswell, the legendary biographer of Samuel Johnson. Whereas the Scottish diarist is credited with having written the greatest biography in the English language, Wolff may have authored the most sensational and slanderous memoir of recent times.
The subject of this sleaze, gossip, insight and innuendo-laden volume is Donald Trump, President of the United States of America (POTUS)—deemed to be the most powerful office in the world.
The book is a sly, fly-on-the-wall account of the first nine months in the White House, and introduces the reader to the bizarre chaos and intrigue among the Trump team, with considerable focus on Steve Bannon, the political strategist who enabled the Trump victory. And yes, in this market-driven world, it must be added that the book has become a best-seller in the first few weeks of its launch—but not for Wolff’s literary acumen.
The title Fire and Fury is misleading, and other alliterative options may have been more appropriate; Sleaze and Stench, or Salacious and Slippery, or the even more malodorous Expletive and Excreta. In the very first chapter, Trump is described as someone who “sucks up and shits down”. By the last chapter, Bannon has been fired, and the last line of the book which (to me) envisions him as Moses, reads: “Standing on the Breitbart steps that October morning, Bannon smiled and said: ‘it’s going to be wild as shit.’”
As far as sleaze goes, the section about how Trump pursued his friend’s wives sets a dubious benchmark: “Trump liked to say that one of the things that made life worth living was getting your friends’ wives into bed. In pursuing a friend’s wife, he would try to persuade the wife that her husband was perhaps not what she thought. Then he’d have his secretary ask the friend into his office; once the friend arrived, Trump would engage in what was, for him, more or less constant sexual banter. ‘Do you still like having sex with your wife? How often? You must have had a better f—than your wife? Tell me about it. I have girls coming in from Los Angeles at three o’clock. We can go upstairs and have a great time. I promise ...’ All the while, Trump would have his friend’s wife on the speakerphone, listening in.”
Clearly Trump’s senior aides and cabinet members have a very low opinion of the President they are serving, and the words chosen for him are disparaging, ranging from ‘dope’ to ‘idiot’ to ‘dumb as shit’ and capped by the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson allegedly describing his boss as a ‘fucking moron’. Trump’s infamous ‘grab them by the pussy’ had been splashed across the front pages during the campaign, and it is instructive to note that despite this deplorable gender arrogance being graphically revealed, Donald Trump won the election to the White House.
This is where Wolff provides some valuable insights. It appears that Trump had never really expected to prevail over Hilary Clinton and his ultimate aim had never been to ‘win the Oval Office’. And when it happened, clearly the Trump team was totally bewildered and unprepared for the transition. Chaos loomed and the immediate family, that is, his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, referred to as Jarvanka by the author, became the closest confidantes and advisers to the new POTUS.
It ends with Bannon saying Trump was just the start, creating an opening for the true outsiders. It is unclear if Bannon actually said this to the author—symptomatic of the work's flaws.
The book closes in October 2017, with Bannon á la Moses prophesying that this presidency was a mere “chapter, or even a detour” for the ultimate political objective of the ultra-right constituency that voted enthusiastically for Donald Trump. The last page avers that the 45th POTUS, however long he lasts, “had created the opening that would provide the true outsiders (emphasis added) their opportunity. Trump was just the beginning.”
To what end? This is the slippery veil of the Wolff tome. Did Bannon say this to the author? Is this conjecture and deep analysis by Wolff based on his extensive slouch-on-the-couch in the White House? We do not know for sure. This is a major inadequacy of this book, for though it has been authored by a journalist, the basic norms of reporting and identifying who said what and when in a reasonably accurate manner remain opaque.
But then this is the ‘reality’ of the current phase in global discourse, where news and views, fact and fiction, overlap selectively and seamlessly. And thus, Wolff can be credited with the most odious yet much sought-after book of the year. It has been skilfully released to coincide with the completion of one year of the Trump presidency. And despite all the expletives and the disparaging references, POTUS has consolidated his grip on the White House and his power over the Republican Party. Trump is tweeting away into the second year, while Bannon is out in the cold—where it must be ‘lonely as shit.’